In L.A. What is the Best Mulch to Use?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve noticed the barren, compacted parkways all around L.A.  Most of them have at least some plant life, some have trash, others nothing at all.  Just sun-baked, bleached dirt.  My guess is that most of you reading this are not quite as nerdy as I am about the health of our parkways.  Like, you may never have asked what is the best mulch to use in your yard or the planting strip out front of your house or apartment, known as a parkway.  Technically, the city owns parkways, but citizens must maintain them.  Perhaps where we can come together is that parkways could stand a makeover.  I’m here to share my techniques for revitalizing the parkways of L.A., cheaply and with little work on your part.

The methods I use with my clients are super simple, yet they, like most Permaculture techniques, pack a massive punch.  In the field, ecological designers like me call this sort of approach, where minimal effort produces maximum results, a fulcrum move.  The idea is that a fulcrum moves only a little at the joint, but at its end it swings wide.  In other words, you put in little work to effect a change, but the landscape jumps into action and sweeping change is the result.  Another great benefit of using fulcrum moves like the ones I’m going to share with you here, is that your costs are reduced.  That’s right, your water bill will go down, and if you pay a “mow, blow, and go” landscaper, you won’t need them to maintain your parkway as much, if at all.

If this sounds good to you, read on.

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There are two fulcrum moves I’d recommend to lower your water and maintenance bills while raising your property value, beautifying your neighborhood, and protecting city trees.

The first is adding a bioswale.  This is something I always need to explain to my clients, as most people have not heard of a swale and need help understanding how to add one to their property.  A swale is a shallow linear depression.  From above, it looks like a snake winding its way through your yard.  From the sidewalk, you might not really notice it.  The depth of a swale is no more than 4″, which gives it a low profile.  The width of a swale is 18″.  A bioswale is simply a swale that is planted.  Both an unplanted swale and a planted bioswale will bring the results we want.  Putting plants in a swale is one way to make it noticeable; for example one species of blue-leaved plants to pop against green foliaged plants outside the bioswale.

To construct your swale, hold a shovel at an angle close to parallel to the ground and use the blade to shave down from the edges of the swale to the center, 4″ deep.  You may want to use spray chalk to draw your swale over the ground before digging, so you don’t lose track of the shape and size while working your shovel.image: What Is The Best Mulch?

To plant a bioswale, dig a swale as above.  Then with a trowel or shovel, dig planting holes in the swale.  Loosen the plant roots.  I recommend adding a teaspoon or small handful of mycorrhizae-containing starter fertilizer at the bottom of the planting hole.  Mycorrhizae boost soil life quickly, helping plants and trees reach nutrients they might not otherwise be able to access.  A product I have used is Sure Start, and I also found a product called Wildroot that contains mycorrhizae for planting.  Once you’ve added your plant, cover it with the soil you dug out of your bioswale.  You won’t need the same amount you removed, so retain that for creating berms elsewhere or give it away.  The important thing is to re-shape your bioswale to the dimensions you originally created, once you’ve added your plants to it.

What Is The Best Mulch for L.A. Parkways?

The second fulcrum move I recommend for beautifying your parkway and neighborhood, saving on your water and maintenance bills, attracting beneficial wildlife, and protecting tree health is mulching.  I’ve seen many landscapes where the barest layer of mulch was laid down, and it looked like a receding hairline.  Much like a bald head that needs sunscreen to do the work that hair once did, for dirt to turn to soil, it needs a generous layer of organic material covering it.  So the most important thing is to layer on your mulch thickly.  I recommend at least 4″ deep.  If you live semi-rurally, like in Beverly Hills, you can go as thick as 1 foot if you have the space.  For urban and suburban settings, 4″ is deep enough to hold moisture, attract beneficial insects and Earthworms (these guys are awesome aeraters and fertilizers), and suppress weeds.

The other important thing to remember when conducting a parkway makeover in Los Angeles County is knowing what is the best mulch to select.  People ask me this often, and in L.A. the soil tends toward alkaline.  So we should choose a mulch material that adds acidity to the soil naturally.  For acidity, select a material such as pine straw or bark, true cypress, or some species of eucalyptus.  Avoid using a hardwood mulch, as these tend to add alkalinity, which SoCal soil doesn’t need any more of for the most part.  As for texture, I recommend using a shredded rather than a chipped, because it is soft, won’t give you slivers, and holds a lot of moisture.

For your parkway, add mulch last, after planting.  I have frequently gotten the question of where to apply mulch, and some of my clients have been told to buy compost and use that as mulch.  But compost is best used as a soil amendment, mixed into rather than added to the surface of soil.  To mulch around plantings, avoid the trunks of trees to about 2″ outward and mulch right up to the stems of perennials and shrubs.  For ground covers, taper the mulch down to a thinner layer at the base of the plant and up to 4″ in between plants.

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