Using mulch in a drought tolerant garden

reddingJuly 16, 2011

I started a new topic because it seems as though it's a departure from the hardy drought-tolerant things we've been discussing, even though it can be related.

My big flower bed is an interesting mix of problems. The soil is pretty sandy and loose and drains quickly. It can get really, really dry out there. I haven't taken a sample to OSU yet, because it's just too hot to go anyplace that isn't mandatory. So . . . . I have about 2/3 of the bed in full sun and the remaining 1/3 in partial to full high shade from the oaks. Obviously the back of the bed that's under the oaks has a more humus-rich soil. The whole thing slopes gently a few inches from back to front, where it eventually meets the concrete of the enormous driveway. The front gets completely full sun and is.... difficult. Not only is it hot and bone-dry from the combination of sun and soil, but it also picks up additional heat from all that expanse of concrete.

In the entire bed I have my standard perennials of peonies, a couple of roses, some hibiscus moscheutos and hydrangea, a rose of sharon and 3 crape myrtles of assorted sizes and shapes, monarda, coreopsis and spiderwort, as well as the big clumps of bearded iris. There are a couple of azaleas and hostas in the shade. There are also two young maples that will eventually provide some more partial shade. Those were all put in before I began to switch over to the more native and drought-conscious materials. Since then I've added oenothera, lavender, malva fastigata, perovskia, some deep blue salvia (I'm not sure which one) and some sedum brevifolium for the really dry and bare spots. Purple violets followed me home from CA and have moved into wherever they might be happy. They are thriving in the shade.

Next spring I'll be adding in (with any luck) epilobium (hummingbird trumpet), sphaeralcea (desert malow), mirabilis, agastache, callirhoe (wine cups), more penstemon (fendleri, cyananthus, and secundifolius), and yellow oenothera, as well as setting out my new hesperaloe and zauschneria this fall, as soon as the weather cools down enough. I know that sounds like a lot of stuff, but I do have a big area to fill. If it ends up looking like a semi-native version of a cottage garden, so much the better.

My problem is this: I cannot leave the soil uncovered and not expect to deal with a bumper crop of devilgrass, bindweed, stick-tights and a host of other junk materials that I have to try to keep weeded out. I mentioned in a post several weeks ago that I invested in the 3 oz WeedBarrier Pro from DeWitt and the weeds that didn't come up through it simply seeded over the top and grew down instead. Not the optimum solution. DeWitt finally agreed to replace it with a big roll of their heaviest industrial grade product, which is now sitting in my shop building. And that brings me to the whole subject of the thread. Is it safe or wise to mulch the drought tolerant natives? If so, how much do I dare alter their native growing conditions? Clearly I'll have to withhold the water that's routed to the plants that need it, so that the natives aren't drowned by it. With my drip system I can't see that as a problem. I'll just redesign it and make some adjustments to suit the individual plants. I don't seem to get much, if any, run-off from it that can't be controlled to suit individual plant needs. But, will I be creating a nasty situation by using the mulch at all around the things that want to be, say, in TX or NM? Will my care and attention simply do them in?

I can't see how I'll ever be able to manage that big garden without using mulch of some kind to control the rampant weeds. Will I need to find a fine line between controlling them and still keeping the natives happy? Or can I go ahead and use the mulch as I would normally do and then simply control the water? I'll be altering the soil temperature at the same time, so I have to wonder how many things will want that dry, hot, unprotected soil and won't be happy without it. Somehow I need to find a happy in-between that will allow the plants to thrive and not kill me off with weed maintenance. This old body doesn't bend over and work for the long hours that it used to do. I don't want to completely sacrifice my big established stuff, but I really do also want to bring in more of the water-wise and hardy natives.

Can anyone give me some clues?


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I think it would be a wiser path to mulch everything and control the amount of water the plants will get. Now, if we get a bunch of rain, there's not much you can do about that. But many of the plants you mentioned are native to this area, so i must assume that they will be just fine with the erratic weather here. I'm sowing and planting many of the same plants as you, and i plan on mulching them.

Look at what's growing naturally around you. There aren't many plants that like growing on bare soil that is cooked and cracked to bits. By mulching, you are mimicking the natural processes of nature. Other people may have other opinions about that though.

My favorite mulch is anything that is free. I usually stockpile OPBL (other people's bagged leaves) in the fall and use that as a mulch throughout the growing season. I've planted many grasses this year and some of them will get pretty large, so i also plan on using the dried grasses that i trim in early spring as mulch as well.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 7:33PM
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Pat, I tried to write an answer and it rejected it.
By all means, mulch away! I mulch everything, no matter what it is. Use pine straw, rice hulls, gravel, whatever you have but mulch, mulch mulch. Even drought tolerant stuff will appreciate mulch. If you go out in the desert in AZ, you'll notice that even the hardiest, most drought tolerant plants grow better where they have some natural mulch and where there is windblown and lack natural mulch there will be no life.
I wish you could visit the Phoenix Botanical Gardens so that you could see what they have and how they grow.
Have you spent any time at the Wichita Refuge? They have some natural plant scaling. Might be a good place to study what you're attempting to do.
Check out their fuchsia flowered barrel cactus. I once had one of those. I was very bad and "swiped" a baby one off of Ft. Sill. It thrived on a raised mound of soil with good drainage. I actually mailed it to my brother, who is on the Board for the Phoenix Botanical Gardens, since I knew I was moving, and they included it in one of their cactus displays.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 8:19PM
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Oh, good! I thought I was right, but wondered if I was making yet another mistake in my new location. I do habitually mulch nearly everything, and then adjust the water for specific needs. I use commercial weed fabric, leaves, hay, newspapers, grass clippings, pea gravel, bark, or whatever looks reasonable and I can get my hands on. And, of course, depending on the season, whether it's for permanent use or simply some winter protection. The only thing that didn't get mulch this year was the new strawberry bed, since I wanted to give it a chance to settle in and send out runners. By next year it should be so thick that it will be providing its own shade . . . sort of.

I've never been to the Phoenix Botanical Garden, but have spent a fair amount of time wandering around in the unpopulated areas south and SE of Tucson. I'm always amazed at the variety of vegetation that manages to survive in spite of nearly anything. In fact, there are a couple of roadside rest areas there that have been carefully planted in a very ecology-conscious way and they are just gorgeous.

Speaking of that barrel cactus, I was out in Barstow years ago, as a kid, and staying with a family that had a pretty natural desert garden. No grasses of any kind, and all native stuff. I found one of the fuchsia flowered cactus growing wild in a huge expanse of empty desert a mile or so from the house and I went and got the wheelbarrow, dug it up, and took it home to our friend. Too young to know I was really disturbing stuff that should be left well enough alone. As far as I know, it thrived in the new location.

I also have not been to the Wichita Refuge. As I said in a different thread, I haven't gotten out and about much since I moved to OK. Where is that located? I'm just SW of Shawnee. Is it a long distance from me?


    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 8:41PM
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You can also use granite, if you prefer the hardscape look. Please dont put black plastic underneath. Somebody did my whole yard in plastic and rock. Now, the rock is thinning, the plastic is wearing out and the weeds are growing. It's impossible to pull all the plastic up out of the rocks, it looks like crap sticking up all over the place and I'm having to either add more rocks, which I dont want, remove everything, or, what?
On the side where it's the thinnest, I've managed to pull most of it up. That's actually the side where my garden is and, because of the added moisture, I've been able to establish Bermuda on top of the rocks. Wish I could do that everywhere! We have flood irrigation available, so if I did establish grass, I could have plentiful irrigation for it, only about $60 a month, remnants of when Mesa was a citrus growing and agricultural area, not a city.
I'll probably attempt to get clover and rye going in the walkways for the winter this year, so that the chickens have pasture, and continue to work on establishing the grass further, throughout the yard.
Anything but the ugly black plastic sticking out through rocks!
Just try to think 10-15 years in the future when you start putting stuff down. I've not heard great things about landscape fabric either, make sure you use good quality or none at all. I'd probably vote for none.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 8:58PM
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The problem I have with landscape fabric under an organic mulch--I use coarse wood chips and bark--is that the mulch degrades to make a lovely seed bed over the mulch and weeds and crabgrass come up in it. And bermuda isn't stopped by it at all. Someone on here once said that the only good mulch to put over landscape fabric is gravel, and even it can catch enough dust to make soil and grow weeds. I wish I had never used it and in several places have managed to get it up. My preference now is for just continuing to pile on an organic mulch over bare dirt.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 10:47PM
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Black plastic? Oh, yuck!! I thought for sure that people had learned not to use that stuff 20 years ago. It's beyond horrible. If anyone has ever gotten a good look at what it does to soil and roots underneath it, they would never even think of using it. I once saw a nice ornamental crabapple all but dead from the girdling roots caused by that awful stuff. I've also seen the soil go sour from using it, and turn into a nasty smelly mess. Brrr-r-r-r-r-r-r.

What I'm using at the moment is the pro-grade DeWitt product, but it didn't do the job and they replaced it with a roll of engineering-grade instead. Since I bought a huge roll of it (3,000 sq ft) and it failed, it was worth calling the company to see if they'd make good on the warranty. They finally did. I had tried just about all the other landscape fabrics and had near zero success with them, so I decided to go with a top-of-the-line commercial product. If this new one doesn't work, I'm out of luck.
In nearly all cases where I've used that, I'm topping it with pea gravel. Now of course I need to take up all the bad areas and replace it with the new stuff, which means moving all that gravel in order to do it. Sigh.
I did discover that when I top it with either bark or pecan shell, the weeds are thrilled with it. It doesn't slow them down a bit. I'm going to have to pull every bit of it out and do all of that over again also.

In the veggie garden I use thick layers of newspaper and grass clippings or chopped up hay bedding over the top of it, so it can be turned under later on. If I didn't want to continue to improve the soil where I'm growing produce, I could use a more permanent fabric, but the newspaper (or paper feed sacks) works pretty well when they are topped by several inches of actual mulch. I just wet them all down thoroughly when I put them in place and then pile the mulch over the top. I've never tried cardboard for that, although I've heard that some people do it.

Speaking of the landscape fabrics in general, meaning the ones you can find at Lowe's and places like that, I think they're a waste of time and money, and I speak from experience. I noticed that the local nursery at Shawnee Feed is now carrying little rolls of the DeWitt brand, but I seriously doubt that it's the heavy industrial grade stuff that I have.

If I have to look on the plus side of needing to do all that work again, as least it will give me an opportunity to situate the new plants where I want them and lay out the drip line properly, to suit the needs of the individual plants. It was an afterthought when my grandson put it in for me, and it was never really finished or done right if I'm going to be changing plant materials.

And speaking of that, has anyone else noticed how hard it is to find a good supply of drip system stuff in OK. Is it just me? Am I not looking in the right places? I can't find the shrub bubblers that I want, or the micro spinners, or the spikes that are used in nursery pots, or any of that stuff. Anyone have a suggestion about where to find a good supplier?


    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 12:11AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

For drip irrigation needs, I order from

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 9:10AM
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Thanks for the link. I bookmarked it. I've been puzzled by the fact that a lot of the really good products I used 20 years ago don't seem to be available now. With people being more conservation conscious now, you'd think it would be just the reverse. There should be more products available, instead of fewer.

One of the things I'm finding with the pro weed barrier is that it's supposed to be completely permeable to let the water through. Maybe it does, but it also puddles up pretty badly on top and tends to run downhill if there is the slightest slope. Maybe I'm being overly picky, but when I direct water to a plant, I'd like it to go where it is supposed to and not end up 6' away. If I switch over to shrub bubblers instead of spinners, it might solve the problem.

My kids have been talking about getting one of the battery operated timers to put on the main drip line so it would come on at night or in the wee hours of the morning, to make the most efficient use of the water. It's an idea.


    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 1:04PM
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Oh, Pat. The Wichita Refuge is near Ft. Sill and Lawton. I suggest going in the spring or fall. A fun time to go is on the day of the buffalo or longhorn sale. You can call the refuge to get the annual dates. They have a great barbecue at each sale and it's awesome to see the animals come through the sale chutes, knowing they were just brought in wild off the range, especially the buffalo. I bought longhorns from there and they were wonderful animals.
Save a couple of hours to go through the museum.
If you have time, Ft. Sill also has a museum. They also have fabulous scenery, as a good portion of the base is sparsely populated. You can get a map and go for a long drive out to the Ft. Sill side of Lake Lawtonka, figuring on at least half an hour each direction, and have beautiful scenery, wildlife and landscape ranging from deep woods, low mountains, plains and drylands along the way.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 1:12PM
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It sounds like a great trip. I've barely gone anyplace since moving here. Mostly to see the Dr in OKC is all. My daughter said it's about a 2 hour drive for us to get down there from Shawnee.

Just the idea of seeing buffalo being brought in for the sale sort of boggles the mind. It would be interesting just to see what sort of equipment they need to be able to handle animals like that, right off the range. Yikes! Now I'll need to look up the refuge web site. I imagine they have one?


    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 2:17PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

It's a great place to visit fall through spring, but kind of toasty hot at this time of year.

You can camp, hike, do some rock climbing or just watch the wildlife.

A trip to the WMWR isn't complete without a side trip to Meers for a Meersburger at the Meers Store and Restaurant.

Here is a link that might be useful: Website of Wichita Mtns Wildlife Refuge

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 2:37PM
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There are also elk, which are my favorite. If you can go in late September or early October, you must be there in the hours right at sunrise and sunset. Get out on the remotest hiking trails of the refuge ( maybe ask around and get a map the day before ) so that you hear the elk bugle. You can also hear them out west on Ft. Sill, but check elk hunting season, bow hunting is somewhere around the last week in September, when elk are bugling, so the hunters on Ft. Sill will be all over. Not that dangerous, since it's archery but still best avoided.
There is a big alfalfa field on the interstate when you drive up to Ft. Sill, on your right, you will most likely see a herd of elk, especially in the cooler hours of the day and during hunting season, since that's a no- elk hunting zone. (deer only)
There is lots of hiking on the refuge. If you get some bugling DVDs a bugle from Walmart, you might even get a bull elk to answer you, if you're lucky!

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 4:10PM
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I've only ever seen one herd of elk, and didn't know that there might be any around here. When I lived in central WA, the game dept maintains feeding stations for them, to try to prevent them from traipsing down to the orchards and doing a lot of damage. Some friends took me way up in the mountains to see one of them and it was pretty amazing. We drove a few miles up the forestry road past the station and ran across a whole herd of them grazing in an open meadow. Wow.

And once, driving across Wyoming I was lucky enough to see a small herd of antelope bounding along through the grass, not far from the highway. It was such a fabulous thing to see. Other than the highway, there was not a single sign of man out on that prairie. Just miles of grass, waving in the wind. It's nice to know that things like that still exist.

Now I've got some reading to do about the Wichita Refuge. I was amazed to learn when it was established . . . before OK even became a state! And the prairie survived there simply because it was too rocky to do anything else. Incredible. Maybe now I'll have to take a trip to see it.


    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 4:27PM
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Hey, that black plastic is extremely useful! I just used a bunch last week. It made a really cool whale for our church VBS program. And it makes a fun cheap slip 'n slide. Spread it out, hose it down w/ water, & your kids will have a blast.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 1:51PM
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Hey, I never thought about that use for the plastic. Sounds like a neat idea. Just as long as no-one suggests putting it down as a mulch base, I'll be happy.

And speaking of plastic, I think we've all cut the bottoms out of the gallon milk jugs and used them as emergency covers for small plants during a freeze. Last year I found another use for them. I needed label spikes for a bunch of stuff I was starting in flats, so I took some of the jugs, got out the kitchen shears and cut the things into long vertical strips. A permanent marker did the job of adding all names of the seeds and it worked pretty well. When I ran out of those, I used a package of the craft sticks like tongue depressors that cost $1 for a big bunch of them at the Dollar Store.

I don't know how many of our big paper livestock feed sacks got thrown away before it dawned on me to save them and put them down as a mulch base around the melons and cukes. As long as they don't have a plastic liner, they work fine.


    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 2:05PM
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