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The number one time and money saver in the garden is MULCH! Why use mulch for the vegetable garden? It retains moisture and blocks out WEEDS!
Mulching your vegetable or flower garden not only makes it look pretty, but also keeps many weeds at bay and prevents them from sprouting and taking over the garden. You need to prevent or remove weeds because they compete with your plants for valuable nutrients and moisture and will prevent them from growing their best.
Another thing it does is prevents you from losing your soil to erosion. The wind and rain can blow and wash away much of your garden soil and you’ll have to replace it far more often if you don’t have it mulched. It also keeps moisture in the soil and allows you to water less.
Mulch also prevents the rains from compacting the soil. Soil structure is one of the most important parts of garden success. You need a good, fluffy texture that plants can put roots down into and some crops need this more than others do. Make sure you NEVER step on your garden soil and mulch to keep the elements from compacting the soil as well.
Benefits of mulch in the vegetable garden
Mulch also keeps the direct sun off the top of your soil and keeps the roots of the plants cooler. In the hot summer, you need this for garden success.
As mulch breaks down, no matter what kind you use, it releases more nutrients into your soil. Can you say free fertilizer?
One more thing that mulch does is prevent the spread of funguses that are in the soil that spread when water splashed down from the hose or the rain and splatters soil up onto plants. It’s good for so many things!
Mulching is the best thing you can do to improve your chances for success in the vegetable garden. So, what kind of mulch is best and where do you get it?
Mulch comes in bags at the garden store, you can chip or make your own, or you can have mulch delivered in bulk. Let’s talk about the different types of mulch and how they work.
Vegetable Garden Mulch
First, you want your mulch to be a natural material. You don’t want to choose plastic or rubber mulch for the garden. These leach toxic chemicals into the garden, they don’t break down into nutrients and black rubber mulch made from tires makes the soil hotter by absorbing the sun’s energy. It also doesn’t let moisture in like natural materials.
Are there natural materials that are not suitable for mulching? Rock or stone mulches that will not break down over time are less desirable than ones that do for some of the same reasons. They retain heat, they don’t add nutrients, but they do retain moisture and help prevent weeds from growing.
There are several kinds of bark available. Bark is not a good choice to mix into your soil, but for mulching on top, it’s a great one. The reason you don’t want to add bark to your soil is that it’s large pieces and as it breaks down, it uses the nutrients around it to do that. Once it’s broken down, then it releases nutrients back into the soil. Having it on top of the soil allows the roots of the plant that collect nutrients to still get those underneath.
Bark mulch is readily available at the store and from tree trimming services that chip up the wood they remove from people’s trees.
Cypress mulch is a common mulch used in gardens. The problem with using it is that it’s farmed and that is endangering the cypress forests that are left in our country. This destroys ecosystems, so I would steer clear of cypress for the future of our wildlife.
Is just as readily available as cypress but without the ecological effects. If I were choosing a hardwood mulch, I would prefer pine. You’ll want to keep your bark mulch a little way from the stems of your plants so it won’t rub on them and cause damage since it’s not soft. Pine also is acidic and can raise the ph. level of the soil. You’ll have to watch your ph. level if you use pine mulch or pine needles to mulch.
Coconut or cocoa coir is another mulch you can get for your garden. It is also fairly acidic and can raise ph. levels in the soil. It’s renewable so it’s a great choice for the environment though, so it can still be a contender. It’s a great mulch, as well as all the acidic mulches, for azaleas, blueberry, and rhododendrons that love acidic soil.
Compost can be a great mulch that is spread across the top of your garden soil. It adds nutrients, retains moisture and you can make it yourself in your compost bin. Just like with any decomposed mulch, worms and other beneficials in the soil will mix the compost into the soil for you and distribute it. Worms are hard workers in the garden.
Leaves make a wonderful mulch for the vegetable garden. You can mulch them up with your lawnmower or mulcher, or you can leave them whole. One drawback of not mulching them up first is that if you get strong winds, they will blow them off your beds. Most years leaves have worked fine in their whole state, but this past winter, the winds were crazy and whipped them out of several of our beds. As leaves decompose, they add wonderful nutrients and are great at retaining moisture. They are one of my favorite mulches and are readily available for free. Drive around on trash day and pick up bags of leaves that people leave by the curb.
Mulched grass has is also readily available for free. It can be used as mulch once it’s dry. You don’t want to use green grass in your gardens, it has too much nitrogen and will burn the plants, but once it’s dry, it’s perfect.
Wheat straw is our favorite kind of mulch for the vegetable garden. It’s easy to get one bale and bring it home in our SUV or car. It’s kind of expensive here, but one bale will do several garden beds. I love the way it looks on the beds and it breaks down nicely. Don’t forget never to use hay. Hay is full of seeds that will germinate in your vegetable garden. Straw has a few seeds here and there but does not create a big problem in the garden.
Newspaper or cardboard mulch
You might think it sounds strange to use newspaper or cardboard in your vegetable garden, but if you overlap it in layers, it can be a great mulch too.
The most important thing to remember about mulch is to use what you have available. If it’s free, it’s for me when I need bulk supplies for my garden and if I had free access to something, I would use it.
The best way to get enough material for your garden is to buy it or get it in bulk. If you can get someone to deliver a truckload of mulch, even better. Be careful if you are getting bulk chipped wood of what kind of wood it is. If it’s building materials, you don’t want to put that on your garden as treated wood can contain toxic chemicals used in the treating process.
The best way to get a truckload of wood chips delivered is to call a tree trimming service and ask them to dump the wood they need to get rid of in your yard instead of taking it to the dump. It’s usually free to do this and gives you great wood chips to use to your heart’s content. It’s also saving a bunch of material from the landfill.
How to mulch your garden
Now that you have sourced your cheap or free mulching materials, how do you apply them? You want 2-4 inches of material on the top of your beds. We cover ours over in fall and leave it there all winter. In spring, we push back the mulch and plant, seeds, or seedlings. Once they are about 6 inches tall, we move the mulch back closer to the base of the plant, but not touch the stem.
If a bed needs more material, this is when we add it. Make sure not to put too much on a bed because it can prevent your plants from growing by shading them too much or making it hard for them to come up if you mulched over something like your asparagus or potatoes that are under the ground.
Remember that nature mulches. Have you ever been in a forest and scraped back the leaves that were piled up on the ground? The soil underneath is dark and rich and wonderful. It even smells amazing. This is nature’s natural way of mulching. When we mimic what nature does, we always get the best results!
For more information about gardening without pesticides, check this out.