Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of five articles during April, Native Plant Appreciation Month, about the importance of native plant landscaping in the Snohomish County garden.
Erosion occurs when wind and rain have access to bare soil. Unfortunately, this is precisely the situation in many of our gardens. We have been programmed to think that gardens need to look tidy, with every leaf and twig picked up off the ground, to provide a clean uniform surface.
Take a stroll through a forest, and you will see a completely different picture. The ground is covered with leaves, twigs, branches and logs, all in varying states of decomposition.
Here are 10 reasons for choosing a nature-based approach to your garden soil:
Habitat for insects: Leaf and wood mulch provides an excellent habitat for insects and other invertebrates.
Habitat for birds: Many birds rely on insects for food, and on organic material for nests. Bare soil is a desert for birds. Fill it will organic material and enjoy seeing new bird species as they pick through your treasure in search of breakfast.
Decrease soil erosion: Mulch provides a protective barrier, allowing rain to trickle down. As mulch breaks down, it will add to, and enhance your soil.
Save the salmon: Less soil erosion means less silt entering our streams. Rain that percolates through mulch provides clear run off, which is vital to salmon and other aquatic life.
Less watering: Mulch extends your watering in three ways. It acts as a sponge, soaking up water and releasing it slowly over time. It protects the soil from direct sunlight. And it acts as a barrier to evaporation, helping the soil retain moisture in dry conditions.
Protect plants from temperature extremes: Mulch insulates plants during winter freezes and shades the soil from the hot summer sun.
Reduce your carbon footprint: No need to haul away your garden debris, or to haul in replacement bark.
Weed suppression: Don’t expect to cover up a weed problem and have it disappear. But a covering of mulch greatly reduces the germination of new weeds and can reduce your time spent weeding.
Feed your plants: Mulch is nature’s way of recycling nutrients back to the soil. It’s especially helpful for rhododendrons, azaleas and other surface-feeding plants.
Eliminate the need for fertilizers and herbicides: Nature has existed for millenniums without added chemicals, and your garden can do the same.
Deciduous trees can be a valuable source of leaf mulch. Branches work well when broken into smaller sticks. If they are hard to break, they can be stored in an out-of-the-way corner until they dry out and become brittle. If you have a diseased or dead tree removed, ask the tree removal company to chip the branches and leave on site. They make wonderful mulch. Some companies save on disposal fees by having sign-up lists for extra loads of chipped branches. If you go this route, you may need to be prepared for a potentially large pile of mulch.
Ground covers play a role similar to mulch in protecting your soil and making your garden more productive. They can also add color and texture to your landscape. Low growing Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) is a hardy evergreen groundcover that can tolerate some drought. Bunchberry is another favorite, but requires moist soil and organic material to thrive. Kinnikinnick works well on sunny, well-drained slopes. Wood sorrel makes a lovely carpet-like ground cover with delicate white or pink flowers.
Next week’s article will explore the history that led to our current over-dependence on lawns, why you might want to consider lawn alternatives, and some practical help on how to transform your landscape.
William McClain of Lynnwood is a member of the Pilchuck Audobon Society. A native Washingtonian, he published his first novel, “The Risk in Crossing Borders,” in 2020 after retiring from a career in benefits consulting. He hopes to publish a second novel set in England during World War II in 2023. HIs interests include hiking, nature photography and playing soccer.