If you are new to any type of gardening, it’s important that you understand what other gardeners already know . . . mulching is just as essential to a garden as composting! Mulching helps build your soil - it is an excellent weed barrier; it retains water and can regulate temperatures that can affect root systems.
Mulching can be done in the fall, winter and/or early spring. There are a variety of mulch options depending on the type of gardening, so what are the best mulches for a vegetable garden?
What Is Mulch?
The first thing is - what exactly is mulch? Mulch is a layer of material applied to the top or surface of soil.
It can be made from natural, organic and biodegradable materials or inorganic materials, some that are natural and others that are non-natural which may or may not biodegrade.
A good mulch is one that comes from a sustainable source, can be biodegradable and contains no harmful ingredients or elements.
Benefits Of Mulching …
Let’s look at the benefits mulching has on your vegetable garden, some of which have been stated above but are worth repeating, along with a few additional ones:
Weed Barrier – Mulch is excellent in preventing weeds from growing. It can block the light that any existing weeds already in your soil need to grow and can prevent any seeds that are blown in from taking root.
You may still get a few weeds, but they will be manageable compared to what may have happened without a mulch layer.
Retains Water/Moisture – Mulch holds water or moisture to your soil and acts as a barrier protecting it from heat and wind.
This is very important when growing new gardens, since you need to establish how much watering is needed and for how long.
Regulates Temperatures – Mulch layers protect the plant/vegetables roots from heat or freezing temperature shifts so that they can receive the proper nutrition to remain healthy.
If you do not have a mulch layer, damage may occur when it is too hot, hardening the soil so that water cannot penetrate the surface.
Damage can also occur when there are freezing temperatures or frost, with no mulch or snow to protect the roots.
Prevents Soil Erosion – Mulch helps prevent topsoil from runoffs and erosion from heavy rains, wind and even gardeners.
As stated above, without mulch, your soil may become hardened which inhibits water from penetrating the soil and making it more susceptible to wind erosion.
Heavy rains may carry away the topsoil and any fertilizers used. Without mulch, gardeners may contribute to long-term problems, like runoffs and erosion by compacting the soil if they are always walking in their gardens.
Protects Against Diseases – Mulch reduces the risk of disease by offering a layer of protection. Diseases that live in the soil may infect plants/vegetables after being transported to the foliage by rain or watering.
Supplies Nutrients/Organic Materials – Natural mulch, like compost, breaks down and supplies your soil with organic materials that feed nutrients to your vegetables and helps with drainage.
Limits Waste – Natural mulch, made from leaves, bark, wood often ends up taking up space in landfills as trash or waste. We can limit this waste by composting these items or making them into mulch.
Selecting The Right Mulch …
We already stated that a good mulch is biodegradable, does not add harmful ingredients and should come from a sustainable source. When selecting mulch, you should also consider what you are using the mulch for - types of vegetables, and where you are located – weather conditions, types of soil.
Not all vegetables like the same growing conditions, some prefer warmer conditions, while others prefer cooler weather.
Are you located in a dry or wet area? Is the climate warm or cool? What type of soil do you have – wet, dry, sandy, clay-like?
The answers to these questions will influence the type of mulch you need for optimal growth.
Types Of Mulching …
So, we know that there are organic and inorganic mulches available. Below is a list of some of these materials:
Organic Mulches: Biodegradable Weed Mat, Cardboard, Chopped/shredded leaves, Compost, Grass clipping (no herbicides), Hay (rotted/salt), Newspaper/Shredded paper, Straw, Wood chips
Inorganic Mulches: Carpet remnants, Gravel or stone, Plastic sheeting – black, clear or colored, Polyester garden fabrics
Best Mulches For Vegetable Gardens …
Organic, natural mulches are definitely better for vegetable gardens because they are biodegradable, do not contain harmful ingredients and come from a sustainable source. Below are some of the favorite mulch choices for vegetable gardens, along with some pros and cons.
Compost – High-quality, seed-free, store-bought compost is a great mulch for vegetable gardens. It supplies your garden with nutrients and works well with other mulches. It can be expensive and attract some weeds.
Chopped/shredded leaves – Are inexpensive ways to add nutrients to your soil and are good for drainage. It also works well with added compost.
Grass clippings – Absolutely free way to mulch. However, two things to remember: your grass must be untreated – no chemicals and your clippings must be dried before use. Wet grass clippings can generate heat and mold.
Newspaper/Shredded paper – Is 100% biodegradable, decomposes fairly quickly and great for the soil. Since it does decompose quickly, it's best to lay several sheets down and dampen the paper to prevent it from flying away.
Straw – Is easily attainable, easy to use, herbicide free, and helps retain moisture. It works good for dry rows or walkways between garden vegetables, and helps prevent weeds if layered heavily.
Because straw is so light, it’s best that you do not apply it on a windy day. Another point is that straw does take longer to break down and is not as nutrient dense as other mulches.
Wood chips – “Arborist wood chips” is a great mulch for gardens, however maybe not vegetable gardens*. This type contains a bit more nutrients because of its carbon-nitrogen ratio. It is very important to note that wood chips should be placed on top of the soil, not mixed into the soil.
*This mulch is slow to break down and since vegetable gardens may be pulled up and replanted several times during the year, having to take out wood chip pieces may be a bit time consuming.
The Bottom Line
I did not touch on inorganic mulches because there are so many negative drawbacks for not only the environment but animals as well. Whereas, organic mulching offers so many benefits for your vegetable garden.
Do your research. Experiment. Try various mulches, find and then choose what is best for you. Believe me your garden will thank you with an abundance of delicious, nutritious, vegetables!