Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mulch Addiction

The United States of Mulch.  Why do we use too much mulch?  What is the alternative?


One of the idiosyncrasies of the built American landscape is our fascination with mulch.  It’s in our yards and gardens; it is in the parking lots of our fast food chains and grocery stores; and it is in our airports and along our highways.  We spread it everywhere.  We spread it thickly.

Our use of mulch is so ubiquitous and so frequent, it is easy to forget how unusual this habit is.  Traveling through Europe or Asia, however, the contrast is clear.  In most other countries, it is the plants themselves that occupy the most space; here, however, mulch is often even more visually dominant than the plants themselves.   I remember a friend from Europe asking me once, “Why are Americans so proud of their mulch?”  At the time, it had not really occurred to me that we use mulch more than other parts of the world, but slowly I too began to see that he was right.  What is curious to me is that our mulch addiction is not limited to socioeconomic class or status.  The liberal use of mulch is as prevalent on wealthy estates as it is on strip malls and tract housing.  And it has little to do with training.  Thick blankets of mulch are specified by landscape architects as often as maintenance crews.  

Where do we get this peculiar habit?  Perhaps part of the issue is that mulch is abundant and cheap.  We’ve always had lots of trees.  Mulch is a byproduct of the large timber industry, making it relatively affordable.  Perhaps our use of mulch is a result of the fact that our landscapes regenerate so quickly.  A recent blog by Noel Kingsbury remarked on how quickly the American woodland regenerates compared to English forests. It’s true: if you leave a piece of cleared land alone almost anywhere east of the Mississippi River, it will likely revert to an invasive-choked woodland within a decade.  Below our lawns and suburbs, there is a feral landscape just waiting for its chance.  Perhaps we mulch (and mow) to keep the beast at bay.  


The beast beneath: left alone for even a few years, wild vegetation eventually takes over. Do we mulch to keep this at bay?

Maybe the better question to ask is not why we mulch, but what is the alternative?    A few weekends ago I went camping with some friends in the Shenandoah National Park.  We camped at a relatively high elevation. I pondered the wild plant communities that were obviously thriving in a relatively harsh environment. Shallow and infertile soils, high winds, and harsh exposures--conditions similar to most urban environments--typified the ridgeline, yet despite this, the ground was almost entirely covered with plants.  A rich carpet of ferns, sedges, and forbs covered even the slightest depressions 

Nature abhors bare soil. With the exceptions of deserts or other extreme climates, bare soil is almost always a temporary condition in the wild.  What is it about the structure and composition of wild plant communities that creates this rich ground-covering layer?  What can we learn from native plant communities that can improve the way we design our plantings--strategies to make our landscapes both more beautiful and more enduring?  

Green mulch. Nature abhors bare soil and fills it will a rich layer of different ground-holding plants

I am happy to say that I am working on a book to answer exactly those questions.  I am collaborating with Claudia West, a brilliant landscape architect and plants-woman who works for North Creek Nurseries.  The book is focused on native planting design, paying particular attention to how understanding the layers and dynamics of plant communities in the wild can improve our designed plantings.    The book will be published by Timber Press.  More on Claudia and the book later.

The alternative to mulch is what Claudia calls “green mulch,” that is, plants themselves.  A lot more plants.  In a recent discussion with Claudia, she pointed out that our habit of continually adding mulch year after year artificially keeps our plantings in a perpetual establishment phase.  Vertically layering our plantings with different kinds of forbs, graminoids, ferns, and woody species to form a dense carpet can indeed create plantings that need little or no mulch.  

This process of vertically layering requires a lot of plants.  Woody shrubs must be under-planted with herbaceous species.  Tall grasses may need to be under-planted with lower sedges.  Perennial borders will require multiple layers of ground-holding plants to support taller accent species.  The goal of this kind of layering is not just to reduce our use of mulch, but also to create more stable, enduring, and even more beautiful plantings.  

Verbena bonariensis and Phlomis tuberosa. Two self-seeding plants in my garden that I hope to encourage

This past year, I stopped mulching my perennial border.  It was a fascinating experiment.  Instead of mulch, I gently worked a bit of compost in the spring with a fork--being careful not to cover the ground, but instead get the compost into the soil.  In most places, I found that the plants I had were dense enough already to choke out any weeds.  In a few places, weeds appeared under taller, upright perennials.  Those areas highlighted for me a missing “layer” of plants that I will add next spring.  The other more surprising benefit was how much self-seeding happened as a result of not mulching.  The appearance of these self-seeders added a much needed spontaneous element to the border, threading it together more fully than what I could have done on my own.  This look of spontaneity and naturalness is incredibly hard to create.  Next year, I’m hoping self-seeders play an even larger role in the garden.

I look forward to developing these ideas more fully and sharing our research  along the way.  Stay tuned . . . 

70 comments:

  1. At its heart, American's approach horticulture is deeply rooted in agriculture, so their ornamental gardens reflect it. Treating your flower borders like a planting a row of correctly spaced corn is easier than learning about perennials and woody plants and putting up with them for years.

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    1. Ha, good point. That also addresses one of my other landscape architectural pet peeves: lining plants in little grids--even when the shape of the bed is not rectilinear.

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  2. Looking forward to the book! One plant covering ground in my garden is purple poppy mallow, and I'm loving the way it weaves through other plants without overwhelming them while producing blooms of astounding color. It's great. I've also taken note of what good baby plant nurseries grasses like prairie dropseed are. Some agastaches only sometimes hardy in my zone have done great cuddled up next to a prairie dropseed. I'll be interested to read more!

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    1. That's a great weaver . . . one that's actually on my list to add next year. Glad to hear you've had such good luck with it. Love that color.

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  3. Yes! So many landscapes look like they're brand new, but are actually a decade old -- because the mulch truck keeps coming in. And let's not talk about the depth of that mulch. When I show pics of my garden, people remark on the lushness -- well, isn't that what natures does? It's why I have few to no weeds. I've never known anyone who enjoys spreading mulch every year or two. And yes, let's talk about spontaneity, how having a garden that looks different year to year is a good thing (it's ALIVE, isn't it?). I talk about this in regard to drought-stressed natives that grow shorter or bloom less or move to preferred spots. I like seeing the garden become its true self. I like learning from my plants. Look forward to that book!

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    1. "I like learning from my plants." Well said. That's a nice way to think about self seeding.

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  4. But if I don't mulch, I'll have to water more here in Southern California.

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    1. That’s a great point. Upon re-reading my post, I may have left the impression that all mulch is bad. I certainly don’t think that. It does add organic matter to the soil; it does help the soil stay moist. There is most certainly a place for it.

      What I was bemoaning was more the over-use of mulch. If you look at garden books before World War II, mulch is hardly mentioned at all. Historically, if it was used, it was in reference to keeping a certain woody shrub alive in the winter, then it was removed in the spring. Our current use of it is unlike anywhere in the world, unlike any time in history. And it has a cost, too. We’re ripping out the cypress swamps in Louisiana to produce it, and furthering coastal erosion. The emphasis should be on layering plants that fit the climate—even hot, dry ones.

      Glad you wrote that!

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    2. I'm from Southern California on the east side of the San Fernando Valley and have entirely replace my front yard with perennial ground cover and shrubs. Mulch was necessary for the initial planting to keep moisture in the soil and as additional help in grass suppression. A couple of years have gone by and my perennial ground covers have largely covered any remaining mulch. I have not re-re-mulched since the initial planting. Even when the summer temps reach into the 100+ area I only water my yard once a week. In the winter I don't water my yard at all. Since my yard is partly planted with drought tolerant edible trees and shrubs I have spent the summer eating goji berries, jujubes, figs and have a pomegranates waiting for fall. So permanently mulched areas are not really necessary.

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  5. Not to mention that mulch gets to be a pretty expensive 'annual' (replacing it annually just like annual plants). Through some trial and error, I have managed to create a few perennial bed that at first were mulched but now are completely covered with plants - I can't even see what little mulch is left. And I am rewarded with a variety of colorful perennials throughout the season. I am now motivated and inspired to take your discussion to heart in other areas of my landscape. Thanks!

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    1. That’s a good point, too. Mulch may be most appropriate for newly installed plantings that have not had a chance to fill in yet. Of course, the danger with new plantings is that the mulch will rob much needed nitrogen from the soil. So compost may be a better idea than some kind of bark mulch.

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    2. My experience and that of people I have talked to suggests this nitrogen robbing thing is theory, not reality. At least with the maximum mulch we ever need, which is just enough to exclude light.

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    3. Mulch on the soil surface does not rob nitrogen from plant roots. Once the mulch is decomposed enough to have been brought down under the surface, it contributes nitrogen as it decomposes further. On the surface, the layer of denitrification is a good thing as it discourages weed seeds from germinating. Just make sure not to dig the woody material into the soil.

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  6. Great reading and I look forward to hearing more about the book.

    Here in Portland we're told to get our mulch in place in the spring before the rains stop with the idea it helps to keep in the moisture. It also is supposed to be deep, very deep. I don't know about that but I do like the way it hides the ugly clay soil and puts a solid even color under the plants, allowing them to shine. Of course my ideal (and the one my garden is growing into) is to layer the plants as you describe. The perfect garden would be one where you see no soil or mulch at all!

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    1. No doubt that a garden has a bit of a glow post-mulching. It hides the tattered edges and reinforces the lines. I still use mulch, but I am no longer using it annually. Nor am I layering it as thick as I once did. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy more plants. And I’m always looking for an excuse to do that.

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  7. I hadn't thought about a different in mulching between the US and Europe before. Yes, we do mulch; and for much the same reasons that you do - conserve water (essential for me in Italy), keeping down the annual weeds and sometimes returning some nourishment to the soil. I’d add hiding the irrigation tubes and stopping them blocking because of the minerals in the water. But it is also true that we use many plants to cover the soil; in my own garden I can only see the soil in a couple of places during certain times of year, for the rest the plants do the job. I will pay for attention now when I read American bloggers talking about their annual mulch delivery – before I just thought them very efficient!

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    1. That’s interesting to hear how you use it in Italy. Yes, we definitely love our mulch more than any other country I know. It’s a peculiar habit. And once that’s relatively recent (last 60 years or so). Mulch is certainly useful, but the rather thoughtless and heavy way it is used here actually prevents the garden from establishing.

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  8. What a fabulous post. I've been talking to my students about this for years. I get frustrated with empty beds. I encourage them to fill their beds with vibrant plant combinations instead, but this sometimes falls on deaf ears. I appreciate your article and am thrilled to have another's opinion to share. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! Spread the word to those young, impressionable ears . . .

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  9. I think it also has to do with our obsession with tidiness and hygiene. For many Americans, neatness culturally equates to goodness. 'Cleanliness is next to godliness' It's also as you suggest a Victorian and archaic practice.

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    1. Great point, Susan. And one I missed entirely. I completely agree.

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  10. I have to agree that many people have an obsession with tidiness, they don't want the plants to touch each other. My garden is very full, only the new areas that haven't been planted up yet get mulched, and the pathways. I'm losing some of the pathways too. I am always on the lookout for great groundcover, underneath plants, especially ones that can survive some of the awful conditions I present them with. Shaded areas seem to be easier for me than the sunnier parts.

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    1. I'm looking out for those ground covers, too. Take a walk in a relatively undisturbed woodland. There are so many more great ground-holding plants that have yet to be fully cultivated. If landscape/garden design focused more on developing this palette of ground-holding/ground-covering native perennials and grasses, it would entirely revolutionize the American garden. I’m convinced of it!

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  11. There is definitely 'mulch madness' here in the US. Layered planting make so much sense but even good gardeners I know and love just love their mulch. I think it is as Susan states that Americans like neatness and control. We all know control is just a bit of an illusion. I am looking forward to your book.

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    1. A friend of mine says that mulching is like putting on lipstick - it freshens things up and sets off the plantings with contrast.

      Completely agree that the ideal is a very thickly layered planting, but that takes a lot of time or immediate infusions of cash to accomplish. More suggestions on how to achieve that naturally, over time, would be fantastic. Can't wait to read the book!

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    2. Hi Diane,

      I completely agree that richly layered plantings take more time, money, and expertise. Mulch is both neat and easy. But I think it is the direction that American gardens need to go. We need less easy (brainless) decisions. We need more thoughtful engagement. That will require more time and money, but it’s the right direction.

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  12. I hope that your new book will not just focus on the Northeast past of the country. I live in Colorado, and I do try to minimize mulch by dense planting, and I would welcome some new ideas for our area.

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    1. That's a great point. The new book will actually have an international focus. Our premise is that design inspired by local native plant communities is something that will work anywhere in the world. There are obviously significant regional variations, but the big idea is internationally applicable.

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  13. As I've been spreading yard after yard of mulch for my employer, I have been thinking of the content of your post. I am really looking forward to your book! I need it! We all need it. I want to know how to compose that landscape that includes all the different plant types, heights and textures that fill in. No more mulch, please! Thanks for a great post. This topic has been circling my mind all summer.

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    1. Your definitely asking the right questions. I hope our book will be a resource for doing that. Though there are other good resources out there that do hint at this process of vertically layering plants like wild plant communities do.

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  14. I use mulch only on newly planted areas, just until the understory vegetation fills in. I'm constantly searching for "plant mulch" that can thrives in my conditions, not always an easy thing. Self seeding seems to be the key, and often using some of those so-called "thugs" that spread rapidly. It's helpful to remember that large plants can perform a weed supressing function. Miscanthus, for example, is a wonderful "mulch."

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    1. James, I'm entirely in agreement with the careful use of certain garden "thugs". The use of aggressive plants sometimes scares gardeners who are afraid they will take over. But good ground-holding plants typically are clonal species, so they will move around some. I think great gardeners like you know how to balance this spontaneity with control. But for me, that’s the most interesting part.

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  15. Some mulch can be good to help reduce erosion and retain soil moisture. Too much mulch can be detrimental to plant health. "Mulch volcanoes" will stunt plant growth and create a haven for insect and diseases. Too many commercial maintenance specs call for 3" of mulch a year, which is way too much, unless the old mulch is removed (wasteful) and even then it does not need to be applied every year.

    Good luck with your new book.

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  16. Great topic! Dense plantings is my goal, but it has its challenges, as, for example, nutrient deficiencies, controlling thug "ground covers", letting annuals self seed, but controlling weeds, and disease control, like mildews on dense plantings. Looking forward to the book that would address all of these questions.

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    1. It is indeed challenging, and not something that will be successful for every gardener. But it is the right direction, I think, at least for the horticulturally adventurous.

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  17. I know the reason I typically spec deep mulch layers is because the builders soil is so poor in OM that the mulch takes the place of a natural duff layer and ultimately forms the basis of new topsoil. Plus, arid Southern California and all that. I also makes sure to lay out the mulch before planting so that crowns don't get buried. I agree that 3 inches of mulch every year is probably excessive, but it comes about because if you spec that mulch be added as necessary it just never gets added. And isn't mulch just compost that hasn't broken down yet?

    I see your point though. Mulch is often used to tidy up poorly planted and poorly maintained landscapes because as you said, nature abhors a vacuum.

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    1. Hmmm, do the contractor's never amend the "builders soil"? Seems like pretty dreary stuff to plant in. I certainly think mulch is appropriate in many settings. I recently read an article saying dry-loving plants do better without mulch, but if I lived in an arid environment, I'd certainly be tempted to mulch.

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  18. The biggest reason for this is because largely, homeowners and businesses do not plant or maintain their own gardens...they dont have the time, inclination, or knowledge to do so....I have the ability and opportunity to treat my gardens very differently than my clients...if I'm only there 2 maybe 3 visits per year I have to take advantage of that time and do everything I can so they're set for a while. I dont mulch my gardens except for my produce gardens which get layered with wood chips, compost, barn cleanings with straw, and cardboard...I manually weed and use no chemicals...But for my clients I mulch once a year with pine fines and apply a pre emergence herbicide and timed release fertilizer underneath the mulch. Pine fines are as close to mother nature as it gets.
    I have a pesticide applicators license but spray very little...as dead weeds are just as ugly as live ones. That said...weeds are very highly evolved and can overcome adversity faster than desirable plants. It's about "right plant for the right place" (book already written), and to attain and hold this encyclopedia of knowledge takes experience and passion for constantly learning and trying new plants...I also have clients who don't like the layered look...although they've come around over time and learned to trust my experience. But I dont sell someone something they don't need...so I tell them that if we don't cover the beds with organized plantings then theyll either spend more money on mulch or the weeds will take the available space and they'll be paying me to weed those areas...I believe that's called selection pressure and plants are here merely to propagate...the only question is...do we like that plant. If we do it has a PR Department. ..if we don't. ..its a weed and ergo eradicated....by mulch. :-)

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    1. I certainly understand why mulch is convenient and even better than weedy beds. I am embedded enough in the reality of real gardens, landscapes, and clients to understand that the layered-approach will not be universally accepted. I do think, however, that it is the right direction and that if done well, can be less maintenance than even mulched beds. Mulching keeps planting in permanent establishment phase--a nonstop dependency. There is a better way.

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  19. I've been trying alternatives to open soil and regular mulch with some no till experiments in my forested area and ground cover such as moss phlox and creeping sedum with some success and with my new yard I am thinking very seriously of using something like white clover as a green mulch and lawn supplement. I'm looking forward to your book. Keep us up to date with it's progress and also with your ongoing research.

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  21. There are so many 'received wisdoms' about gardening that have never been supported with scientific research, and using thick mulch, especially fine-textured mulch, is certainly one of them. Work done here in (increasingly) dry Australia shows more than 50mm/2 inches depth of mulch is actually detrimental to plant growth and encourages many plant diseases. And mulch must be chunky, preferably about 30mm (1 inch) pieces but certainly with no pieces smaller than 15mm (half inch). William Martin who gardens the famous 'Wigandia' dry garden in central Victoria repudiates the use of any mulch in dry climates, believing that planting thickly shades and cools the soil and that any exposed soil will quickly develop its own protective crust to stop evaporation.

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    1. Fascinating! I'm not terribly familiar with the ecology of arid climates, but I'd be eager to learn more. I'll track down William Martin. He sounds interesting.

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  22. This is very weird,Thomas. Here in UK I have just become aware - in rather the same spirit as yours re mulch - of the peculiar British habit of hoeing.

    I just wrote about it, this week: http://veddw.com/category/blog/

    You'll see that although I advocate mulching instead, it is in fact because I wish to achieve the effect - of plants happily cosying up together rather than sitting in their separate little spaces - that you are after too. I use mulch to let these plants establish and to keep weeds down round some which have not 'knitted' in the spring.I expect not to see it by early summer.

    But - the big question for me is why do people want that strange, blobby look of separated plants?? I didn't know you suffered it too!? I must come back here tomorrow and read all the comments and see if anyone is making sense of it for us.

    It's UGLY!!!! XXXXX

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    1. I wasn't aware the separated plant look was a problem in England. Most of my trips there revealed quite the opposite--though I was visiting some of the better gardens. Always great to hear from you, Anne!

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  23. I idea of mulch is to create a plant friendly area without and imperfections. its makes things look nice

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    1. It does. But more densely layered planting looks even better. Try it!

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  24. I admit I am kind of a mulch addict, mostly for weed suppression. When I was a zealous new gardener, I ripped out vast swathes of grass without realizing how expensive it would be to replant those areas! Of course, like another commenter said, the price of mulch adds up, too. I love how you put it: that there is a "feral landscape" just inches underfoot -- so true! Anyway, I have gotten smarter and now I divide my most prolific perennials to fill in those gaps -- even if it doesn't fulfull my ideal design wishes. A little bird told me you were writing this book -- so happy to hear it confirmed. Can't wait!

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    1. It IS incredibly expensive. And requires quite a bit of knowledge as well. The book has a long way to go, but I'm exhilarated by the collaboration. Great to hear from you, Mary. Hope you are well.

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  25. Very interesting discussion, Thomas. I have access to a really rich, locally-harvested rotted manure product that I use to mulch mixed borders. It enriches the soil and retains moisture. These kinds of borders include annuals and biennials in a Christopher Lloydian succession planting approach. I don't get to the mulching until late in the season because the emerging biennials and the annuals don't get planted around Memorial Day. I use the top dressing from the previous year to mix in holes on plants I'm dividing and/or moving. In this instance, I find a good mulch useful.

    In the woodland garden, here in New England, I leave the fallen leaves from autumn in place as much as possible. I figure that is what happens in nature. My son has had some landscaping jobs where the rake out the leaves, take them to the recycling center, and then add bark mulch which seems crazy to me. I think the customer wants a uniform mulch that says maintained, clean and tidy. If there were layered planting with a well-thought out appropriate "green" mulch there would be little need for bark mulch.

    My take on mulch is that depends on the location, climate and type of garden to determine which, if any mulch, is appropriate.

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    1. Michael,

      Your nuanced approach to mulching is very wise. I've done almost the exact same technique--not mulching till early summer and then lightly top dressing with something more like compost. It works very well. Great to hear from you.

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  26. I'm a landscape designer, and I find that the vast majority of my clients (and potential clients) here in the Portland, OR / Vancouver, WA areas ask for low maintenance. They like the IDEA of lushly layered gardens, but don't have the time and energy to maintain them. (Though I am guessing you are with me that a well-designed layered landscape can be pretty easy to maintain if orchestrated properly.) And I have found there are very few landscape maintenance firms in our area who know how to care for anything other than turf lawn, which doesn't help the homeowners.

    Many designers in our area offer a lower-maintenance design option to a 'real' landscape that they/we call 'simple' design. It utilizes mostly trees and shrubs and almost no ground covers and/or perennials. Unfortunately, it leaves lots of empty ground that requires mulch to keep the weeds down and moisture in.

    I recently stopped offering 'simple' design because I found that I simply could NOT plunk trees and shrubs into a bed and NOT layer ground covers and perennials below them. 'Simple' design is not nature's way here in the Pacific Northwest (nor as you said most places on the earth).

    As for mulch, you seem to consider compost not to be 'mulch'. Here in the PNW, compost and leaf mold are highly prized as mulch. They are what I prefer over bark dust. And please, people leave your fall leaves on your ornamental beds unless they are such that don't decompose or are huge. If they are of that type, just grind them up and then spread on the ornamental beds. They will compost and feed the soil/plants over the winter and into the spring. And it's FREE!

    I have made several blog posts about mulch (and other things horticultural) at: http://www.goodnightdesign.com/blog/
    Thomas, I'd be honored if you'd check out my blog when you get a chance.

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    1. Hi Beth,

      I am very familiar with your excellent and in-depth blog. You give high quality information. Always great to hear from you!

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  27. I have to take a bit of exception to the whole, 'it's not nature's way,' line of reasoning. Sure, in high rainfall areas there is typically not a shred of space left bare, but in low rainfall areas that is not necessarily the case. The oak groves of Southern California have very sparse understories that are almost entirely dropped leaves. The health of the groves depend on a lack of layering. As do the mushroom colonies.

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    1. I totally agree (and even mentioned in the post) that arid landscapes lack the density of layering that wetter climates have. You can find a million of examples from high stress environments (desert, salty coastal environments, frozen tundras) where bare soil is a significant percentage of the ground. For designers in desert landscapes, the negative space of bare soil may then be an important part of a composition.

      But in the vast majority of temperate and tropical landscapes, bare soil hardly exists—at least in established plant communities. And I’d argue that even arid environments possess a higher degree of plant layering than happens in most suburban and urban landscapes. Mulch is not bad; we just use way too much of it and space our plants too far apart. “Nature” is one point of reference that shows a different approach. But so is culture. When compared to most European or Asian gardens, our prominently featured mulch beds are a cultural aberration.

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  28. I call it the "nothing grows here" look. Living in a suburb that considers itself to be swanky, it seems like everyone has giant piles of mulch everywhere with little to no actual plants. And when a weed does pop up, it REALLY shows, so they hit it with some weed killer. It doesn't make any sense to me, but my garden is still filling in so my neighbors probably hate the untidiness that results when you actually GROW something.

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    1. Ha, I never thought about the fact that widely spaced planting makes weeds show up more. Very true.

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  29. Here is NE Ohio, you know it is spring when the smell of mulch is in the air. I hate the way it looks and have worked over the years to eliminate it completely. My huge, lush mixed border and the landscaping around the house are just as you described--layers of plants. It works, is interesting and beautiful. Good luck with your book. I hope it changes some minds.

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  30. Congrats on the book deal, Thomas. I very much look forward to reading it.

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    1. Thanks, Pam. Still a long way to go with it, but I'm excited about the process.

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  31. (note: this is in response to the mention of your upcoming book.)

    Tremendous to read that you are collaborating with Claudia. I saw her speak in CT a few years ago and was thoroughly impressed. Her 'Landscape's Color Spectrum...' discussion was inspirational to say the least - the imagery and treatment of the subject is big part of what's missing from mainstream horticulture and landscape design/architecture.

    I respect and look forward to your writing as well. Your blog is a favorite of mine.

    While I have been passionate about native plants since before I studied Landscape Architecture, my understanding has evolved significantly: from the broad net of Bill Cullina's book series, to a more focused New England/NEWFS palette, to a RI eco-regions approach to species. In recent months I have been pushed beyond that into a realm I hear often referred to as 'purist'.

    Beyond political boundaries(in my case Rhode Island) and beyond the eco-regional approach (that seems more fluid/science-based), is the discussion of eco-type, provenance, genetic diversity, and what I recently heard, (and adopted), referred to as 'genetically native' plants.

    I applaud Northcreek and American Beauties for their efforts to re-introduce, celebrate, and bring to market a diversity of native plant species. The images, branding, and educational material are excellent. I respect these companies for what they do. My concern is the essential 'green-washing' that occurs when eco-types/genetic diversity are removed from the equation.

    It would seem that most of the plants sold as native are actually 'native-like' ornamental plants; native by species but not locale. Often many of these plants are clones. For example, I recently discovered that Ilex glabra 'Compacta' plants comes from one parent plant in the NJ Pine Barrens - meaning all Ilex 'Compacta' in the trade are have identical genetic makeup (think potato famine). Then there are the 'nativars' (many also cloned) and sold as natives.

    Because the treatment of the 'native plant' topic continues to remain rather surface in most arenas (especially the in the trade), the majority of 'native' plants on the market are not genetically native and many are not even genetically diverse.

    As a designer whose focus is native plants and ecology, I was surprised that I had not considered this or come across much discussion of this in Landscape Design/LA or Native Plant groups/forums.

    Now that I have crossed thru that door to a stronger understanding of, and definition for, 'native' it seems impossible (and irresponsible) to return to looser definitions.

    Perhaps while continuing to build consumer awareness and demand there is a need for large scale production of 'native-like'(or 'native-somewhere') plants and their amped-up/flashy 'nativar' cousins. However, I do question this approach.

    Restoration efforts (and certain tuned in LA's/designers) seem most affected by this incomplete discussion. Often, due to lack of inventory, they are forced to source 'native' species that are clones, cultivars, or genotypes of distant origin. It is time to delve deeper into this topic and push beyond the mucky waters surface discussions and green-washing.

    I mention all of this because it has been at the forefront of my mind recently. The thought of you and Claudia working together is truly exciting - a powerhouse collaboration. I know it will be beautifully designed and written. I hope that every effort will be made to include within those pages a focus on eco-regions, eco-types, provenance, etc. I remind myself often that paradigm shifts take time, please continue to help to take this critical movement to the next level.

    -respectfully, graham

    I welcome further discussion and can be reached at NativePlantsmith@gmail.com. (Perhaps there will be a way to have you and Claudia come to speak here in New England, in the coming year or two, either thru ELA, NEWFS, or RINHS.)

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  32. I can see you may have got bored with this topic given the amazing number of replies you got! But it occurred to me that this might be the better alternative? http://veddw.com/blog/using-a-matrix/

    ReplyDelete
  33. Thomas: I really appreciated your post on this topic as I really want to reduce my reliance on mulch. What I would love to know is, how do we find out what types of ground covers we can grow in our garden that will help feed the soil for my flowers and trees without becoming so invasive. This year I decided to let the Dutch clover and the Queen Anne's lace grow a bit to see what happens. The clover has been effective as a ground cover but I worry about whether it will fight too much with my Japanese maples and peonies for nutrients. The Queen Anne's lace basically has exploded all over my gardens. Surprisingly, however they attract a large amount of the gnats and other annoying bugs that usually fly around me. I have noticed that areas with clover and Queen Anne's lace have very little or next to no weeds and retain their moisture. Any suggestions and guidance would be greatly appreciated.

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  34. My sentiments exactly! Thank you for writing this.

    I do a lot of maintenance work 2 hours to your south in Richmond. People LOVE their mulch and will pay a premium for it. I always have to chuckle (to myself) when clients ask me for the darkest mulch possible like their asking for the audi, not the vw. No doubt, it does add value to the landscape… I just hope that someday people will see that plants are so much more interesting than shredded wood.

    What bothers me equally so is when clients want to grow grass under trees or in the "woods" and wonder why it's not thriving.

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  35. Found this via Houzzz:

    Good points on the addiction to mulch. It's easier than getting a good mixed border going, and in some areas it's the only way to preserve soil moisture.

    Can you perhaps cover the addiction to meatballed shrubs? why do landscape maintenance companies always overprune?

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  36. The theme of your blog is very beautiful and the article is written very well, I will continue to focus on your article.
    Discount Mulch

    ReplyDelete

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