The gardens around my home in Richmond, VT, include a large vegetable garden, seasonal greenhouse, cutting garden, perennial gardens, rock garden, shade garden, berry plantings, lots of container plants and a meadow garden.There's no place I'd rather be than in the garden.But when it comes to the vegetable garden, mulching gets a bit more complicated.Over the years, I've mulched my vegetable garden with oat straw, newspaper, grass clippings, burlap coffee bags, leaves and black plastic.The straw looked great, but was expensive, and also contained so many seeds that I had to weed out foot-high oat plants for most of the summer.The garden looked a bit like a rummage sale, but the bags kept the weeds down.Black plastic mulch has yielded some good results and a few disappointments.You might also consider removing the plastic in late July and replacing it with a water-permeable mulch, such as straw, newspaper or grass clippings.They'll be better off with straw, shredded leaves, paper mulch or newspaper.High soil temperatures can stress your plants and burn up organic matter.In hot climates, most crops will be happier and more productive with a soil-cooling mulch such as shredded leaves or straw.It will raise the soil temperature and also help dry out the soil.Take a minute to consider your garden's soil conditions before selecting a mulch.This type of soil will usually dry out a bit as the season progresses, so don't cover it up with a thick, moisture-retentive mulch.Leave at least half your grass clippings on the lawn.Clippings used as garden mulch should be sun-dried for a day or so.Rotted hay. .

Why Mulch Matters

What is Mulch?Wood chips, pine bark, leaves, straw, grass clippings – these are all examples of beneficial mulch because they decompose and provide many more benefits to your soil.Natural materials which don’t bio-degrade or which take decades to break down – like stone or shells – don’t fall into the category of what I consider a beneficial mulch.Moderates Soil Temperature – Many of a plant’s feeder roots (which do the heavy lifting when it comes to taking up nutrients for the plant) grow in the first few inches underneath the soil surface.You may already know that soil compaction can create long-term problems, which is why you should always avoid walking in your garden and landscape beds.With a layer of mulch covering your garden soil, the weed seeds lurking there won’t receive the light they need to germinate, and mulch can block the seeds which blow in on the wind from reaching soil and taking root.Adds Nutrients and Organic Materials – Healthy soil should be made up of around 30% organic matter (by volume).Compost is a great source of organic material to improve soil health, but so is mulch.Over time, natural mulch material breaks down.This is a significant benefit of mulch, and one that non-natural mulches or non-biodegradable mulches don’t offer.By using wood mulch products, we’re really cutting down on landfill waste.In fact, 60% of all material going into a landfill can – and should – be composted, used as mulch or recycled.Shredded leaves and finely ground bark will protect my soil through the growing season; but by the time the season is waning and it’s time to amend with compost, most of those small mulch fragments have broken down into a soil-like material.So, I can amend the bed with compost without having to pull back the mulch layer.These products typically use food grade coloring.I also recommend against cypress mulch products.Ask the supplier where they get their material.I was once all set to buy from a local supplier when a casual conversation revealed that their heaps of wood mulch came not only from area tree service companies (a good resource) but also from area work crews demolishing old play sets, decks and other wood structures.The chemicals are then released through all the exposed areas of the wood chips.The vegetable-based dyes are added to make the wood from all those various sources look consistent, but there’s no way for you to tell what chemicals may be lurking in those beautifully-colored wood chips.Now that we’ve explored what constitutes a good mulch, let’s take a look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of the most commonly available types.Shredded leaves are great to work with.They look nice, and they hit my decomposition “sweet spot,” protecting my garden soil all through the growing season and reaching a soil-like consistency just in time for my fall compost amendment.Wood Mulch – There are plenty of options for wood mulch, some of which I’ve already touched on.Chip products, finely-ground options, hardwood, pine and more – how do you know which is best?Well, aside from the products and risk I’ve warned about, what you should use comes down to personal preference.As I mentioned, I use longer-lasting hardwood chip mulch in my GardenFarm paths but softer, smaller wood products anywhere I want something which will break down quickly to improve the soil.Some gardeners worry about using arborist wood chips and ask if chips which come from a diseased tree will spread disease in their landscape.Most studies indicate that diseased mulch does not spread disease to surrounding plants, trees and shrubs; so the risk would seem to be low.It’s only when the wood material is mixed into the soil – when soil makes contact with all the small surface areas – that the pH or nutrient levels can be negatively affected.Both options are easy to spread, and they look nice in the landscape.The bigger concern, however, is the possibility that the grass crop was treated with a persistent herbicide (used to kill broadleaf weeds but just as effectively lethal on many plants), which will take years to dissipate and can ruin your soil in the process.I prefer to add it to my compost heap, but if you would like to use it as a mulch, go for it.Living mulch – particularly cover crops – offer a host of benefits to soil health.Plastic Sheeting – While there are some agricultural applications where plastic sheet material as mulch makes sense, it’s just not a good idea in the home garden.Plastic or Rubber – Chips of these industrial materials aren’t uncommon as a mulch option.These petroleum-based products just don’t belong anywhere they make contact with our soil.I’m all for recycling, however, I just can’t feel good about recommending these products in our garden beds.Aim to spread and maintain your mulch at a depth of no more than 4” and no less than 2” and you will see a notable difference in the health of your plants and soil.Not only is this an expensive waste of a resource, but it’s also harmful to the health of the tree.Mulch under plants and trees is a very good thing, but it shouldn’t make contact with the trunk of trees or shrubs.A mulch volcano also covers the root flare of the tree.So, just don’t do it, and don’t let a landscape company do this on your property either.Over time, water from irrigation and rain will wash the nutrients through the mulch and down to the soil.I prefer to pull the mulch layer back and out of the way (unless the mulch is mostly decomposed).Once I’ve applied compost, I push the mulch back into place to protect the soil – and the compost.Direct contact with the soil allows the compost to provide results more quickly to the overall health of the bed.What about using compost as mulch?The best use of compost is to add it as an amendment and, then, to cover and protect it with a layer of another natural mulch material.That way, you’ll get more mileage from the compost – and you’ll also reap the benefits that a layer of natural mulch provides to soil health.joegardenerTV YouTube: The Best Way to Plant Trees and Shrubs for Healthy Establishment.joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! .

Creative Vegetable Gardener:Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

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.But, the good news is that you can drastically cut down on the number of weeds that grow in your garden using the simple technique of mulching.A few years ago here in the Madison area, we had one of the worst droughts I’ve experienced as a gardener.You may also notice as the summer progresses that uncovered soil will start to dry out and crack as the moisture content takes a nosedive.If I slide my hand under the layer of mulch on my garden bed the soil underneath is always dark, moist, and crumbly, even in the height of summer.The components that make up soil are minerals, organic materials, water and air.If you don’t have a lot of organic matter in your soil you’ll struggle to grow plants as you have increasing problems with fertility, water availability, compaction, erosion, parasites, diseases, and insects.There are lots of soil organisms that live in your garden whose job it is to break down nutrients and feed your plants.That means you’ll have a diverse and populous community of microorganisms living in your garden that are constantly working to keep your plants healthy and your soil providing them with the nutrients they need.Every garden season you should be regularly adding fresh organic matter by using mulch, cover crops, compost, and manure.Each year I use about eight bales of hay in my 1600 square foot garden and I’m always amazed how much they decompose and disappear into the soil.During summer I receive a lot of emails and social media comments from gardeners feeling frustrated by the tomato diseases attacking their favorite varieties.This will cut down on your stress levels, your plants will be more productive because they won’t have to compete with weeds, and I bet you’ll get more enjoyment from your garden.You won’t have to be constantly carving out time to weed large areas in an attempt to save your plants.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.If you’re unsure whether bales of hay or straw you’ve purchased contains weed seeds, leave one out in the rain for a few weeks and watch to see if things start sprouting out if it.When carbon heavy materials get mixed into the soil they can tie up a lot of nitrogen that would otherwise be going to the vegetable plants.I also like the aesthetic effect of having two different colors and textures of mulch in my garden beds and paths.If you order manure-based compost as a mulch, make sure that manure is being sourced from animals that graze on land that’s sprayed with herbicides.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.I think if you try it out this season you’ll find that mulch is the ultimate tool for creating a low maintenance garden with healthy soil, less disease, lower water needs, and a tidy and beautiful aesthetic. .

Winter Mulches for Vegetable Gardens

As fall turns to winter, my efforts focus on holding onto what I have, which means covering all exposed soil with mulch for the winter.In autumn, the most widely available organic mulches include leaves, compost, pine needles, wood chips, sawdust, and evergreen boughs.Strawberries thrive when given a moderate mulch of pine needles or straw in late fall, after they have stopped growing, with more mulch added in spring.Beds where I plan to grow broccoli, spinach and other heavy feeders get the best winter mulch of all – four or five layers of whatever organic materials I have on hand – leaves, rotted sawdust, garden waste, etc - stacked and dampened until it’s about 6 inches (15 cm) deep.In home vegetable gardens, tunnels covered with row cover, plastic, or cloth (such as thrift store window coverings) keep soil safe through winter, just like mulches.Especially in small gardens, don’t forget that pulled plants, piled on the garden’s surface, can be the easiest way to mulch some beds in winter. .

10 Tips for Successful Raised Bed Gardening

Plus, the soil in a raised bed warms earlier in the spring than in-ground garden beds, so you can get planting sooner.Of course, there are a few drawbacks to raised bed gardens.Plus, you'll want to consider the width of the raised bed when building it to ensure you can easily reach the center when planting or maintaining your garden.If you plan it ahead of time and install your irrigation system before planting, you can save yourself a lot of work and time spent standing around with a hose later on.Install a Barrier to Roots and Weeds.If you want to ensure that you won't have to deal with weeds growing up through your perfect soil, consider installing a barrier at the bottom of the bed.Cover up Your Soil, Even When You're Not Gardening.Add a layer of organic mulch or plant a cover crop at the end of your growing season.Plus, by adding a cover crop, you can increase the soil fertility as the crop breaks down after it's turned into the soil.A little planning up front can enable you to grow earlier in the season or extend your growing season well into the fall. .

Mulch Must-Knows

Keep these tips in mind as you’re planting your spring garden and throughout the entire year, especially if you decide to add any new beds or landscaping.Adding it to your planting bed will block light from reaching the soil, which keeps many kinds of weed seeds from sprouting.Over time, garden mulch types made from organic materials (those produced by or part of a living thing) break down and increase your soil's structure and fertility.This is especially true with compost used as a mulch because the nutrients in it will promote soil organisms and fuel plant growth.Plus, a layer of mulch can help fight climate change because covered soil holds onto carbon instead of releasing this greenhouse gas into the air.If you're mulching a large area of your yard for the first time and not just touching up a few garden beds, you might want to schedule a delivery from a bulk supplier. .

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