A productive organic garden begins with soil health and a crucial step in building and protecting soil fertility is mulching. Mulch is any material laid over the surface of the soil. In sustainable gardening, the only type of mulch that should be used is one that biodegrades and breaks back down into the soil.
The most common types of mulch are:
- newspaper and cardboard
- lucerne hay or other straw bale
- wood chips
- leaves and grass clippings
Mulch should be laid over the soil once the organic garden beds have been prepared, and usually when all seeds, seedlings, flowers and food crops have been sown and planted, although mulch can be laid over the soil even if this step hasn’t been completed yet, particularly if one is keen to protect the soil right away.
Why mulch your gardens?
Mulch performs a number of key functions. The 10 main reasons are:
1. Mulch stops water from evaporating.
Mulch retains moisture in the soil so you don’t need to water your gardens as frequently. Mulching is a water conservation strategy that I wholeheartedly follow as I live on one of the driest continents in the world, Australia, and I live on a farm where water is undisputedly our most precious resource. Since we collect and harvest our own rainwater through dams and water tanks, we understand its value. Plus, if you’ve ever lived through months of dry, almost drought-like conditions, as I have, you wouldn’t be so quick to waste it. So we embrace any idea that helps us conserve water and mulching is definitely one of them.
2. Mulch suppresses weeds.
While mulch won’t rid the weed problem completely, it will help to suppress weeds so that you won’t need to hand weed as much. Since fewer weeds are able to grow, your plants won’t have to compete for soil nutrients and water.
3. Mulch helps keep the soil cool.
Why is it important to keep the soil cool? In his book “Organic Gardening (Australia and New Zealand)“ author Peter Bennett explains that “mulches keep the soil surface cool so that earthworms and microflora remain active on the surface. Sunbaked soils will support neither earthworms nor an active microflora.” Since earthworms are a good sign of healthy soil, anything that can be done to make their lives easier, should be done. Hence why mulching is a great idea.
4. Mulch protects soil from frosty temperatures.
Likewise, mulch helps protect soil from harsh cold temperatures.
5. Mulch helps to regulate soil temperatures.
If you’ve ever observed plants in heat stress you’ll know what I mean. I’ve seen lettuce and coriander suffer from heat stress and in response, go to seed quickly in an effort to produce “offspring” to pass on its genes before it dies (yes this happens, I’m not making this up, it’s nature’s way). When this happens, you know something is very wrong with your plants. Mulch will help to regulate soil temperatures so that plants are protected and won’t need to enter “survival” mode. But if your plant still runs to seed way too soon, you’ve got other problems that need dealing with (bad seed, needs fertiliser, poor soil etc).
6. Mulch provides nutrients to the soil.
Consider a forest in which trees lose leaves and branches, which then fall on to the forest floor. This tree litter and debris decomposes and provides habitat and food for insects, worms, grubs and other microorganisms which breaks it down further and turns it into organic matter. Mulch essentially does the same thing. When it breaks down, it becomes nutrient-rich soil fodder and attracts worms and other critters, which all work together to improve soil structure.
7. Mulch protects soil and slows erosion.
According to the Queensland Government website, “erosion can cause rills and gullies that make the cultivation of paddocks impossible. The impacts of erosion on cropping lands include: reduced ability of the soil to store water and nutrients. exposure of subsoil, which often has poor physical and chemical properties.” We’ve covered this issue in our recent post about land degradation so I won’t repeat the issues here. What I will say is this: the life of any garden begins with the health of the soil, and protecting it should be every organic gardener’s main priority.
8. Mulch makes the garden beds look tidy and appealing.
Mulch just makes garden beds look more attractive. It brings order and structure to the garden. Plants are much more distinguishable when mulch is the garden backdrop. Mulch helps to define plant varieties and crop rows. Without mulch, garden beds just look messy. My OCD tendencies go into overdrive when gardening and I prefer to see neat garden beds that make the entire yard look lovely, not beds that prompt me to want to stay inside the house just to avoid seeing it lol!
9. Mulch provides better garden walkways.
Mulch makes the gardens easier to walk on, particularly between garden rows. I’d much rather walk on mulch than soil (particularly after rain, soil just turns into mud!).
10. Mulch saves you time, money and energy.
Without mulch, you will need to spend more time, invest more money and exert more energy into activities such as weeding, watering, replacing plants that have run to seed too quickly or apply more fertilisers. Proper mulching helps you avoid time, energy and money-wasting!
Mulch is a crucial step in sustainable gardening as it helps you replicate a healthy ecosystem in your backyard. Don’t attempt to garden without first working out what you’re going to do for mulch. If you don’t have mulch on hand, I’d wait until you do.
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Haven’t begun gardening yet but thinking about it? Our post on 16 Herbs That An Amateur Green Thumb Can Easily Grow will help you get started.
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