How and Why to Mulch Your Plants

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How and Why to Mulch Your Plants

You may ask, what is mulch and do I really need it for my garden? Here are 5 of the top main reasons on how and why you should mulch your plants in the vegetable garden.

  1. Retain moisture in the soil
  2. Suppress weeds
  3.  Moderate soil temperatures, keep the soil cool in summer(warmer in winter)
  4. Make the garden look more attractive
  5. Organic mulches improve the soil’s fertility as they decay=more fertilizer!

There are two basic lanes, if you will, with mulching: Landscape and Vegetable/Food garden mulching. For the sake of this post, I’m going to address using mulch for the vegetable garden. Mulching for landscape does serve the same purpose of suppressing weeds and retaining moisture. But it also has a higher need of beautification and aesthetics. And of course, there is always making the landscape crew more manageable with labor and budget, etc. Though, of course we want our vegetable garden to be beautiful too sans weeds! It’s not one of the main purposes like in landscaping for private or public viewing for a public audience along roadsides or public parks might be. But whichever lane you take, the end result of mulching will be fewer weeds!

So What Do I Use For Mulch?

Popular mulches vary by region and can depend on what’s locally available. Most commercially sold mulches are by-products of forest harvesting like wood chips. People will advocate using just about anything in the garden for covering the soil like cardboard, newspapers and pallets! While those may work, somewhat, in weed suppression, they may not be your best choice. And may depend on whether or not you happen to have a stack of cardboard and pallets available!

How and Why to Mulch Your Plants

A block of hay from a bale used as mulch.

Types of Mulch for Your Garden

There are two basic kinds of mulch: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include formerly living material such as fallen and composted leaves, hay, grass clippings, wood chips, shredded bark and sawdust and even newspaper. Inorganic mulches include black plastic and landscape fabric known as weed blockers.

1. Compost is great to use as mulch if you have enough of it. It will definitely improve your soil and make your soil bacteria and plants happy.  But you may want to reserve your compost as a thin bottom layer and add another layer of mulch on top, such as hay or bark or wood chips. That way, the compost stays in contact with plant roots and soil bacteria and finish with a thicker layer to help with weed suppression and aesthetics. In this way, the compost acts like a timed-release fertilizer.

2. Bark or Woodchips is a common material for mulching. There are many commercial types of wood chips to shredded bark. Everything is always in different sizes and you can purchase bark in designer colors. One thing to be aware of if you use fresh wood pulp to the garden as mulch is wood chips may tie up available nitrogen in the soil. If this is for a vegetable garden, you can’t afford to lose valuable growing time and nutrient availability for younger plants to deal with this setback. As the mulch breaks down, which could be 4-8 weeks, the plants will pick up growth normally. But you should offset with an application of nitrogen fertilizer like blood meal. Or better yet, let the wood pulp cure before adding to the soil as mulch and only add to a top layer to already more seasoned layer below.

3. Fabric. Mulching a vegetable garden with sheets of plastic film can achieve multiple objectives. When it’s applied over a smooth soil surface, black plastic will transmit the sun’s heat to the soil beneath, heating the soil in a mini climate warmer than an uncovered plot. Because the plastic film remains warm and dry, it protects the fruits of leggier crops such as strawberries, melons, and cucumbers from rotting and keeps them clean and speeds up the harvest. And of course, the mulch prevents weed growth and retains soil moisture.

There are really only two basic guidelines for mulching in the Weed War. First step is best to lay mulch down on soil you’ve already weeded, and next, put down a thick enough layer to either prevent, or discourage new weeds from coming through. If weeds do come through, they will likely be weaker and fewer in number. And remember, it’s a lot easier on your back to pick only a handful of weeds, rather than bushels!

I hope this little primer on how and why to mulch your plants was helpful. I am including this great little video on mulching by Nature Hills Nursery as it is a very good overview on things I discussed. Also, it will give you more points to consider in the Weed Wars of 2019!

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