Can You Use Organic Mulches In The Vegetable Garden?

Vegetable (and herb) gardens are a wonderful thing to add to your property. They provide a source of food, color, and aromas and even the visual enjoyment of watching pollinators such as birds or butterflies.

But tales of high maintenance and the risk of low yields can scare folks off.

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What such neglect neglects is that a little planning ahead can greatly reduce the amount of work needed to maintain a garden and even increase the amount and quality of your crops.

One sometimes controversial solution is to use mulches, which have two types of mulch. It can be either organic (i.e., made of once-living matter) or synthetic.

Synthetic or inorganic mulch only provides some of the benefits of organic mulch and can be bad for the environment. Examples include black plastic mulch, paper, gravel, and landscape fabrics.



But what about organic mulch?

Can You Use Organic Mulches In The Vegetable Garden?

The good news is that you can use organic mulch to great effect, although you need to be aware of a few potential problems.

Let’s look at the effects of using organic mulch, examine a few types of organic mulches, and discuss how best to use them with your vegetables.

Benefits of Organic Mulch

First of all, organic mulch, also known as a living mulch, is any type of organic material that can decompose naturally. It helps to return organic matter back into the soil.

In this sense, it acts a bit like fertilizer, only the process is much slower.

As microorganisms and larger garden denizens reach the soil surface from below, they consume the natural mulch a tiny bit at a time, carrying nutrients back into the soil with them.

Another thing it does is protect the garden soil in multiple ways.

Because it covers the ground, the topsoil won’t dry out as fast and is less affected by soil temperature changes. It also protects the plant roots from temperature extremes and creates much more stable soil moisture.

The layer of mulch also creates a barrier, blocking any weed seeds that land on it from taking root, making this a great natural method of weed growth control.

Rain hits the mulch instead of the soil surface, reducing erosion and the risk of your plants getting wet.

The mulch even helps to cushion your weight when you step on it, reducing the risk of soil compaction by gluing the soil particles together.

In addition, using organic mulch can improve the soil structure of sandy soils, reduce evaporation of water, and prevent soil erosion.

Moreover, organic mulch also provides calories that feed soil microbes, like fungi and bacteria, over time. 

These beneficial microbes significantly affect soil quality and improve plant growth by enhancing the availability of nutrients for your vegetable plants.

Finally, organic mulch serves as a visual barrier, tying elements of the garden together and marking out the planting zone, so you don’t accidentally damage plants by mowing too close.

Drawbacks of Organic Mulch

Of course, there are also some drawbacks to using mulch, but there are only a few.

The most obvious one is that it can increase the risk of root rot if you overwater a mulched plant.

When you suspect you’ve overwatered, shift the mulch away from the affected plant so the soil can dry out more efficiently, then smooth the mulch back out again.

But another drawback is that pests often use natural mulch as a hiding place.

Various roaches, spiders, and a whole host of insects, arachnids, and even rodents can take shelter in the mulch.

If you mulch too close to a building, it can even provide a means for bugs to get to the foundations of those buildings safely and find entry points.

Mulch vs. Compost

Another important problem that needs to be addressed is the fact that many sites recommend compost as a form of mulch.

This advice, unfortunately, can lead to a lot of problems if you aren’t careful.

Keep in mind that mulch is organic matter that hasn’t broken down yet, while homemade compost is a matter that has fully broken down.

To some extent, you can certainly use compost piles in tandem with mulch, as it shares many of the same benefits.

However, while it enriches the layer of soil and provides food for various organisms, it also functions like a layer of topsoil. It thus fails to provide any of the protective benefits of mulch.

Choosing the Best Organic Mulch for Your Crops

Not all organic mulches are created equal, and each has its own pros and cons to consider.

Here are some of the organic mulch options out there and a brief summary of their qualities.

Corn Cobs and Stalks

Sometimes leftovers are a good thing, even on the garden surface.

Shredded stalks and ground cobs can be used as effective mulch, recycling what would otherwise be wasted (unless you make your own corn starch). They also make good winter mulch, which warms up the ground and prevents erosion. 

Of course, some might not find the straw particularly attractive, and while they can be turned into the soil in the spring, they are easily blown around.

You’ll want to mix the stalks with some straw to prevent matting, and any freshly harvested stalks will need to be stored indoors until the following spring.

A 2” inch layer is perfect for corn mulch.

Straw

This is perhaps the excellent mulch for vegetable gardens and horticultural crops and has been popular since at least the Middle Ages, if not long before.

Because straw degrades rather fast and is a softer mulching material, it can simply be turned into healthy soil after the growing season ends.

However, be aware that straw may still contain some seeds (but not nearly as much as fresh hay) and can be blown about due to its lightweight.

It’s also flammable and may contain pesticides if you buy it commercially.

The good news is you can eliminate any seeds by watering the bales a few weeks before using them, causing them to sprout so they can be easily removed.

Straw mulch works best in layers of 2 to 3” inches deep.

Wood Chips

Best suited for ornamental gardens and perennial garden beds but also useful in parts of the vegetable garden, wood chips are somewhat counterintuitive.

The larger the chips, the more easily they can be dislodged and the deeper the layer can be.

Meanwhile, smaller chips are a little more compact and harder to shift but must be applied in a thinner layer.

While visually attractive and an excellent source of organic matter over time, wood chip mulch must be top-dressed every few years and can be washed or blown away during storms.

They’re not well-suited for placing over landscaping fabric and are also a poor mulching choice for snuggling up to your crops. They should also not be piled against the bases of shrubs and trees, as the wood chips can promote fungal diseases.

However, when used on garden paths and as borders for other mulches, wood chips are an excellent option.

Apply in layers 2 to 4” inches deep along paths and around trees, shrubs, and borders.

Others

While the three discussed are some of the most common options, there are a lot of other choices of vegetable garden mulch that also work great.

These include:

  • Cardboard
  • Cotton burrs
  • Cracked or ground nut shells
  • Evergreen boughs
  • Lawn or grass clippings
  • Shredded leaves
  • Shredded bark
  • Leaf mulch
  • Newspaper
  • Pine needles or pine straw

Applying Organic Mulch

With the exception of shredded lawn clippings (which require only 1” inch layers), most mulches will need to be layered 2 to 4” inches deep, depending on the type.

  • Be sure to rake the ground in the spring before planting, turning in softer mulches such as straw or dry leaves and removing any that need to be completely replaced.
  • Wait until your crops have grown high enough that they won’t be buried by the mulch layer before mulching.
  • Add the mulch slowly and evenly around your plants.
  • Avoid the urge to mound it up around the base of plants, as this can increase the risk of rot.
  • Once you’ve finished mulching around your plants, you can add wood mulch along the edges and pathways, if you so choose, to serve as an extra layer of defense.

Finally, be sure to check after storms and redistribute or replace any patches of mulch that were dislodged.

Now that you have the answers to the questions, you can find the perfect mulch for your needs.

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