From the Garden

The Many Benefits of Mulch

By Megan Cain | Photos By Megan Cain 8

In the last blog post, I wrote about how mulching your garden allows for easy spring maintenance. If you’ve worked or gardened with me in the past you might think I am a little mulch crazy…and you are probably right. It pains me to have bare soil in my garden, although it is a bit of a necessity sometimes. When considering whether to mulch or not, think about nature. Bare soil is not a common occurrence in the natural world. Bare soil is susceptible to erosion and compaction from wind and water. It is also an invitation for weed seeds, whose job is to be the first line of protection for the soil. They get in there and stabilize the soil with their roots and provide some shade from the beating summer sun until the next generation of species starts to colonize the area. When you cover the soil of your garden beds with mulch, you are protecting it from a weed seed party.  The first benefit mulch offers is to keep down the weeds, which makes every gardener happy. 

The freshly mulched spring garden.

If you live in the Madison area, you remember the drought of last summer when gardens everywhere were suffering. If you garden was heavily mulched like mine, you didn’t have to water much more than usual and your plants didn’t suffer as much as in other gardens. This is because mulch keeps the soil insulated and traps moisture, which allows you to water less than if you had bare soil.

Most gardeners know that soil health is one of the main building blocks of a successful garden.  The mulch in your garden breaks down over time and adds organic matter to your garden.  Each year I use about 15 bales of hay on my garden and I am amazed that they just seem to disappear by the next year.

Mulching can also help keep down the spread of disease in your garden. If you mulch nothing else, at least mulch your tomatoes. We have a lot of soil borne tomato diseases in this area that can splash up onto the plant when it rains if your soil is bare. Mulching around your tomatoes covers the soil and can slow down the spread of disease.  My tomatoes are mulched heavily and are still pretty disease ridden by the end of the season, but I think the mulch helps the plants stay one step ahead of the disease so it doesn’t interfere with their production and my harvest.

The mid-summer garden - weed-free and neatly mulched.

Mulching garden beds with marsh hay is my first choice, with straw as my second. You can mulch with leaves, although if they aren’t shredded they have the tendency to mat together into a big impermeable sheet.  Grass clippings and newspaper are fine as well. I would let the clippings turn brown before I put them on my garden and the newspaper needs to be weighted down with something so it doesn’t blow away. Woodchips are not for vegetable garden beds (keep them in your perennial beds) because they tie up nitrogen as they break down. I do use woodchips in my aisles because they last the full season without needing to be reapplied. I also like the aesthetic effect of having two different colors and textures in my garden beds and paths. Sometimes I’ll use cardboard in stubborn weedy areas as the first layer of mulch with woodchips on top. 

Use cardboard under wood chips for stubbon weedy areas, like those bordering grass.

There is no such thing as too much mulch in my garden. You definitely don’t want to see any soil through the mulch or that’s precisely where the weeds will set up shop.  Mulching is one of the most important techniques in creating a low maintenance garden that also looks neat, tidy and beautiful. 

What other questions do you have about mulch? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll take some time to answer them.

Megan Cain owns The Creative Vegetable Gardener, a Madison company that designs and installs beautiful gardens that produce lots of food. Over the past 10 years she has taught hundreds of kids and adults how to get their hands dirty in the garden.

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