Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

My vegetable garden looking tidily mulched in summer!


Weeds! They’re every gardener’s nemesis. And they are, by far, the most common frustration I hear from fellow gardeners. If we’re not careful, weeds can take over our gardens (and our lives!) within a few short weeks of the gardening season.

So, gardener to gardener, I’m here to tell it to you straight. Weeding is a complete waste of time.

And if you’re spending more than a few minutes a week weeding your garden during the season, it’s time to change your strategy.

There’s one simple, inexpensive, and effective tool you can use all season long, year after year, to make your garden weed-less — mulch.

Here’s why vegetable garden mulch is so amazing and how you should use it in your garden.

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Benefits of Vegetable Garden Mulch

Before we begin, let’s be clear – there’s no such thing as a garden without weeds. That’s simply not possible. Gardens grow plants, and some of the plants are always going to be weeds.

But, the good news is that you can drastically cut down on the number of weeds that grow in your garden using the simple technique of mulching.

Here are the ways mulching will benefit your garden, and you as the garden tender!

Less time spent weeding.

The #1 way to cut down on weeding at all times of the year is to keep the soil covered. It’s good to remember that often weeds are only doing their job. Nature doesn’t like bare soil.

It’s susceptible to erosion and compaction from wind and water. Nature likes to keep it covered to keep it in place.

So, bare soil is an invitation for weed seeds, whose job is to be the first line of protection for the soil.

When you cover the soil of your garden beds with mulch, you are preventing a weed seed party from happening in your garden.

And nature can rest easy, you’ve got it covered. (Ha ha!)

Less time spent watering.

Keeping the soil covered with mulch insulates it and traps in moisture, which results in much less watering than if you leave the soil exposed.

(Here’s how you should be watering your garden.)

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A few years ago here in the Madison area, we had one of the worst droughts I’ve experienced as a gardener. Gardens everywhere were suffering and people were spending a lot of their mornings and evenings watering their gardens.

Because my garden was heavily mulched I didn’t water much more than I usually do, and my plants didn’t suffer nearly as bad as many of my neighbors.

You may also notice as the summer progresses that uncovered soil will start to dry out and crack as the moisture content takes a nosedive. If I slide my hand under the layer of mulch on my garden bed the soil underneath is always dark, moist, and crumbly, even in the height of summer.

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Which kind of soil do you think plants and seeds like more? Dried and cracked or moist and crumbly?

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Builds healthier soil. 

Most gardeners know that healthy soil is one of the main building blocks of a successful garden.  You simply cannot grow robust and productive plants without it.

The components that make up soil are minerals, organic materials, water and air.

The amount of organic matter (materials) in your soil helps improve soil structure, retains moisture, and increases the number of micro-organisms in your garden.

If you don’t have a lot of organic matter in your soil you’ll struggle to grow plants as you have increasing problems with fertility, water availability, compaction, erosion, parasites, diseases, and insects.

There are lots of soil organisms that live in your garden whose job it is to break down nutrients and feed your plants. The vegetable garden mulch you add breaks down over time and increases the organic matter in your soil which in turn increases the amount of biological activity. 

That means you’ll have a diverse and populous community of microorganisms living in your garden that are constantly working to keep your plants healthy and your soil providing them with the nutrients they need.

Every garden season you should be regularly adding fresh organic matter by using mulch, cover crops, compost, and manure.

Each year I use about eight bales of hay in my 1600 square foot garden and I’m always amazed how much they decompose and disappear into the soil.

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Helps slow down the spreading of disease. 

During summer I receive a lot of emails and social media comments from gardeners feeling frustrated by the tomato diseases attacking their favorite varieties.

Luckily, mulching can help keep down the spread of disease in your garden. If you mulch nothing else, at least mulch your tomatoes.

There are a lot of soil-borne tomato diseases that splash up onto the plant when it rains if your soil is bare. Mulching won’t eradicate the tomato diseases, but it may give the plant a head start by slowing the disease down.

(Read more about preventing tomato diseases.)

Keeps the garden looking neat.

When you browse the internet, magazines, or garden books which gardens really jump out at you as the most beautiful? The ones covered in overgrown weeds? I doubt it.

Usually, the most attractive gardens have an overall organization and neatness to them.

When you suppress the weeds by mulching your garden paths and beds, your garden is going to look neat and tidy all season long. This will cut down on your stress levels, your plants will be more productive because they won’t have to compete with weeds, and I bet you’ll get more enjoyment from your garden.

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You won’t have to be constantly carving out time to weed large areas in an attempt to save your plants. You’ll be able to relax, have a cup of tea in your yard, and admire your beautiful garden.

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

What should you use for mulch? 

Marsh hay is my first choice for mulch in my garden, but you can also use straw, leaves, grass clippings or anything else that’s local to your region.

One word of caution: mind your source of mulch.  Hay can bring weed seeds into your garden if you’re not careful. Ask questions about where the mulch came from before you purchase it.

If you’re unsure whether bales of hay or straw you’ve purchased contains weed seeds, leave one out in the rain for a few weeks and watch to see if things start sprouting out if it. If so, find out what those sprouts are. If you’re using straw it could be oats, which are not harmful to your garden.

If it’s growing a nice crop of weeds, you might not want to add it to your garden.

You can also grow your own mulch by cultivating plants like comfrey, which produces large amounts of leaves that can be cut down and added as mulch to the tops of your garden beds.

You could also use the clippings from cutting down your perennial garden grasses, although you should check into the varieties you’re growing to make sure they won’t drop seed and spread themselves into your vegetable garden beds.

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Some gardeners and farmers experiment with living mulches, which means they plant cover crops like buckwheat, clover, and oats alongside their vegetables in the same garden bed.

What shouldn’t you use for mulch?

Woodchips are not a good choice for mulching of vegetable garden beds because they contain too much carbon. When carbon heavy materials get mixed into the soil they can tie up a lot of nitrogen that would otherwise be going to the vegetable plants.

I do use woodchips in my garden aisles because they last the full season without needing to be reapplied. I also like the aesthetic effect of having two different colors and textures of mulch in my garden beds and paths.

Obviously, you should also not use any mulch that might contain chemicals and harm your plants. If you order manure-based compost as a mulch, make sure that manure is being sourced from animals that graze on land that’s sprayed with herbicides. Those herbicides will still be present in the manure and could kill your plants.

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Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

How thick should you mulch? 

As a huge proponent of mulching, I always joke that in my book there’s no such thing as too much mulch. You definitely don’t want to see any soil through the mulch because that’s precisely where the weeds will set up shop.

So, thick enough to entirely cover the soil and not let any sunlight through to the soil surface.

Where can you buy mulch?

I used to order my hay mulch through the community garden where I had a plot. If you have a community garden in your area, ask about their mulch source.

Now that I only garden at home, I buy it from a local nursery in my city (Jung’s if you’re a fellow Madisonian!). Talk to other gardeners in your area, look on Craigslist for listings, or ask organic farmers at your local market where they purchase their weed-free mulch.

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

When do you apply the mulch?

You can keep your garden beds covered in the mulch of your choosing all year round. In fact, it’s a smart practice to make sure all of your soil is covered over the winter to protect it from drying out from the harsh winter winds and eroding from wind and rain.

In spring, if I’m planting a seedling (baby plant), I simply go out to my garden bed and create a little hole in the mulch with my hands. I use a trowel to plant the seedling and then leave the mulch pulled away from the plant a little. (See photos above.)

If you’re planting seeds, you’ll want to clear the area of all mulch. Prepare the soil, plant your seeds, and then wait for them to germinate. Do not cover the newly planted seeds with mulch.

Wait until they’re up and growing for a couple of weeks before you mulch in around them and in between the rows. In this instance, it’s okay to have some bare soil for a short amount of time.

The photo below shows me mulching carrots and cilantro after they’re germinated and started growing. Don’t put any mulch over the plants.

Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Have I convinced you yet of the wonderful superpowers of vegetable garden mulch? If not, go read this post again. (Ha ha!)

I think if you try it out this season you’ll find that mulch is the ultimate tool for creating a low maintenance garden with healthy soil, less disease, lower water needs, and a tidy and beautiful aesthetic.

I hardly ever say this about gardening, but if you’re not mulching your garden, you’re doing it wrong. There’s no reason not to start right now. [external_footer]