Let’s Talk Mulch! Mulching a Backyard Vegetable Garden
I’m excited to talk about mulch! Ah the life and interests of a gardener! Much like the earthy smell of compost and the sight of a freshly dug, soil-covered carrot, mulching my garden brings so much satisfaction. Read on for all the reasons your garden needs mulch and the different materials I use in my California garden.
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What is mulch & Why Do I Want It?
You’ve probably heard gardeners say “mulch your garden!” but wondered what does that even mean? In true gardening fashion, there is no single “right” answer and there are some decisions to make when it comes to mulch. Today I’m going to chat all about the various ways I mulch our garden and my philosphy behind my choices. If you are just starting out gardening, I encourage you to check out my other articles on how to choose a garden setup, seed starting, and learning to compost.
Mulch is essentially anything used to protect and cover the surface of your soil. My preference is towards something organic in nature (ie. occurs naturally) that will decompose and enrich your soil over time.
Mulch does many things for the garden. Because mulch covers the soil surface, it regulates soil temperature. In the Summer, mulch keeps the root systems cooler (thus retaining moisture) and in the Winter it protects the roots from frosts and cold. When the sun shines on the soil, mulch decreases evaporation and can save you water! In fact, dry and hot regions, like zone 10 (find your gardening zone HERE), truly benefit from mulch.
Mulch will break down over time. For a garden like mine—I value organic practices, feeding the soil, and using what materials are available in our geographic area—an organic material is preferred for mulch. In this sense, “organic” refers to the fact that it occurs naturally, has no pesticides, and will decompose over time. Does this mean I need to replace my mulch periodically? YES. But this also means you are feeding your soil beneficial nutrients while saving water and protecting your plants. Below I’ll discuss my favorite ways to mulch our backyard.
A little of my garden philosophy: Our backyard is a small-scale urban homestead. My goal is to put what we generate or grow right back into the system and use what we have available. This is why my experience and advice regarding mulch will seem flexible and ever-changing. I personally love this approach because it is both budget-friendly and sustainable for our garden.
Mulching with Dried Leaves
Dried leaves can be somewhat elusive here in Southern California, but we do get some! Our avocado drops tons of leaves throughout the year which we pile around the base as mulch. Avocado trees love to be mulched with their own leaves. It’s pretty simple there.
Other trees in our yard that drop leaves are the plums, apricot, pomegranate, and even some berries. We rake up these leaves and use them as mulch. Sometimes large leaves can form an impenetrable “blanket” or smother the soil by sticking together, which is not good, so it is helpful to shred leaves before using as mulch. You can shred leaves by running a lawn mower over them or running them through a chipper/shredder. Some innovative gardeners put them in a large trash can and carefully shred them by submersing a weed wacker.
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Mulching with Dried Grass Clippings
Many of you know that we have some areas of grass around our home. We don’t douse it with chemicals or overly water it and I LOVE using it for mulch! After mowing, we simply empty the bag out where it can dry in the sun. Over the next few days I monitor/toss it to ensure it dries well and then apply a thin layer to our beds as mulch. Why dry the grass? If you’ve ever left a grass pile sitting around (we all do that, right?) you’ll know that it can become a stinky, slimy ammonia-smelling mass. This can harm your plants by inhibiting air exchange like I described above for the leaves.
Remember, when mulching with grass only apply a thin layer of mulch (about 1-2 inches).
What else can I use grass for? I frequently add grass clippings directly to our compost pile as a “green” material. Grass heats up and decomposes very fast while being an excellent source of nitrogen. You can read how we started composting and how to build your own pile in How To Compost: Filling & Maintaining a Compost Bin. Just always remember not to use grass that has been treated with pesticides or chemicals!
Mulching with Lemongrass
Do you grow lemongrass? It’s one of the easiest herbs to grow in warmer climates, and the leaves and upper stalks can be shredded to create an amazingly aromatic mulch!
I do have a separate lemongrass grow guide, but all the parts that you don’t plan to use for cooking can be put through a shredder, dried , and used to mulch your garden! In fact, you don’t even need a shredder, because you can use scissors to cut the grass into small pieces too. I’ve mentioned this before, but having a small wood chipper or shredder has become an invaluable tool on our homestead. We have this one from Harbor Freight and we use it to chip small branches and other garden clippings/waste. Lemongrass mulch smells amazing and it’s possible the strong smell might deter pests as well.
Recently I put fresh lemongrass clippings (as opposed to dried) as mulch in my brassica bed, and everything seems okay. Lemongrass doesn’t seem to have the moisture that grass has where it turns into a sticky mess if not dried first. Give it a try and see what you think!
Chop and Drop Mulching
Many gardeners advocate this method as a very effective way to mimic natural cycles. “Chop and Drop” is very much what it sounds like—-chop the expired plants down and leave them as mulch on the ground. You can cut large vines and thick pieces into smaller bits to help with the breakdown.
I sometimes use this method, but typically prefer to use plants we pull from the garden in our compost system instead. I find chop and drop to be more useful for my larger garden areas and in-ground beds. These are parts of our garden that I let grow more “wild and free.” For my raised beds, grow bags, and container gardens, I like to have a more uniform mulch that is cut into smaller pieces. We utilize so many types of gardens at our home because I truly see pros and cons to each type. If you’d like to read my input different garden types, check out What Type of Garden is Right For You?
Wood Chip Mulch
I’m not talking about those dyed and treated chips they sell in bags at large stores! The best wood chips are simply branches (and typically some foliage too) shredded into small pieces—sometimes known as “arborist chips.” As I’ve mentioned before, we have a wood chipper that we use to process our smaller branches during pruning season. Typically, I use these homemade wood chips as a source of brown material in our compost pile (as opposed to mulch) because brown material can be difficult to track down in our area. There’s not usually enough of the homemade wood chips to mulch any significant area anyway.
You can use wood chips to mulch walkways and large areas that you might be prepping for gardening. Wood chips are my favorite mulch for established trees, shrubs, and our large perennial garden beds. In fact, sometimes we find free wood chip sources through our city and you can also try a program called ChipDrop. On a personal note, I haven’t been able to use ChipDrop because they require you to take an entire truckload which can be up to 20 cubic yards! That’s far too much for our needs, but it is free.
Tips for applying wood chip mulch:
Wood chips tend to be thicker, and chunkier than other kinds of mulch. Therefore, I don’t use it for my delicate annuals, vegetables, or in raised beds or containers. There have also been concerns that shallow rooted plants do not benefit from wood chip mulch because it can rob the immediate, local soil of nitrogen as it breaks down which can be less beneficial to annuals and vegetables. You can read more details in this article from the University of Vermont if interested. Personally, I’ve just noticed it doesn’t suit my raised beds as well as my perennial in-ground beds and established landscape, so I reserve it for those purposes instead. Feel free to comment below.
Mulching with Compost
You know I have an obsession with compost, right? As beginners, I wrote about the ease of starting with a great tumbler system, and we have since graduated to two large DIY compost bins you can read about HERE.
At the beginning of each season, it’s part of my organic amending process to top off my garden beds with compost. In some regions of the world, mulching with solely compost works year-round. Unfortunately, during the hottest months of the year, compost doesn’t perform as well as mulch here. If possible, I add compost to top off my beds and then mulch with a different material.
Related Article: How to Compost~ Filling & Maintaining a Compost Bin
I don’t always use mulch. I know, I’ve lead you through this whole article on how I love mulch, only to confess that I don’t always use it. Maybe I should explain….
If I’m growing vegetables spaced closely together, I tend not to mulch. One reason being that mulch is a valuable commodity in my garden, so I have to be selective but also, plants that grow closely together actually leave little exposed soil area and essentially “mulch” themselves. Some examples of vegetables that I tend not to mulch are: lettuces, carrots, cover crops, and peas.
If I’m trying to germinate really delicate seedlings, I tend not to mulch. For example, when I sow my carrots seeds (have you read my article and watched my video?) I tend to only keep moistened soil on top because the tiny seedlings can get lost and smothered in bulky mulch. In fact, I actually grow my carrots so closely that I never mulch them. They just form one large patch.
I’ve heard other gardeners mention that mulch can harbor slugs and other pests. All I can say in regards to that is to do what works for your garden. It is definitely believeable that in an area with heavy rainfall, snails and slugs might actually find comfy homes in your mulch (I believe this is why world-renowned gardener, Charles Dowding, only tops with compost as mulch) but I find that our garden is a great candidate for mulching more aggressively. With our intense Southern California heat and dry air, the benefits of using mulch outweigh the cons in my opinion.
How do you like to mulch?
I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of how we mulch our garden. There are indeed other materials to mulch with but, as I said, I prefer to write about my firsthand experiences and materials that I have personally used in my own garden. Whatever you do, always know your sources so you can avoid chemicals, pesticides, or anything you don’t want ending up in your garden. For now, I consider myself lucky in that we have been able to source enough organic mulch material from our own space and it’s been working! I’d love to hear how you mulch and what has worked for you!