Should You Mulch Your Vegetable Garden?
I‘m a big advocate of mulch. Without it my garden just would not be it’s best. If I didn’t use mulch, I could never keep up with the weeds and my vegetables would not be as healthy for my body. There are so many good reasons to make mulching a part of your vegetable garden routine.
I know talking about mulch isn’t very sexy, but it’s a very important part of a healthy garden. Applied correctly it can save you a multitude of hours of work and it will feed your soil like nothing else can. Applied incorrectly, however, it can be disastrous for your garden plants. Let’s take a look at what the lowly mulch can do.
What is mulch
Organic mulch is any material placed on top of the soil to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, stabilize soil temperature fluctuations, lessens the chances of certain diseases attacking your plants, add organic matter, build soil structure, feed microorganisms and earthworms, reduces erosion and provide an attractive look to your garden.
Organic mulch includes grass clippings, compost, leaf mold, pine needles, shredded bark, wood chips, nut shells, cotton gin waste, straw, hay, grain and fruit byproducts, composted manure, mushroom compost, peat moss, coconut coir, cocoa hulls, and sawdust. And I’m sure a few more things I haven’t thought of. Some of these mulches are easier to find in different parts of the country. Some are less expensive than others and some are even free.
You can even use newspaper as an organic mulch; black-and-white newspaper print is perfectly safe to use in your garden. Cardboard is good too, but save it for the walkways as it is hard for the water to penetrate and takes a long time to break down. Which is great for suppressing weeds! Top them both off with one of the other organic mulches to keep them in place and give them a better look.
There are inorganic mulches too such as plastic mulch and even carpet strips. However, they do not add organic matter to the soil and will have to be thrown away at the end of the season. But there are reasons you may wish to consider them too.
Rocks gravel and stones have their place, but in my opinion, not in the vegetable garden. Or at least confine them to the walkways between raised beds.
How much mulch do you need
Generally, a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch, spread evenly on the ground beneath your plants, is sufficient. However, you may have to replenish the mulch during the growing season, especially in hot summer areas, because many organic mulches break down quickly. There are some people who like to use up to 8″ for the wonderful weed suppression. Ruth Stout talks about this in her book, Gardening Without Work. Just remember, if you use this much, you will need to put plants in your garden. If you use seeds you need to pull the mulch away until after they are up above the 8″ and then adjust the mulch.
The Back to Eden Gardening teaches using large amounts of wood chips to mulch and enrich your soil. This works very well, but takes several years to truly give you the wonderful soil it touts.
Match The Mulch
Not only do you have to consider what is available in your area. You also need to match the mulch to the crop, weather conditions and soil. University field tests have shown that mulch can increase (or decrease) yields by as much as 30 percent, so it’s worth thinking through the options.
Organic mulch, which keeps the soil cool, may slow the growth and maturity of warm-season crops such as tomatoes and melons. This cooling can be especially problematic in areas with cool summers. However in very hot-summer areas of the country, organic mulches work to keep the roots of even warm-season crops cool and healthy.
If you live in a hot climate, consider not using plastic mulches. High soil temperatures can stress your plants and burn up organic matter. In hot climates, most crops will be happier and more productive with a soil-cooling mulch such as shredded leaves, grass clippings or straw.
Conversely, if you live where summers are cool and wet, Covering it up with a thick, moisture-retentive soil-cooling mulch could be disastrous. Most vegetable plants perform poorly in heavy, wet soil. You may find your plants stunted from the cold, getting fungus from too much moisture, and being invaded by an army of slugs. This type of soil will usually dry out as the season progresses and mulch can be added then. You might consider using a plastic mulch during early spring. It will raise the soil temperature and also help dry out the soil.
Know your source
Municipal wood chips or compost can contain pesticides, herbicides and even biosolids (composted sewage). Some people will use this on their ornamental, but prefer not to use it on their edible plants. Others don’t want it at all. You can also get compost or wood chips that have weed seeds or treated wood. Make sure if you buy straw, that it is non GMO, if you have an organic garden. As many grain crops are sprayed with roundup. Ask before you buy from an unfamiliar supplier.
- Keep mulch at least an inch away from plant stems to avoid rot and fungus problems.
- Grass clippings used as garden mulch should be sun-dried for a day or so. Do not use clippings from lawns treated with herbicides or toxic pest controls.
- Use only leaves that have been aged at least nine months. This allows the growth-inhibiting phenols to be leached out.
- Secure plastic mulch with Landscape Staples. Cover the entire row before planting, and then cut planting holes as needed.
- Apply compost and fertilizers before you add your mulch. Organic mulch, especially leaves, wood and wheat straw, can rob the soil of nitrogen as it is decomposing.
- Put down soaker hoses or drip irrigation before applying the mulch to insure water gets to the roots where you want it and water is best conserved.
- Composted manures may burn young vegetables, if used as mulch, because of the high amount of. nitrogen they contain: If you want to use composted manure, mix it with three times the volume of another organic mulch before applying it.
- Know the PH of your soil and the PH of the type of mulch you want to use so they can compliment each other.
- Pine straw stays in place better than other mulches and is good for hillsides and erosion control.
The down side to some types of mulches.
There are some downsides to some types of organic mulches. that may lead you to choose one type of organic mulch over another. But what may be a downside to someone else, may be just what you need.
- Bark and Pine needles can be acidic.
- Grass clippings decay quickly and need to be replenished.
- Sawdust can rob nitrogen.
- Straw, hay and grass clippings can all contain viable seeds.
- Peat moss or leaves can form a mat, keeping water from getting through.
- Small pieces can blow around in the wind.
- Mushroom compost can be high in soluble salts.
- Aged manure and compost are better at enriching the soil than they are as mulches.
- Mulch should never touch the stems of your plants.
What makes a good mulch
What I think is the best mulch for my garden may not be right at all for yours. So how do you choose. Consider your soil type, your environment and your topography. Then find out what is available in your area and at a price you can afford. It may be the best mulch out there, but if you can’t get it or can’t afford it, it will do you no good. The most important thing is to find a mulch and use it.
In nature you will observe that soil will not stay uncovered. As Justin Rhodes, the permaculture chicken guy says, “Nature is modest. If you leave her naked, she will cover herself up with weeds”. I thought that was a funny way to put it but he is right. So do your soil and you a favor and dress her up with mulch.
Leave a comment below and tell me what your favorite mulch is and why.
And Have a Ducky Day!