Mulch the Right Way

If you want a high-yield vegetable garden you need to use mulch. Mulching not only helps your plants but saves you work. But you should mulch the right way to get all the benefits.

Here are the ways that mulch helps in the garden:

  1. Mulch insulates plants in extreme weather. In summer it keeps the soil cool and moist which can save your plants in very dry weather. Vegetables that have their roots in cool soil are more vigorous and don’t suffer as much stress in heat as plants that are unprotected. If you live in an extremely cold climate you may prefer to mulch with black landscape fabric or plastic to keep in the heat or forego mulching altogether.
  1. Mulch keeps the soil moist longer and that means plants get more water. It also means less watering for you.

Mulch-the-Right-Way

  1. Mulch keeps weeds down. The soil beneath mulch is shaded and moist. If weed seeds do manage to germinate in the dark and get above the mulch they are uprooted easily with just a slight pull. Just be sure you’re not using a type of mulch that can introduce seeds in the garden.
  1. Mulch helps prevent diseases. Water splashing on to leaves can carry diseased soil. Blight is an example of a fungal disease that spreads quickly when water splashed dirt on to leaves.
  1. Mulch decays and increases the organic matter in the soil. Over time it increases hummus which is like the holy grail of organic matter. Hummus is the point where mulch material can no longer decay and instead acts like a sponge holding in moisture and nutrients. It is the ideal growing medium for most plant roots.

The types of mulch vary and the choice is up to you. Some mulch material is even free because it occurs naturally.

  • Black landscape fabric or plastic is great for heat loving crops like peppers, tomatoes, melons, and eggplants. Be careful that you don’t use this if you live in an area that experiences extreme heat. Also be sure that your plants are starved of water if you use plastic that is non-permeable.
  • Burlap bags make great mulch if you can get them cheaply enough. Check with local farmers who will often give you their empty burlap feed sacks or at least sell them cheaply.
  • Compost is excellent mulch and you can make it at home with garden debris and kitchen items. Just don’t use any meat or dairy in your homemade compost. Homemade compost is higher in nutrition that the commercially produced compost like manure but the bagged types will give you a jump start on improving soil until you get your own compost pile going.
  • Newspaper seems like unlikely mulch but carefully placed newspaper, overlapping and three sheets thick is a remarkably effective weed barrier. Either tack the newspaper down with garden staples or cover it with mulch like straw to keep it from blowing around. By the following growing season the newspaper will have broken down and can be turned into the soil like and other mulch. Be sure not to use any glossy print paper. They may contain metal-based ink.
  • Pine bark is a byproduct of the milling of trees for lumber. Very finely ground bark is called soil conditioner and is the choice for vegetable gardens. The finer particles of soil conditioner will turn to compost more quickly than regular pine bark and therefore benefit your soil faster.
  • Pine needle mulch (pine straw) is sold by the bale and is also available for free wherever there are pine trees. This mulch is a favorite in the southeast, where it’s abundant. This mulch adds acidity to the soil so it’s perfect for blueberries and gardens with neutral or alkaline soil.
  • Wheat straw is sold by the bale. It’s a light, fluffy mulch to use around vegetable plants. It breaks down relatively quickly and so it can be turned back into the soil each season. It won’t influence the pH of the soil. Cool weather crops like broccoli and greens prefer this to black mulch. It keeps the soil up to 25°F cooler. Be careful to purchase straw and not hay. Hay contains seeds that could have you fighting a wheat crop all season long!

Tips for mulching:

  • To avoid rot and fungus problems keep mulch away from plant stems by about 1 inch. This can be a bit closer for tomatoes and peppers that are subject to blight.
  • If you use grass clippings let them sun dry for a couple of days. And don’t use clippings from lawns treated with herbicides or toxic pesticides.
  • Using leaves is fine but they must be aged at least 9 months. Phenols which inhibit growth will have leached out in that time.

And don’t forget that you should use a weed barrier in your flower gardens!

 

Photo courtesy Sergei S. Scurfield  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStraw_bale.JPG

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