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The Plant Man: mulching 

By Steve Kawaratani

“You’d be surprised there’s so much to be done. Count all the bees in the hive, chase all the clouds from the sky…”

–Kenny Loggins from “House at Pooh Corner”

The Plant Man Steve Kawaratani

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Photos courtesy of Steve Kawaratani

Steve Kawaratani

A friend recently confided, “I’m not going to get another booster; I’m over putting chemicals in my body.” She continued, “I overcame boredom getting back to my garden and now there isn’t enough water to sustain it. I am really stressed.”

I thought to myself mid-conversation that boredom and stress are common issues many of us have experienced in the age of the pandemic and the continuing drought. However, I believe that the antidote is to remain busy, as there’s so much to be done in that microcosm of life, our home garden. Mulching is an effective measure to combat the scourge of drought.

Any loose layer of organic material that is placed on the soil surface is mulch (it follows that the process of applying such materials is called mulching). The cultural practice of mulching serves many purposes – a two-inch thick layer insulates the soil from rapid changes in temperature and conserves water for plants. Mulching reduces competition from weeds, prevents unsightly mud from splashing onto foliage and flowers, protects falling fruit from injury and gives the garden a “finished” look.

Almost anything may be used for mulching – leaves, elk and camel manure, straw, grass cuttings, peat moss, pinecones and needles, coconut fiber, sawdust, wood chips, shredded bark, buckwheat hulls, ground corn cobs, burlap and even prepared paper have been used for mulching purposes. Well, maybe not the aforementioned manures so much in Laguna.

Ideally, the mulch is free of weed seeds and has not been recently sprayed with an herbicide. All organic material has a tendency to withdraw nitrogen from the soil if not composted, and to overcome this, for each 160 square feet of organic mulch, two inches thick, mix in about one pound of ammonium sulfate (not to be confused with bomb ingredient, ammonium nitrate). Consult your horticulturist for more details. 

The Plant Man mulching mulch

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The Plant Man’s recommended mulch

Planter mixes, redwood compost and composted green waste are excellent mulching materials for ornamental and fruit trees, shrubs, roses, vegetable beds, perennial and annual borders and rock gardens. They also serve the dual purpose of providing some plant nutrients.

Other commercial products from Armstrong Garden Center, Dana Point Nursery and Kellogg’s are also good products for mulching, if you don’t have the space or inclination to setup a compost pile.

Azaleas, camellias, gardenias and other acid-loving plants greatly benefit from mulch derived from azalea mix, leaf mold or peat moss. The organic products can also be worked into the soil and become available as a source of plant food, but the roots of camellias and azaleas should not be disturbed while working in the amendment.

Black and clear polyethylene sheeting provides excellent control of weeds and can even be placed over existing weeds to kill them. They also reduce water loss and warm the soil slightly. While I personally don’t care for plastic mulching, except for use in strawberry beds, the fruit can be kept clean and the runners are allowed to grow with increased vigor.

One will conclude from the perspective of the primary purpose, holding surface moisture, that mulches are useful. Obviously, they vary considerably in their aesthetic desirability and ultimately, plant cultivars, location and economics will determine what type of mulch you will select.

Just for today, enjoy your health, family, friends and your garden; you’ll never be bored or be out of stuff to do. Put aside worry about the drought that you can’t control; after all, most problems, like our roses, don’t have thorns, only prickles. See you next time.

Steve Kawaratani has been a local guy for seven decades and likes to garden and drive the Baja Peninsula with Catharine and Loki. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 949.494.5141.