Mulching is an important part of vegetable garden care, and it’s best to use organic mulch. Applying mulch will help you retain soil moisture, protect the soil, and inhibit weed growth, which together will save you a lot of time and effort. In addition, if you use organic mulches you will also add organic matter to the soil as it decomposes, improving soil fertility and structure.
There are many different types of organic mulch available, such as straw, leaves, grass clippings, and wood chips. Although each of these types of mulch provides all the benefits that you expect from mulching, not all types of organic mulch are suitable for vegetable gardens.
Vegetables are usually grown only for a couple of months or a year or two at most in tropical areas. This means that mulch that’s used in a vegetable garden needs to be lightweight and decompose fast. Heavier types of organic mulch that decompose relatively slower can be used on vegetable garden paths and borders.
The best organic mulch for your vegetable garden will depend on the availability of materials, how much you can spend, your climate, and a range of other factors. To help you decide on the best mulch for use in your vegetable garden, we will go through some commonly used types of organic mulch and their usage in the vegetable garden.
Types of organic mulch and their usage in the vegetable garden
Grass clippings are available at no cost in almost any garden and are ideal for mulching vegetable gardens. Grass clippings are lightweight and decompose very easily. It’s best if the grass clippings are allowed to dry in the sun for a few days before being used.
Toads and frogs, which are helpful for pest control, enjoy staying in grass-clipping mulch. Unfortunately, so do snails and slugs, which are important for healthy soil but can also become pests in large numbers. Depending on your local climate and the types of vegetables you are growing additional snails and slugs may not become a problem.
If you are located in a wet, cold area with mild summers or are growing a lot of leafy vegetables, you should apply a very thin layer of grass clippings and then regularly observe. If you notice added snail and slug damage, you should change to another type of organic mulch.
Click here for more information on using grass clippings as mulch in your vegetable garden.
Leaf mulch is the perfect way to get rid of all those leaves during fall. You can either add the mulch straight away or collect leaves in a pile and use the leaves as mulch little by little.
Don’t worry if your leaves have already started to decompose before you add them. They will last for a shorter period and you will have to reapply sooner, but they will still provide you with all other benefits of munching. Decomposing leaves may contain good fungi which will benefit the soil in your vegetable garden.
There’s growing interest in and the availability of bamboo leaves as mulch. Bamboo leaves and young stems are tougher than most tree leaves. They can be used in a vegetable garden as mulch once they are shredded but avoid using whole leaves. They are also ideal for vegetable garden paths due to their relative durability.
Straw mulch is an agricultural by-product that is made from the stalks of grains, such as wheat, rice, or barley. Since the straw is left over and is often burned or simply left in the fields, you may be able to get straw for free or for a very low price.
Using straw as mulch will give your vegetable plants are very distinct look, while straw decomposes quite easily and is light-weight and highly suitable to be added to vegetable gardens.
The disadvantages of using straw are that you could inadvertently be adding chemicals, introducing weeds, and attracting pests into your vegetable garden.
You should make sure that the source of the straw you are adding is organic, or else you could be adding pesticides and other chemicals into your garden. Straw can contain weed seeds that may be introduced into your garden. If the straw you are using seems to be introducing weed seeds discontinue use immediately and start using another type of mulch. In addition, straw can attract mice and other pests that like to live in the straw into your vegetable garden. To avoid this, you must add very thin layers of straw each time and wait till the previous layer has almost fully decomposed to replace it.
Compost mulch is especially suitable for vegetable gardens that have nutrient issues or need to improve soil quality. Using compost to mulch will not only give you the benefits of mulching but will also add a balance of nutrients to your soil and will improve soil texture.
Compost mulch can be applied in the spring or fall. In the spring, it should be applied after the soil has thawed and before planting. In the fall, it should be applied after the harvest and before the first frost.
You can top off compost mulch with a thin layer of grass clipping or straw to make sure that it doesn’t get washed out easily.
Click here for more information on the uses of compost in a vegetable garden and how you can make your own.
Newspaper is another organic mulch that’s suitable for the vegetable garden that will not cost you anything. These days newspapers usually use only organic ink, so they are safe to use in your garden. Despite this, you should never use colored magazine pages since they most probably contain lead-based inks.
You can layout mulch that’s about 5 sheets thick in your garden and cover it up with a thin layer of topsoil or compost. Like all other types of mulches that are suitable for your vegetable garden, newspapers are lightweight and decompose easily.
Cocopeat or Coir
Cocopeat or coir is made from coconut husks and is a by-product of the coconut fiber industry. It can be inexpensive in countries that grow coconut but is widely available in more compact forms for gardeners worldwide.
Cocopeat is very lightweight, good at retaining moisture, and can enhance soil texture. This makes cocopeat suitable for use as mulch in vegetable gardens. You can either use cocopeat alone or mixed with compost. Disease-free cocopeat that has been used to grow vegetables can be reused as mulch. Since cocopeat can retain a lot of moisture, you should avoid adding it too close to plant stems and add just a thin layer.
Although cardboard degrades easily, it isn’t suitable as mulch in a vegetable garden since it completely blocks light and air from reaching the soil when newly laid. Cardboard can be used to create neat and uniform paths, even between your vegetable plants.
Cardboard can also be used in the vegetable garden before you plant anything in it. After you have cleared the previous year’s harvest or have newly cleared land to start a vegetable card, you can lay 1-2 layers of cardboard on the soil. The cardboard will stop anything from growing in the ground for a couple of weeks until it has decomposed leaving you with weed-free healthy soil.
Wood chips and bark chips
Although wood chips and bark chips are some of the best types of organic mulches for moisture retention, they aren’t suitable for a vegetable garden because they decompose slowly.
This doesn’t mean that wood chips or bark chips have no use around vegetable gardens. Wood chips and bark chips can be used for paths in and around your vegetable garden. You’ll be able to develop the soil under these paths while not having to replace the mulch frequently.
Although sawdust is a cheap and easy-to-get organic mulch that’s used for strawberries and perennial shrubs and trees, raw sawdust isn’t the best for vegetable gardens. This is because it decomposes comparatively slowly, steals away nitrogen while decomposing, and can make the soil slightly acidic. Due to its tendency to fly away, it isn’t that suitable for vegetable garden paths either.
Despite this, sawdust can be aged and allowed to decompose for about a year and then used in vegetable gardens. You must make sure that the sawdust that you are using isn’t from treated timber that can introduce harmful chemicals into your vegetable garden.
Cocoa shells are the outer covering of the cocoa bean that are discarded either after roasting or before roasting and is a by-product of the chocolate industry.
As a mulch, cocoa shells decompose much slower than grass clippings or newspaper but are still suitable for use in the vegetable garden. The lovely brown color of the shells is an added delight.
Just an inch of cocoa mulch should be applied each growing season. Cocoa shells must not be put right near the plant stems as they can be quite sharp and cut the stems. If you have dogs that might snoop around your vegetable garden, you should not use cocoa shells. Like chocolate, cocoa shells can also be poisonous for dogs if they eat them. Other limitations of using cocoa shells as mulch are that they are quite expensive and their availability is limited in some areas.
Depending on your location, you may be able to get pine needles easily and at no cost. Although pine needles decompose slowly, they can be added to vegetable gardens due to their small size. Pine needles are also thought to make the soil acidic, so are best used in small quantities and along with another type of organic mulch.
How to apply organic mulch to your vegetable garden
Here are a few tips that will help you use the organic mulch of your choice properly in your vegetable garden.
- Mulch should be spread evenly on your vegetable garden soil so that all areas are completely covered. This prevents weeds from sneakily growing through any exposed areas.
- Mulch should be applied as thin layers. This is done to avoid the mulch from starting to rot and to not let it become a breathing ground for pests and diseases. Usually, 1-2 inches of mulch is more than enough and you can wait until the mulch has visibly decomposed and the thickness has increased before topping up.
- Add water over the mulch just after it has been applied. Adding water will help the mulch make contact with the soil and will make the mulch stick together to provide a better covering. Water also helps the mulch to stay in place until it has settled.
Vegetable gardens need to be mulched using organic mulches that are lightweight and decompose easily. This means that not all organic mulches will be suitable. Grass clippings, newspaper, straw, and leaves are among the most easily available, sometimes at no cost, and suitable types of organic mulches for vegetable gardens.
Other types of organic mulch, such as cocopeat and cocoa shells, are suitable for vegetable gardens but can be hard to get or costly. On the other hand, wood chips, bark chips, cardboard, and sawdust, are not suitable for use in the vegetable garden itself but can be used on paths and borders around the vegetable garden.