Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

vegetable garden in summer with mulch

My vegetable garden looking tidily mulched in summer!

Weeds! They’re every gardener’s nemesis. And they are, by far, the most common frustration I hear from fellow gardeners. If we’re not careful, weeds can take over our gardens (and our lives!) within a few short weeks of the gardening season.

So, gardener to gardener, I’m here to tell it to you straight. Weeding is a complete waste of time.

And if you’re spending more than a few minutes a week weeding your garden during the season, it’s time to change your strategy.

There’s one simple, inexpensive, and effective tool you can use all season long, year after year, to make your garden weed-less — mulch.

Here’s why vegetable garden mulch is so amazing and how you should use it in your garden.

Vegetable Garden Mulch – The Ultimate Garden Tool

woman weeding and mulching in vegetable garden

Less time spent weeding. The #1 way to cut down on weeding at all times of the year is to keep the soil covered. 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.

When you cover the soil of your garden beds with mulch, you are preventing a weed seed party from happening in your garden.

Less time spent watering. Vegetable garden mulch keeps the soil insulated and traps in moisture, which results in much less watering than if you leave the soil exposed. (Here’s how you should be watering your garden.)

A few years ago here in the Madison area, we had one of the worst droughts I’ve experienced as a gardener. Gardens everywhere were suffering and people were spending a lot of their mornings and evenings watering their gardens. Because my garden was heavily mulched I didn’t water much more than I usually do, and my plants didn’t suffer nearly as bad as many of my neighbors.

back yard vegetable garden with mulch

Builds healthier soil. Most gardeners know that soil health is one of the main building blocks of a successful garden.  And the presence of organic matter in your soil helps improve soil structure, retains moisture, and increases the number of micro-organisms in your garden.

The vegetable garden mulch you add breaks down over time and increases the organic matter in your soil.  Each year I use about eight bales of hay in my garden and I’m always amazed how much they decompose and disappear into the soil.

Prevents diseases from spreading. During summer I receive a lot of emails and social media comments from gardeners feeling frustrated by the tomato diseases attacking their favorite varieties.

Luckily, mulching can help keep down the spread of disease in your garden. If you mulch nothing else, at least mulch your tomatoes. There are a lot of soil-borne tomato diseases that splash up onto the plant when it rains if your soil is bare. (Read more about preventing tomato diseases.)

tomato plants with vegetable garden mulch

What should you use for mulch? Marsh hay is my first choice for mulch in my garden, but you can also use straw, leaves, grass clippings or anything else that’s local to your region.

One word of caution: mind your source of mulch.  Hay can bring weed seeds into your garden if you’re not careful. Ask questions about where the mulch came from before you purchase it.

What should you not use for mulch? Woodchips are not a good choice for mulching of vegetable garden beds because they contain too much carbon. When carbon heavy materials break down in the soil they tie up a lot of nitrogen that would otherwise be going to the vegetable plants.

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.

vegetable garden paths with woodchip mulch

How thick should you mulch? As a huge proponent of mulching, I always joke that in my book there’s no such thing as too much mulch. You definitely don’t want to see any soil through the mulch because that’s precisely where the weeds will set up shop.

Where can you buy mulch? I used to order my hay mulch through the community garden where I had a plot. If you have a community garden in your area, ask about their mulch source.

Now that I only garden at home, I buy it from a local nursery in my city (Jung’s if you’re a fellow Madisonian!). Talk to other gardeners in your area, look on Craigslist for listings, or ask organic farmers at your local market where they purchase their weed-free mulch.

Mulching is the ultimate tool for creating a low maintenance garden with healthy soil, less disease, lower water needs, and a tidy and beautiful aesthetic. I hardly ever say this about gardening, but if you’re not mulching your garden, you’re doing it wrong. There’s no reason not to start right now.

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  • 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?

  • How often we have to replace or clean the mulch? Does it need to be removed often?

    • Great question, Pete! You don’t ever have to clean it, but you do need to replenish it when it start to get thin. If you can see the soil through the mulch then weeds will grow through. Thicker is better. The only time I remove it is when I’m planting directed seeded crops like beets, carrots, lettuce, etc. Once they germinate I put it back on. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Hello. I live in Milwaukee Wi. I have used Preen in the past but doesn’t seem to do the job in my Veggie gardens. Going to try the mulch. Is Marsh hay available at local garden centers? Thanks!

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