The Joy of Mulching

 

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Mulched bed in the Native Garden at Lake Cunningham Park

Although summer has yielded to fall, the Loma Prieta fire still raging in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a reminder that fire season is not yet over. Fire, an integral part of California’s ecology, can still wreak havoc after decades of fire suppression and periods of prolonged drought. Once upon a time, native Californians routinely set small fires to clear out low growing vegetation without harming larger shrubs and trees. They knew that without periodic small fires, they would eventually be faced with a catastrophic crown fire that would consume everything, small and large. Their land management practices thus created the magnificent estate-like landscapes the Spanish encountered when they first came upon this land: vast meadows of bunchgrasses, annuals, and perennials interspersed with giant valley oaks that resembled the finest country gardens of Europe’s upper classes.

Within the comparatively short span of 250 years, California’s open spaces have now been overrun by invasive non-native annual grasses from Europe. These invaders live fast and die young; by early summer they have scattered a prolific amount of seed. Their dry stalks persist, however, and act as kindling for today’s fires, usually the first to ignite. Reducing and removing these invasive non-native grasses can diminish the fire risk.

In Lake Cunningham Park, the fire risk is low — Fire Station #21 is just one block from the White Road entrance — but we remove these invasive plants for another reason: they out-compete young native plants. We spread arbor mulch (woodchips) thickly over open areas to control weeds, to retain soil moisture, and to slowly enrich the clay soil with organic material.

An enthusiastic and effective crew from Silicon Valley Volunteers joined us today to mulch a large area between Park Road, the accessible path, and the parking lot. Volunteers worked efficiently to load the chips into wheelbarrows and bring them to the beds where they were spread evenly around the native plants. We weeded around each existing native plant so it was prepped for the rains with maximum exposure to sunlight.

The California fuchsia was in full bloom, and two resident Anna’s hummingbirds were squabbling over it. The toyon berries were reddening but not fully ripe. A Monarch butterfly wafted by while two dragonflies flew in formation. The day was mild and sunny, making it a joy to be out in the open, to exert ourselves without overheating.

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About Arvind Kumar

Native plant gardener in San Jose, CA. I have been growing native plants since 2000 in a tract home lot front and back.
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