This post is about how to mulch, the benefits and types of mulch which an organic gardener or homesteader can put to use in the vegetable plot and why you should be using more mulch in the garden.
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When I took the rental property I was living in back in June 2014, the original vegetable garden was overrun with 6 foot high weeds, grass and associated critters. The entire south end of the garden was critter central with birds, wasps, praying mantis, spiders…sooo many spiders. If I had chickens or ducks I would not have needed to worry about them getting fed!
I needed to clear these towering weeds to be able to plant my vegetables and get the not so friendly critters to creep, crawl and slither on to another territory. I also needed to clear the weeds to pass the rental home inspections, when you have two dogs they like to make sure they’re not trashing the joint on a very regular basis.
After much hacking with shears, scythes, and the lawnmower over several weeks; I was able to knock everything down to a manageable height with the intent of digging it over and planting in my new veggies.
Unfortunately, the weeds had run to seed and sprouted back up before I had a chance to get my plants in so I decided to cover the plot with mulch to suppress the hoard of weeds and to add some organic matter back into the soil.
Types Of Mulch
There are many types of mulch available to the gardener, from the organic materials which decompose over time and need replacing to inorganic materials like rock and even rubber.
These mulches decompose over time and require topping up or replacing throughout the season. There are several different mulches which you can create in your own back yard thereby reducing your waste input going to the landfill.
Organic mulch will rob the ground of nitrogen sources as it breaks down, this can be overcome by using an organic liquid fertilizer or tea to feed the plants.
Always ensure that the mulch isn’t placed right up to the stem of the plant, you will want to leave an inch or two space to reduce the risk of rot and disease.
If you want to try making your own liquid fertilizer take a look at How To Make Your Own Liquid Fertilizers.
Benefits of Organic Mulch
Organic mulch provides protection from soil erosion by wind and water. It also helps regulate soil temperature from the extremes.
Using mulch can provide harvests into deep winter by protecting the ground from deep freezing or earlier harvests in the spring.
Mulch builds soil structure as is breaks down by providing nutrients and humus to help retain moisture. All organic mulches can be tilled into the soil if you wish or left on top of the soil.
To plant into a mulched area, simply move the top layer of mulch or cut the cardboard with a sharp knife in a cross shape and plant through. You can ease the top layer of mulch around the plant to help retain moisture in the soil. It is better to plant healthy established plants into mulched areas since mulches suppress seed growth.
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I think cardboard is one of the best mulches for covering heavily weeded ground. By overlapping boxes with a couple of layers on the ground, weeds will be blocked from the sunlight and will not be able to grow through and will be smothered by the time the cardboard breaks down.
To use, wet the cardboard to keep it in one place, the water will weigh down the material and begin the process of decomposition.
I’m sure that you will agree, it is not the prettiest of sites to behold in the garden however, it is one of the most effective.
If you were to look underneath the cardboard after a season, you will probably find numerous worms in the soil breaking down the rotting weeds and improving the soil structure with their feeding. You might also see woodlice, slugs and beetles all working on breaking the cardboard down.
Abundant in autumn and usually free for the thrifty homesteader or can be exchanged for some yard work for a neighbor (read: you rake the leaves).
Leaves are the forest’s mulch and take a long time to break down. Leaves can be placed in a compost bin on their own or trash bags and left to rot over a season or two. The leaves are broken down by fungi to become leaf mold which is a great way to add humus content to the soil and will aid sandy soils to retain moisture.
I have used leaves to cover the vegetable plot to suppress weeds which has worked well but it will take sometime before the soil will hold moisture better.
Shredding the leaves will help break them down much quicker which is beneficial if you are wanting to use leaves to just cover a bed over winter or for a short period of time.
To use leaves as a mulch, spread on the ground in a layer about 2 – 4 inches thick. Leaves tend to be high carbon and need a nitrogen source to help break down which is usually taken from the soil unless a fertilizer is provided.
Easily available in spring and summer to anyone with a lawn. Grass clippings break down rapidly if green and much more slowly if they are dried.
Only use grass clippings as a mulch if the lawn they have come from has not been treated with any chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. You don’t want to risk transferring these to your organic planting areas.
To use as a mulch, spread the cut grass 2-4 inches thick on the ground remember to leave a gap around plant stems and bases.
There are lots of other things you can do with grass clippings why not try these 7 Uses For Cut Grass In The Garden?
Shredded Plants And Wood Chip
Plant matter that is woody or very fiber laden can be shredded, chipped or mulched using a lawn mower or a wood chipper which then can be used as a mulch, just like the commercial woodchip mulch you can buy from the store.
By chipping tree and shrub pruning waste you can reduce more waste that is often destined for the landfill as well as knowing where the wood comes from and avoiding those nasty colorants added to some mulches.
Just like other organic mulches, wood chips and shredded fibrous or woody plants need replacing as the material is broken down or blown away.
I have found it is best to leave some of the more invasive plants to dry out on the patio before I shred them. I have used this drying method before shredding weeds, blackberry (bramble) prunings and vigorous vines like Virginia Creeper.
To use, simply spread thickly where you want to mulch. These mulches are carbon rich and can rob the ground of nitrogen.
Similar to wood chip, sawdust can be a great mulch on beds or garden paths. It can be made from softwood such as pine or hardwood sources like cherry.
Sawdust is good for pathways in the garden and on permanent beds with fruit bushes and other perennial plantings.
Sawdust is probably one of the worst mulches for sapping nitrogen from the ground and should have some organic chicken manure or rabbit manure mixed in it to reduce the nitrogen loss from the soil.
Once sawdust is broken down however, it can help the soil tremendously and is ideal for permanent fruit and vegetable beds. Always ensure to use organic fertilizer on the areas which have been mulched with sawdust with plants growing to reduce plant growth problems.
Compost And Manure
Well rotted compost or manure is a great mulch to add to any soil; it increases the humus content of the soil and improves soil structure and water holding capabilities as well as adding many nutrients to the soil.
Compost and manure can be used in addition to some of the carbon-rich organic mulches to reduce nitrogen robbing from the soil which can have a detrimental affect on your plants. You can use compost or manure with cardboard, leaves or woodchip.
Straw bales can be used as a planting medium for many crops and are a great way to stop weed growth and protect plants from the frost and snow. By using straw as a mulch in autumn on leeks or root vegetables, you can dig them up much easier in mid-winter.
Straw mulch can be a good source of humus in the soil when it has broken down and can help retain moisture.
When seaweed breaks down, it releases many additional nutrients such as iodine into the ground and doesn’t harbor plant diseases which can happen with other plant based mulches.
Seaweed can be collected from coastal areas after a storm, if local laws allow or it can be purchased in a dried meal form. Fresh seaweed is the best for mulching.
To use seaweed, you must wash the salt off it. Salt will inhibit growth in the ground and was used as a war tactic by the Romans! When placing seaweed on the ground, overlap well because it shrinks when it is dried.
If you have an abundance of pine needles on your property or wondering what to do with that left over Christmas tree, you can put them to good use as a mulch.
There is some debate that pine can lower the pH of the soil making it more acidic, you can combat this with a dressing of lime or wood ash which will neutralize the acidity.
Pine needles take a long time to break down and can be used on perennial beds as a long term mulch.
Spread thickly on the bed and add some organic manure regularly to reduce nitrogen loss.
Ground Cover Plants
Using plants as mulch is used extensively in permaculture or forest gardening. Underplanting crops with other ground covering crops will shade the soil and reduce some water loss.
Strawberries can act as a great ground cover plant, others include various green manures or rambling plants such as squash or pumpkins. In the Three Sisters planting of corn, squash and beans the squash is acting as the mulch suppressing the weeds as it grows.
These include landscaping or weed control fabric, rocks and pebbles, rubber and other mulches which only control weed growth by blocking the light and help with some water retention.
Inorganic mulches do not require replenishing as often as their organic counterparts and are usually more suited to pathways or areas with permanent planting because they are usually more cumbersome to move.
Inorganic mulches are best used on top of landscape fabric which will stop the weeds coming through. Some weeds will grow in the mulch after a period of time when debris builds up under the mulch above the landscape fabric.
Inorganic mulches are a lot more decorative and could be an option for urban homesteaders with tough neighbors or HOAs to keep happy. Pretty lots invoke less conflict from neighbors in urban or suburban areas.
If you have any mulching tips, permaculture information or ways to make toy garden look more attractive to neighbors please share them in the comments or at the Misfit Gardening Community Forum, we would love you hear your ideas and tips.