No matter what type of garden you have, mulch can make the difference between a successful vegetable harvest and a disappointing one. With so many choices, how do you know which one is the best to use? 

What is Mulching?

If you have a vegetable garden or a plot of cultivated land, mulch is a must-have. Not only will it keep weeds at bay and help keep your garden plots well-watered and less prone to temperature fluctuations, but it can also add nutrients to the soil.

Mulching is covering bare soil with a thin layer of organic or inorganic material to retain moisture and prevent erosion. Depending on the material, it can enhance the quality of the ground by adding organic matter. 

Mulching helps the plants absorb nutrients and water better, allowing roots to grow deeper into the soil. It is typically done with other gardening techniques, including adding fertilizer and composting.

Mulching can improve a garden’s appearance, enhance and protect the growth of plants, and overall make gardening easier. Many gardeners use mulch around flower beds, vegetable gardens, and other ornamental areas.

hay mulch around vegetable

Why do You Need to Use Mulch?

While mulch is essential for healthy vegetables, it will also prevent weeds from growing around your plants. Blocking light and breathing will prevent weed survival, favoring the growth of our crops without the risk of competition.

It’s also a barrier to some pests, keeping them from destroying plants. When the ground freezes, garden mulch provides insulation for your vegetables and keeps soil and roots from freezing.

Mulching can increase vegetable yields by up to 50%, which is why it’s a good idea to get started sooner rather than later.

Advantages of Mulching in Vegetable Garden

One of the main benefits is related to the fight against weeds. In fact, this is the simplest and fastest way to fight weed for several reasons. Mulching prevents weeds from growing, while other methods, such as digging, will also create conditions for the new generation of weeds to grow even faster and more robust. 

Another great advantage of mulching in vegetable gardens is the easier maintenance of soil humidity. That is extremely important in the summer, warm months when large amounts of water in the garden evaporate. The soil under the cover will remain moistured longer, which is an excellent growing condition for most vegetables.

Mulching can also extend the growing season in your garden. Some vegetables love to be kissed by the first frost, which will give them better flavor, but in some cases, the first frost can be intense and cause the death of your plants. Mulching cool-season vegetables prevent roots from freezing, and in solid winters, most perennials will survive if appropriately mulched.

mulching around vegetables

Disadvantages of Mulch

Although mulching is undoubtedly an excellent method in vegetable gardening, there are several drawbacks. Some plants just don’t fit the mulch. That primarily refers to some root vegetables, except for potatoes. Similarly, as mulch cools the ground in spring and summer, it can slow down the germination and growth of some plants. Too much water and moisture can increase the number of fungi, which can lead to some severe diseases.

It turns out ants and thermites like minor soils, so it’s not the best idea to mulch the surfaces near a house. Slugs and snails are other animal species that love to live in dark moistured places, so if you notice chewed leaves and snail tracks around the garden, you will know where to look for them.

What Types of Mulch are available?

Garden mulch comes in a variety of materials. Choosing the right one is a matter of finding a material that works best for your needs, garden, or ornamental plants. It can be composed of one material, but you can also combine it with another. For example, you can mix straw and wood chips or use a mixture of leaves and grass clippings.

preparing mulch for summer

Organic Materials

Natural materials are better to use in garden areas where you grow organic food.

In large food production, farms sometimes are hard to distribute mulch between plants and require a lot of manual work. Hence, costs and logistical problems mainly limit the usage of organic matter to smaller areas of land.

Organic materials are most often: weaving grass, straw, leaves, the bark of trees, pine needles, sawdust, compost, etc.

Inorganic Materials

Inorganic mulch is typically made of stones, such as river rocks, sand, plastic, rubber, and even fabric which is why it lacks nutrients. When applying one of these, it is often necessary to add nutrients, such as compost or peat moss, to maintain a healthy and vibrant garden.

Inorganic mulching can be done in gravel or with the help of plastic foils of varying sizes and colors, depending on the needs of individual crops. Mulching plastic foil is essential, especially in small and medium-sized fields, to increase yield and weed protection with minimum cost and labor. But synthetic mulches do have their drawbacks. In particular, they are non-biodegradable and may be hazardous to wildlife and pollinators. Many synthetic mulches contain harsh chemicals that can cause health problems and are not recommended for organic vegetable growing.

black plastic mulch on medium sized field

Best Organic Mulches for Vegetable Garden

There are many organic types and variations, but for the vegetable gardening, these are the best proven and will work well for most garden beds: 

Dry leaves

Leaves can provide a thick layer of mulch and are ideal for plants that thrive in cool conditions. Leaves break down quickly and become a natural fertilizer.

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are an excellent source of organic matter. They absorb moisture from the soil and keep the ground from drying out. The most efficient way is to spread them in an even layer on top of the soil, where they will decompose naturally. You should use dry grass clippings to avoid the development of fungus and may need to add a thicker layer in colder areas to prevent vegetables from freezing.

Wood Chips & Shredded Bark

Wood chips are the most common type of mulch for gardens. They are naturally absorbent, protect from weeds, and are ideal for growing vegetables, trees, and flowers. They are easy to apply and maintain, require little care, and will add a unique look to landscape design. Bark nuggets can last up to 3 years.

Straw & Hay

These are a common, affordable choice for people that need a fast and effective way to mulch their gardens and yards. Hay bales are made from hay that is usually cut during the summer months. Straw is a thick, durable and ideal for cold and dry areas. It would be good to apply dry hay and not the fresh one to avoid the development of fungus. 

fungal diseases overwatered mulch

Pine Straw & Needles

Pine is a good option if you are looking for a natural, biodegradable alternative to other mulches. It is also an excellent option for protecting your vegetables and garden from frost. They are ideal for acid-loving vegetables like radishes, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, kale, etc.

Newspapers & cardboard 

Newspaper and cardboard are great for covering your garden beds, but they have some disadvantages.

While it can prevent weeds, it will also attract slugs and snails. Also, wind can spread it all over the garden, and it doesn’t look nice esthetically. For this reason, it’s best to use newspaper under a thick layer of organic material such as compost, bark, or straw.

Compost

Compost is a mixture of organic materials turned into an active soil conditioner. It contains nitrogen, phosphorous, and micronutrients that can enrich the soil and make plants grow faster and more robust. In addition, compost helps keep weeds down and improves soil nutrition. Compost mulch is a mixture of yard waste chopped up and mixed with peat moss or other organic materials. Composted material is easy to spread, water-retentive, and decomposes in the soil. 

Inorganic Mulches

Rocks, Stones and Gravel

It helps to reject the rodents, reduces the evaporation of water in the soil, and minimizes the growth of weeds. Stones and rocks are not a practical choice for vegetable gardening because of the hard labor when tilling the soil every season. They are primarily used in landscaping.

Plastic foil

inorganic black plastic mulch

The use of plastic foil for mulching purposes today prevails. It protects soil and plants from high, low temperatures and weeds, but it does not feed the soil and does not decompose.

The foil causes smell and slime if it is not perforated. The cheaper foils don’t even prevent the growth of weeds because they tear themselves apart easily. There are different types and colors of plastic foils. Some are biodegradable but can be expensive.

Rubber

Rubber mulch is used to protect soil from erosion and to suppress weeds. It can also improve the appearance of your garden. There are some drawbacks to rubber in organic gardens. It can contain chemicals and is also hard to remove later.

What Kind of Mulch is the Best?

Many different mulches are available today, and it is hard to find the best one. Each is different and has its benefits and drawbacks.

mulch types by color material
  • Light color cover: it reflects light and hence warmth. Some examples are hay, sawdust, some light-colored woodchips, etc. It is an excellent choice for cool-seasoned vegetables like brassicas which will help them prevent bolting (flowering) during the hot summers.
  • Dark color cover: absorbs and retains more sun warmth than brighter materials. That is advantageous in regions with a colder climate but not in warmer areas. 
  • Colored cover are mostly dyed with natural colors and have more decorative purposes than helpful in vegetable gardening. They are great for house plants but would be an expensive choice for gardening needs, and most of them won’t provide any nutritional value to the soil.
  • Fragmented cover can suffer erosion during heavy rain and eventually lose when withheld by a strong wind. They are suitable for fast-growing varieties or cover crops in areas where the wind is not strong.
  • Heavier cover: rocks and stones are more resistant to washing out and are great for weed suppression. They usually need some foliage or fabric to place under to prevent sinking over time and are mainly used around the trees and ornamental plants.

The leaves and branches also tend to build a solid blanket that stays on the surface for a long time. They are an excellent choice because they provide nutrients and organic matter to your veggies. Generally, more extensive and heavier pieces will last longer but won’t decompose quickly.

Planning and Preparation of Your Garden Beds

preparing for mulching

Planing

The first thing you have to do is to plan which surfaces you will cover and with what material. Then you must calculate how many materials you will need. To do this:

  1. Multiply your garden plot’s width and length by feet.
  2. For 4 inches of mulch thickness, divide the result by 3 to get the cubic feet of volume required.
  3. Obtain the materials you will use.

The best and cheapest solution is to use organic materials that you have at your disposal, such as cut grass or fallen leaves. You can also use woodchips and sawdust left after the wood is stored for winter.

Preparation

Before mulching, you should also make some preparatory action. Soak the garden bed with a good amount of water, and if plants or weeds are growing on the land, run them over. Trampling is a better solution than plucking because these plants will be the first layer of your new cover. It would be good to add a little compost or some similar material to speed up degradation processes. Although kitchen waste is an excellent compost material, it is not wise to add it to mulch because it can attract rodents and other pests. 

How Deep Should Mulch Be?

You can place a certain amount of weeds in your mulch mixture, and over it, throw a layer of dry leaves, grass, straw, sawdust, or similar material. You can also sprinkle a little lime or bone meal in this mixture. What you choose depends on two things – the existing pH of your soil and the vegetable you plan to grow. If you regularly feed your vegetable gardens, whether by adding organic or inorganic fertilizers, that will increase the soil’s acidity. Since most vegetable crops are more suitable for alkaline soil, it would be good to pour lime every few years. If you grow heavier feeders that require more nitrogen add bone meal. Mulch thickness should be 3 to 4 inches.

When to Use?

You can apply mulch right after transplanting your seedlings into the garden beds.

In the autumn-winter period, covering garden plots or around the plants with different methods and materials will help protect the plant’s roots from low temperatures. That dramatically reduces the risk of mortality during the first frost or snow. Using mulch during the summer will prevent water loss from the ground and helps retain moisture in the soil.

mulching around seedlings

Where to Get Mulch? 

If you cant make your own organic matter, you can buy it from the local garden center or established trustworthy online shops, but if you are looking for a more organic alternative, like manure, purchase from local farms or nurseries.

When purchasing for growing vegetables, always look for the label stating that the material is biodegradable.

Conclusion

Before we finish, let me remind you that mulching is a crucial practice for vegetable gardening. It’s one of the essential aspects of gardening, and if you don’t know how to use it, you may suffer poor yield results.

In fact, protected and covered beds are typically more productive than bare ones. That is because cover helps retain soil moisture, improves soil aeration, and protects the roots of your vegetables.

When choosing the best one for your vegetable garden, there are many factors to consider. To start, you need to consider what type of soil you’ll be growing in. Some soils are naturally acidic, while others are alkaline. Mulching with a mixture of organic materials is best for most types of soils.

Other factors to consider include the amount of sunlight your garden receives, your budget, and available space. When selecting mulch for vegetable growing, you should choose a material that will keep the weeds down, regulate temperature and humidity, and add nutrients to the soil.