MULCH, MULCH, everywhere there’s MULCH. It can be a shredded / dyed pallet in all sort of colors from red, orange, and chocolate. Mulch can be single, double and yes, even triple processed hardwood bark mulch. Available in all sorts of materials from cedar, pine nuggets, pine needles, cocoa shells, and pecan nuts, decorative gravel and recycled shredded tires as well. Just put it around your plants and like it.
Granted, mulching is a simple, effective way to protect soil, conserve water and helps encourage plant growth. Initially, proper mulch materials and application can improve any gardens health as well as it appearance on a subjective level.
But what if you…. Hate Weeding. Hate looking at dirt. Hate buying mulch every year. Hate installing mulch. Hate looking at mulch. Me too, and I work in the landscape industry.
There is an alternative…plants. A living, colorful, changing, and life supporting mulch. A LIVING MULCH
Plants are a fantastic mulch because nature has wired plants to be responsible for several tasks on earth. Covering dirt is major part of the ecological process and it does it very well. Have an exposed area in your garden, even with gravel mulch / weed barrier, a plant will find it in a relatively short period of time. Probably, a plant you do not want. A weed!
To eliminate the amount of weeds in your landscape, consider installing a plant community. A plant community can be a combination of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, bulbs, and ground covers. For now, let’s only look at the ground plane. This is where you will find some shrubs, but mostly perennials, ornamental grasses, bulbs, and ground covers. Plants growing from 3” to 36” tall. These plants can block out the light needed for weed seeds to germinate. Mass planting (plants touching each other when mature) plants can be bold strokes of mono-culture or a theme plant in mass interspersed with plants that have seasonal interest of color, texture and height.
A living mulch can be a “highly aesthetic, sustainable plant communities for all seasons, while reducing maintenance through design. He (Roy Diblik) believes that gardens should be thoughtful, ecologically directed, emotionally outreaching and yet very personal,” as stated on Northwind Perennial Farm’s website. Living mulch’s are used in all types of applications, for example, rain gardens, bio-swales, vegetable gardens and even within formal knot gardens.
Common types of living mulch focus on fixing nitrogen and breaking up soil. Living mulch as a ground cover is used to keep weeds down, conserve moisture and fill in landscape gaps. The type of plant you use as a mulch depends upon what your main purpose for a cover crop must achieve.
If you are using living mulch as a ground cover, make sure it’s a plant that can take foot traffic. Some good varieties to consider might be wooly thyme or creeping red fescue. Not only are they both attractive as living carpet, but they enhance the soil and thyme helps protect other plants from certain insect pests. Mulches that are going to be used as green manure should be a mixture of both legumes and non-legumes. The nitrogen fixing attributes of legumes pair well with the carbon adding abilities of other crops.
Plant characteristics used as living mulch can be any grouping of plants of the same size and growth rate (prevents competition) and have the shortest growing plants intermingle around the taller communities. Some familiar perennials used are Black Eye Susan, Purple Cone Flower and Salvia. Also used with perennials are ornamental grasses for example, Prairie Dropseed or a low forms of Switch Grass.
Additional plants to consider are:
Carex species is similar in appearance to grass. Having a soft appearance and texture, and diverse, small, floating flowers in May and June. It is a very durable, adaptable plant that enhances the health of the entire plant community.
Eupatorium (Blue Mistflower) grows to 30” ht. and 30” wide with a round habitat. Has a blue flower blooming from July thru September. The plant attracts Butterflies and pollinators, yet resists deer and rabbits.
Eragrostis spectablis (Purple Love Grass) is an ornamental grass growing to a height of 24” tall and 18” wide. Low mound of light green leaves; sprays of tiny reddish-mauve flowers late summer like a haze of smoke. Self-seeds. Drought tolerant. Light red flower at 18″. This grass tolerates salt and is deer resistant.
Maintenance Process / Timeline:
Once the garden is established:
Using a mulching mower go over the perennials and grass about 6-7 times to create litter and leave on the ground. This is fertilizer to plants. And watch nature take over. Sure, you will have to do some weeding but by…
Your plants will have grown in to the point of covering the soil. Now you have a living mulch. The only weeding left to do is simple observational weeding for an occasional thistle and for weeds that may appear along the borders.
July – March:
Enjoy the garden and continue observational weeding.
By replacing the yearly use and accumulation of wood-chips, a living mulch provides a true cost savings and enhances the beauty of a garden. As Roy Diblik states, “The future of our gardens is not the traditional practices of one process used for all plantings. When we are thoughtful, patient and use our knowledge of other components, the new gardens will be healthier, plant driven and beautiful. Sometimes products, machines, and technology can not compensate for thoughtful care. “