Mulch in your vegetable garden is so important. There are all different types of mulches you can use. Read on to find out the best mulch to use in your vegetable garden as well as what you need to do to get started right away!
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Mulch will Change your Life
I’m going to make a pretty big claim here: Mulch in my vegetable garden changed my life. I know it may seem a little dramatic, but it’s true. I didn’t know much about mulch when I first started gardening. A couple years in, someone told me I should put a couple of inches of straw down to help with weeds and water. I put an inch or two of straw, and it did really help with weeds and water retention.
I started looking into this mulch thing a little bit more. As I did, I found there are lots of ways to use mulch in the vegetable garden and lots of things that can be used. The next year, I ended up with a deep mulch garden based on Ruth Stout’s book: Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent. Make sure to check out my post about my experience with the deep mulch method.
As I expanded my garden, I found that the deep mulch method might be a little difficult. I created a big garden where I tried out soil occultation to try to cut down on weeds. Soil occultation is a method of using a tarp to germinate and then kill the weeds. Check out my video where I explain what soil occultation is in more detail and how to use it. It had mixed results for me. I don’t think I left the tarp on long enough and it didn’t get hot enough to kill all the weeds.
Learn from my Mistakes
On my expanded garden, I made lots of leaf mulch to put around the plants. This worked great! There were some areas that I didn’t get to mulch.
Guess what happened: Weeds. Erosion. Dry soil.
I knew this was probably going to happen, but I stretched myself a little too far and ran out of time and resources. The lesson? Maybe I need to focus on a smaller garden that I have time to maintain and resources to maintain it with. Or I need to plan ahead and find all of my resources to use for mulch so I’m not scrambling.
Needless to say, this fall has been a time of collection. Leaves, wood mulch, manure, compost, yard debris. I have piles and piles of all this stuff decomposing or ready to be shredded. Luckily, we have a lot of space to store all these goodies.
Now is the time to get started. Collect all of your materials no matter what season you are in. The more mulch you have on hand, the better.
What is Mulch
Mulch is simply materials that you put around plants to cover the ground for a variety of reasons.
Benefits of Mulch in the Vegetable Garden
To me, this is always number one. I mean, I love to weed. Give me a bucket and a good podcast, and I can weed all day long. I find; however, that my time can be better spent elsewhere. Using mulch gives me the opportunity to use my time on things other than weeding. Don’t get me wrong. There are still some weeds in my garden, so I still get to catch up on my favorite podcasts as I get a little sun. It’s just that I don’t have to spend hours upon hours doing it. Mulch REALLY helps with weeds.
Less Soil Erosion
I don’t know about where you are, but springtime here in Missouri is wet season. This means repeated gully washers that take out the gravel driveway and overflow the creeks in the woods. All of this water is a great way to fill up the rain barrels and get prepared for the drier months ahead. But along with the needed benefits of rain comes erosion. It is so disappointing when you have just put compost and manure in your garden and a big rain washes half of it away. To avoid this wash out, cover your soil with mulch.
Along with not washing your soil away, mulch will actually help keep moisture in the soil. During those hot, dry months, you will have less watering to do than if you left your soil bare. The moisture in the soil is less likely to evaporate when it’s covered by mulch.
Helps Control Disease
There are certain types of diseases that can live in the soil. When it rains and soil splashes onto the plant leaves, the disease can spread directly to the plant. Tomato diseases such as blight can be spread this way. Mulch is a great way to keep the soil from splashing up onto the leaves of plants when it rains.
Moderates Soil Temperature
In the spring, a layer of mulch helps to keep the temperature of the soil warmer by holding in the heat. In the summer, when the temperatures rise, mulch helps to keep the soil cooler. It’s a great way for plants to not have any type of shock to their system when temperatures fluctuate.
Depending on what you use, mulch is a good source of nutrients for your soil. As it breaks down, assuming you use organic matter, it is naturally providing needed nutrients to the soil.
Having a mulched garden can make everything look more uniform and pleasing to the eye. Mulch gives the garden a neat, put together look. Mulch is the canvas upon which your garden blooms.
What can be Used for Mulch in the Vegetable Garden
There are so many things that you can use for mulch. Of course I have my favorites, but depending on what you can afford, what you have access to and where you live, you may find that certain things work better and are more accessible to you than others.
Inorganic Mulches for the Vegetable Garden
I’m going to start with inorganic mulch to get that out of the way.
Rubber mulch is ground up tires sold as mulch. Tires are made of rubber and other chemicals. According to Linda Chalker-Scott in a Mother Earth News article, “There is no question that toxic substances leach from rubber as it degrades, contaminating soil, plants and waterways.”
Yuck! Oh, and rubber mulch does not break down, so you will be stuck with it FOREVER.... ewwww. My recommendation is don’t use this stuff in your garden, EVER.
Another inorganic mulch is plastic sheeting. Plastic mulch may have some benefits, such as weed control. But, it doesn’t break down. It doesn’t allow water to get to the plants or drain effectively. And finally, it can kill beneficial insects and soil fungi that are underneath it. Maybe it’s not as bad as rubber mulch, but I say it’s a close second.
The final inorganic mulch I am going to cover is landscape fabric. It’s not as bad as plastic. It’s more breathable and water can get through. It definitely will help with the weeds. But it’s not providing your soil much in the way of nutrients.
I’m sure that people have had great success with these inorganic mulches….. but…. I’m partial to more organic methods. So let’s move onto the organic options.
Organic Mulches for the Vegetable Garden
Where I live, I have lots of leaves. Some of the leaves need to be mulched back into the ground for providing some nutrients to my lawn, but I have 27 acres of which most is wooded. If you don’t have a lot of trees where you live, see if you can take other people’s leaves. A lot of places pick up yard waste from the curb. See if anyone is willing to give you their yard waste leaves before they get picked up.
Leaves should be shredded before using them for mulch. If leaves are left whole, they can create an impenetrable layer that water can’t get through. Conversely, whole leaves can trap too much moisture in the soil and drown your plants. Shredding will take care of these issues.
One way to shred leaves is by using a shredder. I bought a shredder to be able to shred leaves and small branches so that I could make my own mulch. But if you don’t have a shredder, you can put them in your driveway and run over them with your car. Or you could mow over them with your lawn mower. Another idea is to put some leaves in a trash can (not too packed in) and use a string trimmer like a blender to chop them up into tiny pieces.
Straw is a dried stalk of grain, usually wheat. This is my mulch of choice. For me, it’s easy to access. I can buy it from any number of farmers in my area. Straw has lots of great uses, too. I use it in my chicken coops (read this post for more about chickens) and have used it for straw bale gardening (read this post to learn about straw bale gardening) in the past.
Straw breaks down slowly and looks really good in the garden. It adds some nutrients to the soil as well. Depending on what kind of straw and who baled it, you may find that it grows lots of grasses. I used wheat straw one year that had so many wheat seeds left in it that I had to keep cutting the wheat grass back. When this didn’t work, I finally gave up and covered that straw with a thick layer of clean straw.
Another issue that you have to be really wary of is herbicide residue. Make sure you know where your straw is coming from. Ask if anything was sprayed on the straw at any time. If herbicides were used, issues can arise in your garden. I’ve heard stories of people losing their entire garden due to herbicide residues. It can take years for the residues to break down in the soil.
Although I love using straw as mulch, it isn’t always the least expensive option. For good, clean straw, I pay about $5 per bale. That’s not too bad, but as my garden expands, I can’t justify that cost.
Hay is grass that has been mowed and dried for use as fodder. It is usually fed to animals, but it can be used in the garden as mulch as well. I have read that hay provides more nutrients to the soil than straw. I have also read that it contains a lot of weed seeds.
Hay was Ruth Stout’s choice of mulch as she describes in her book Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent. She was able to source spoiled hay from farmers in her area for no cost. Ruth never had weed problems in her garden, possibly because she was using a deep mulch method in which she used a very thick layer of hay that would smother any weeds. Read more about deep mulch and other no-till methods here.
I have not been able to find spoiled hay in my area. Spoiled hay would be hay that has been rained on or is moldy. I do buy hay for my pet sheep. Depending on the quality and availability of hay, it usually runs around $6-$7 per bale; although, some years I had to pay up to $9 per bale. This is not sustainable for my garden.
As with straw, make sure that if you go with hay for mulch that you know its source. You can run into the herbicide residue issue here as well. Make sure you ask questions so that your garden can stay healthy.
Next, you have the option of using wood chips. If you have ever heard of Back to Eden Gardening, then you are probably familiar with wood chips as mulch. If you haven’t yet seen the Back to Eden documentary, you can watch it for free here.
You can also sign up to have wood chips delivered to your house for free through ChipDrop! A lot of times, it’s easier for arborists to give away wood chips from their jobs rather than having to find a place to dump them. I just signed up for this service. If you have arborist services in your area, you could always reach out to them for wood chips as well.
One thing to note with using wood chips as mulch is that you can’t grow plants in the wood chips themselves. You have to move the wood chips out of the way and plant directly in the soil. Also, you do not want to mix too many wood chips in with your soil. Wood chips take the nitrogen from the soil. If they are on top of the soil, they are taking very little nitrogen. If they get mixed in with the soil, then they tend to cover more area and start stealing the nitrogen away from your plants. Your plants will start to suffer if they do not get enough nitrogen.
A few other things that Paul Gautschi, the founder of the Back to Eden method of gardening recommends NOT to use on his website are: bark mulch, sawdust, processed wood chips (landscape mulch), Eucalyptus and poison oak or poison ivy. Read more here.
I don’t have pine straw, or pine needles in my area. There are some pine trees, but they are not very abundant and are not the variety that pine straw is baled from. Pine straw is more prevalent in the southeastern United States. Pine straw is very aesthetically pleasing.
Compost can be used as mulch. This is one of the best things you can add to your soil to keep it healthy. To find out how to make your own compost, take a look at this post. If you use compost as mulch, you will want to make sure that all of the weed seeds have been killed.
Depending on where you live, you may have other great resources that can be used as mulch in your garden. Make sure that whatever you use is only benefiting your garden by adding nutrients and organic materials. Anything synthetic or that has somehow been in contact with chemicals is not going to be beneficial to your garden.
How to Apply Mulch to the Vegetable Garden
Apply about 2-4 inches of mulch in your garden for best results. Just spread it out and let it do the work. I try to keep the mulch from touching my plant stems directly, especially in the spring when it’s rainy. This keeps my plants from getting too much water.
Keep the garden covered in some kind of mulch at all times. As the mulch breaks down, add more.
If you are starting seeds in your garden, wait until they have germinated to put mulch around them. Covering the seeds with mulch will not allow enough light to germinate. If you already have mulch in your garden, pull it back to plant seeds.
As you can see, having mulch in your vegetable garden is a necessity. If you haven’t started mulching, think about some ways that you can start collecting mulching materials immediately. Let me know what has or has not worked for mulching your garden.
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Here are some things that will help you get start with making mulch for your vegetable garden.
Wood Chipper - This is a heavy duty chipper and shredder if you have a lot of things to shred.
Leaf Mulcher - This is a compact mulcher that looks like it will do a great job with a lot of leaves.
Leaf Blower/Vacuum/Mulcher - This is a great combo that allows you to blow leaves, vacuum them up and mulch them!
Tumbling Compost Bin - This is good if you don't want to turn your compost by hand.
Composting Bin - Here is a straightforward, simple composting bin.
Gardening Gloves - Keep your hands protected when collecting yard debris and leaves.
Rake - For getting all those leaves collected.
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