Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Key Benefits, Types, and Methods of Using Mulch in California Landscapes

It’s almost insane how many ways mulching adds to the success of California landscapes. It is easily one of the most useful practices one can do in the garden. Mulching is a great way to control weeds, retain moisture and protect your soil. It also hides and protects drip lines, keeps dust down, provides a safe, relatively clean walking surface, and looks better than bare ground. Mulches can prevent erosion on slopes, and organic mulches improve soil structure.

Saves Time and Money

One of the most important benefits of mulching is it saves time and money! By reducing weeds, especially annuals, by up to 90%, landscaping labor costs are reduced significantly. Mulching can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly and toxic herbicides. And mulch can significantly conserve soil moisture, reducing the cost of irrigation. Many California Coast gardens use surface-mounted drip irrigation and mulching serves to visually cover up and protect drip lines, which are vulnerable to damage and weathering, thus saving on costs to repair or replace.

Promotes Healthy Landscapes

Mulching promotes healthy plants and garden areas by reducing competition from weeds by preventing their germination. The decomposition of mulch also adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down, improving soil by adding organic matter that feeds beneficial organisms. Mulching reduces soil compaction and insulates plants against temperature extremes. A 2-inch mulch layer can cut summer soil evaporation by 20% and lower temperatures in the top 4 inches of soil by 10 degrees. There is a notable improvement in establishing young plants and trees when mulch is used.

Reduces Soil Erosion

Another benefit of mulch is how it reduces soil erosion. Covering the soil simply helps keep soil in place when exposed to rain and wind. This is especially true on slopes, by deflecting the impact of raindrops, which in turn reduces stormwater runoff and creek erosion.

It Just Looks Good

Mulch is often the finishing touch for planting areas. In addition to the functional benefits, it just looks good! A clean, uniform mulch layer helps to really tie the garden together.

Mulching with a Multitude of Materials

There are a wide variety of materials that can be used for mulching. The style and design of your individual garden or landscape will inform as to which types might be best for you. Bark and wood products are the most common types of mulches on the Central Coast. But there are many others, such as stone – from colorful rocks and boulders down to a wide variety of gravel and even decomposed granite. An under-layer of sheet mulching can be employed using newspapers, cardboard and even plastic sheeting. Living mulches (e.g. Dutch white clover) are cover crops planted around crops or between crop rows, adding nitrogen to the soil while discouraging noxious weeds.

We want to call attention to Recycled Organic Mulches. These can include chipped or shredded wood chips, compost, simple fallen leaves or pine needles, or even grass clippings. We also favor chipper mulch from local tree trimming operations. Our endorsement of these recycled materials stems from the fact that these materials are not only potentially an attractive ground cover and mulch, but they are by-products that don’t have to be shipped long distances, and mulching with them contributes to maintaining their usefulness in another form (good for sustainability).

Consider Flammability

With all the benefits of mulching, also comes an issue of organic mulch’s combustibility and wildfire safety. In areas of many California communities, there is a real need to consider how to reduce hazardous conditions, and how mulching can play a useful role and not contribute to wildfire danger.

An in-depth study conducted at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension of landscape mulch types analyzed their relative combustibility, flame height, rate of spread, and temperatures. They demonstrated a wide range of variability in mulch type combustibility, suggesting the need to consider flammability when choosing mulches. In general, it is obvious that the least flammable mulch types should be used closest to vulnerable homes and structures, and the study recommends “not using any organic mulch within five feet of a house located in wildfire-prone areas.”

How Much Mulch?

Planting areas should be mulched as needed to maintain a 2- to 4-inch layer. Plan on refreshing your mulched areas periodically. An annual inspection usually keeps you apprised of how often additional mulching is needed. Keep mulch at least two to three inches away from the stems and trunks of plants to avoid moisture-related fungus and bacteria problems. When mulching individual trees planted in lawns, create a circle of mulch about 2 feet in diameter for each inch of trunk diameter, even out to the edge of the canopy of mature trees if possible. If irrigating mulched areas with overhead irrigation, make sure that the water penetrates the mulch layer. Mulch can absorb the water and prevent its ever reaching soil.

We Love Mulch!

Mulching covers and cools the soil, conserves moisture, suppresses weed growth, slows erosion and adds nutrients as it decomposes. It also hides and protects drip lines. Plus, it looks good. What’s not to love?

Fire Season is here. How can your landscape help?

Fire Season is here. How can your landscape help?

The Essential Guide to Defensible Landscapes

Fire Season is here again.

As we cope with the grave threats to public health from the COVID-19 virus and its surreal, devastating effects on our culture, one could almost forget that we are deep into the wildfire season here in California. People are experiencing a whole new level of home life now, both in- and out-of-doors. But as the wildfire threat increases through the summer months, the question remains: How can your landscape help?

In California, over 10,000 buildings were destroyed in 2020 and more than 30 civilian lives were lost. 4.2 million acres burned, the most in a single year since CalFire began keeping records, and more than the previous three years combined. A State of Emergency was declared.

It’s a sobering reminder of the threat posed by living close to nature, as record heat and low humidity continue to intensify by the year.

Property owners are at risk, to be sure, but what can we do to minimize those risks? Is it possible to improve the defensibility of our properties by landscaping wisely?

The answer is yes.

At Madrone Landscapes, we have dealt with properties in high fire danger areas for decades. There are many ways to enhance the defensibility of a property, whether it is through plant selection and design, or irrigation and water system strategies. Fire-resistant plants selections are available, but it is every bit as important that your plantings be well-spaced, properly pruned, and adequately watered in order for them to perform their fire-resistance function. Also, eliminating plants entirely from around structures may do more harm than good. Properly chosen plants can catch air-born fire embers, letting them die out harmlessly, and plants’ roots are often vital to control erosion in the event of a fire.

For ways to make your home more fire safe inside and out, see the Homeowner’s Checklist from the SLO County Fire Safe Council.

Defensible Space – Defensive Landscaping

What you plant in your yard, and where you plant it, can be just as important as how your home is built. When in the path of a wildfire, your garden and lawn can become fuel for the flames. But, by learning the different zones around your property, you can create a more fire-safe home.

ZONE 1 Garden Zone: 0-30 feet from the outside walls of the building – This is the most important zone, as fire in this area will present the greatest danger to your house. This area should be kept irrigated and clear of debris at all times.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 1

  • Plants up to 18 inches tall that are low-volume (not thick and bushy)
  • Plants with a high moisture content, such as succulents
  • Grasses a maximum of 3 inches tall
  • Tree branches trimmed 10 feet up
  • Area is irrigated and kept clean

ZONE 2 Greenbelt/Fuel Break: 30-50 feet from structure – The goal of this zone is to reduce the available fuel in order to slow a ground fire. Larger shrubs and trees can be introduced here, as long as a distance that is twice their height separates them. This will prevent the ‘fire ladder’ effect, where fires jump from one clump of shrubbery or trees (fuel) to another. Grass in this area should be mowed to 6”. This area should be kept irrigated and maintained.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 2

  • Succulents, small to medium shrubs
  • Trees at least 10 feet apart and tree crowns 10 feet off the ground
  • Grass a maximum of 6 inches tall
  • Shrubs separated by two times their height, so a 6 foot shrub will be at least 12 feet from its neighbor

ZONE 3 Transition Zone: 50-100 feet from structure – The major effort here should be to thin existing vegetation and remove debris. Grass should be kept at 18”.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 3

  • Low to medium height plants
  • Plants grouped in “islands” for water efficiency
  • Dead branches and leaves removed

ZONE 4 Native or Neutral Zone: 100+ feet, depending on conditions – The primary goal of this area is to reduce fuel buildup by mechanical clearing or occasional prescribed fires.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 4

  • Grass mowed to 12 inches
  • Vegetation thinned and ground kept free from litter

Landscaping in fire-prone areas should try to create a fire safe buffer – a defensive space – around your home. The home’s roof and gutters should also be cleared of any plant materials like leaves and pine needles. Taking these measures can make it easier and safer for firefighters to save homes from wildfires.

Fire Safe Demonstration Garden

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden has a Fire Safe Demonstration Garden located at 3450 Dairy Creek Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405. They are open daily during daylight hours. The Gift Shop and Office are open 9 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Friday.

Get more tips from the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden’s Fire Safe Landscaping Brochure.

Five Ways to Light Your Landscape

Five Ways to Light Your Landscape

Guidelines for Illuminating Your Outside Living Spaces

When choosing outdoor landscape lighting for any area, first think about how you will use the area. Do you want to see an ambient space out your window? Does it need to be easily walkable at night? Will you be holding al fresco dinner parties? Would you like an open-air dance floor? Do you want a cozy nook for a nightcap around a fire pit?

If you have one activity in mind, you can keep the lighting simple with a single switch for all lights. If you want to use your space for several activities, you may want options. To diversify your landscape lighting, you can arrange it into different switched zones, creating flexibility in how the space feels at night. Here are five different ways to customize the lighting for your outdoor spaces.

Pergola Lights

1. Provide Functional Light

In ancient times, sailors preferred dim light to eat their hardtack in ship galleys to avoid seeing their not-so-enticing food. Nowadays, you will likely want to show off your entire spread, and see your guests. Downlights, or directional spotlights with bright light, can be mounted on pergolas, walls, or trees to provide light directly to a table. For these zones, it is essential to provide more lumens with higher wattage lamps.

Suppose you want to provide illumination for safe walking. In that case, you can use path lights elevated on posts to cast broad light over walking surfaces. It is imperative to provide clear, direct lighting to stairs and precarious edges of patios. If you are building a new space, you can put recessed lights in the flatwork and riser lights in steps to provide illumination right where you need it.

2. Define the Edges

Lighting the edges of your patio or the adjacent landscape can be for function or ambiance. Sometimes it is nice to look out the window and see orderly lighting on the edge of a patio. It will make you feel comfortable by extending your visible perimeter when you hear a spooky sound outside. In addition, you can light objects in the landscape adjacent to the patio, such as boulders, art, tree trunks, or plants. This periphery lighting makes the space feel safe and defined even if you aren’t lighting the patio itself.

Here are three suggestions for using lights to define edges:

  • Place path lights or recessed lights on the edge of the paving.
  • Use broad-beamed wash lights to illuminate boulders and low plants for low detail textures and colors.
  • Position narrow directional beam-up or spotlights to focus on art pieces, tree trunks, or specimen plants.

3. Create an Outdoor Room

It is remarkable how a patio can feel open and exposed in the day but warm and cozy at night with proper lighting. Walls and ceilings at proportionate heights create comfortable spaces. Ancient Greek architecture used the golden ratio of 1:1.61; create a restful and secure-feeling patio space with a width 1.61 times wider than the perceived ceiling height. As a rule of thumb, you can strategically light things to make the area feel a bit wider than it is tall. Use whatever is around – trees, bushes, walls, pergolas, fences – to emphasize this feel. Lighting a few select features will cause your mind to connect the dots and feel the geometry of a room you have created.

Trees are great for this use because you can uplight the trunk to create a wall and feather the light into the canopy to define the ceiling at the right height. Built structures like pergolas are beneficial because they can be customized and provide opportunities to uplight, downlight, or create wall or ceiling light patterns.

4. Create Ambiance

People often say they want low lighting to create an ambiance in their yard. This is not the light for eating your dinner, but it can be stunning in its simplicity. As mentioned before, lighting edges can really create a cozy feel. You can also extend your visible perimeter to more distant features such as trees, plants, art, or even barriers. Use wide angle wash lights to make secluded shrubs and boulders glow. Use directional narrow angle lights to illuminate focal points. For example, a red barked multi trunk tree can be up lit to create a mesmerizing floating warm glow in the distance. You can arrange a line of lights on an isolated or remote hedge or wall to define a wider perimeter of visual space to feel more secure in a brighter lit patio. Moonlights, or hanging pendant lights, can be set high in trees and create a whimsical moonlit forest feel. These are even more stunning if set over a branch to create a shadow pattern on the ground.

Keep in mind that the color of things you light will permeate into the ambient light in a space. You can focus on greens and cool tones to create a calm space. You can focus on reds and warm colors to create a warmer, cozier light. You can also choose warmer or cooler tone lamps/bulbs by using the kelvin rating (A low rating of 2700k is yellow and warm, and a high rating of 4100k is bright white).

And don’t forget the ever-popular bistro lights. These typically low wattage bulbs dangle from strings stretched overhead to provide full area illumination. Bistro lights can be great for a party area because they light the entire zone with semi-dim light. Like a dim bar experience, you may not be able to see your food perfectly, but it is a very nice ambiance for a dance floor or casual hangout. When arranging string lights, consider the density of bulbs for even lighting. Also keep in mind that you would like these strings to look okay during the day, so create intentional patterns and avoid tangled webs. Use built structures, poles, or trees to secure them at a comfortable height.

5. Display Artistic Patterns

These days there are fixtures suitable for creating patterns on the ground, walls, and ceilings. When creating defined designs for a contemporary look, it is essential to map them out with a measuring tape. You are usually working with fans of light over a flat surface. In some cases, you are illuminating things that were already installed in an orderly fashion, like equally spaced trees or wooden posts.

You can use recessed lights in patio flatwork to shoot low fans of light from a central can fixture. Often these have 2, 3, or 4 radiating fans of light that can create a geometric pattern on a ground plane. You can use sconce lights on walls or wall columns to create equally spaced downward or upward fans of light. Some sconces have both up and down light to create an hourglass light pattern. When lighting existing trees or built structures that are already equally spaced, use directional spotlights to create a uniform rhythm. For example, fences usually have equal spaced posts and panels which can be lit by narrow or wide angle up lights, respectively.

Mix it Up

As you can see, these five techniques are not mutually exclusive. Choose what works best for you and your space, and light it up! By using one, two, or several, you can make your outdoor areas come alive at night.

Moisture Manager: Greener Plants AND Lower Water Bills

Moisture Manager: Greener Plants AND Lower Water Bills

Paso Robles Youth Arts Academy’s lawn curb strip was slowly dying off. After four weeks of Moisture Manager treatment by Madrone Landscapes, the curb strip is green again!

Beat the Summer Heat with Moisture Manager Application

As summer temperatures soar, we often start to see burnt plants and grass. Your first instinct may be to solve the problem by increasing the frequency and volume of watering, but that really won’t help address the issue, and you may run afoul of water shortage contingency plans.

If you’re looking to conserve water and keep your lawn and plants green, Madrone’s Operations Manager Erik Gorham has a quick, affordable solution for you: moisture management.

Moisture management begins at the roots. Most of the moisture in your soil is lost to evaporation before the plant can utilize it. An application of a moisture manager helps reduce the amount of water needed by forming a thin film around turf and plant roots. That film attracts and captures water molecules and then stores them on plant roots and soil particle surfaces. These droplets are then released into your lawn.

The product applied to the lawn is a proprietary treatment that comes as a liquid or granule. It’s kid- and pet-friendly and free of toxic ingredients that may cause runoff or contaminate groundwater. “I’ve applied a granular using a whirl spreader and then immediately irrigated the treated area,” describes Erik. “One to two weeks later, I’ve seen improved turf color and increased seed germination.”

As a company that focuses on the effective use of water conservation, plant health, and aesthetics, Madrone’s landscape maintenance teams can work with you to develop a year-round soil moisture management program. If we’re having a dry winter, Erik likes to work with an owner to establish an application schedule where our full-service crew visits two or three times a year to help manage moisture levels in the soil and break the drought cycle in plants.

Homeowners and property managers alike will appreciate our detail-oriented staff, saving on your water bill, and a beautiful year-round landscape.

Five Favorite Mediterranean Plants for Springtime

Five Favorite Mediterranean Plants for Springtime

With Spring officially upon us, many people are ready for planting in their gardens. Time to go outside with some of the pent-up energy we’ve been harboring and take it out on the dirt. The rewards can be beautiful!

While in many parts of California our gardens can have blooming plants virtually year-round, springtime is, of course, always particularly associated with floral displays in our gardens. This holds true with the surrounding wild landscapes too, and at Madrone Landscapes, we routinely sing the praises of our California native flora.

Other regions across the world share similarities with our California climates. They are known as Mediterranean-type ecosystems or “MTEs.” MTEs, with their characteristic climatic regimes of mild wet winters and warm and dry summers, they occur in just five regions of the world: California; Central Chile; the Mediterranean Basin; the Cape Region of South Africa; and Southwestern and South Australia. There are abundant examples of plants suitable for our Central Coast gardens that are native to these other regions. Let’s consider Five of these plants that may not be that well-known but might be great for your garden:

California
Starting close to home, there is the often-overlooked California Native Cornus sericea (Cornus stolonifèra), or Creek Dogwood. It is a deciduous shrub also known as Redtwig for its distinctive red stems, keeping it interesting through the winter. Creek Dogwoods can grow 8–12’ high and wide, and have clusters of creamy white flowers, spring to summer. The form is open, and leaves are 1.5–2.5 inches long and light green—brilliant red in fall. It is hardy to well below freezing and prefers partial shade. Branches will root if allowed to touch ground, and roots will spread. Redtwigs love moisture, are fire-resistive, and require medium irrigation in the dry months.

Mediterranean Basin, Europe
When one thinks of aromatic leaves, used in cooking, Laurus nobilis, or Sweet Bay, is often the first to come up. Also called Bay Laurel or Grecian Laurel, this small tree is also a versatile evergreen tree for Central Coast landscapes. Growing 20–30 ft. tall to 20 ft. wide, Sweet Bays produce small yellow flowers in Spring, followed by deep purple berries. Best known for their fragrance, they are deer-resistant, fire resistive, and attract birds. Preferring fertile, well-drained soils, they are low water users once established. The variety “Saratoga” is best for use as a tree, but the species can also be used as a background or for screen shrubs.

South Africa
Aloe striata, or Coral Aloe, is one of many aloes native to South Africa. This beautiful succulent has found home in many a garden in the milder micro-climates (hardy to 25 degrees Fahrenheit) of North San Luis Obispo County, and throughout the Coastal climates. It grows to be a 2 ft. wide rosette with broad, pale green, nearly toothless, flat leaves. The brilliant coral-pink-to-orange flowers occur in spring on branched clusters up to 3 ft. tall. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Coral Aloes are fire- and deer-resistive, require minimal water, and attract hummingbirds.

Central Chile
Known for its graceful, weeping form and light green, evergreen foliage, Maytenus boaria, or Maytens Tree, is a unique and small specimen tree for much of the Central Coast. Hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the Mayten Tree grows to over 30 ft. and has long, pendulous branchlets hanging down from its branches. The tiny spring flowers are pretty inconspicuous, and the leaves are 1–2 inches long. They are fire- and deer-resistive and want full sun and ample summer water. They tend to branch on the side and may need guidance through pruning. Suckers are discouraged through deep watering, and Maytens Trees can produce beautiful lighting effects in the landscape.

Southwestern Australia
People native to Australia have have made good use of Grevilleas since time immemorial. With over 350 species of Grevilleas—from virtually flat ground covers to soaring trees—their uses range from building furniture to making drinks from the nectar. One favorite landscape plant is Grevillea “Canberra Gem,” also known as Spider Flower. This shrub has a graceful, open form from about 8 ft. tall to 12 ft. wide. The bright green leaves are needlelike and prickly, making for a good barrier plant. Flowers are red clusters from early spring and intermittently at other times. Not only deer-resistive, this and other Grevilleas attract butterflies and birds with their nectar and seeds. Canberra Gem grows in a variety of soils from clay to sandy loam and is quite rough tolerant, preferring occasional deep soakings and good drainage. Hardy to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eight Tips for Sustainable Landscapes on the Central Coast

Eight Tips for Sustainable Landscapes on the Central Coast

Our Californian Central Coast climate is unique and particular, shaped by drought-tolerant native plants and dry but beautiful weather. As professional landscapers, we understand the importance of planting flora that can live sustainably in our soils. Here, sustainability means many things—keeping water bills down, plants alive without fuss and unnecessary labor, the native landscape uninterrupted by any invasive species, and more—and does not undermine the beautification of your outdoor spaces.

This timeless video is just as relevant for central coast landscapes today as it was when it was filmed in 2009. Created by the Templeton Community Services District in cooperation with the SLO County Partners in Water Conservation, this ten-minute video walks through eight topics you should consider when creating a sustainable landscape. Hosted by Kate Dore and our own Rick Mathews. 

Eight factors to consider when creating a sustainable landscape:

  1. Planning and Design—know your site inside and out to ensure you start off on the right foot
  2. Soil Type—before deciding on your perfect plant palette, make sure you know what your soil can sustain
  3. Plant Selection—set your heart on the beautiful variety of native and Mediterranean plants that grow best in our area
  4. Limited Turf Areas—a costly and management-heavy asset, it’s best to design for only as much turf as you need for your practical enjoyment
  5. Mulching—organic mulch is the perfect solution for topsoil protection, temperature regulation, and weed prevention
  6. Efficient Irrigation—an essential component to preventing time-intensive care and water waste, make sure your irrigation system is efficient
  7. Hardscape Areas—these can be designed with sustainable and water-wise materials as well as potted plants and container gardens to beautify your walls and walkways
  8. Maintenance—reduce maintenance time and costs by considering the speed of your plants’ growth, the cost of any new maintenance tools, replanting needs, and any possibility for your plants damaging your landscape if left unchecked