One of my favorite things in the garden (besides the plants) has got to be mulch! Aside from the grounding, earthy scent that freshly chipped or shredded wood creates, or the attractive landscaping it provides, mulch has many uses. I believe that it should be incorporated into farming, gardening, landscapes and forestry everywhere to aid in the health and vitality of the ecosystem. Mulch comes in many forms and can be obtained by anyone. Wood chips, straw, and hay are the obvious choices, but there are also many other ways to mulch! The following is a basic introduction of how to create and use mulch in different ways. I chose to write this because I see that mulch in its many different forms has significantly improved our gardens and farm environments and is a vital tool at our fingertips!
Some plants can be “chopped and dropped” such as clovers, grass, comfrey, or other non-seeded plants growing in or near beds or around the garden. Just find a prolific area of vegetation, cut some down, and cover your beds. This method will also feed the soil as the organic matter decomposes. It is best to apply fresh chopped matter as the previously applied dries up and shrinks. We love comfrey as a chop and drop mulch since it grows prolifically once it is established and it provides great nutrients for plants as it decomposes on the beds. Just cut the large, mature leaves and place them on your garden beds. It is a good idea to grow comfrey away from other crops as it will spread and take over quickly in the right conditions.
Leaves are a great choice for mulch. This abundant resource can be found wherever deciduous trees are. When the leaves fall they can be collected and put over beds for winter protection. They can also be used to create an amazing compost. Check out: https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/basic-leaf-mold for more details.
Living mulch is a form of mulch that many farmers prefer. Planting mostly low growing plants, such as clover, in between rows or even in beds, a mulch effect takes place as the soil is covered in living vegetation instead of decomposing matter. This is beneficial to living organisms in the soil as the root masses provide networks for fungal and bacterial biology and microarthropods, aka tiny insects. Often times these plants are nitrogen fixing or bio accumulating as well and provide homes for predatory insects, flowers for pollinators, and are particularly appealing aesthetically. As clover or other living cover/mulch crops grow, they can be chopped and dropped in place adding more nutrients to the soil. The living mulch plants will crowd out any unwanted weeds but can also compete with row crops so be sure to let your crop grow large enough before planting seeds for living mulch. The living mulch will also and will keep soils cool and protected. For more detailed information about selecting living mulch plants check out: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/cover-crops/living-mulch-ground-cover.htm
Finally, another option for mulch is cardboard. It may not be glamorous, but good old brown cardboard can provide a good protective layer for soil. We have typically used this method of mulch as a base sheet mulch layer, or in walkways underneath wood chips. Sheet mulching is a method of creating soil. Here is a great article going into detail about how to create sheet mulch: http://tobyhemenway.com/resources/how-to-the-ultimate-bomb-proof-sheet-mulch/
By layering, using components like cardboard, manure, green vegetation and straw, you can suppress unwanted plants underneath the cardboard and create soil as the layers break down. The different layer inputs provide carbon, nitrogen, and other elements to create the base of a balanced soil. Once the layers are broken down enough, you should have a nice bit soil to plant into. You may want to add some compost or potting soil to the upper layer to speed up the planting time. We have used sheet mulching in situations where the land was hard pan like and in need of some organic matter, or if the ground could have been affected by agricultural run off. Building new soil on top of old is a great way to help remediation in otherwise less than ideal cultivation situations.
We also recommend testing the soil before planting and to add recommended minerals. We often use a company called Logan Labs for reliable and affordable tests. http://www.loganlabs.com/testing-services.html It’s a good idea to have the results looked over by a soil specialist or consultant in order to amend appropriately according to test results.
Many Uses for Mulch
Preserving water is essential as very dry conditions and drought are common during the summer months. By adding some form of mulch, we are able to preserve a good deal of water. It is also a good idea to use mulch in between beds or any bare area of land as it will keep the soil protected from the scorching sun and also keep it cool and able to retain more moisture. I prefer wood chips for walkways since it takes wood longer to break down than other less dense mulches and it provides a good surface for traction.
Keeping the biology in the soil alive and happy is much easier when using a protective layer of mulch. If the top layer of soil were to dry out, all of the life in that part of the soil would die or be forced to go deeper into the soil. Since the plant’s small feeder roots are close to top of the soil, it is crucial to provide a good environment for them, including an active, diverse population of soil microbes and other life. As mulch decomposes it feeds the soil as it transforms into rich spongy, humus. It is also a home for many strains of mycorrhizal fungi networks which are crucial for a healthy root system and soil ecosystem. If you have ever dug into wood chips sitting on soil within a few inches of the soil, you will most likely see these fungal strands which are usually thin, white stringy networks throughout the matter. See:http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/The-Living-Soil for more information.
Worms love mulch and worms are great for soil. Worms eat the organic matter in the soil, digest it, and return it to the soil in the form of amazing stuff known as worm castings. Worm castings are made up primarily of microbes which make nutrients more bio-available for plants to uptake. Having a good amount of worm casting in the soil is a great way to keep soil alive and healthy. Retaining a nice layer of mulch will encourage worms to move up into the top layer of soil. They will have plenty of organic matter to eat as it decomposes which will ensure available food for the feeder roots. For further reading check out: https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/how-earthworms-can-help-your-garden
During the spring and the fall seasons, we experience some heavy rainfall. We also tend to have a very high clay content soil. When that combination occurs, we can expect any area of land that doesn’t have vegetation growing or a mulch covering it to be very sticky and muddy. I have walked through areas of the farm that have had recent machine work and hadn’t been properly mulched yet or had any vegetation grown back. I collected 2 to 3 inches of thick clay/mud on the bottom and sides of my shoes. No fun! Using hay or straw on bare areas of the land is a great way to cheaply avoid this. Mulch is also an invaluable tool for reducing runoff and for slowing the flow of water in the landscape.
We also incorporate the use of swales in our gardens. See: https://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/31/use-swales-appropriately/ Mulch is used in combination with swales to maximize efficiency in water retention and directions.
Finally, and in my opinion one of the most important functions of mulch, is to create an environment for fungi to live and multiply. The amount of amazing things that fungi do for the world is incredible! From bioremediation in soils and bodies of water, to aiding the healing of cancer, providing food, medicine, and other functional materials, fungi play a crucial role in helping the planet. Mulch can allow more fungi to thrive which is a really good thing! Here is a link to download a pdf version of an amazing book with a ton of information about fungi:
I highly encourage everyone who gardens or farms to make mulch part of their program and landscape. Do it for yourself, the soil, the life in the soil, the fungi, and the plants… you will be glad you did.