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.

The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

Written by Daniel Mazawa, General Manager
Originally published in Living Lavishly

Transforming a landscape can be overwhelming—there are so many places to find inspiration, and there are drastically different styles to consider. It can be helpful to work with a professional—landscape designers are trained to see the big picture and identify opportunities that elude most homeowners. Here are a few steps homeowners can take to understand the design process and get a grasp of what they want from their landscape:

Analyze the Site
On the Central Coast, there are several different natural backdrops that most homes enjoy. Whether it is a distant view of rolling oak woodlands or a beachfront bluff experience, it is important to understand the setting of a place as influenced by the natural world. Take stock of existing trees or plants on site as well as sun and shade.

The architecture of the home and the neighborhood aesthetic may set the tone for the landscape design style. Consider the experience of driving up to the house and walking around the yard. A guest arriving at the home should know right where the front door is and where to park. The movement around the landscape should be functional and beautiful. Where are the areas of interest? What is the flow and the circulation? Identify the opportunities and constraints in a setting before figuring out what to do.

Establish the Functions
It is easy for someone who owns a home to identify what they want, but it can be a little more difficult to define what they need. Everything takes up space, so prioritizing functions is extremely important. Figure out how much usable space is needed for parking, outdoor entertaining, open utility areas, connecting pathways, and any other high-frequency functions. Pools, hot tubs, sport courts, outdoor kitchens, vegetable gardens, and other secondary functions can be fun additions to fold in.

Consider the best locations for all functions as far as convenience, sun exposure, views, and feel. For example, both an outdoor kitchen and a vegetable garden are convenient near an indoor kitchen, but the garden wants open sunshine and the outdoor kitchen benefits from shade or shelter. Also consider the indoor/outdoor connection as perceived through windows and doors from inside. A pergola can feel like an extension of an indoor room, or a distant view can be framed to be enjoyed from inside.

Define Design Style
A good first step is to decide whether a landscape is going to be geometric and calculated or free flowing and natural. A modern home may work better with a straight-lined landscape, but these forms can deconstruct as they move away from the structure. A natural setting such as a woodland can work well with curves and natural pathways especially if preserving existing trees.

People who like control, simple bold design, or tidy surroundings gravitate towards straight lines with geometric configurations. People who like tranquility, natural settings, or designing with nature gravitate towards flowing curves. Bold Modern style utilizes straight-line end of the spectrum and Natural Style falls on the curved line end. Mediterranean, Southwestern, Cottage, and Japanese gardens fall somewhere between. Having a clearly defined style that repeats and transitions smoothly will make a landscape feel complete.

Design Spaces Before Features
While design features are important, the spaces they create are more important to the user experience. For example, a tree may be a beautiful feature, but the shade and shelter a tree grove provides can create a comfortable room complete with walls and a ceiling. Comfortable spaces are often perceived as a bit wider than they are tall, or 1 to 1.618 height to width per the golden ratio. A pergola 16 feet wide by 10 feet tall is a good example. The same comfortable feeling can be achieved with shrubs and trees.

Conversely, putting too many plants next to a front door entry can make it feel tight and uninviting. Open it up and make the path wide, prominent and inviting. Wide open views will feel more comfortable when framed with trees or from a comfortable viewing patio. The psychology of spaces can be overwhelming, but it is obvious when a space feels right.

Work Out Transitions
Landscape is the glue that holds together spaces and structures. Transitions can be the most dynamic aspects of a landscape, or they can be eyesores. Complex hardscape features such as patios, retaining walls, fences, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, water features, and fire features will often intersect and connect with one another.

Figure out how connections will work to make a seamless transition point. Formal landscapes will often transition to a natural area. Utilize decorative bunch grasses on the edge of the landscape to blur the line between mulched landscapes and natural areas. When utilizing multiple design styles, create transitional landscapes to blend gradually. For example, a contemporary landscape may transition to a natural area going from straight lines to calculated arcs and then to a curved path.

Iron Out the Details
Details in the landscape should emphasize the overall design style and theme. In most cases, color themes should be complementary, so they don’t clash. Choose colors for concrete, stone, wood, paint, mulch, and plant material that paint a picture that goes together.

Textures should also be considered. Fine texture details such as exposed aggregate concrete, small ledge stone, or small plants can feel lost in a large space. Bold coarse texture details like large boulders or big leaved plants can feel overbearing in small spaces. Perennial plants provide color, texture, and movement.

Plants should fit the design style with color as well as layout. Bold masses of plants work well with contemporary landscapes, while multi-species combinations can work well with natural areas. Finishing details can make the difference between a hodge-podge yard and a cohesive landscape.

There is a lot to think about when trying to maximize a landscape. A professional can help. Landscape designers can take ideas and dreams and turn them into a buildable design. Knowing the process before starting design or construction can be invaluable to being able to communicate goals and expectations to create a successful landscape to enjoy for years to come.

Fertigation: Fertilize and Irrigate All in One

Fertigation: Fertilize and Irrigate All in One

Set it, forget it. Give plants the nutrients without all the hassle.

We’re all familiar with irrigation. It’s been a means of maintaining landscapes and growing crops for thousands of years. Applying controlled amounts of water helps supplement natural rainfall and contribute to soil moisture from groundwater.

Fertigation combines fertilization and irrigation, serving as a nutrient delivery system for landscapes. It can be used via drip irrigation, spray nozzles, and heads.

Madrone Operations Manager Erik Gorham has provided fertigation services for almost a decade. He uses the EZ-FLO products to treat a wide variety of landscape issues. To start the process, our trained Madrone team first installs a dispensing system in the valve box connected to the main line of a pre-existing sprinkler system. The unit then feeds both drip and sprinkler zones by micro-dosing the landscape with every irrigation. “You really can forget about it, because part of our landscape maintenance program includes filling the unit with fertilizer every four to six weeks,” Erik shares.

We use Red Frog Compost Teas as part of our organic fertilizer program. The compost tea improves soil and plant health by improving nutrient availability and retention in the soil. “Biology feeds the plant,” explains Erik. “Typically, what plants need is in the soil. But if your soil is depleted, the worm castings offer an excellent soil amendment that is safe around children and pets.”

Savings on labor and energy costs can quickly offset the initial investment in a fertigation system. A homeowner who lives in an area affected by drought or water restrictions may prefer fertigation because they can better manage the nutrients and water supply going to multiple parts of the growing area as well as increase water efficiency. It also gives them the ability to add nutrients directly into the root zone that may be otherwise difficult to access.

Erik sees it as an affordable investment to every landscape. “You chose your plants carefully. Help them mature more quickly and stay healthy by using this easy fertilizer system all year round.”

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.