Grow A Living Mulch In Your Vegetable Garden

A living mulch, or cover crop, is a low-growing plant used in the vegetable garden as a mulch. It is usually referred to as a cover crop because that is exactly what it is doing - covering the ground. The cover crop is usually grown in between rows or around plantings. Using a living mulch is a form of companion planting where plants are grown together in order to benefit each plant.

There are many different plants that can be used as a living mulch, for example:

  • clovers
  • hairy vetch
  • alfalfa
  • rye grass

The benefits of using a living mulch

There are many benefits of growing living mulch in your garden. Living mulch can provide shade, help retain soil moisture, control weeds, help reduce disease issues, and help to control some insect pests.

The best reason to use living mulch is because most cover crops, such as clovers, feed nitrogen into the soil which in turn benefits your vegetable plants. Typically the cover crop is left in place until the end of its life cycle, and then is tilled or turned over into the garden soil for the next growing season. Using a living mulch can also give your garden a better appearance. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

Living mulches are not appropriate in every situation. Make sure the cover crop is complementary of the other plants around it before planting. Never use a cover crop that is susceptible to the same diseases as the main vegetable plant.

How to plant a living mulch

Living mulches can be planted before or after the main vegetable crop. It is generally easier to plant the cover crop four to five weeks after the main crop has been planted. Here are some steps to establish a living mulch:

    1. Make sure your vegetable garden is free of weeds before planting any vegetables or cover crops.
    2. Let the main vegetable grow alone for four to five weeks. This will help keep the cover crop from competing with the vegetable.
    3. Take care with planting cover crop seeds. Do not broadcast the seeds as this could lead to the cover crop dominating the garden. Take care when planting cover crop seeds between planting. Sow seeds in dedicated areas.

Although planting cover crops in your garden can be a great idea, remember that they can and will compete somewhat with your vegetable plants, so use carefully.

Do you use a living mulch, or cover crop in your garden?

Have you seen benefits of using them? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

7 Comments on Grow A Living Mulch In Your Vegetable Garden

  1. This article had some good information, but I almost always discount anyone who uses the wrong “complement” in writing! You used the wrong one, unless, of course, the cover crops actually talk to the vegetables.

    • Hi Diana! Thank you very much for correcting my mistake. I’m not sure why I should be “discounted” because I mistakenly used an “i” instead of an “e” in a word, but that is your prerogative. My intentions here at Veggie Gardener are to spread the importance of organic gardening and to help those that are interested in organic gardening, not to become a Pulitzer Prize winner.

      My intentions are also to get the main point across to anyone who visits and reads the articles here. As long as people have a good understanding of what I’m writing about then I’m happy. The whole point is to get more people growing their own fresh foods. As long as that happens, I don’t worry too much about grammatical errors.

      Thank you for your comment and have a great week!

    • sito from san francisco // February 27, 2011 at 3:15 pm // Reply

      @ diana – if you don’t have anything nice to say…

      tee – what other types of living mulches work in a mixed flower/vegetable garden? i can only seem to find similar lists to yours online…

      my project: this year i’m working on expanding raised flower/veggie beds i’ve added to the garden. there is a strong infestation of oxalis and wild morning glory in the yard that i’m trying to get under control. i want to save the native soil, so i’m going to try hand to hand combat. i’m using cultivation and cover crops (trying vetch, white clover, and buckwheat) to see what might work best also experimenting with cardboard and landscape cloths. Some of the old existing plants like roses need a nice living mulch to crowd out weeds around the base – besides alyssum, any other ideas?

      happy gardening!

      • Hi Sito – Thank you for your questions!

        The reason you are probably finding very similar lists of cover crops is because they are the most popular and most useful ones available.

        I didn’t mention this in the article (may add it later), but there are basically two types of cover crops – summer grown and overwintering.

        Summer grown are ones that grow well in summer and are the ones discussed in this article (like hairy vetch, buckwheat, and clover).

        Overwintering types are generally sown in the fall and left in the garden all winter. The cover crops are then turned and mix into the soil to add organic matter.

        The ones you have listed are probably the best to use, in my opinion. There are also soybean and alfalfa varieties that make good summer cover crops. The soybean type could also be a good option you could try. It grows to a height of about 2 feet.

        You can check out the Territorial Seed Co. website, as they have a great selection of summer and overwintering cover crop seeds here.

  2. I have never seen anyone really use a cover crop before in vegetable gardens before. It looks like it would work with maybe bigger gardens, or especially with corn (sweet corn) if you planted a bunch. Maybe it’s the living in Iowa thing- when I see gardens or even fields, weeds are yanked out pretty quickly 🙂
    Even the organic farmers dont seem to do alot of cover plants -least not to my knowledge-maybe it’s regional if they dont have alot of water?
    But- then again, I had no clue I had a tomatillo until you told me what it was!

  3. Thank you so much for this information. I have a small garden in my front yard that I established last year. I want to plant tomatoes again this year but don’t have enough space to move the tomato ti a different area. I was searching for ways to use cover crops with the tomato as a companion planting to avoid needing a new site. I can hardly wait for the warm spring weather so I can try this.

    • Hi Renee – As long as you didn’t have any pest or disease problems with your tomatoes last year you should be OK planting them in the same location this year. I wouldn’t make it a big habit, though. I would try to grow them in a different location next season if you can. Growing a cover crop will help replenish nutrients in the soil and act as a mulch, so it’s always a good idea.

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