Bark Mulch Fatigue

One of the mainstays of water conservation is the use of mulch. And because everyone likes a uniform look, bark mulch is a popular choice. I'm actually not sure what this stuff really is, but I do know it's some kind of shredded wood, and I shudder to remember when Mr. Mouse and I spread 3 cubic yards of it in the front (the back garden was done professionally).

So, mulch great for water conservation, but it has an annoying tendency to get disturbed when I do some hand watering with the hose.

Mulch also isn't as great at discouraging weeds as I've been told. Any weed that's worth that name will not have a problem to get through 3 inches of the stuff.

But the biggest problem is that bark mulch is booooring. During the last GBBD, I saw Nan Ondras photos from her Pennsylvania garden, and I realized that I'd like my garden to look a little more like that. Actually, I have some areas that come close.

This sunny spot, with sedum, California fuchsia, Artemesia, yarrow, and Salvia leucophylla in the background looks (comparatively) lush and inviting. 

The side strip with two species of Eriogonum (buckwheat), sedum, and Correa also looks fine.

But here, we have a bark mulch dessert.

Sure, part of the problem is that the Lavender is still new, and I'm expecting it to grow. Another problem (problem?) is that I have California poppies here in spring. But I'm still wondering whether I have other options.

In this area Salvia sonomensis is an attractive ground cover year round -- of course, we don't have a lot of poppies there.

Things can also be tricky in the shade. This newly planted area with Heuchera (propagated by Ms. Country Mouse), ferns, and blue-eyed grass clearly has a bark mulch problem.

But as the fern grows, it will cover some of the area. What's a Mouse to do?

Here's what I'm thinking of trying (any ideas? please comment!):
  • Stop buying more bark mulch for sunny areas. California natives in sunny areas are not usually surrounded by woody substances, but rather by dirt, pebbles, or dry leaves. 
  • In the areas with spring annuals, plant summer/fall annuals next year. Seeing Ms. Country Mouse's Madia explosion is an inspiration! Is there a shorter version of that plant? 
  • Worry less about overplanting. The areas that have bark mulch problems are usually those where I've been extra careful not to overplant. But life is short, so I'll probably start being a little more irresponsible. Let's face it, we'd all rather see blossoms than bark mulch.


Yes, do get rid of that bark mulch desert. Consider that many of the native plants that grow in the wild are growing very, very densely. Sow tightly and let them battle it out. Try using pine needles. Sugar pine is best and softest, but Scotch pine that's been sent through a chipper works well, too.
I think overplanting is the way to go as long as you're committing yourself to dividing more often. If I were a rich man, sing it with me,
I'd just use coco mulch so when my guests were walking through the garden, they'd be greeted with a chocolate fragrance. No kidding, it works but its pricey.
In my previous gardens, I've been a slave to bark mulch. I really don't use it here, and I think your garden would probably look more natural without it. We occasionally chip small branches and leaves, and distribute that along our road edge, but around my plants, I rarely mulch at all (although our redwoods seem to mulch themselves). Our biggest problem is most mulches attract the voles here, and gives them a place to hide, and it prevents some of our native bee species from building nests in the ground when every vacant square inch of soil is covered. When I look at our truly wild areas of the property, there's no mulch, and the natives just seem to work it out among themselves. I honestly would be surprised if some of our natives would even want it, and might even be set back by it. As for the lavender, the only lavender I've ever killed, an L. angustifolia 'Hidcote', was bark mulched. If I really feel the plants need anything, they usually get a light top dressing of compost.
"Let's face it, we'd all rather see blossoms than bark mulch." That's true :) You can also plant step-able ground covers to cover your bare area instead of mulch. You can plant some low growing herbs for step-able ground cover such as 'Corsican Mint' or 'Creeping Thyme'. They release nice scent as you step or brush on them.
ryan said…
My two cents: You need mulch until a planting is mature and the plants should touch at maturity. Gardens and the plants in them are held to a higher standard than the un-mulched plants in the wild. The larger and wilder the space, the more tolerant we become; the smaller the space, the more each plant needs to look good. Mulching is one of the ways that we help the plants meet our higher standards.
And mulch also helps with stormwater retention and temperature regulation, issues that the soils have around buildings and pavement that they wouldn't have out in wilder areas. I like arborist mulch the best, even though there's a slight risk of bringing in weeds or diseases. Gravel and DG work really well for some plants, though they give a very distinct look to plantings.
You can place rocks in strategic places to keep the hose from making a mess.
Also, your garden looks great even when there's some mulch on the path.
ryan said…
You're totally right about Nan Ondra's garden. This is the time of year when I get especially jealous of those great east coast east coast gardens with all those beautiful lush leaves. So nice. I really do like the full look of a garden. I don't really understand the anti-overplanting movement. The really full parts of your garden are wonderful, so I'm not sure why some people would call that irresponsible.
Shaftermike said…
California plants in nature sometimes observe a fairly regular spacing, with quite a bit of bare earth between. I think this is related to water availability, since I see it on the east side of the Sierra and chaparral areas of mtns. near LA. A stine or sand mulch might be the most natural approach.