It’s that time of year…mid summer. Temperatures are soaring, plants are thirsty and weeds are happy! To make your gardening time a little easier, let’s talk about mulch. There are many benefits to mulching your plants (both ornamental and vegetable gardens.)
First, we’ll discuss natural ways to mulch your ornamental plants, shrubs and trees. There are so many good (and cheap) mulching materials. Pine straw is excellent for both flowers and vegetables, and looks beautiful as well (that myth about pine straw being too acidic has been dispelled). Pine straw is my personal favorite, layered on top of thick newspaper. Instead of expensive straw that is full of seeds, try old hay. (If you don’t have pine trees, ask a neighbor if you can rake for them. They’ll enjoy a break and your wallet will, too.) Old rotted hay is wonderful, full of nutrients and composts right in the garden while it mulches. Grass clippings (fresh) add nitrogen to the soil as well as deterring weed growth, however, make sure that they don’t touch the plants you actually want to protect with them, as they compost fast and easily and can literally burn your plants. Cardboard and thick newspaper is also a wonderful and free first layer mulch. Water can go through it but light cannot, so no weeds can germinate – and as an added bonus, earthworms love cardboard. They come up to eat the glue in it and enrich your garden soil. (When using layered newspaper, it is helpful to wet the paper before placing the pine straw to keep it in place.) It will rot easily and add nutrients to your soil as it does. As for leaves, use them, swipe bags from the side of the road, rake your own, use that shredder attachment on your leaf blower (you know, that big weird vaccuum thing that you stuck in the garage and never used). It’s pure fertilizer for your garden and will stop you from weeding as well. Be creative with your mulches and you’ll save tons of money doing it. Lay on mulch thickly (an 8 inch layer to start is good – keep adding!) and, if you see a weed poking through, simply lay more on top of it – weeds can’t grow in the dark! Your back will thank you for not having to weed and your garden soil will be much happier, too.
Did you know that some common annual weeds growing in association with cultivated crops use up to three times as much water to produce a pound of dry matter, as do the crops. For example, common lambsquarters requires 658 pounds of water to produce one pound of dry matter, common sunflower requires 623 pounds, and common ragweed 912 pounds, compared with 349 pounds for corn and 557 pounds for wheat. This explains why it is essential to keep weeds to a minimum, especially during times of drought!
Now that we understand the importance of mulching flower gardens, let’s move on to vegetable gardens. Mulch helps regulate the soil temperature, improves water retention, and prevents soil erosion. But should you mulch your vegetable garden? If so, with what?
Studies show that mulching your vegetable garden can increase (or even decrease) yields by as much as 30%, so as important as mulching may be, the type of mulch used is an even greater factor contributing to gardening success. While there are many types of mulch that work well in vegetable gardens, here are four popular options based on crop type.
Black plastic is a good mulch for crops that love heat such as tomato plants, eggplant, peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash, and potatoes. Lay plastic in early spring to help warm up soil temperatures, potentially extending your gardening season. Plastic will require extra security to remain in place during windy times.
The major concern with plastic is ensuring adequate watering, since water cannot penetrate the plastic (this is an example of how mulch can decrease crop yield). Take note of the ways in which your plants can get water: Are you in the rainy season? Do you have sub-mulch irrigation? If not, you may want to remove the plastic mid-summer to allow plants to get extra moisture during hot months.
Other downsides to using plastic? It’s not biodegradable, can be unattractive, and can be difficult to handle. Avoid plastic altogether in extra-hot regions.
A guaranteed-free mulch. Leaves are an ideal mulch for broccoli and peas, which prefer cooler temperatures. The permeability of leaf mulch can actually lower soil temperatures by 20-25 degrees; be sure not to mulch your heat-loving plants as well. Since soil may experience a decrease in temperature, don’t apply this mulch type until the soil has reached an adequate temperature, perhaps mid-summer.
Hopefully you have a large stock of leaves available, as this type of mulch will blow away easily. Once wet, leaves mat down into an unsightly soggy mess, so the best option is to shred them before applying.
Burlap bags (such as those that hold food products like coffee beans or rice) are an efficient mulcher for a variety of crops including blueberries and carrots. The advantages to burlap are both cosmetic and practical. Burlap can give your bed a clean, polished appearance. If secured properly, it will stay put with little effort, even during wind. It also allows plenty of moisture through, making this a great all-season mulch choice. It’s also an easy way to protect against occasional early frosts.
Burlap can be expensive for large gardens, so ask for donations from local vendors. Due to its permeability, it is not an effective weed barrier, so burlap lacks as a mulch in that respect.
Another option? Try growing potatoes right in burlap bags. And don’t forget, burlap is compostable!
Straw is effective for both delicate crops like leafy greens and robust potatoes. It should be applied in mid-summer once soil has reached an ideal temperature. Straw may actually reduce the temperature of soil by 20-25 degrees, so consider applying in layers so as to not shock crops. Straw can also be used in the winter to protect soil.
Why might you not want to use straw? Two major reasons. One, unless you have access to free straw, this mulching method can be quite expensive for larger areas. Two, if you’re not a diligent weeder of your vegetable garden, you may find that you cannot keep up with the growth of oats, unless you use seed-free straw. Like any mulch (but even more so with lightweight straw), it may blow away and need reapplication.
Follow us, like us, share us. We are Sweet Basil Farm & Gardens on Facebook. We are a local Middle Georgia producer of farm fresh fruits and vegetables and members of the American Poultry Association, licensed by the Georgia Dept. of Agriculture as Poultry Dealers and Brokers, and a proud member of the Georgia Grown program, a division of the Georgia Dept. of Agriculture. We also breed, sell and ship poultry, pet pigs, bearded irises and much more. We have an 80 acre working farm, with great emphasis on all natural gardening and livestock management practices. An 1840s general store is situated on our property, and serves as our on-site farmer’s market. We have a large vegetable and herb garden, fruit orchards and more. Conveniently located off of Interstate 75 near the Johnstonville Rd exit (#193). We are six miles west, located in Barnesville, Lamar County, Georgia.