Put a Fork in the Frou Frou and Gather Ye Mulch

After the holidays, grab a wheelbarrow and spread some love in the garden.

It’s time to kick your droopy-limbed Christmas tree to the curb. Be merciless. Drag that once-living evergreen out with the trash for city crews to pick up. The good news: those dried-out trees and Chanukah bushes will soon be freshly shredded into piles for residents to recycle and sprinkle around flower beds and shrubbery.

As Martha Stewart might say, mulch: it’s a good thing. Packed with nutrients, mulch keeps the soil cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, help plants retain moisture, reduces erosion, cuts down on weeds and provides nourishment thanks to its healthy population of micro-organisms.

Mulch marks humans’ attempt to mimic Nature. The ecosystem replenishes itself with leaf cover found on forest floors, for example, or with the spent blooms of wildflowers and decomposing fallen fruits.  Humans spread grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, manure and hay around trees, shrubbery and flowering plants. Shredded newspaper, cardboard and wool can also get the job done.

Many gardeners wait until early spring to begin mulching, but our moderate Valley temperatures invite an opportune head start. Those who planted new trees in the cooler autumn months should apply a layer of mulch around the trunks in winter to decrease competition from grass in the spring.

Mulch has also become a trendy decorative focal point. Shredded bark, whole bark nuggets, and woodchips can be used to create orderly flower beds and borders around a specimen tree. 

However, mulch enthusiasts should proceed with caution. Some mulch is dyed to improve its appearance; its effect on the soil is questionable. Also, effective mulching requires lots of carbon and a little bit of nitrogen. Chips are so high in carbon that you’ll need to first lay down nitrogen-rich fertilizer of manure or bloodmeal to provide balance.  And tiny mulch chips may look nice but lack impact, according to TreePeople, “Wood or bark chips work best when they are between one and three inches in size. Pieces smaller than that smother the soil and do not allow oxygen to get into the soil.”

Organic mulches break down after a season or two, enhancing soil by adding organic material. On the other hand, they need to be reapplied.

That has led to the popularity of more permanent, inorganic mulches (which do not improve the soil structure). These range from the practical black landscape plastic and fabric, which is then covered with other material, to decorative pea gravel, river rocks and decomposed granite. The latest entry in this category is rubber mulch, made from recycled tires and dyed in a multitude of colors. Advocates say this recycled rubber is non-toxic and anti-microbial.


If you’re the industrious type, skip the garden center entirely and go no further than your kitchen to find great mulching material. Dinner scraps and garden litter like fallen leaves and fruit get the job done.

There are two basic categories for composting piles. The nitrogen-heavy Green group includes coffee, fruits, vegetables and hair.  The carbon-heavy Brown group comprises leaves, grass, woody stalks of plants, chopped twigs, even dryer lint. Micro-organisms require both carbon, the basic building block of life and energy source, and nitrogen which builds proteins, genetic material and cell structure.

The rule-of-thumb compost formula calls for an approximate 2-to-1 ratio of Greens to Browns, but there’s no need to obsess. An equal amount of green and brown, and the compost pile works itself out to the correct ratio.

After the materials have decomposed, add worms and a little garden soil to make the brew even better. The result? An ideal soil-building mulch for vegetable gardens or flower beds.

Now through January 16, 2012, residents throughout Los Angeles County can conveniently recycle their Christmas trees by placing them curbside on your regular collection day LADWP Curbside collection Trees can also be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Jan. 8 at Griffith Park.

To keep from smothering your plants with love, lay mulch two to four inches away from where the stem of the plant comes out of the ground then apply 2, 3 or 4 (at the max) inches in depth over weed-free soils.

For composting, you will need a bin or an enclosed container, a pitchfork or turning fork, a shovel, a thermometer, and a cart to move compost from the bin to the garden.

Black plastic can be used in areas where drainage is good as it retains water, but
do not use landscape fabric over plants and flowers that spread as they grow.

Groundcovers such as periwinkle will cover the soil and should be considered a living mulch.

Miki Henderson January 04, 2012 at 09:23 PM
Such great advice marla. I didnt get to meet u At the lastpatch meet and greet i met the sh oaks gal but u have more practical things i hope ur at the next one


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