One hallmark of any healthy garden is the effective use of mulch. Mulches help control weeds, prevent disease, conserve moisture, maintain consistent soil temperatures, enrich the soil and make the garden look good. And, a well-mulched garden can produce more vegetables than an unmulched garden due to its ability to reduce foliage and disease. But the effects of mulch aren’t all good. The variety of mulch you choose and the benefit you desire will play an important role. Here are some differences in the types of mulch and their attributes for your vegetable plants.
Pros/Cons of Mulching Your Vegetable Garden
Like all applications of mulch, it is an individual choice. Organic vs inorganic. Cheap vs expensive. Clay vs sand soil. What looks good versus what doesn’t. And the list can go on. What are some factors that should be considered when deciding whether to use mulch?
In many cases, the potential problems of having mulch are inferior to the benefits of mulch. Plus, there are numerous options to prevent any issues that arise when mulch is used.
Mulches for Vegetable Gardens
Organic mulches come from plant materials such as bark, leaves or needles, grass clippings, or compost. Here are some considerations for your vegetable garden.
It is best to use dry grass and build up that layer gradually to a few inches thick. Using a thick layer of green grass will give off excessive heat and foul odors rather than decompose like other organic materials. Grass clippings decompose rapidly and provide a dose of nitrogen to the growing plants. It is best to avoid clippings from lawns that have been treated with herbicides or fertilizers.
Hay or Straw
Hay and straw are clean, light, and they break down relatively easy, giving your plants more of what they need to grow. Avoid products that are full of weed seeds that will later sprout in your garden. Since straw and hay will compost pretty quickly, check the depth after about six weeks as you will probably need to add 2 or 3 inches to help keep the weeds down and moisture in the soil.
If you are looking to raise acidity levels in your garden soil, using pine needles as mulch is a great option. During heavy rain, pine needles tend to stay put and do not wash away making them a great choice for sloped gardens. Needles breakdown slower than other organic mulch options and they turn a silver/gray color as they age.
A 2 to 3-inch layer of leaves will provide good weed control and decompose fairly quickly. Easy to get, leaves will improve the soil by releasing nutrients during the decomposing process. Leaves that have been mowed or run through some other type of shredder will remain in place longer than unshredded leaves, and they will decompose faster, as well.
Bark & Wood Chips
Probably the most common type of mulch, bark and wood chips come in various varieties and colors. As bark and wood chips break down, the organic matter gets worked down into the soil through the activity of earthworms and insects that live and burrow in the soil. This enriches the soil and leads to healthier plant growth. Bark and wood chips do break down quickly and will need to be replenished periodically to provide weed suppression and water conservation benefits.
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Primarily composed of discarded yard and kitchen waste, the rotten trash of decomposed organic ingredients is a prized substance for gardeners. Using compost as a mulch will provide your plants with rich nutrients over a long period of time. As rain falls on the compost, nitrogen and carbon are worked into the soil providing high-quality amendments. Over time, composting materials will revive the soil and vanquish any toxins that would prevent plants from growing and thriving.
These man-made materials also work well for vegetable gardens.
If you abhor weeds, one layer of black plastic will help with weed management. Over time the plastic will be broken down by sunlight and must be replaced. It will increase the soil temperature and this should be monitored so that plant roots are not damaged. Often, an organic mulch is applied on top of black plastic to absorb sunlight and prevent overheating of the soil.
Like black plastic, landscape fabric slows weed growth. This product is great under stones and gravel as it will keep rocks from sinking into the soil. It also makes removal of rocks and gravel easier if you decide to change up your landscaping plans. Landscape fabric makes weeding very difficult and is not recommended under organic mulches. It is better to let organic mulches decompose and mix into the soil.
Using newspaper will provide good weed control. Readily available, newspaper will decompose after one season and can also be used to keep plants from encroaching beyond their desired location. To keep newspaper in place, it is best to water it down and cover it with an organic mulch or soil. The newspaper layer will biodegrade into the soil allowing roots to penetrate and moisture and soil microbes to pass through.
What is the best mulch for vegetable gardens?
It comes down to the gardener’s crop and personal preferences. Organic gardeners will rely on organic mulches due to their natural ingredients and availability. This isn’t to say that inorganic mulch is bad, but it is best to avoid mulches that don’t integrate with the soil and reduce the fertile composition of the garden bed.
The best vegetable garden mulch is the one that works best for your plants and soil. If you want something that decomposes quickly and introduces nutrients over time, wood chips are a good choice. If you need to make your soil more acidic, pine needles will work best. Mulch for vegetable gardens shouldn’t be complex or expensive, but each option has its attributes and drawbacks. Keep it simple and see what you like as you find your perfect mulch.