We all know that mulch is great! It helps retain moisture, prevents weeds, and let’s face it, it just looks good. Mulching around your trees and flower beds is a no-brainer, but what about your vegetable garden?
We know you love growing your own food but keeping up with weeding and watering is a daily chore that not everyone has time for. We also know that a well-mulched vegetable garden typically yields up to 50 percent more vegetables!
Unfortunately, spreading dyed or rubber mulches around the food you plan to eat is a bad idea. The chemicals in those mulches can seep into the ground and be absorbed by the plants.
So, if those are off the table, what is the best mulch for vegetable gardens? Let’s look at all the options.
What Is Mulch?
Before we get into all the benefits of mulch and the best types of mulch for the vegetable garden, lets start with what mulch actually is.
Mulch is nothing more than a layer of material used to cover exposed soil.
Mulch can be made of many different materials, both natural and artificial. That said, we personally think that if it is going around something you intend to eat, the mulch should be both natural and biodegradable.
Natural and biodegradable mulches include wood chips, pine bark, leaves, strass, grass clippings, etc. These mulching materials are great because they will all decompose and over time, add nutrients back to your soil.
Of course, there are other natural materials such as stone and shells, which may look nice but will not add anything back into your soil. The other downside to these natural mulches is that over time you will need to weed them as well. The only way to avoid weeding stone and shells is to put a layer of plastic underneath, and we just think that’s a bad idea.
Should I mulch my vegetable garden?
While mulching your vegetable is not necessary for it to produce, using mulch offers a variety of benefits and could be a key factor in growing larger fruits and vegetables. Proper mulching can control weeds, conserve moisture, add essential organic matter to the soil, maintain a consistent soil temperature, and even prevent certain diseases.
Whether to mulch or not also depends on what you’re growing, and is largely a matter of personal preference.
The Benefits Of Mulch
As we mentioned before, using mulch has a number of benefits so let’s take a closer look at each one individually.
Mulch Looks Good
As we mentioned earlier, a well-mulched bed looks neat and tidy. This is especially important if your vegetable garden is on a suburban front lawn. Appearance is often the number one reason many gardeners choose to use mulch.
Mulch Helps Retain Moisture
Not only does it look good, but mulch also serves as a barrier against moisture evaporation caused by heat and wind. Not only does it hold much-needed moisture from rain into the soil, it also allows you cut back on the frequency and duration of watering.
Let’s face it, weeds are going to end up in the garden. Nothing can prevent 100% of weeds. Think about that pesky weed growing in the middle of your concrete driveway!
That said, using mulch properly can suppress them, and significantly reduce the number of weeds you have to pull. The mulch prevents the light that many weeds need to germinate and can block seeds blown in by the wind to reach the soil and take root. Seeds that do manage to germinate will struggle and be easy to pull.
In short, using mulch is the best thing you can do to manage weeds, and reduce the amount of back-straining weed pulling necessary each season.
Maintains Soil Temperature
A plant’s main roots function better when they are not exposed to extreme heat or cold. A layer of mulch can serve as a buffer between the air temperature and the ground temperature, protecting the plant from extreme heat or frost. Mulch also helps prevent the sun from baking the soil, creating a crust that prevents water from getting to the plant’s roots. If the soil develops this crust, not only does water not get to the roots of the plant, but you will also battle with soil erosion.
Protects Against Disease
Many common plant diseases live in the soil. While some of these diseases infect a plant through its root system, many of them must make contact with the plant’s foliage. This happens when splashing water from rain or watering transfers soil-borne pathogens onto the plant itself. Mulch creates a barrier between the soil and the plant, preventing these diseases from finding their way to the plant’s foliage.
Adds Nutrients And Organic Material
Unfortunately, many native soils are lacking in the rich organic matter that feeds your plants. Over time, the soil begins to lose nutrients and needs to be amended. We often do this with compost, but the right kind of mulch can help put essential nutrients back into the soil too. A natural, biodegradable mulch will break down over time, amending the soil with much-needed nutrients automatically.
Keep in mind, that the effects of mulch are not always beneficial. The types of plants you are growing will determine what types of mulch to use.
Using the wrong mulch can result in introducing weed seed, creating a home for insect larvae, or the growth of fungus or mold.
3 Key Factors To Consider When Selecting The Best Mulch
When selecting the best mulch for your vegetable garden, you need to keep three main factors in mind. The crop you are mulching, the weather in your growing zone, and the type of soil you have.
We’ve already mentioned that mulching a vegetable garden is very different from mulching a flower bed, but that is not where the differences end.
Different vegetables prefer different growing conditions. Peppers, tomatoes, melons, and eggplants all love the hot temperatures. In a cooler growing climate, they could benefit from black plastic mulch which will absorb the sunlight and raise the soil temperature to ideal levels. Unfortunately, plastic is not water-permeable, so as the season progresses, your plants may not get adequate moisture. If plastic mulch is what you plan to use, be sure to run a soaker hose under the mulch or use some type of drip irrigation to make sure the plant is getting the essential water it needs to thrive.
Cool-weather crops like broccoli and greens grow best when mulched with straw, newspaper, or shredded leaves. These kinds of mulches can lower soil temperatures by as much as 25 degrees, keeping your cool weather plants happy.
As we mentioned earlier, plastic mulches work well in cooler climates, but if you live in a hot climate, avoid it. High soil temperatures can not only stress your plants but can also destroy organic matter in the soil. Using a mulch, like straw, will slightly cool the soil, help your plants retain moisture, and perform better. You can also use shredded leaves, grass clippings, or pine straw.
We personally use pine straw, but that is because our property is surrounded by pine trees so it is free and readily available!
Avoid using these materials if you live in a cool and damp climate. Doing so could be disastrous and you may discover plants that have been stunted by cold temperatures, turning yellow from too much moisture, or being desiccated by slugs.
A final element that should be considered when selecting the best mulch for your vegetable garden is the type of soil you have.
The majority of vegetables perform poorly in heavy, wet soil. Luckily, soil tends to dry out as the season progresses, but covering it with a thick, moisture-retaining mulch can prevent it from drying out.
Dry and sandy soil loves this moisture-retaining barrier, but should not be covered with plastic which will prevent water from getting to the plant’s roots.
What makes a good mulch?
Now that we have talked about the benefits of mulch and a few things to think about before adding mulch to your vegetable garden, let’s take a look at what makes a good mulch.
As we mentioned earlier, we prefer natural and biodegradable mulches. That’s because one of the biggest benefits of using mulch in your vegetable garden is that over time it will decompose.
You want to use a mulch that will break down quickly, especially in raised bed gardens. Shredded leaves, straw, and finely ground bark will protect your soil throughout the growing season but will also break down into rich, organic material that will also amend your bed with essential nutrients.
Hardwood mulches should be reserved for the walking paths between raised beds since it takes considerably longer to break down.
Be cautious, however, when buying mulching. It is quite common for mulch to be made out of contaminated materials such as chipped shipping pallets. These pallets are often treated with toxic insecticides used to kill any stowaway insects before entering the U.S. from other countries. You also want to avoid colored mulches around food gardens. While they are pretty, they are best used around flowers, trees, and shrubs.
Types of Mulch
This is one of our favorite kinds of mulch! Every fall, nature leaves us loads of one of the best organic materials we could possibly use for mulch.
And even better, it’s free!
Rake up those leaves and run them over a few times with your lawnmower to shred them and then put them in your raised beds. Heck, grab your neighbor’s leaves while you’re at it. We promise they will thank you for it!
As the leaves begin to decompose, they release calcium and other micronutrients into your soil to feed next year’s tomatoes!
Both hay and straw are readily available at your garden supply center, and while both look nice and are easy to spread, there are a few key differences between the two.
Straw is basically the leftovers from grain crops. Hay, on the other hand, comes from grass crops and is used to feed livestock. Hay breaks down quickly but usually has seed heads that can sprout and grow into weeds in your garden. Straw is slower to break down than hay, but it is typically easier to work with and doesn’t contain seeds.
Anytime you choose hay, you run the risk that the grass was treated with herbicide which can leach into your soil and not only kill your plants, but ruin the soil itself, so we suggest using straw instead.
Pine straw is nothing more than the dropped needles of pine trees. Not only is pine straw effective, it also looks very nice. As we mentioned earlier, we are huge fans and it, along with shredded leaves, are the only mulches we use. Mainly because we have lots of pine trees!
Pine straw, however, is slower to break down than other kinds of mulches, and a little harder to spread. But once you spread it, it holds together nicely!
Grass clippings are another great source of free mulch. They are a great way to put nitrogen back into the soil, but be sure to dry them out before you use them in your vegetable garden. Wet clippings can generate heat and stress your plants.
As we mentioned earlier, wood chips do a great job of holding in moisture but are very slow to break down. We prefer using these to mulch the paths between your raised beds. They also provide shelter to a host of insects (some beneficial and some not so much).
Be wary of wood chips purchased at your local hardware store as they could contain pesticides. We recommend using arborist wood chips. You can often find them for free! Check getchipdrop.com to see if there is a free source in your area.
Other Natural Mulches
There are a variety of other natural mulch sources such as plant hulls from rice, peanut, or buckwheat, cocoa mulch, and shredded paper. We suggest avoiding these mulches since it is difficult to know if they have been treated with pesticides or herbicides.
Plastic mulches come in two varieties; plastic sheeting and rubber chips.
While there are some benefits to using plastic sheeting, such as raising the soil temperature in cooler climates, there are certainly better mulches out there. Since plastic also prevents moisture from getting to the plant’s roots, the risks often outweigh the benefits.
Rubber chip mulch is touted as being eco-friendly since it is often made from recycled tires. While we are all about recycling around here, we don’t recommend you put this type of mulch anywhere near your gardens. As the temperatures rise, a number of chemicals can leach from these petroleum-based products, and personally, we don’t want them anywhere near our food.
Tips For Applying Mulch
- Mulch should be 2-4 inches thick. Too thin a layer will offer very little benefits but applying more than 4 inches of mulch can cause other issues.
- Keep mulch one inch away from the base of the plant to avoid fungus and rotting problems.
- If using grass clippings, make sure they are fully dried out.
- Make sure leaves are shredded, avoid using whole leaves since they take longer to break down and can result in fungal growth.
What is the best mulch for vegetables?
We suggest using a natural and biodegradable mulch such as shredded leaves, straw, or grass clippings.
Should I put mulch in my vegetable garden?
It really depends on your soil type, climate, and crop type. See our suggestions above.
What is a good mulch for tomatoes?
Mulch is great for tomatoes! It can prevent water from splashing up onto the foliage and spreading diseases such as wilt.
What color mulch is best for a vegetable garden?
We strongly recommend using natural mulches and recommend avoiding dyed or colored plastic mulches.
Just do it! Mulching is a great way to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and feed your soil. When used the right way, it can even provide you with a better summer or fall yield. Just make sure you take into consideration the crop variety, weather, and soil type in order to choose the best mulch for your vegetable garden.