To mulch or not to mulch? Effects of gravel mulch toppings on plant establishment and development in ornamental prairie plantings
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0171533

In recent years, North American prairie vegetation has served as a design model for highly attractive, low-cost and low-maintenance plantings in German urban green spaces. Where mixed-planting techniques, gravel mulch toppings and non-selective maintenance techniques such as mowing are used, prairie plantings are considered to be cost-effective alternative design concepts for public green space management. In this study, we investigated the establishment success of different mixtures of prairie species plantings on two sites with different soil conditions: topsoil and topsoil with graywacke gravel topping. We documented significantly higher average mortality rates on gravel mulch sites in the first year after establishment. Further development of mortality was not significantly different between sites. Weed species were always more numerous on topsoil sites and had an obvious effect on the visual impact of the plantings. The mulch created an effective barrier for wind-dispersed germinators. Soil temperatures down to 30 cm were significantly higher on gravel mulch sites throughout the year, stimulating more vital plant growth and a prolonged growing season. Our results emphasize the importance of considering these kinds of practical issues during the planning process as they are critical to the success or failure of the design.