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Mulch – To Use it or Not – Points to Consider

I’ve always been a mulch gardener.  I’ve never understood how anyone gardened without it. I couldn’t. The benefits that it offers far outweigh any disadvantage that it may have.

But as with most things — there’s always someone for it and someone against it. And whether I understand it or not — that’s just the way it is.

Recently a reader left a comment on my post 10 Reasons to Mulch.  She said she had been a big believer in mulch, but she thought it seemed to add to her insect problems.  She went on to say that the bugs seemed to hide in it and straw seemed to cause fungi problems in her tomatoes. Thus, she is not mulching this year.

It’s certainly true bugs will hide almost anywhere that is available — including in mulch.

As far as tomatoes and fungi problems, I’ve always thought that the mulch helped keep various fungi pathogens from splashing  on the tomato leaves and thus served to help protect my tomatoes from fungi problems.

So I guess what it boils down to is that everyone sees it differently and has to make their own decision about whether or not they use mulch. To me it’s unthinkable to garden without it and I’ll probably leave this world carrying a load of mulch to my garden.

Benefits of mulching are many.

  • For one thing it allows me to have gardens and borders that I couldn’t have if I had to be constantly weeding and tending.
  • I’m not set up to water.  We have a little over an acre.  Other than our house, two sheds, the driveway, and a little grass – it’s all in gardens and borders.  Mulch conserves water in the soil.  So I still have abundant crops even under drought conditions — with no watering.
  • Mulch adds organic matter to my soil and improves it.  I don’t have to spend a lot of time with that — the mulch does it.

Before you make a decision not to mulch consider 3 of the most important benefits that I don’t know how you can obtain any other way:

  • Rain compacts bare soil and sun bakes it.  Mulch offers your soil protection from the elements. After you go to all the trouble to loosen your soil deeply and make a nice environment for your plants, why would you want to have that undone by rain, sun and wind?
  • The organic matter in unprotected soil is much more quickly oxidized — or “burned” away by sun and wind.
  • In the heat of summer the mulch acts to insulate the soil and keep it cooler — a condition that your vegetable plants will really appreciate.

Mulch is what makes the whole thing work.
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Organic Gardening is easy, effective, and efficient.  And it’s a lot healthier.

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All content including photos is copyright by Tending My Garden.com.  All rights Reserved.

21 comments to Mulch – To Use it or Not – Points to Consider

  • GardenDmpls

    One of my favorite mulches is the seaweed that washes up from the bay here. It grows in flat, wide sheets, and when on the soil, it becomes crispy dry on top, while underneath it is as wet as if I just took it out of the water. I think this is because it is adapted to being washed up and stranded by one tide, then floated out by the next one, being lighter where it has dried on top. It lasts the summer before breaking down in the fall.

  • Theresa

    How wonderful! Wish it would float down my way. 🙂
    If other readers have access to this seaweed — hope they will latch on to some.
    Thanks for the input, Garden Dmpls.
    Theresa

  • Alicia

    Hello! I remember your saying the time to mulch is after a rain so Im going to add some more to areas today that need it! Question – does grass clippings make an ok mulch or should I stick with straw?

    Thanks!
    Alicia

  • Theresa

    Hi Alicia,
    Grass clippings make a good mulch. If you get it too thick when it’s still green, it can get slimy. I like to lay mine on sorta thin so they’ll dry out a bit and then I put more on.
    Hope you’re having a great growing season!
    Theresa

  • Alicia

    Thanks Therea! You are fast, awesome! The growing season isnt doing too shabby! Several things didnt come up but the seed was 1-2 years old. Some asparagus beans started to come up but then something ate them, darn it. Hmm… I do have a bed open I may try again! I had put out some small melon seed, but still nothing, so it may be time to give up. It has been several weeks if not over a month. I had better get busy while it’s nice & cool out. Take care!

  • Vanessa Wilson

    After studying your site this spring, I started using mulch on my whole garden and absolutely love it! I have used whatever I have on hand which is straw, grass clippings and shredded leaves from last fall. It certainly decreases the work one has to do in the garden – very few weeds and always is moist underneath. Thanks for all the great information. I will never go back to the no-mulch garden.

  • Theresa

    Vanessa, I certainly appreciate your testimonial! Thanks for taking the time to let folks (and me) know how you feel.
    Glad my information made things easier for you.
    Wishing you a wonderful growing season. Keep me posted on how things go.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Sometimes when mulching, (as you know, I’m new to mulching everything with straw). I have the feeling that I am burying my plants at the base too much. Today I planted blueberries, and mulched around them with straw, about 6 inches worth. When I got done, they looked strange, as though I’d planted too deep. I wondered if they might suffer since their bases are now under this mulch layer. Do you leave a space around the base of the plant, or do you mulch right up to it, Theresa?

  • Theresa

    Sandra, usually when you put on 6 inches of mulch it reduces to 1 or 2 inches in a matter of days or at least a week — especially after a rain.

    Until you get use to the way straw mulch works, you could mulch and then let it sift down and then add more.

    You can also pull the mulch away from the “trunk” of the plant. Not much – but a little.

    After you start seeing how straw mulch “behaves” — you won’t find it that much of a problem.
    Hope this helps.
    Theresa

  • Steve

    For me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But I have one a question about straw mulch for strawberries. So far the runners on my new strawberry plants haven’t been able to penetrate the mulch and reach the soil. Do you have to help them along by clearing away the mulch at a “node” on the runner? Or will they eventually send down roots that make it through the straw mulch? Thanks. Steve

  • Theresa

    Steve, your comment made me smile. We gardeners are all alike thinking we have to help our plants. In my earlier years of gardening I “helped” my strawberries all the time and cleared away the mulch so they could put down roots better. Then one year I got too busy to do that. I was shocked that they put those roots down right through the straw without one nod from me. After that, I realized they’re very self sufficient and will do just fine.

    By the way, how are the sheepnose peppers doing?
    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa, I figured the strawberries would be able get through the mulch eventually since (afterall) they are called “strawberries”! But I have been surprised that it hasn’t happened yet so I thought I’d ask.

    I have one sheepnose pepper that survived the slug onslaught and is doing well. Overall, my veggies are doing well since (as you commented on your blog) the rains so far have come at ideal times. The only problems I have had are birds eating my blueberries and rasberries and an occasional visit from deer. I imagine squirrels will begin to show an interest in the tomatoes soon as they get ripe…well, you know how it goes.

  • Theresa

    Always ask when in doubt! It’s always good to hear from another gardener who has experienced the same feelings and thoughts and problems. So again — Please ask anytime you’re in doubt.

    I’m writing a post right now on slugs which I should have up soon. It’s a bit after the fact for your peppers — but always good to have the info on hand.

    Bill put up a net cage around our blueberries. Otherwise, the birds would cut our harvest down considerably. Fortunately, the don’t bother our raspberries as much.

    Sure hope you don’t have any problem with the squirrels. They can be awful.
    Theresa

  • Steve

    Yes, I will have to invest in a lot of netting and try to figure out a way to put the netting up in such a way that I am not making my own access to the berries inconvenient!

  • Theresa

    It’s a pain having to cover them, but if birds are a problem there’s not much else that will work.We have to make our cover to accommodate about 8 bushes. Bill makes a “frame” with old tomato supports. He make those two high by securing with plastic ties. Then he puts rods or bamboo or what we have on hand over the top and secures those with ties. Then he puts the netting on (we have both plastic netting and regular netting) and secures it with ties. Then he make a “door” which goes securely around one corner post when it’s closed.

    If there is any opening those “teenage” mocking birds will find it. It’s hard to believe a bird would look for opening but they do.

    We’ve had 5 “teenage” mocking birds get in so far. They are no longer with us and now things are a bit more moderate. Out of thousands of birds it only seems to be a few “teenagers” that cause the problem.

    I saw someplace recently that they have cages you can put over bushes and beds. I guess it would depend on how your garden is set up. Like you say — you sure don’t want to make your own access to the berries inconvenient. (I did that the first year we had trouble and I was almost dead by the time I finished picking the berries!)

    Let me know what you come up with Steve.
    Theresa

  • Karen Szasz

    Theresa,

    I am thinking and planning for my spring garden. I have ordered all my seeds, I have worked my soil and it’s cooking with organic material that I added. I am now thinking about mulch…..I have never mulched much. I see that you use straw. I have not found any yet, but I did find pine bales at 4.50 a bale in a locale area to where I live. Can I use pine in my veggie garden? and is it ok to mulch over after I seed, or do I need to wait until the seedling come thru before I mulch? What could I expect straw bales to cost when I find them?

    I do have some left over leaves that I will be using also, but not much left. Can I use shredded paper and bags as mulch in addition to straw or pine needles?

    Thank You,

    Karen from Orlando FL

  • Theresa

    Hi Karen — Sounds like you’re really making progress!

    Pine is wonderful for mulching anything. I use to use it all the time when I had access to it. This year — we were able to get quite a bit of pine needles and I’m thrilled to have it.

    When you seed small seed like lettuce you’ll want an ever-so-light layer of mulch on top. Enough just to cover the soil top to keep it from drying out. After your seed germinates — add more every day or so — ever-so-lightly. Continue. The mulch will settle in around your seedlings and you’ll eventually have a nice amount of mulch on. You’ll be able to tell when you can add more. Your purpose is to keep the soil from being exposed —– and at the same time give the seeds enough “air” to come up.

    With larger seeds like cukes and squash — you can put more mulch on even after they’re first sown. You still don’t want to put so much that they can’t push up through it. An inch right over the seed would be fine at first. The rest of the ground around the seed can be heavily mulched.

    I don’t know what bales of straw cost. I know they use to be $2.50 years ago. I saw them go to $3.00. I’ve heard other people say they’ve paid $6.00.

    I have a farmer bring me really big rounds of straw. I use to pay $45 for that large round and paid that for almost 20 years. Then they started raising the price and now I’m paying $60 for the large bale. I’m sure that is cheaper than buying it by the small bale — although it is still a hefty amount.

    See pictures here:
    http://tendingmygarden.com/mulching-a-way-to-increase-your-yield/

    http://tendingmygarden.com/hay-or-straw-which-to-use-for-mulch-2/

    That’s another reason I want to walk towards growing more biomass. (See my post http://tendingmygarden.com/sustainable-gardening-for-even-more-success/)

    Leaves are great for mulch — especially shredded.

    I know a lot of folks use shredded paper and bags in the lasagna type bed preparation and maybe they use it for mulch too. I personally like to stay away from that.

    I’m so pleased that you are looking towards mulching Karen. Even here in Virginia — with hot humid summers —- it makes a huge difference in the garden. Since Florida is even hotter — I think you’ll benefit greatly.

    Be sure to search for and read all the posts on mulching. (use my search box at the top of the left hand column) Lots of tips throughout all of them. And let me know if you have more questions.

    Keep up the good work!
    Theresa

  • Amanda P

    Would you recommend oak leaves as a mulch? I have lots of those!

  • Theresa

    Absolutely Amanda! Oak leaves and any other leaves are great!
    If you have lots of them, then you have a treasure!
    Theresa

  • Sherrill Cumella

    Theresa, thanks for all the wonderful information. I am a brand new organic gardener and know by my quick drying soil and massive water use I need mulch. After reading about pesticide residue in straw I have avoided using it. I have been unable to locate pesticide free straw in a 100 mile radius. I am considering shredded cardboard but read reports saying it has no harmful chemicals but also reports that say it does.

    Our soil is desert so there are no fall leaves for mulch. Do you have readers that have used cardboard? Do you have a connection that knows how cardboard is processed re harmful chemicals or not? Is my concern over pesticide residual in straw overly cautions?

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sherrill

  • Theresa

    Sherrill — congratulations on going organic!
    In order for your soil to hold water, you need more than just mulch.
    You need all 3 keys to have the best success. I’ve written dozens of post addressing what to do. You might want to review this one to start: http://tendingmygarden.com/3-keys-to-successful-gardening-more-proof-they-work/

    Your concern should mainly be for residual herbicides that stay around. Start by reviewing this post http://tendingmygarden.com/residual-herbicides-in-composts-part-i/ and then go to Part 2.

    After you know the dangers of residual herbicides and what to look for — read this post: http://tendingmygarden.com/garden-mulch-straw-does-it-have-to-be-organic-to-be-safe/

    I don’t have any information on cardboard.

    After that, let me know if you have more questions.
    I cover all of the above in my book Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening.
    Theresa

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