What is the Best Mulch in Drought Conditions?

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Are all mulches created equal? I use cedar mulch for insect control, and I have rock mulch for decoration. I have a compost mulch made from prunings around the house. With the water restrictions in place, I noticed something about my mulches.

rock mulchI interacted with a group of real estate agents who were criticizing a green building technique as horrible. They thought it was new, and they did not understand it, so they dismissed it. The fact was that the technique is millennia old. I know fellow home inspectors who also do not give credence to what they see as fringe building techniques. I came to realize that there are old solutions to current problems, yet we go along blind to them. With the water restrictions in place, I hear people discussing ways to keep their gardens alive. I have used the condensate water from my air conditioning system for quite some time to water my garden beds, yet others are discussing this as a new concept. We are paying attention more to which plants can handle the heat and lack of water (my poor azaleas do not fare well), yet focusing on native plants or appropriate plants for a certain area has also long been part of the gardener’s repertoire. The one thing we do not seem to be including in our discussions is how have we farmed deserts in the past. Humans have farmed dry conditions previously, so there must be some solutions. Could these fixes revolve around mulch?

    I had not given much thought to a specific type of mulch. I simply knew that mulch was needed. As I mentioned, I like studying old building techniques. Often I will pick a topic to explore. With news reports going over how universities were using the condensate from their air conditioning system, and how some homeowners were obtaining around 100 gallons from their own systems, I thought that I would explore the idea of taking water from the air (after all, this is what condensate water derives). I had heard of new techniques to harvest the moisture in the air to be used in poor desert areas. I felt that this must be a passive system, but I started my search in general for mechanical or passive. Being interested in historical techniques, I was interested in the concept of the air well. The original air wells would not be practical for homeowners, although there are modern variations which could be useful. As I was researching why ancient air wells worked, an author had written a comment connecting the air well to farming. Ancient air wells, like the one discovered in Theodosia, used rocks. The exterior rocks heated up, while interior rocks worked as an insulator. The cool night air coming into contact with the hot rocks would create the condensate, which would drip down to a pipe. Modern air wells work on the same principle, but with different materials. The connection to farming came by way of mentioning that farmers in arid areas used stone mulches, specifically volcanic stones, for this dew creation. I knew that they had used stone mulches, but was the idea of dew creation true? Volcanic stones made sense, since these stones provide minerals needed for plant growth. This is why I prefer to add volcanic stone mulches for vegetable beds.
    I examined my garden beds, making note of the mulches employed. A few garden beds do not have mulch. If the plant growth is thick, I noted that this had the same effect as a mulch. If the plant growth was light, that bed would need more water. Of the mulched beds, several factors came into play. Did I water them equally? What were the water requirements of the plants? How much sun were the beds obtaining? I did notice that beds with the volcanic stone mulch needed less water, but this might be due to these other factors. I did have one stretch of bed where there was a volcanic mulch on one end and a cedar mulch on the other end. My plan was to convert the entire bed to the volcanic stones for astetic reasons. Here the factors were the same, and the plants were similar (all pepper plants). The plants under the stones did fare better. The ground also read slightly moister with a meter. I am not convinced that I am extracting moisture, but maybe I am retaining the water better. Maybe the minerals in the stone are helping as well.
    From this experiment, I moved onto a second phase to see if my mulch discovery could help. I bought more volcanic stone for another bed. After a few days, the plants seemed less stressed. The moisture again read slightly better than previously, so I felt that this lava rock is helping. I also feel that the minerals are helping. I am not sure if I will go completely over to lava rocks as mulch. I have to see how different plants perform with the stone. I did use larger river stones for one bed, and those plants seem to be benefiting too. These stones would not have been providing the beneficial minerals.
    I still may not use this mulch in all of my beds. How will seeds handle germinating through these rocks? Part of my garden plan is to allow seeds to settle in the beds from my plants. We will see. In beds where I am placing established plants, these lava rocks may work out well, so I will continue adding more stone mulch. Considering that droughts will continue to plague my area, anything to mitigate the effects will be welcome.

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This site came out of my desire to write about my love of gardening, but also to connect it to my knowledge derived from home inspections. That is why I tied it to the home inspection site.If you have questions, you can email them to me (frank at yourhoustonhomeinspector.com). For home inspections, call 713.781.6090.
Happy gardening, Frank


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