Mulching is one of the best things we can do for your vegetable garden. Properly placed mulch helps control the weeds, keeps the soil from drying out as quickly and helps it stay cooler in the summer. There are many materials that can be used for mulch, some are better than others. Experienced gardeners will no doubt have their favorite mulches, having found the one that works best through trial and error. Sometimes experimenting in the garden leads to the perfect solution.
I mulch my vegetable garden differently than my flower gardens. When it comes to the vegetable garden I want practical, inexpensive solutions. The following are some materials that are commonly recommended:
Over the years I’ve had good success with straw that has been composted with manure as a mulch. After the garden season was over with, it broke down easily into the soil. If it hadn’t been composted first, this would have taken longer. Grass clippings laid on top of water soaked newspaper also worked, though not as well as the composted straw mixture. They dried out quickly, and often when grass clippings are used fresh, they tend to mold.
Leaves are a favorite of many gardeners. When I lived in the city I composted leaves, which basically meant we ran the lawn mower over them and put them in an area where they sat all fall and winter. I used it as a mulch and they worked very well. We don’t have many leaves now, and I miss using them as a mulch. They also mixed easily into the soil at the end of the garden season.
Cardboard and newspaper that has been soaked thoroughly (this takes longer than one might imagine), placed around the plants, then topped with organic materials such as chopped leaves, compost, straw, hay etc. or a combination, works well as a mulch. Be sure to remove all staples and tape from the cardboard or you’ll be digging those up far after the cardboard has broken down into the soil, as I found out the hard way when I was a new gardener. Use only the black and white sections of newspaper, not the colored, glossy pages. I’ve also found a biodegradable paper weed mat from Gardener’s Supply Company that is very easy to use.
The first year we lived in the country I discovered Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book at the library. I was fascinated with the concept of a mulch that was actually a composting system. She advices using thick layers of “Hay, leaves, straw, seaweed, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, garbage—any vegetable matter which rots.” Her book has good, solid advice, and I recommend it highly as reading material for vegetable gardeners.
However, to really work the garden as she advises takes time, work and patience. Her method is actually a “No Dig” type of gardening where layers and layers of organic materials are placed on top of the soil and allowed to break down. She was a “rebel” gardener at a time when everyone said you must double or triple dig your soil in order to have a successful garden. I’m considering trying the method again in a small area that is out of the way where I can practice this organic method.
For a more immediate solution to mulching your vegetable garden there are several rules that apply no matter what method or material you choose to use.
1. Remove grass and weeds from the garden area BEFORE mulching.
2. Keep the mulch from touching the stems of the plants. It should not be piled up directly against the plant, but around it instead. (The picture below shows one example using Biodegradable Weed Mat.)
3. Mulch must be at least two-three inches thick. Buy a plastic ruler to keep with your seeds or tools, so you can measure. It’s always surprising how we think we can guess with our eye and it manages to be off.
4. If the soil is dry before mulching, water it down first, then place the mulch around the plants.
Many gardeners don’t like pine needles or oak leaves because they do tend to change the pH of the soil. However, if this is what you have access to in your landscape, use them, but add lime to the soil each year to counteract the acidity of the mulch. Testing the soil with a kit will help determine how much is needed.
These are the basic rules to follow when mulching the vegetable garden. Is mulching a perfect solution to weeds and dry soil? No. Weeds are tough, and some will always sneak up through the mulch, but you’ll find they are far easier to pull from a mulched garden. Can the soil still dry out? Yes. If it’s windy and 90 degrees, almost any soil will suffer. The mulch will help the soil stay cooler and it will dry out slower than if no mulch was used. Mulching will help your plants, and keep the weeds to a managable level, which is certainly worth the effort.