Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mulch is NOT the point of a no-lawn landscape

So you've removed your lawn... Yay! So now what?

All too often I've seen lawns replaced with vast areas of mulch instead of dense plantings of natives or other sustainable plants. Yes, we must plan ahead for mature sizes of trees and shrubs, but that doesn't mean that you need to lay down only mulch while you wait for your trees to grow. Look at this example:

Sad case study

A too-much-mulch landscape.  The same landscape from the other end.
I visit this particular location on a fairly regular basis and was pleased when the lawn was ripped out last year. They also pruned away the bottom branches of the shrubs. I wondered what the plans were, but surprisingly the plan seems to be mulch and little else. Upon closer inspection I could see that they used a black plastic weed barrier cloth, but only a few weeks later the weeds popped up anyway. (See below for my note on weed barrier cloth.) Eventually they installed two fountains with crotons at each of the four corners and some other plants with colorful leaves, At one point the mulch was pulled aside where the weeds were the thickest. On the next visit, the mulch was back in place. Months later, nothing has changed. So I'm guessing that this is their planned landscape. I'm sorry, but this is just a sad situation. I my opinion, their raggedy lawn was better looking than this and easier to maintain.

Removing lawns is a great idea and mulch is certainly recommended between plants to reduce weeds, keep in moisture, and to improve the soil, but mostly mulch landscapes are not a reasonable answer for several reasons. It is not maintenance-free, it is not an inviting ecosystem for pollinators and other wildlife, and the dyed cypress mulch used in this landscape is not a sustainable product. Whole cypress forests are being shredded to feed our need for mulch. The dye is completely unnecessary, some say it's harmful to the environment, plus it fades to a tired-looking pink. There are more sustainable mulches to use such as arborists wood chips, pine needles, leaves (shredded or not), and more. See my post, Follow the Yellow Mulch Road.

Black plastic weed barrier is not enough of a barrier for these weeds. See below for my thoughts on weed barrier cloth. The same too-much-much landscape several months later with fountains and a few pitiful landscape plants. Some of the mulch was pulled back so the caretakers could "get" the weeds.

Mulch is not maintenance free

Most mostly mulch landscapes end up like this one: Messy!!

Mostly mulch landscapes are weed magnets and need regular care to stay reasonable looking. Mother Nature will sow her seeds on the top of the mulch, deep-rooted weeds will come up from the bottom--yes, even through weed barrier cloth, newspapers, or cardboard.

Attractive and sustainable alternatives to mostly mulch

Muhly grass covers a non-lawn area beautifully.

Bob Chabot, gardener at the Jacksonville Zoo, explains how he plants this savanna with Florida natives so thickly that the kids are not tempted to walk through it. Yes, there's mulch, but it is not the dominant feature; the plants are.
Plant a dense stand of bunching grasses or other grass-like plants, use ground covers, or plant a butterfly garden filled with plants chosen to attract pollinators. These could be temporary plantings while you are waiting for your trees and shrubs to grow or a more permanent savanna-like meadow such as the one at the Jacksonville Zoo.

The choices for attractive non-lawn landscaping are endless and
so much better than endless mulch.

If you buy bagged mulch, you need to remove it from the bag
 for it to work. This bag sat like this for months.
It was along  one of our frequent walking routes.

Mulch is not bad

Mulch is necessary for most landscapes where you have a planting design. It keeps down weeds, it keeps in moisture, it reduces temperature fluctuations, and it eventually enriches the soil.

Choose a mulch made of plant material, chipped wood, pine needles, sawdust, dead leaves, but as mentioned above, not the cypress mulch.

Do not use chipped rubber because it releases toxins into the soil and doesn't enrich the soil.

While stones or gravel are widely used as mulches in more arid climates, they don't work particularly well in Florida, because our annual rainfall averages from 50 to 60 inches. With that much rain, weeds will grow in the rocks and soil will form. You're better off with a plant-based mulch that needs to be renewed every couple of years until your trees and shrubs drop enough of their own mulch.  

Cypress mulch is the least sustainable choice. 

Underground critters often push up weed barrier cloth making
 a mess  and causing it to be less effective.

A note on weed barrier cloth or geotextiles:

I have changed my mind on the use of weed barrier cloth (woven or non-woven) in the landscape for a number of reasons:

1) Weeds still grow on the top of the mulch or rocks or whatever.
2) Roots of both the desired plants and the weeds grow into the cloth to use it as a nice growing medium.
3) Animals that tunnel in the soil will find the edge or the seam and push it out of their way. And there is a surprising amount of underground activity.
4) It's a real pain in the butt to remove it.

It's not cheap and it's pretty much ineffective. So why use it?

I've used several different types over the years and some are rated to last 30 years in the landscape. To that, I say baloney.
A failed weed barrier effort.
Read my post Listening to your landscape for further information on why I pulled this weed barrier cloth out and stay tuned for more progress.

I hope you are listening to your own landscape, because advice from others, including me, goes only so far. You are the one who knows your landscape the best.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. Ginny, this is the best article I've read about the over-use of mulch. I agree that over-mulched landscapes are bleaker than lawn, with the only redeeming value being a water-savings -- which is important, but not the only consideration in re-doing one's landscaping. There are so many beautiful, low-water plants to try as groundcovers instead of just blanketing the ground in mulch, and they'll be lower maintenance in the end.

  2. I stopped using weed barrier many years ago. I never saw any improvement. I like to clean the planting bed and spend 10-15 minutes every week weeding. Even with a lot of mulch, the planting beds require some weeding anyway.