Why You Should Mulch Your Garden

Mulch Vegetable Garden

If you’ve worked or gardened with me in the past you might think I am a little mulch crazy…and you are probably right. It pains me to have bare soil in my garden, although it is a bit of a necessity sometimes. When considering whether to mulch or not, think about nature. Bare soil is not a common occurrence in the natural world. Bare soil is susceptible to erosion and compaction from wind and water. It is also an invitation for weed seeds, whose job is to be the first line of protection for the soil. They get in there and stabilize the soil with their roots and provide some shade from the beating summer sun until the next generation of species starts to colonize the area. When you cover the soil of your garden beds with mulch, you are protecting it from a weed seed party.  The first benefit mulch offers is to keep down the weeds, which makes every gardener happy.

If you live in the Madison area, you remember the drought of last summer when gardens everywhere were suffering. If you garden was heavily mulched like mine, you didn’t have to water much more than usual and your plants didn’t suffer as much as in other gardens. This is because mulch keeps the soil insulated and traps moisture, which allows you to water less than if you had bare soil.

Most gardeners know that soil health is one of the main building blocks of a successful garden.  The mulch in your garden breaks down over time and adds organic matter to your garden.  Each year I use about 15 bales of hay on my garden and I am amazed that they just seem to disappear by the next year.

Mulching can also help keep down the spread of disease in your garden. If you mulch nothing else, at least mulch your tomatoes. We have a lot of soil borne tomato diseases in this area that can splash up onto the plant when it rains if your soil is bare. Mulching around your tomatoes covers the soil and can slow down the spread of disease.  My tomatoes are mulched heavily and are still pretty disease ridden by the end of the season, but I think the mulch helps the plants stay one step ahead of the disease so it doesn’t interfere with their production and my harvest.

 

Mulch Your Vegetable Garden

My freshly woochipped and mulched garden in spring.

 

 

Mulching garden beds with marsh hay is my first choice, with straw as my second. You can mulch with leaves, although if they aren’t shredded they have the tendency to mat together into a big impermeable sheet.  Grass clippings and newspaper are fine as well. I would let the clippings turn brown before I put them on my garden and the newspaper needs to be weighted down with something so it doesn’t blow away.

Woodchips are not for vegetable garden beds (keep them in your perennial beds) because they tie up nitrogen as they break down. I do use woodchips in my aisles because they last the full season without needing to be reapplied. I also like the aesthetic effect of having two different colors and textures in my garden beds and paths. Sometimes I’ll use cardboard in stubborn weedy areas as the first layer of mulch with woodchips on top.

Use what’s easy to get in your area. But, be careful! As with any inputs you bring into your garden you should double check your source. Make sure you’re not bringing any unwanted weeds onto your property. Ask questions before you buy mulch to find out where it’s from and what’s in it.

 

Vegetable Garden Mulch

You can use cardboard under the woodchips in especially weedy areas like the outer paths of your garden.

There is no such thing as too much mulch in my garden. You definitely don’t want to see any soil through the mulch or that’s precisely where the weeds will set up shop.  Mulching is one of the most important techniques in creating a low maintenance garden that also looks neat, tidy and beautiful.

What other questions do you have about mulch? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll take some time to answer them.

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Comments

  • When do you put mulch down for the vegetable garden? I am worried that the vegetable plants aren’t strong enough to push through straw for instance.

    • Hi Britney – Thanks for stopping by! You never want to put mulch over plants or seeds because they need the light. But, you can mulch around small plants and newly germinated seeds. My garden is usually covered in mulch and I either clear a little hole to plant a seedling or clear off a section to plant seeds. Once the seeds germinate I mulch around them to keep down weeds and trap in moisture. Let me know if you have any other questions!

  • I didn’t realize that mulch can keep down the disease in the garden. A lot of people don’t really see the benefits of having mulch in their yard. However, it really does make a difference to at least have something to help your yard stay in top condition. Do you have any preferences when it comes to mulch?

    • I like marsh hay for vegetable garden beds because it’s very common in my area. I think it’s best to use what you can get locally – leaves, straw, hay. Just be careful of your source. Ask questions about where it comes from so you don’t import new weeds into your garden. Thanks for stopping by, Johnny!

  • I didn’t know that mulching could reduce the spread of disease in your garden. I haven’t gardened very seriously in the past, but I want to try and put more effort into it this next year. Next time I’ll consider mulching my garden to keep disease from spreading.

  • Phyllis Holloway-Shelton

    What should I be asking when buying mulch? How will I know that the brand of hay or straw doesn’t have weeds mixed in them and if they do what could be done?

    • Great question, Phyllis. You want to make sure the mulch doesn’t have weed seeds in it, so ask what it consists of. You also want to make sure it doesn’t contain any herbicides. A way to test to see if your mulch has seeds in it is to leave it out in the rain and warmth for a few weeks. If nothing sprouts out of it then it’s clean.

  • I have pine trees in my back yard, can I use the needles? I live in Las Vegas.

  • I would love to start a garden, and I want to make sure I am choosing the right supplies to make it successful. Mulch is definitely an important aspect of gardening! There are so many benefits that you mentioned. I didn’t realize that mulch could help keep down the spread of disease in a garden. Thanks for sharing!

  • […] the garden that really matters – the area where you are growing food. Who cares about the paths? All you need to do is keep them mulched so they don’t grow […]

  • Be careful with you stra source,I mulched my raised beds this year with straw bought from a local nursery and the straw seed sprouted,it was as if I planted grass on my new raised beds.i had to remove the straw and for days handpicked all the sprouted seeds ,I am still dealing with this problem.
    I will suggest you buy the straw and possible water it and watch for a couple of weeks to see it it sprouts .
    I have learnt my lesson.

    • Was it oat straw? Sometimes that sprouts and looks like grass. If you live in a cold climate it’s not too big of a deal because they can’t survive the winter. Watering the bale for awhile is a good idea if you have doubts.

  • Can you use rocks or pebbles as mulch?

    • You can, Nicole, but you should probably put something down under them like landscape fabric, or even better, some kind of gravel screenings. Know that you will get weeds in the rocks over time and sometimes it’s hard to get them out.

  • I Live in Morton Bay, Queensland, and just wondering what sort of mulch could I use, I grow habernero chillies. Thanks Annie

    • Annie- I always suggest using something from your local area as mulch. Do you have access to hay, straw, leaves, or grass clippings?

  • Mulch is definitely an important aspect of gardening! My garden is usually covered in mulch, I always mulch around small plants and newly germinated seeds. Thanks for sharing this heplful info!

  • Do you take the marsh hay off the beds over winter (& reuse next year) or leave on? Where is the best source for good marsh hay around Madison, WI and what is a good price for it?

    • Hi Dianne- I leave the marsh hay on all winter to protect the soil. It breaks down over time and I add a new layer on top. I get mine from Jungs. My husband just bought two bales for me yesterday and they were $7 each.

  • Whenever I use straw or grass clippings they tend to get moldy. If I layer too thin, the weeds creep through. If too thick, the straw gets moldy underneath. I live on the coast so there is already a problem with moisture. Any suggestions?

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