Sterile gardens are out—Changing our perception of gardens

One of the few positives from the COVID lockdown is that we are spending more time in our gardens. However, I cringe each time I walk past an immaculate garden where the shrubs and trees are surrounded by bare soil—not a fallen leaf or twig in sight. Why should we expect gardens to look flat and sterile when nature provides a totally different picture? Each year, homeowners spend time, money, and carbon hauling off the natural material at hand, often times trucking in replacement products such as “beauty” bark.

In nature, the ground is covered in organic debris. It turns out, nature knows best. Do you have a deciduous tree in your yard? If so, lucky you. Each year you receive a bounty of organic material that can nurture your shrubs, give nature a much-needed boost, and reduce your yard’s maintenance requirements.

Here are the top ten reasons to use the natural mulch you have on hand, rather than going for the sterile look, or trucking in bark:

  1. Habitat for insects—Leaf and twig mulch provides an excellent habitat for insects and other invertebrates. A 2020 study[1] concluded that terrestrial insects are declining at the alarming rate of 9% each decade. Even if you’re one who appreciates little crawling things from a distance, their survival is closely linked to our planet’s wellbeing.
  2. Habitat for birds—North America has experienced a net loss of 3 billion birds (29%) since 1970[2].  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.
  3. Decrease soil erosion—Soil erosion occurs when rain and wind have access to bare soil. Mulch provides a protective barrier, allowing rain to trickle down. As mulch breaks down, it will add to, and enhance your soil.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Protect plants from temperature extremes—Mulch insulates plants during winter freezes and shades the soil from the hot summer sun.
  7. Reduce your carbon footprint—No need to haul away your garden debris, or to haul in bark.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Eliminate the need for fertilizers and herbicides—Yes, you can have a beautiful yard without chemicals. I know from experience. In fact, you can have your yard designated by the National Wildlife Foundation as a certified wildlife habitat. Get your kids involved in going through the list of requirements, and implementing the changes. They will take pride in hanging their NWF plaque.

Organic material can come from many sources. Leaf litter is an excellent example. Pruned branches can be broken down to provide material. Don’t have a chipper? Just leave the branches in an out-of-sight corner until they dry out and become brittle.

Happy gardening!

[1] Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances, van Klink et al., Science, 24 Apr 2020,

[2] Decline of the North American avifauna, Rosenberg et al., Science, 04 Oct 2019,

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