One of the easiest ways to ensure success in your garden, especially a vegetable garden, is to incorporate mulching into your garden preparations. This doesn’t have to break the bank, but it will provide you dividends in the abundance of vegetables you will harvest from your garden. Whether you live in the city, countryside, or suburbia, and whether you have a huge garden, raised beds, or even if you are using pots and containers, mulch is the unsung hero in the garden.
What is Mulch?
The word ‘Mulch’ has its roots in German. It comes from the word ‘molsch’ which means ‘beginning to decay’. This is probably used in reference to the first types of mulch that were biodegradable. Mulch is a thin layer of any substance that is spread over the soil. It is used to mimic the conditions that one sees in the forest.
What are the Benefits of mulching?
Mulchin your plants can give you a lot benefits. Some of them are:
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#1- Gets Plants Through Extreme Weather.
During dry spells, mulch can save plants. It acts as an insulator, keeping the soil cool and moist in summer. Vegetables that have their roots in cool soil will be more vigorous and less stressed by heat. In winter, mulch can keep the soil from freezing, an advantage for those who have root crops in the ground. The exception to this is in cold climates, where gardeners either avoid mulching so that the ground can soak up all of the summer sun’s rays, or mulch with black landscape fabric or plastic to trap heat.
#2- Keeps Soil Moist Longer.
Water evaporates much more slowly when the soil around the plant is covered with mulch. That means more water for the plant — and less watering for you.
#3- Keeps Down Weeds.
Organic mulch keeps the soil beneath it shaded, loose, and moist. If weed seeds manage to germinate in the dark and rise above the mulch, they are easily uprooted by pulling. But beware that you don’t use mulch (or natural fertilizer like chicken litter) that can introduce seeds into the garden.
#4- Keeps Plants Clean.
A mulch blanket under your plants keeps soil from splashing onto the leaves, which in turn helps prevent disease (especially on tomatoes). Lettuce, spinach, and other greens will be a lot easier to wash, too.
#5- Becomes Valuable Humus.
As organic mulches gradually decay, they increase organic matter and, eventually, humus in the soil. Humus is the holy grail of organic matter, as it is the point at which such materials can no longer decay. Instead, they act like a sponge to hold moisture and nutrients. This is the ideal growing environment for most plant roots.
Types of Mulching
The basic differentiation between the different types of mulch is based on whether they are organic or inorganic. Organic mulches are those mulches which decay and add to the nutrient quality of the soil. These mulches are similar to the mulch that the forest provides its floor with. Inorganic mulches on the other hand do not decay. They however have their own set of advantages.
Organic Mulch Options
There are a large variety of different items that are being used as organic mulches. These types of mulch are preferred because they inhibit weeds and conserve water. Unlike inorganic mulches they add to nutritional content of the soil while also encouraging the growth of worms and microorganisms.
#1- Wood Chips and Bark
Wood chips and bark are among the mulches most commonly used in landscaping. Woods such as cedar, cypress, and pine are popular because they are durable, look good, and smell great. Larger pieces of wood or bark don’t break down as quickly as shredded wood mulches, but may float away in heavy rain. Shredded mulch is especially useful on slopes or paths, because it doesn’t easily wash away.
#2- Cypress Mulch
Cypress is one of the most popular mulches used in gardens today. However, if you choose it, be sure to ask your supplier about the source of the mulch. The demand for cypress mulch has led to clear cutting many cypress swamps, especially in Florida and Louisiana. This changes the wetlands so severely that they can no longer fulfill their natural function of absorbing hurricane floodwaters.
Because it’s not very ornamental, straw is best used in vegetable gardens or over newly seeded lawns. It works well in vegetable gardens because it improves the soil as it decays, and makes walking around the garden easier in the meantime. Straw is also a good material to use as winter mulch for perennials. Be careful not to use hay or straw that contains too much weed seed or you’ll have a garden full of weeds in the spring.
#4- Cocoa Bean Hulls
Many gardeners use cocoa bean hulls as a mulch. They are a beautiful color and have an attractive fragrance. However, cocoa bean mulch should be avoided if pets are allowed in the area. It contains theobromine, which is highly toxic to dogs and cats.
#5- Other Organic Mulch Materials
Compost or shredded leaves are excellent types of mulch for gardens because they add nutrients to the soil as they break down. They’re also readily available. After the leaves decompose, dig them into the soil and add a new layer on top. Grass clippings can be left on your lawn or used to mulch vegetable or flower gardens. However, you shouldn’t use clippings from lawns that were treated with herbicides.
Last but not least, Gloricida (Gliricidia Sepium). One of our Academy’s favorites. The leaves provide a great mulch for the garden, adding lots of nitrogen into the soil. We are surrounded by Gloricida around the campus of the Academy, both wild and planted by us for its many uses, including the amazing mulching for our organic garden. You could use any other nitrogen fixing tree leaves.
Non-Organic Mulching Options
Inorganic mulch refers to those types of mulch which are synthetic and are not biodegradable. While many people prefer the use of organic mulch, there are still a number of inorganic mulches that are popular.
#1- Black Plastic
Black plastic is very effective in preventing weed growth. Because it also holds water in the soil, it is not recommended for poorly drained areas. Black plastic does a good job of warming soil up in the spring, so you can get an early start on planting tomatoes and other vegetables that like warm soil. To disguise its ugliness and reduce heat absorption, cover black plastic with a layer of bark.
#2- Landscape Fabric
Materials woven of fabric, plastic or paper are available at garden centers and often types of mulch used by professional landscapers. These materials are treated to resist decomposition, but unlike black plastic, the fabrics allow water and air to move through them.
Landscape fabric needs to be fastened down with pins so it will not be pushed up by perennial weeds. You will want to cover the fabric with a few inches of another mulching material such as wood chips, both to hide the fabric and because it is possible for weeds to sprout up on top of the fabric. Landscape fabric is best used for more permanent plantings because it is more difficult to transplant plants that are growing in fabric.
When and How to Apply Mulch
Mulch can be added at any time, but autumn or spring are most typical. An autumn application in the veggie patch will help with soil enrichment for spring seedlings. Perennials that have borderline hardiness in your area can also benefit from the insulating effects of a heavier mulch layer atop their roots in late autumn. In all areas, spring applications will best help with moisture retention and weed control, while also enriching soil. An additional midsummer application, to still producing vegetable plants, is a good idea if earlier applications are well-deteriorated.
Beneficial mulches can be applied around existing plants or placed ahead of time and planted through. A two inch layer is sufficient around plants; thicker layers can be used in unplanted areas. Water the soil well before placing the mulch and do not mulch up against stems and trunks, to avoid root issues.
A wheelbarrow and a shovel, or garden fork, are often the most helpful tools for getting the mulch to where it is needed, especially for large areas. A bucket can also be very handy for sprinkling mulch around plants and a hand-size garden fork for spreading in tight quarters.
As you can see above there are many reasons to mulch your garden, you just have to choose with mulch is the best for you! Remember that the less you used pesticides and other chemicals, the more you give your own healthcare and environment.
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