What to Do with Old Mulch in the Spring: Reuse and Repurposing Tips

Posted on 06/01/2022

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Mulch serves several purposes in your yard and gardens. Mulch is used to prevent soil run-off from heavy rains or melting snow. It is also used to protect the soil from wind erosion. For your plants, the mulch will hold in moisture by minimizing evaporation.

Mulch can also be helpful in regulating the temperature of the soil. Mulch helps to minimize weeds. Mulch is often used around your prized trees and favorite foundation shrubs as protection from lawn mowers and trimmers. This type of mulch is usually permanent. 

In addition, if you live in a colder climate, you may add additional mulch temporarily over some of your plants to protect them from the extreme temperatures. That type of mulch is always removed in the spring.

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Types of Mulch

There are several types of mulch. Organic material like shredded bark, wood chips, pine needles and cocoa beans are materials that will break down over time. 

Pea gravel and other decorative stone pebbles, as well as material that simulates the look of natural material that is actually plastic or rubber will not decompose over time. Living mulch, like winter rye, is planted in bare garden soil in the fall to protect the soil during the winter and will be plowed under in the spring. 

ornamental flowerbed

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Straw, shredded leaves and even pine boughs can be used as a protective mulch over tender perennials in the fall and removed in the spring. As mentioned earlier, living mulch is mowed with a mulching mower and then tilled or incorporated into the soil. It is then repurposed into a soil amendment that will add nutrients to the soil. 

Pine boughs or straw that were used to give added protection to your plants must be removed by hand. Carefully rake or hand remove the material without damaging the plants that you wanted to protect. Remove the material gradually as temperatures rise in the spring. 

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Once removed, this material can be added to the compost bin where it will eventually break down completely into compost.

Supplementing or Replacing Your Mulch

Natural material will start to decompose in place right in the perennial bed or around your show-stopping roses. Pick up a handful of the mulch. If most of it looks more like soil than mulch, it may be time to supplement or even replace the current mulch. 

You may also want to change the mulch you thought would look good in your yard. Maybe the orange or red mulch seems too much contrast and you want brown mulch. Perhaps the pea gravel seems better suited as a garden path. Your taste in material can change and that is okay, but what do you do with the old mulch?

The first step is removing the old material. The best way is to have a tarp next to the garden bed and carefully move the mulch away from the existing plants, trees or shrubs. Mound it up between the plants and then move it to the tarp. If the area you are removing the mulch from is small, you may be able to fit it all in a wheelbarrow and eliminate the tarp. 

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Disposing of Chemically Treated Mulch

If your material is organic and untreated, it can be added to the compost bin and will return to the soil as compost. But be very careful as many mulches have been chemically treated and some have been treated with toxic dyes to achieve the preferred color. 

Other mulch may be made from recycled building material that may also have been treated many years before we knew the dangers of these chemicals. You do not want that type of material in your compost — and later in your soil. 

If you think your mulch is possibly contaminated, you will have to contact your local municipality for instructions on how to dispose of the material properly. Other situations where the mulch should not be added to your compost is if the plants it was used to mulch had diseases that could now be added to your compost. 

If the mulch had been overrun with noxious weeds, the compost could contain seeds from the weeds that will be carried to other parts of your yard and you will be fighting weeds everywhere. Replace your mulch with untreated and undyed natural wood chips and know your mulch is safe and eventually can be added to the compost safely.

Removing your old mulch in the spring is usually straightforward if the mulch is organic.  Contact your local municipality if you are removing and disposing of mulch that has been chemically treated or is non-organic.