After more than a decade of gardening, through trial and error, and reading books and articles, and after watching videos and documentaries, one of the most important gardening lessons I've learned is to cover bare soil. When we gardened in the desert at our Phoenix homestead, we mulched the gardens with wood mulch from a tree trimming company and fallen leaves. On our new homestead in the lush Missouri Ozarks, we are covering our garden soil with wheat straw and leaves.
We discovered the world of "covering bare soil" after desperately looking for ways to keep the weeds and intense heat out of our Phoenix garden. Our very first gardening year on our urban homestead was a nightmare. The weeds were relentless. The sun and scorching temperatures were more than the plant root systems could handle. The soil dried out more quickly than we could manage. While researching the topic online, Kevin happened upon a documentary that changed our gardening lives forever. Please watch the documentary called "Back To Eden," if you haven't already. This method of gardening transformed our homestead into a healthy, thriving, and productive piece of land.
There are endless reasons to mulch the top layer of your garden. Let's talk about the main 5 reasons.
5 Reasons to Mulch Your Garden
#1. Weed Control
Pulling weeds is every gardeners least favorite job. I think it's what keeps many people from gardening in the first place. Covering the bare soil with mulch helps to control weeds. Weed seeds that fly through the air and land in your garden have a hard time germinating if it is covered with inches of mulch. Seeds that do somehow germinate are easily pulled out and destroyed by the sun.
#2. Moisture Retention
Save on your water bill. Spend less time with your watering wand and more time with your cold drink on the porch swing. Soil that is covered with mulch will retain moisture longer than bare soil. It prevents the water from evaporating so quickly.
#3. Cools the Soil
Did I mention that we gardened in the desert? Where it very regularly exceeded 115 degrees Fahrenheit? We did a pretty darn good job, too! All of our neighbors scoffed and laughed. They teased us as we planted and shook their heads as we brought in truckloads of mulch from a tree company. I think they even gathered on their porches and sipped their beers as they watched us spread hundreds of wheelbarrow-loads of mulch. After several years, their mocking turned into amazement. They just couldn't believe it!
It simply came down to covering the soil. Soil that is covered with a thick layer of mulch stays much cooler during the summer. This means root systems stay cooler and plants do not become as stressed.
#4. More Worms
Whenever we go fishing, we always dig worms from under the garden mulch. There are SO many worms! Maybe it's because of the moisture. Maybe it's because of the cool soil temperature. Who knows...it's just true.
But, there are better reasons for increased worm populations in the garden than fishing. Worms aerate the garden and create underground pathways for water to get into the soil. They eat dead plant matter which assists with decomposition and then they excrete their "casting" which is a wonderful source of natural fertilizer.
#5. Mulch Creates Compost
By using a top dressing and continually adding more and more to the top (never tilling), over time the layers on the bottom begin to decompose, compost, and contribute nutrients to the soil. At the end of the gardening season, spread your favorite natural compost and manure over the garden, and then cover it with another deep layer of mulch.
Top 4 Types of Garden Mulch (in our humble opinion)
Many tree trimming companies and landscape companies have an excess of mulch. They trim trees, shred it all up, and most of the time they drive it to a landfill. What?! I know! In our experience (especially in the city), tree trimming companies are more than happy to drop off an entire truck load of mulch at your house. We got as much as we needed for FREE when we lived in the Phoenix area. One note of caution with using mulch from tree companies or other sources...be sure there are no poisonous plants in the mulch. In Phoenix, there was a very common plant called Oleander which was poisonous. We were able to verify that all Oleander was kept separate from the mulch we received. Near our current homestead, we have access to a great big pile of mulch, but we cannot verify that it doesn't contain Black Walnut. Black walnut contains a natural herbicide that kills most plants. Using any part of the black walnut plant as mulch is sure to kill the majority of your garden. So, we aren't using the mulch.
Straw makes a great mulch. We are using it on our current homestead in the Missouri Ozarks. We can buy it relatively cheaply in a GIANT bale from a local feed store and because it is so compact, one bale goes a long way. One irritant with using straw that we have found is that it still contains some seeds. There is an initial germination of the seed that needs to be weeded out of the garden but they are easily removed because they are above the soil. A note of caution about using straw which I have read in articles regarding straw bale gardening. Some wheat plants are sprayed with herbicides. When you use the wheat straw as mulch and it gets wet from rain, the pesticides wash onto your garden plants and kill them. Make sure you talk with your straw provider to make sure it has not been sprayed with herbicide.
In the fall, the availability of leaves is nearly endless. If you don't have enough in your yard, ask your neighbor. Ask the school, ask the churches, go to the park, or pick up bags and bags of them on the side of the street from people who set them out for the garbage collectors. Leaves are great for covering the soil. They do break down fast, which is disappointing. They also can just blow away. Normally, we use leaves in conjunction with another type of mulch by using the leaves on the bottom layer and straw or wood mulch on top.
If you have a lumberyard, sawmill, or cabinet company around you, it's possible to get free sawdust for your garden. In our area, sawdust is free if you load it yourself or for a small fee the company will load it with their tractor. Again, make sure they don't mill Black Walnut.
Mulch First or Plant First?
This season is our first gardening season on our new homestead in the Missouri Ozarks. We have a large garden where we will plant in the ground and we also have 8 raised bed gardens. Decisions needed to be made about whether to mulch everything first and then plant, or plant and then mulch in between the tiny plants. We ended up doing some of both.
In hindsight (and this is where you should pay attention), it would have been easier overall if we would have mulched everything first and then planted. I have found it very difficult and time consuming to carefully put mulch in between each little plant and each little row in the raised beds. Whereas, in the areas that we mulched first, I simply moved the mulch out of the way creating a little open pocket of soil to plant in. Then, when the seedlings emerge, I just push the straw back into its place.
Also, another reason why I regret planting first and then mulching is that the weeds started germinating and growing while I was waiting for my intentionally planted seeds to germinate and grow. Before I could mulch around my tiny plants, I had to pull weeds from around my tiny plants. It was a bummer.
Let the Magic Happen
It amazes me every year the difference that mulching the garden makes! It's like magic! Maybe this sounds a little crazy, but the plants seem happier. They really do!
Give it a try and let me know how it goes! Or, are you already a garden mulcher? Let me know about your successes! I love to hear from you.
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