This post was most recently updated on September 14th, 2021
Growing a prolific garden is the dream of every gardener no matter how long they have been gardening. There is one thing you can do that will revolutionize your gardening experience: MULCH. There are so so many benefits of mulching your garden. It really is the best thing you can do for yourself in your yard.
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What is Garden Mulch?
Mulch is a funny word. Look at it – mulch. Weird. If you say it over and over to yourself it gets worse not better – mulch, muuulllch, mulch. It even looks weird.
But what is mulch??
Mulch is simply just a layer of something on top of the soil . Mulch is nature’s way of taking care of itself. We just copy it, and it is genius.
Think about the forest floor. That lovely warm, decaying sweet smell and the substantial lack of weeds. If you pick up that dirt under the layer of leaves, it is damp and beautifully dark and teeming with life.
Trees naturally mulch themselves with their fallen leaves and branches. In your garden mulch is anything you put on top of the soil around plants.
Mulch lays on the top of the soil and is not mixed in to the dirt like compost might be. Mulch covers the soil and keeps it safe. Organic mulches should breakdown and feed the soil as well.
Are mulch and wood chips the same?
Wood chips can be used as mulch in the garden, but all mulch is not wood chips. Wood chips, bark chips or woodmulch make great mulch options, but should not be allowed to be dug in to the garden because as the wood decomposes it will pull the nitrogen out of the soil and deprive the plants of this essential nutrient.
Are mulch and compost the same?
Compost can be dug in to the soil without it damaging the soil, but it can also be used as a mulch on the surface of the soil. It will continue to break down, and the microbes in the soil can continue to reach up into the compost layer and consume the compost.
What are the Benefits of Mulching the Garden?
In the forest the benefits of mulching in the self-mulching cycle is fairly evident. It provides the exact same benefits to your garden. Here are the 6 main benefits to mulching your vegetable or flower gardens.
The key benefits to mulch in the garden:
1) Mulching the garden keeps down the weeds.
Who likes weeding the garden? You do?? Don’t lie, you do not.
Weeds are annoying and invasive, and they slow down the growth and choke out the plants you do want to be growing. Mulch, especially when applied thick enough will keep down even the most invasive weeds. Sheet mulch is simply a very thick, large continuous layer of mulch that is designed to block out the light from perennial weeds and weed seeds. Sheet mulching prevents the weed seed from germinating, smothers invasive weeds, and helps preserve the soil moisture, this results in a nice, weed-free area ready to plant.
Sheet mulching is usually done with an organic mulch like wood chip, wood bark, bark mulch or pine needles. This woody mulch is slow to breakdown and makes a long lasting weed barrier.
Synthetic mulches not as common. The most common option is plastic mulch, also known as weed mat or landscape fabric. This is more commonly used in permanent planting areas or in walkways.
2) Mulching protects the ground from soil erosion.
Heavy rains erode our precious top soil, washing away nutrients and goodness. Mulch dissipates the rain and helps hold the soil in place. This helps to prevent soil erosion in many areas.
3) Stops the soil from getting compacted.
Walking on wet ground, or heavy rainfall compacts soil down,reducing the size of the micro pores that allow air, water and nutrients to get down to the roots of the plants. Mulch cushions and spreads out foot fall, and dissipates the impact of the rain.
4) Mulch on the garden keeps moisture in.
The mulch helps maintain a constant moisture level in the soil, and as the hot sun beats down, the mulch dries out first, allowing the soil to keep it’s precious water.
5) Keeps the Critters safe.
One of the benefits of mulching is that the mulch provides a safe place for beneficial bugs, critters and fungi to thrive. These bugs and fungi increase the health of our plants and our soils.
6) Mulch helps to feeds the soil.
Biodegradable mulch will slowly break down and feed the soil, increasing its humus volume and nutrient content. Straw mulch, pine straw, compost, leaf mulch or leave mold, and lawn clippings are quick to breakdown and feed the soil. But while they are on the top of the bare soil they reduce weed pressure, promote strong soil microbes and protect the roots of the plants.
How to Mulch the Garden
Mulching is really very easy.
- Remove the weeds from the area in question. Or don’t. If you don’t, I recommend you at least chop them down and smother them with a layer or cardboard or thick layer of newspaper.
- Add a thick layer of your chosen mulching material/s.
Keep a 1-2 inch clearance around the trunks of all plants place the mulch in a thick layer at least 4 inches (10cm) thick. If you are having weeds grow through your mulch, you need more mulch!
8 Best Mulching Material Options
You can pretty much use anything to mulch with. Some mulches have more benefits than others, here are a few common options:
Well rotted compost is one of the best mulches you can use. The benefits of mulching with compost are that it is often free, it feeds the plants as it is incorporated into the soil and it is renewable.
Again the upside to mulching with these is they are free and renewable. They will also feed your plants as they rot down. You need to be aware that these can mat down too tightly and totally excludes the rain and got sludgey and stink if they are put on too thickly. They are best mixed with something more fibrous like twigs or dry straw.
Green manures/ cover crops:
These are plants grown in situ with the express role of being turned into mulch or dug into the soil. They are very cheap and add plenty of goodness to the soil. Read here about cover crops.
The benefits of mulching with stones is they DON”T rot down, therefore you don’t have to renew them each year. They do add minerals to the earth, and they allow water to percolate through to the soil below.
They help warm up the ground if they are dark, which can be quite helpful around some crops, like tomatoes and other fruits.
White rocks reflect the light up under grape vines helping to ripen the bunch evenly. Stones are great to mulch with in areas that you don’t frequent, down the back path or up the driveway for example.
Straw or Hay:
This is often very cheap or free to get, especially if you get old or spoiled stuff from farmers. If there is any mould, be sure to wear a mask while spreading it out, you don’t want to be breathing those spores in!
Hay or straw needs to be at least 6-10 inches thick when laid as it compacts quite significantly and decays quickly. It is a great way to get into mulching, and you simply add more mulch if you are having issues with weeds coming up.
I found it beneficial to get the chickens to rummage through my straw first, they ate the last of the seeds in it and added some bonus nitrogen in the form of poops.
Bark nuggets/ Bark Chips:
These are more pricy – but they look GOOD. They are great over weed mat or a thick layer of cardboard for your gardens that you won’t be planting in often – around shrubs and trees etc. And the benefits of mulching with bark is that they should last 3-5 years before they need replaced.
This is not recommended as a mulch as 1) it doesn’t let the water through and 2) it tends to blow everywhere. Wood shavings are better, but my favourite option is…
This is a product where both the leaves, wood and bark of trees are shredded all together. If you are lucky you might get some of this for free from an arborist or city council. Sadly we have to pay for ours.
The benefit to mulching with wood mulch is it doesn’t steal nitrogen from the soil as it has the green leaves in the mix as well. It breaks down and add to the quality of the soil and it encourages fungi growth – which really is the best thing ever.
Best mulch for vegetable gardens
This could be a topic all of its own! The best mulch for your vegetable garden is the mulch that you can source that works well for you.
Hay as a mulch in the vegetable garden
There is a large group of people that follow the Ruth Stout method of gardening where she uses thick layers of hay as a mulch in the vegetable garden. This hay breaks down and feeds the soil. Hay is cheap and usually easy to source.
Straw is a good mulch for gardens too, though the spent stalks from grain crops contain less nutrients for the soil. On the upside, straw has less seeds than hay. If you choose to use hay as a mulch in your vegetable garden, make sure it has not been sprayed with a broadleaf spray.
Woodmulch in the vegetable garden
If you follow the Back to Eden Gardening method , then wood mulch is the mulch of choice for your veggie gardens. I have used this method in the vegetable and flower gardens before with great success.
If you have problems with slugs like we do, wood mulch might not be the best mulch for your vegetable garden as they do tend to live amongst the wood pieces.
We are however using lots of wood mulch in the food forest areas.
The BEST mulch for vegetable gardens – Compost
Compost makes a fantastic mulch in vegetable and flower gardens. Slugs don’t like to live in it, it is affordable (especially if you make your own! ), and it helps feed the soil quickly.
There are many no-dig gardeners that swear by using compost as a mulch on vegetable gardens, even in market gardens. Charles Dowding and Richard Perkins both recommend this method, and it is what we are mostly doing these days.
How to stop weeds growing through mulch
There are a few options available to stop weeds growing through your mulch. One that is commonly used in backyard gardens is to lay some weed suppressing fabric, and then to mulch on top of this.
This looks brilliant in the short term, however, as the mulch breaks down, it will simply create a soil layer on top of your landscape fabric for the weeds to grow in, leaving you back where you started.
The best way of suppressing weeds with mulch is to lay a thick layer of something occlusive, but biodegradable under the mulch – cardboard, newspaper and coffee sacks are all great options.
Then you need to make sure that your mulch layer is at least 4 inches thick. If you are competing with established perennial weeds like quack/couch grass, dock, buttercup and others, you may need mulch up to 30cm/1ft thick.
Remember as mulch breaks down, it loses mass as the underneath layer becomes soil, so to keep the weeds down under your mulch you will have to add fresh mulch every year or two.
If your mulch is something that is fast to break down, you will need to add it more often. If the weeds are coming through, the mulch isn’t thick enough.
Mulch and slugs
Mulch on the garden in areas that struggle with slugs can be a bad idea. Slugs enjoy living under the mulch, and they come out at night and eat your plants, then they return to under the mulch to hide from the sun.
If you are having trouble with an increase in slug pressure after mulching your garden, it is possible that mulch isn’t going to work well for your situation.
One option is to get a duck. Ducks use their rounded beaks to get under the mulch to eat the slugs and snails. They do not scratch and are somewhat less likely to eat your vegetables than a chicken is.
Alternatively you can go out with a head lamp at nighttime and hand pick the slugs off of your plants and either drown them in hot salty water, or throw them to your chickens.
Do you use mulch in your garden? What do you use? Tell me about it in the comments below!
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