The Dry Garden: Loving mulch before it’s mulch

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In taking nature apart and putting it back together again in our gardens, we err toward the refined. This is the case with mulch. Nowhere is it written that it has to come chipped, much less in a bag from a store. In fact, there is much to be said for laying it down by the log.

There will always be plenty of chipped stuff for beds and ground cover, particularly if you grind and spread your own tree trimmings. But there is good reason to hold the most muscular wood back from the grinder.


Slender to medium-sized limbs can be saved, bundled and stored, then fashioned into trellises or fences. (Scavengers, take note: Coral tree wood not only is thorny but has a habit of rerooting. If you use it, prepare for a declawing session and quite possibly a living fence.)

Thicker limbs and trunks can be used for seats and tables. Although watching store-bought garden furniture succumb to the elements is painful, the slow spectacle of logs returning to soil adds an elegiac beauty to the garden. Used in young gardens, the rusticity of log features amounts to instant gravitas. When the family pet dies, garden wood is also a poignant material for grave markers. As grief abates, so does the headstone. (It also keeps the dog from digging up the dead guinea pig.)

As summer heat intensifies, whole stumps and logs serve as focal points and refuges. They cool the ground while offering wildlife refuge from heat and predating cats. The lizards, particularly, will thank you. So too may carpenter bees.

For those working on gentle inclines, chunks of trunk wood make an excellent edging for a stepped bed. By the time the wood rots years later, plant roots should have stabilized the grade.

Because wooden borders are self-composting, it’s always a good idea to keep adding new wood as it comes your way. For the final phase of decomposition, try pushing trunk shells that are near collapse beneath flopping plants. This will add loft and improve circulation before ultimately cooling the plants’ roots as mulch.

All kinds of things, from water to heat to microorganisms to creatures, are involved in the decomposition of wood. Because termites are part of that cycle, it’s not a good idea to abut log borders to wooden houses. Palm stumps used as stools or end tables often have five or more years in them before they become condominiums. Palms are large grasses, so their fibrous trunks tend to rot from the core. You will know it is time to put a fresh stump by the arm chair when, after you set your sandwich down on an old one, a mouse appears, whiskers aquiver, from a hole in the center.

Ideally, tree trimming won’t start in earnest in Southern California until August and the end of bird nesting season. In the interim, if you anticipate tree work, after getting estimates from the arborist and tree crews, it’s a good idea to ask neighbors about their interest in mulch. Give some advance notice of the pruning and grinding date and the curb could be clear within a day or two.

Whatever you do, spare the most characterful wood from the grinder. Most good tree crews will trim, cut and stack it for a tip. This saves them from paying a landfill fee. Everyone wins, except, arguably, the tree.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on water-wise gardening appears here weekly.

Photos, from top: Branches form a garden border. Credit: Diane Cu. Coral tree branches form a trellis for a tomato plant. Credit: Diane Cu. Palm stumps are deployed as outdoor end tables. Credit: Annie Wells. Blooming sage leans over a hackberry branch border. Credit: Diane Cu. Salvaged coral wood used as fencing later rooted, proving: Right idea, wrong wood. Credit: Emily Green

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