I love mulch. That would be obvious to anyone who has ever talked gardening with me. Big piles, small piles, inches of mulch scattered everywhere. Love it!
The benefits of adding organic mulch (wood chips, shredded tree limbs, pine needles, compost, straw) to the top of your garden soil:
• retains moisture
• keeps soil temperature constant, reducing plant stress
• suppresses weeds
• gradually increases soil organic matter
• attracts beneficial organisms that improve soil fertility and porosity.
• Mulch encourages healthier plants, reducing the needs for pesticides and fertilizers.
• protects roots and plants from mechanical injury.
• On hillsides and around homes, it suppresses the spread of brush fires.
But a long-held recommendation from the University of California flies in the face of the "all mulch, all the time" rule regarding protecting citrus from the effects of freezing temperatures: "A cover crop or mulch can lower minimum temperature at night, posing an increased threat from freeze damage."
So, our advice has been over the years, "rake away mulch from beneath citrus before an expected frost or freeze".
Now, the California Landscape Contractors Association is offering the opposite advice in a release regarding frost protection: "Mulching with a partially composted material is one the best ways to protect plant roots because it helps insulate the soil, reducing heat loss and minimizing temperature fluctuations. Protecting the roots is necessary in order for them to survive the cold." The CLCA also points out: "Be sure to check the mulching material about once a month to make sure that moisture is getting to the soil below. Avoid using weed block materials, plastic or other moisture barriers beneath the mulch so that water can get to the roots. You may also need to water some of the drier areas in mid-December or mid-January if you find the soil dry."
So, who's right? Sacramento County Farm Advisor Chuck Ingels says: keep on mulching!
"The CLCA is right on," says Ingels. "In our mild climate, mulch doesn’t protect the tree from cold because the soil and roots really don’t ever freeze. Mulch protects the soil for other well known reasons. Regarding that UC study: years ago I thoroughly researched this and wrote about it in "Protecting Groundwater Quality in Citrus Production". In a large orchard, the best orchard floor conditions for reducing frost hazards is bare, firm and moist soil. The sun hits the soil and re-radiates the heat at night, warming the air. Tall cover crops are worst because not only do those plants not hold much heat, but tall cover crops raise the level of cold air (cold air sinks), increasing frost damage potential."
"Perhaps with just a few citrus trees there may be some benefit in this regard," Ingels concedes. "But any difference is generally very miniscule. What happens on the surrounding five acres (asphalt vs. buildings vs. bare ground) affects the air temperature around your tree. So, mulch away!"
ROOT ROTS + MOISTURE + MULCH = TROUBLE FOR CITRUS TREES But wait a minute, here's another reason why mulch and citrus trees may not be the best of friends: phytophthora. The spread of this root and crown rot fungal disease may actually be aided by too much mulch beneath shallow rooted citrus trees, especially in moist, slow-draining soils. According to the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources book, Pests of Landscape Trees and Shrubs, "phytophthora kills the roots and root crown area of infected plants...possibly causing mature plants such as citrus to grow slowly and gradually decline... Phytophthora may affect only small feeder roots or rootlets, major roots or all roots and the crown... Because mulch retards drying of the soil and excess soil moisture greatly contributes to the development of root rots, improper or excessive use of mulch may actually promote root rot development."
TO MULCH OR NOT MULCH CITRUS? A COMPROMISE.
For newly planted citrus, move the mulch to the outer edge of the canopy (and beyond).
This way, the shallow roots near the root crown (as well as the crown area itself) have less of a chance of getting root rot problems.
Another strategy: plant citrus in raised beds or containers to improve drainage. And perhaps a string or two of the old style C9 Christmas lights for some added heat on frosty nights. And while you're at it, perhaps some insulating pipe wrap around the trunk.