Some would say I'm a slovenly gardener. I like to think of it as practicing a little nonviolence in the yard. Instead of harassing leaves with a blower or rake, I leave them in peace. (Go ahead, groan.) Why buy mulch when it is at hand? And mulch you should.
Lili Singer, horticulturist with the Theodore Payne Foundation, recommends four inches of mulch around plants. "It will insulate the soil so the plants stay healthy and it will hold water in so you're not using as much." (But leave some bare ground directly around the plants. It will keep the roots near the stem from being attacked by pathogens that thrive in warm, moist soil.)
Think of it as good karma to let your carbon, nitrogen and other garden elements reincarnate on the spot. (Pictured above, Buddha is meditating next to a pile of shrub trimmings.)
Mulch also adds nutrients to your soil. A year ago, Al Renner, president of the LA Community Garden Council, toured me around Solano Community Garden in Elysian Park. He explained that many of the gardeners practice a kind of "throw down/in-place" composting. Put almost nothing in those green bins, he advised, "you can constantly be feeding your bed, not letting anything mother nature gives you leave." (The exception: diseased vegetation.)
When I added fruit trees to my yard this year, I was concerned the soil wouldn't be fertile enough. My garden is largely native plants, so I'd never tinkered with the earth. But Lora Hall of Full Circle Gardening reassured me my soil looked great. "All that mulch is the best thing for it," she said.
And you can breathe easier, knowing that your green "waste" isn't chugging along the freeways, creating diesel pollution.
For more on conserving water and gardening with native plants, check out Emily Green's Chance of Rain blog.