Translated by Nick R
We know that every avid gardening lover is forever looking for different methods or techniques that allow him to improve the conditions of his garden or vegetable garden.
Therefore, this time we want to talk about mulch, a great material that can help you improve the soil for your crops, protect your plants from strong temperatures, and consume water more responsibly.
Whether you want to use mulches for the first time or you’re looking for other types of mulches to add to your soil, you need to know the characteristics that each one has so you can choose the most suitable for your home.
So, we invite you to continue reading this blog to learn about mulches and all their benefits. In addition, we’ll show you 9 different types going from organic to inorganic and in the end, we’ll show you how to use them effectively.
Table of Contents
What are mulches?
Mulch is a composition of various materials that are placed on the soil surface to fill it with nutrients, protect plants, or just as a decorative element. However, we’ll specify below what their benefits are.
There are 2 types of mulch for your garden or vegetable garden.
On the one hand, there are organic mulches composed of materials that improve the soil as they decompose. Therefore, as mulches biodegrade, they strengthen fertility, structure, aeration, and even soil drainage. Because of this, they must be replaced at a certain time so the earth doesn´t get exposed.
They are an excellent option for their low price and being more commonly available in houses or nature.
On the other hand, we have the inorganic ones that don’t enrich the soil nutritionally but fulfill its main function, protecting it. They are also a much more durable alternative, although they may require higher investment.
Inorganic mulches such as gravel or stones are often used for decorative purposes to add a modern style, or for sustainability purposes that are perfectly applicable in xeric gardens.
Benefits of mulches on plants
- Much help retain moisture. Therefore, water is retained for longer, allowing to reduce watering frequently. This is ideal for areas with extremely hot or cold climates, as well as for plants that like moisture, or simply to reduce water consumption.
- It reduces weed growth. Surely you don’t expect undesirable weeds to grow in your garden and take away nutrients or prominence from your plants. For this, mulches limit the passage of light so that weeds cannot germinate or grow.
- It improves soil quality. In the case of organic mulches, as they decompose, they provide nutrients to the soil that help the plants and the substrate’s yield. For example, they increase the water retention capacity in sandy soils, while improving the structure of clay soils.
- It protects plants. This is especially true for plants that are exposed to frost or strong winds since the soil maintains an ideal temperature that will protect the roots from possible damage. Likewise, they help to maintain freshness during the summer since they act as levelers of the microclimate produced in the soil.
- It’s a decorative element. As we have already mentioned, some mulches also work to provide your garden with a modern style. They’re often used for indoor plants, but they add a great visual aspect to an outdoor garden.
7 organic mulches for your garden or vegetable garden
Let’s start with a top 7 organic mulches that often are seen as garden waste and end up being thrown away in the garbage, or that you can find easily and cheaply.
Straw decomposes slowly and will last for a long time. It’s excellent for placing it around plants or on bare soil to control mud as much as possible.
It also works as a barrier for crops that bear creeping fruit, as they won’t be directly in contact with the soil and so are less likely to rot, get a disease or have a pest.
It also helps conserve moisture while providing freshness. Of course, it shouldn’t be confused with hay, which is used primarily to feed livestock.
One disadvantage is that a strong windstorm could easily blow away this material. Also, straw contains a high carbon content and thus steals nitrogen from the soil.
Let’s remember that nitrogen is a macronutrient that plants require in large quantities for their proper development and growth. Therefore, we advise you to use a fertilizer with good content of this element (N) to balance, as is the case of Urea.
Sawdust or wood shavings
This element is easily found in carpentry shops, where you can get it for free or buy it at a very low price. It’s also great because it improves the soil structure by increasing the drainage capacity and making it retain more moisture.
The speed of decomposition varies depending on the tree of origin. For example, softwood chips such as pine tend to decompose more slowly. Also, pine shavings tend to be more acidic, so they’ll be great for plants that love this characteristic, such as roses.
Of course, when using sawdust or shavings, they must be dry and aged. If they are fresh, they will provide great amounts of nitrogen as they decompose and thus will cause an imbalance in the soil. This will cause nutrient deficiencies in the plants.
Therefore, keep the latter aspect in mind so that it doesn’t become a disadvantage.
Grass cuttings and dry leaves
That’s right, you can use grass cuttings or dried leaves to mulch your plants. The best thing about this method is that it’s completely free, whether you get the materials from your own yard or go out to a park or forest to collect them.
Speaking about grass cuttings, you should not use them if the grass has been treated with pesticides. This is because it will affect the growth of the plants and you definitely don’t want to use them on your crops.
On the other hand, dry leaves must be healthy, so don’t use pest or diseased leaves. Clearly, these should be discarded completely to avoid propagation.
Both elements work very well to block weed growth, provide nutrients and improve soil conditions. However, they do have some disadvantages.
As for grass cuttings, they have high water content and thus decompose very quickly. In the process, they tend to become slimy and give off a bad odor. Therefore, it’s best to use a thin layer and not overdo it.
Now, the problem with leaves is that they tend to become compacted and affect the water flow. However, to solve this problem you can shred them with a lawnmower to speed up the process. In fact, you can mix the shredded leaves with the grass clippings and use them together without any problem.
This is probably the best option to prevent weeds from growing as it completely blocks their way and light. For using it as mulch, it should not be dyed or have any staples or other material other than biodegradable cardboard.
The organic mulch may take the most work as it must be carefully arranged, especially in the areas where you have planted it. However, it will be perfect for the aisles of your garden or orchard.
If we talk about the disadvantages, this element can look unaesthetic and disturb the harmony of the landscape. However, this depends on your perspective.
In addition, you’ll most likely need to place another type of mulch on top of it to prevent strong winds from dislocating it. For example, it’s usually combined with compost, which we’ll discuss below.
Let me remind you that compost is the process by which organic materials decompose to produce a valuable natural fertilizer full of nutrients. However, you can give it another purpose by using it as mulch.
To apply it, you must first make sure that the compost is completely decomposed so that it does not poison your plants. You’ll know it’s ready when it looks and smells like soil.
Of course, you can also buy it in nurseries or gardening stores, however, making it at home will be much cheaper, not to say free. If you want to know how to do this process, we invite you to read our blog about compost.
Compost is perfect not only for supplying the soil with nutrients and feeding your plants but also for keeping the soil moist and protecting the roots from extreme temperatures.
Newspaper sheets help retain moisture and are also helpful for restricting weeds. In both cases, it relies on a solid layer of newspaper, of 5 or more sheets, so it doesn’t just lie on the surface.
Likewise, this type of mulch is often used as the base for adding another mulch on top of it. For example, a few sheets of newspaper can be placed on the ground, followed by a layer of compost. This with the purpose of preventing the newspaper from being moved by strong winds, thus fulfilling all the benefits mentioned above.
Likewise, the great positive point is giving a second use to this material. However, one drawback could be the ink, so use only toxic-free newspapers and, to do so, check if the manufacturer uses organic inks.
Although it is known that in ancient times these inks came from petroleum, nowadays, they are usually soy-based or water-based. In any case, it’s best to be completely sure.
Shredded pruning residues
As with other mulches that we have already mentioned, using pruning waste from your garden is essentially free. Moreover, in case you don’t have shrubby plants or plants with semi-woody stems, you can obtain this material from a nearby park or forest.
The positive points include the slow branch degradation and its rich content of cellulose. Therefore, they supply a large number of nutrients to the soil and to the plants. Of course, they must be completely healthy so that no pest or disease spreads.
Then, to mention a disadvantage, the pruning debris must be shredded so that the mulch can be placed without any problems and look aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, you’ll have to pass the branches through a bio-shredder or ask a nursery or specialized garden center where they have this machine. In fact, in these places, you can also buy the product already prepared.
Finally, make sure that the remains come from young branches, no more than 2 years old. The reason is that after this time, they begin to lose most of their beneficial components. One way to know this is by looking for steady branches that keep their vibrant color, whereas the older ones feel dry and you can practically notice the difference visually.
2 inorganic mulches for your crops
To finish with the top 9 mulches that we’re presenting in this blog, let us show you 2 inorganic materials that you can also implement if you want to.
The use of polyethylene plastic mulch is excellent for keeping the soil warm during cold weather seasons. This is because, it reduces water evaporation; however, watering the soil can become difficult.
It’s also good at blocking the growth of weeds and has a long life span as it only needs to be changed every year or so to prevent it from deteriorating from the sun. However, this varies according to the climatic conditions of the area.
Yet, it’s most often implemented in large crops under the charge of experienced growers, since it requires a higher investment. For example, a drip irrigation system would be needed under the mulch to irrigate the soil properly. Remember that the plastic is impermeable, and even if holes are drilled, the necessary amount of water won’t pass through.
Gravel or stones
This is certainly the most commonly used inorganic mulch and the one we often see in outdoor garden decoration or in small indoor plants.
This mulch is clearly permanent and doesn’t require any renovation. So, if you have an extensive garden, make sure that this is the option that best suits you because it can be difficult and time-consuming to remove.
One of the benefits of using gravel is that it helps maintain moisture, reduces weeds, improves soil drainage, and not to mention that it provides a great aesthetic look to the soil.
If you’re wondering about the disadvantage, it could be that it requires an investment that depends on the area to be mulched. Well, in case you simply want to decorate a pot or a small area, our recommendation would be to collect stones of different sizes in parks or other places. After that, you just wash them and use them with no problem.
3 steps to use mulches
Now that you know the different types of mulch that can be used in your garden or vegetable garden, we would like to finish by explaining how to prepare the soil in order to use these elements most appropriately.
1. Choosing the type of mulch
First of all, you must choose which element you will use to mulch your plants. Thus, the mulch you choose depends mainly on the benefits you’re seeking to obtain from it. Although, of course, the economic aspect, how easy it is to obtain and use it, and how aesthetically pleasing it looks also play a role when making a decision.
But don’t worry, as you may have noticed, there are several options that you may even have at home or that you can get at a low price and that will surely be of great use to you.
2. Prepare the soil
Select the area to be mulched and have your gardening tool kit handy, primarily a rake and gloves. Next, be sure to remove any weeds present, either by removing one or two by hand or by using a tool like a rake or a shovel if necessary.
Also, you need to till the soil to loosen it a bit and thus level the ground. Here you can use different tools, but in both wide and narrow spaces a rake or a large and manual hoe will be helpful again.
Finally, water the soil generously. In this way, the mulch that you will add next can start to fulfill its role of maintaining humidity and reducing evaporation.
3. Apply the mulch
Now that everything is ready, it’s time to apply the mulch you chose. We recommend doing this in early spring, once the frost has passed and the plants are still dormant. This will prevent the weed seeds from germinating.
In addition, this way, you’ll see the evolution of the mulch, follow the decomposition process (in the case of organic mulch), and know if it’s necessary to add another layer in autumn to protect the soil before winter arrives.
What you’ll do is spread the mulch evenly over the whole surface, but keep it from touching the stems of the plants. Otherwise, it may affect their growth or suffocate them. Therefore, allow them a clear space of at least 10-15 cm.
Now, the optimal mulch should be thick enough to block weeds and prevent rapid evaporation of water, but also light to let water and air reach the soil. So, place a layer at least 4 to 5 cm (2 to 3 in) thick.
The layer can be no more than 10 cm (4 or 5 in) thick, but only using light, dry, and well-ventilated materials such as straw or sawdust.
Finally, water the mulch sufficiently to help it settle. Especially in the case of cardboard and newspaper, this will prevent the sheets from blowing away or getting tangled up by strong winds.
Keep in mind that the use of mulch reduces the frequency of watering. Therefore, you must not continue watering your plants as you did before applying the mulch. For this will cause excess humidity that could result in root rot.
How to avoid overwatering? Simply allow the surface to dry out completely, and water lightly during the cooler seasons and abundantly during the warmer seasons.
In general, watering can be done once a week, although it depends on the plant’s preferences. For example, in this case, we refer to succulent or xerophytic plants, since they are drought-resistant varieties. While for plants that prefer humidity, such as phyttonias and begonias, watering can be done twice a week.Finally, we hope this blog has been of great help to you and that you start implementing mulching in your vegetable garden so that you can take advantage of its benefits for your plants and the environment.