putting pebble 'mulch' on house plants?

zachslc(6 Salt Lake City)December 30, 2007

My little kitty was digging in the medium of some of my house plants, so I got some decorative polished rocks and put a layer of them on the soil surface. Kitty no longer digs, but the soil stays moist longer than before. There is still air circulation because it is not like I have a 4-inch deep layer of rocks, but the surface of the soil does not dry out like before. I know there are a lot of variables, but generally speaking do you think this is OK? The succulants I am not so much worried about because they stay so dry anyway and are in a courser mix, but the dracaena and schefflera I am a little concerned about. Please advise,


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watergal(z6/7 Westminster, MD)

We had a client who insisted on river rock mulch for all the plants in their building. It worked OK. You just have to be careful to only water when needed, and it will be much less often than you are used to. Personally, it's a pain to move the rocks to check the soil, but I guess it's a worthwhile tradeoff if you have cats. I'm allergic, so I don't have any. I know there are other things people have used on the soil surface instead of rocks to deter the kitties - I think chicken wire, pine cones, and some other stuff comes to mind.

Maybe you can search the forums, or start a new thread asking cat owners what they do. Or maybe a pet web site will help you.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 2:13PM
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Mentha(9 CA)

Just wait until the cat decides it doesn't care there is a layer of gravel on the soil. It's a pain in the hiney scooping up gravel and replacing it daily. I finally decided it's not worth it. The only gravel deterrant that works is lava rock chips, kitty soon realizes that the scratches on it's pads are not worth the trouble.

Besides, I've found gravel mulch invites over watering and rot and other kinds of problems. I only use gravel when I am preparing a plant for a show, then remove the gravel afterward.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 3:23PM
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I used to do this, too, and it was very pretty, but could be a pain sometimes - and after a few waterings some of the perlite floated up above the rocks and that didn't look so good. Some of my plants now have lava rock chips as mulch because they came that way from the nursery. A great way to tell when they need to be watered is by picking them up and feeling how heavy they are. In time, you will learn to feel when they need to be watered.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 3:44PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I'm in the same camp as WG and Mentha. I think it's a GOOD thing when you need to water frequently. The more you're required to water, the healthier your plants will generally be. The need to water frequently assures that air is returning to the soil quickly enough between waterings to prevent suffocating fine hair roots. This helps to prevent the energy drain on plants caused by the cyclic death and regeneration of fine rootage associated with over-watering and extended conditions/intervals of saturated soil. Frequent watering is also beneficial because it regularly forces old gasses from the root zone and draws fresh air in to replace it as the water moves through the soil. When a high level of CO2 builds up in soggy, saturated soils, it becomes toxic to roots.

So - anything that inhibits evaporation from soils and extends the interval between waterings probably inhibits plants from reaching their potential vigor and affects vitality to varying degrees. The heavier the soil you're using (the more water it retains) the greater the negative impact will be. In some cases, the effect will be marginal, and in others, severe.


    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 4:50PM
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Zach, how are the pebbles working? See how your plants do and go from there.
I don't use stones, bark, etc because I believe, if soil stays wet and air is dry, plants 'may' acquire fungus gnats.
Keep an eye on your plants to see how they do..
One thing you can try is buy cardboard water guage tags..they're inexpensive, usually sold by the dozen..I don't know how accurate they are, but it's worth a try..Walgreen's sells cute little soil-testing birds you stick in soil. I'm not sure how they work, but when they go on sale I plan on buying a couple..otherwise, they were 9.99, then 2 for 10.00..They're really cute. But again, I don't know how accurate they are.
Listen to you plant. See how they do..Check the soil w/finger if necessary..
Those kitty's can be sly..LOL..I agree, after a time, if they're curious enough, they'll remove the rocks and dig in. When my old cat used a corn plant as a liter box, I cut a piece of cardboard, divided in half, and covered the top..he didnt like it, then lost interest..but it took time. Good luck, Toni

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 5:05PM
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zachslc(6 Salt Lake City)

Thanks for the input. Just to be clear, kitty wasn't using the plants as the litter box. She was just digging in them because she knows it makes me mad.

The ones with the pebbles get watered less frequently than those without, which makes it seem like a bad idea to me.

I got thinking that a piece of window screen cut to fit in the pot and with a safely large hole for the stem(s) might be better. Anyone?

The other thing I have learned is that if I put a plant next to a window there has to be another way for her to look out the window, or she will climb up on the plant. This sent a croton to the floor and resulted in its pot in pieces once.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2007 at 7:35PM
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mrbrownthumb(z5 Chicago)

I like top dressing my plants with pebbles because it cuts down on fungus gnats. Since the pebbles don't stay wet long the gnats don't see the moist soil that they're looking for to lay eggs.

Plus it looks cleaner and I don't have soil sloshing out of the pot when I water.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2008 at 12:32AM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Fungus gnats suggest to me overwatering. I'd be even more concerned, not less if the pebbles helped hold more moisture in.

Depending on what plants you're growing, I'd re-examine watering practices &/or mix for faster drainage (if it were mine).

    Bookmark   January 3, 2008 at 1:16AM
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albert_135(Sunset 2 or 3)

I was surprised at how easy it was to over water with pebbles on top as 'mulch' but I do like the look.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2008 at 12:20PM
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I use aquarium rock as a top dressing...it does reduce watering some, which is very useful for my hibiscuses, for instance--before I did this I'd have to water them daily and now I can do it twice a week. It also keeps some pests from laying eggs in the soil and reproducing. Plus, as people have pointed out, it looks nice. After 3-4 months the soil does start to rise up and dilute the mulch, but not more often than that.

Haven't lost a plant to overwatering yet, but I like to use unglazed clay pots, which breathe better and dry out faster, so maybe that cancels it out. I will say I wouldn't recommend this for plants that you'd water very infrequently to begin with or that are excessively particular about drainage.

I test if a plant needs water by picking up the pot--a clay pot has a certain cool, moist feel to it when there's still moisture in the soil, and moist soil weighs more so you can kind of tell by weight as well.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2008 at 5:02PM
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I typed a whole response and found out that I had to be registered for it to show. Then I registered, but it didn't keep my response. So here i type again. I'm not going to say everything I said before. The bottom line is, the person who said that a layer of pebbles on top of the soil can cause fungus gnats is right. I had a terrible problem with those little buggers. They were flying all over my house, not just around the plants! I'd had houseplants before and never had this problem. What I discovered that I had done differently that let to this problem was putting a layer of pretty pebbles on top of the soil. It made a fungus gnat buffet. They loved it! They multiplied, and I finally had to get poison to kill them. No more pebble layers on my plants.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2009 at 8:53PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the grower causes fungus gnats by placing the pebbles on the surface - that by watering prematurely we create the saturated soils that allow their populations to multiply?

In the end, it all winds up coming full-circle to the thought that 'soils that require frequent watering are healthier for your plant than those that require infrequent watering', and it's almost always counter-productive (don't confuse grower convenience or what YOU prefer with what the plant prefers. They're very often at odds with each other) to plant vitality when we take measures that slow water loss from soils.


    Bookmark   June 7, 2009 at 10:54AM
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