Is It OK to Mulch a Vegetable Garden?
Mulching a vegetable garden can provide many benefits. Mulching in general is a great method of controlling any type of plant growth and is especially effective at controlling weeds. Mulching can also increase the soil’s water retention, provide vital nutrients to the soil, prevent soil compaction, attract beneficial insects and microbes and deter pests from digging.
It has been proven that vegetable gardens with mulch are more productive than without and are easier to maintain.
Let’s talk about the benefits of mulching in a vegetable garden.
Mulching for Water Retention
Any type of mulch spread over the ground will act as a moisture barrier and keep water in the soil instead of evaporating into the air above. It’s like a Blanket over the soil protecting it from evaporation. It “seals” in the moisture and it does it very well. It surprised me.
When I started a garden in my backyard, I did not use mulch. I just tilled the soil and planted seeds. In the summer when it was hot, I had to water the garden twice a day in order to maintain a moist and soft soil. If I did not, the soil would dry out and compact into rock like clay. It was very hard to get seeds to sprout and keep plants green.
When I read about mulching, I decided to try it. I bought a bag of Kellogg’s N-Rich Soil Amendment and spread it over the garden soil. I then watered it and checked it several hours later. It was still moist. I then checked it the next day and it was still pretty moist and soft. The compost mulch was working. I could now water every other day instead of twice a day. My vegetable plants were growing and staying very green.
Mulching for Seed Germination
It took me several months to figure out how to get seeds to germinate and grow into large healthy plants. I first tried Peat Pots for several months without any success. The Peat Pots would dry out too quickly. I tried watering them twice a day but they still dried out in a hour or two.
After learning about the benefits of mulching, I tried planting some cucumber seeds in the garden and then covering the area with dried grass clippings. I used about an inch of grass clippings over the top of the soil. This worked extremely well. The soil remained moist and the seeds sprouted in 10 days. I was amazed. Now I can get any seeds to sprout in 10-14 days easily. It’s like magic.
Mulching for Weed Control
Anyone who has a garden knows what a pain weeds can be. They pop up everywhere and grow like crazy, especially after a summer rainstorm. Weeds will take over a vegetable garden in no time, if you let them. They will suck up water and nutrients leaving other plants “high and dry”.
So how can you control weeds in a vegetable garden?
Mulching will help control weed invasions in any garden. Mulch will capture airborne seeds preventing them from getting into the soil where they can germinate and grow. The seeds will sit on top and never germinate. Any seeds that find their way into the soil and under the mulch will not grow because of lack of sunlight.
If you want to easily kill weeds or grass in one area just cover it with a thick layer of mulch. It works really well. Mulching any area will drastically reduce weeds.
Another way to mulch a vegetable garden is to put a layer of cardboard down first and then cover it with 2-3 inches of mulch. This is even more effective at weed control.
Mulch as a Fertilizer
Since mulch is shredded, chopped or chipped plant material, it makes a great fertilizer when it decomposes. It will turn into compost in a short period of time. I have found that grass clipping mulch is an excellent fertilizer for gardens. It breaks down pretty fast so you have to replenish it frequently but it is very effective and decomposes quickly.
Since mulch helps retain moisture, it attracts worms and beneficial insects like nematodes. These insects will help a garden flourish. Worms are fantastic in the garden. Always try to attract worms to your garden. Worm castings [worm poop] is one of the best fertilizers known to man.
Mulch Attracts Beneficial Insects
I noticed that my garden has a lot of worms in the soil since I have been mulching. The soil stays moist and soft which is ideal for worms. Worms are beneficial for gardens. They not only aerate the soil but also leave behind castings. Worm castings are a fantastic fertilizer. Worm castings contain digested or broken down plant material plus beneficial microbes and enzymes. It’s the Perfect fertilizer and you can get it free.
Nematodes and ladybugs are also attracted to mulched gardens. I’ve never seen ladybugs in my backyard until I started mulching my garden. Ladybugs are great companions to have in a vegetable garden. They eat harmful bugs.
Nematodes are microscopic worm like organism that live in minute water pockets in the soil. They tend to be found in the upper layers of the soil and especially in moist mulch. Nematodes contribute to making Nitrogen available for plants. They also assist with nutrient mineralization via their digestive system. Nematodes and earth worms are both valuable for gardens.
Mulching to Deter Animal Digging
OK, I have a problem with cats digging in my garden. I’ve tried lots of things to keep them out with the exception of a 10′ wire fence. Cats like dry, sandy dirt or soil to go potty in. So, to deter them, make the soil wet and not sandy. Mulch will keep the soil moist, which cats hate, and make it no so sandy. Mulch has small to medium pieces of plant material like wood, sticks, stems, etc. Cats don’t like this rough type ground cover, so they will go else where. I have also found out that sticks in the vegetable garden will repel cats too. Spread some small sticks from shrub trimmings over the soil and around plants. Cats do not like walking on or digging in sticks.
The main deterrent is moist soil. Most pests and/or animals don’t like to dig in moist/wet soil.
Methods of Mulching a Vegetable Garden
Compost mulching is basically spreading a thick layer of your favorite compost over the soil. Compost is small to finely chopped organic material that has decomposed for some period of time. This will provide weed control, water retention, fertilization and attract beneficial organisms like worms and nematodes.
You can buy compost at your favorite Home Improvement store like Lowes and Home Depot or a local nursery. I like Kellogg N-Rich Soil Amendment and GardenTime Composted Mulch Soil Conditioner but most organic composts will work too.
Cardboard mulching is a fantastic way to kill and prevent weeds and grass from invading a vegetable garden. It is much more effective then just compost mulching.
Here’s how it works. First clear the area that you want to mulch. Cut any weeds or grass as low as possible. Now wet the area thoroughly. Next lay down cardboard from boxes over the area making sure the edges meet each other or overlap. Now wet the cardboard and cover with 3-4 inches of mulch which can be compost, grass clippings, leaves, etc. That’s it. You’re done.
Now as the mulch decomposes, it will disappear so you’ll have to add mulch every 6 months to a year depending on how thick the mulch layer is.
The cardboard makes a strong barrier against weed and grass growth by blocking out sunlight. Anything under the cardboard will die and become compost. It’s highly effective. I did this on one side of my house where weeds were taking over the yard. Now there are no weeds and only small patches of grass after 4 years. I haven’t even added any mulch after 4 years. But I need to.
Newspaper mulching is similar to cardboard except you use newspaper as the barrier instead of cardboard. It is more effective than compost mulching but not as effective as cardboard. If you have plenty of newspaper, it’s a great way to mulch with the intent of controlling weeds and grass in your gardens or yard.
Like the cardboard composting, you lay down a layer of newspaper several sheets thick and then wet it to keep it in place while you cover it with mulch. The newspaper will block out sunlight and kill any plant growth and prevent new growth. Newspaper will decompose eventually and fertilize the soil. Newspaper is biodegradable. It does not last as long as cardboard, so you will need to replenish it at some point. But it does work well. I have used it in my side yard for grass control.
Wood Chip Mulching
Wood chip mulching is basic and similar to compost mulching. If you have access to low cost or no cost wood chips, it makes a fine mulch. Spread the wood chip mulch over the soil about 2-3 inches deep. This will do the same as any mulch; retain moisture, decompose and fertilize and attract beneficial insects and microbes. Use whatever you have access to.