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I love to mulch. I wish the word was slightly sexier, but it’s not. It has all the lyrical charm of ‘stodge’, ‘squelch’ and ‘gloop.’ It comes from the old English ‘molsh’ meaning soft, moist, mellow and sweet.
Now we’re talking.
I’d like my soil to be all those things, please. A soil that is shaded, soft, and moist will support the soil food web.
While ‘mulch’ may be utterly charmless as a word, it is full of potential to transform your garden from an ugly duckling into a preened swan.
What is mulch?
Mulch is anything that covers the soil to inhibit weeds, evaporation and help keep plants warm.
Adding mulch to you garden is the single BEST thing you can do for your soil microbes, your soil and your plants.
I’m a late mulcher. I didn’t mulch in the early days of gardening. Instead, I raked and piled up my leaves for the dump.
Who knew that I was missing out on all these benefits. Mulch can;
- Keeps soil cool when it’s hot
- Keeps soil warm when it’s cold
- Prevents the soil becoming compacted when it’s wet
- Provides food for the organisms in the soil food web
I took away the organic matter sustaining my garden in pursuit of the tidy! It’s hard to even write it. I feel terrible. I didn’t return anything back to my soil and wondered why the plants weren’t thriving.
By using a mulch, you create a lovely home for your soil organisms. Worms will have more to heat and will in turn improve the condition of your soil. Other soil food web allies will also appear to help cycle nutrients.
Mulch is a form of cold compost: it doesn’t heat up like a compost pile, but it will decay, over a longer period of time. By providing different kinds of organic matter as mulch, you can establish or supplement different members of the soil food web, ones that will provide more of the type of nitrogen preferred by the plants grown in the area.Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, p125
It’s like tucking up your plant babies in a blanket of nutrient warmth to help them survive the onslaught of winter storms, frosts and snow.
My main problem is not having enough mulch and having to buy some in.
How to make mulch for free
Maintenance is mulch waiting to happen. When weeding and pruning, follow these simple rules: (a) pull stuff up, throw stuff down; (b) snip and flip; (c) chop and drop…While beautifying and tidying your garden you’re returning nutrients to soil and adding oragnic matter.Grow Your Soil!: Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web to Create Your Best Garden EverGrow Your Soil, Diane Miessler, p5
Ok, it’s never free, there’s always time and labour involved. But your resource is staring you right in your face. Your plants! All those clippings and prunings could be chopped and dropped at their feet and left to rot down.
Mulch well with anything that used to be a plant; this also protects soil from temperature extremes and drying.Grow Your Soil!: Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web to Create Your Best Garden Ever, Diane Miessler
Or add your green and browns to a compost pile to rot down before slathering your soil with it.
What materials you can use for mulch
If you just want to get rid of some weeds before planting, then Charles Dowding recommends burying your weeds with mulch.
Non-biodegradeable options include:
- Black weed suppressing fabric
- Wool carpet
Good biodegradeable mulches include:
- Leaf mould
- Grass clippings
- Composted wood chips
- Mushroom compost
- Garden compost
- Rotted manures
- Straw or hay – don’t add too much as it can rot
- Weeds or plants you pulled up (just avoid the invasive stuff)
- Green manures – buckwheat and phacelia are fast growers
- Shredded seaweed (best for coastal plants)
- Strulch – this is a mineralised wheat straw mulch that breaks down after 2 years and is said to deter slugs too!
I love the fact that you can chop and drop from a plant and after a while it will make compost for you right where you need it.
Do different plants prefer certain types of mulch?
Yes! All your annuals and vegetables like green mulch, like grass clippings as bacteria thrive in these conditions. When the bacteria digest, they make lovely amounts of nitrogen which these types of plants love.
With your perennials and shrubs however, they like what fungi can offer, so it’s better to mulch with dry, brown materials. After a week or too, you may see some white strands on your brown mulch. But don’t worry. These are just the mycellium strands of fungi doing their work. If you see a mushroom growing, then that’s just the fruit and things are decomposing nicely.
A mulch of aged brown organic materials supports fungi; a mulch of fresh, green organic materials supports bacteria….Either will eventually attract microarthropods, arthropods, worms and other soil food web participants. These will work through the mulch, pulling bits of it into the soil, shredding and tunneling through it, taxiing other members of the web to new locations.Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, p144
If you need a brown mulch, Lewis & Lowenfels recommend using brown leaves, that have been shredded or mowed. Fungi grows quicker on leaves than on wood chip.
But if you are short on one type of mulch – working any mulch into the top layer of soil will increase bacteria, but leaving it on the surface will be favoured by the fungi.
Can you speed up the effect of your mulch?
If you want that bacteria and fungi munching quicker and releasing nutrients quicker, then you ned the protozoa and nematodes to eat them. So just get more nematodes. The book, “Teaming with Microbes” explains how to make your own Protozoa soup from grass cuttings that you can then pour on top of your mulch.
Are there any downsides to mulching your plants?
Mulches can harbour pests – especially slugs. Hay and straw might not hold the heat as well as other mulches.
I hope these tips have been useful.
I’m going to experiment with some strulch on a bed, and I’ll be cooking up some protozoa soup as well to add to all my mulch mixes.