QUESTION: What’s the best mulch to use in a vegetable garden? I’m planting a veggie garden for the first time this year, so I want to use the best mulch for it. — Thomas R.
ANSWER: There are so many different options to use as mulch for your vegetable garden, and which one is best depends on lots of different factors. The mulches below are each great options for mulch, and each type is best for particular situations. Keep reading to learn more about how these mulch types work and when they’re best for your vegetable garden.
Compost is a great mulch to use when you want to add the benefit of extra nutrition as you’re mulching. You must use well rotted compost that has completely disintegrated into dark-colored soil. One of the downsides of using compost is that it takes time for your kitchen and garden scraps to disintegrate completely into well rotted compost. It also takes time for homemade compost to heat up enough to kill the weeds and seeds that may have found their way into the compost pile from the garden.
Whether you use your own homemade compost or purchase it ready-made, compost will add nutrition to your soil quickly when you use it as a mulch. Another benefit of using compost as mulch is that the ground will warm up faster in the spring. However, if you’re purchasing compost for use as mulch in your vegetable garden, it can be an expensive option.
Grass clippings can be used as mulch once they have dried out, but don’t spread fresh grass clippings on the soil in your vegetable garden. Fresh grass clippings can cause unpleasant smells in your garden or heat up the ground too much. But if you’re able to save grass clippings earlier in the year and give them some time to dry out, you’ll have an affordable way to mulch the garden.
Dried grass clippings will break down to deliver the nutrition your garden needs much more quickly than other options. It’s especially high in the nitrogen many plants need to thrive. Nutrition from grass clippings becomes available to your soil and plants more quickly when grass clippings are used as mulch than with other mulch options.
Just be conscious of chemicals that could have been applied to your grass clippings as they grew, like pesticides, fertilizers, or weed killers. Also, spread grass clippings only up to an inch high when using them as mulch in your vegetable garden.
If you have a lawn mower with a bag attached to catch grass clippings as you cut the grass, it will be easy to gather the clippings as mulch for your garden. You can simply spread the grass clippings out on a tarp to let them dry in the sun.
Mulch made of shredded dead leaves is a great option that most people can collect for free when leaves fall in their area. You’ll have to plan ahead and gather the leaves in the fall, storing them over the winter until it’s time to mulch your vegetable garden in the spring. Shredded leaves will hold their position longer than leaves that aren’t shredded. However, a quick pass through a leaf shredder or lawn mower is all they will need.
Even pine needles are a frequently recommended source of mulching material. Leaves decompose quickly, delivering a boost of nutrients for your garden. Leaves are also a favorite mulch for the vegetable garden because of how effective they are at suppressing weeds. And in addition to offering nutrition and weed suppression, leaf mulches also help improve the soil structure and drainage.
If you choose to make mulch out of fallen leaves, spread it in a layer two to three inches thick when you’re ready to use it. Some writers complain that shredded leaves mat together, but you can easily prevent this from happening by mixing in some straw with your leaves. Pine needles are an especially good choice when the soil needs to become more acidic or when the garden is sloped (because they will remain in place, unlike other mulch materials).
Straw and hay may not be the first materials that come to mind when you’re planning to mulch the vegetable garden, but many experts recommend them. Skip the hay and go for the straw, as hay can come along with weed seeds, adding to the weeds in your garden instead of suppressing them.
A layer of straw that’s between two and three inches thick helps balance out extreme temperatures. The straw or hay keeps the ground cooler when temperatures climb and provides some respite from extremely cold weather, too. It also improves the soil’s moisture retention and chokes out weeds well.
Wood Chips or Bark
Wood chips and bark are the most commonly used mulching materials. That’s because although you will need to apply wood chips or bark a few times during the growing season, they are both attractive and effective. This type of mulch is also easy to find at nurseries and garden centers.
You may have heard rumors about wood chips and bark taking the nitrogen plants need from the soil. In truth, this process takes place on the surface of the soil, inside the layer of wood chips and bark between two and three inches thick. The mulch does not take nitrogen from the layer under the surface of the soil where the roots of the plants are growing.
Now you know the benefits of the best mulches for vegetable gardens and should be ready to choose the best one for your garden. Just remember to leave a few inches of empty space between the mulch and any plant foliage. You do not want the mulch to touch the leaves or stems of your plants anywhere, or it can contribute to plant diseases.