Mulch 101

Recently, we reviewed low-maintenance garden ideas. Important strategies include knowing your garden’s soil chemistry and composition, microclimates, seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, and plants.

“Low-maintenance gardening” is not the same as “no effort gardening.” A realistic and appropriate goal would be to minimize the repetitive, uninteresting tasks, and reserve time for becoming familiar with the factors that affect plant growth.

To become an amateur plant scientist, you need not wear a white lab coat or carry a slide rule (do they still use those?), but you do need to appreciate the environmental conditions that enable plants to succeed in your garden.

The corollary is that a given plant will not do well when the garden does not provide the specific environmental conditions that the plant needs to thrive. Plants die for some reason.

The easiest plan for a low maintenance garden is to choose plants that are adapted to your local conditions. For the Monterey Bay area, choose plants that are native to California’s central coast, or to similar “dry-summer” climates.

Another strategy for making gardening less tedious and more enjoyable is mulching.

Mulching involves covering the soil between plants to discourage the growth of weeds, reduce the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and improve the appearance of the garden.

Discouraging Weeds

It is possible, with the right frame of mind, to treat weeding as a contemplative exercise, and to focus on the beneficial bending and stretching and the satisfaction of producing a heap of weeds.

Most of the time, however, weeding is a poor substitute for tending to the plants you have chosen for your garden.

The soil in your garden is a weed seed bank. It always holds a substantial inventory of weed seeds that are dormant (sometimes for years) and waiting for the warmth of sunlight and a bit of moisture to spring into vigorous growth. They were left by a prior crop of weeds or imported by birds or wind.

Mulching denies weed seeds the sunlight they need for growth, and thus reduces your garden’s need for maintenance weeding.

Reducing Evaporation

A blanket of mulch also allows water to drain through to the soil where it supports the growth of plants, and helps to hold that moisture in the soil. If you typically hand-water your garden, mulch can easily reduce your watering time by half. If you use an irrigation system, mulch can reduce your water bill significantly.

Improving the Garden’s Appearance

Garden soil is not unpleasant to see, but a layer of mulch at minimum demonstrates that a gardener is tending the garden.

In addition, the mulch provides an interesting texture between plants, and provides visual continuity from one area to another.

Organic mulches include local garden materials: lawn grass clippings, dry leaves, evergreen needles, or woody plant chippings (if you have a chipper).

This category also includes newspapers or cardboard that can be thickly layered (and hopefully covered with something more attractive) and left for several weeks to decompose and kill weeds.

If you have a large area to cover with mulch, ask a local tree service to drop a load of wood chips on your property. The service would otherwise have to haul the chips to a landfill and pay a dumping fee, so should deliver them to your garden without charge. Do mention that you want only material that is free of chemicals and diseases, and suitable for garden use.

Commercial organic mulches include ground or chipped bark or woody materials, nutshells or even seashells that are sold by the bag or truckload (which is more economical).

Whichever organic mulch you prefer, apply a three- or four-inch deep layer, to be effective. Organic mulches eventually will decompose and add some nutrients and texture to the soil, but that is a side benefit, rather than the primary purpose for mulching.

There are also many forms of inorganic mulch. For some landscape designs, a layer of rounded stones or pebbles can be attractive and effective. Other options include sand (not salty beach sand!), lava rock, colored glass that has been tumbled so it is not sharp, chunks of rubber tires, and plastic landscape fabric.

An inorganic mulch does not break down, of course, so the gardener should install such material only when it will be wanted for a long time.

A thick layer of mulch is good thing!

Enjoy your garden!

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