How To Make The Best Mulch For A Vegetable Garden
Making mulch for your vegetable garden is one of the best things you can do for the health of your plants. Homemade mulch works better than store-bought mulch. It costs nothing and is a sustainable choice. It takes a little hard work, but a self-sufficient food producer like you isn’t the type to shy away from that.
And mulch you must. Gardeners who forget to apply mulch atop spring garden borders and pathways soon find their neat rows of veggies crowded with hungry weeds. Walking in the garden becomes a perilous journey: Is that a weed you’re stepping on? Or a now-crushed baby cucumber?
Don’t be a mulch-less gardener. Squelch weeds, feed your plants, clear away leaves, save money, optimize garden soil temperature, prevent soil erosion, and beautify your vegetable garden with homemade mulch.
To make mulch for a vegetable garden (or flower garden, or herb garden), use any non-toxic organic matter. All of these, alone or in combination, can work:
- Wood chips
- Grass clippings
- Shredded paper
As you can see, a lot of stuff that gets thrown away can be saved to make mulch. Plant-based mulch includes the benefit of containing nitrogen, the active ingredient in chemical-based, store-bought fertilizer. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each homemade mulch option.
Wood Chips: The Best Mulch You Can’t Buy
Spring tree pruning can mean loads of heavy branches, wet leaves, and a trip to the dump—or, a fun excuse to scare up a wood chipper and make homemade organic mulch. If you learn nothing else about how to make mulch, it’s that homemade wood chips are better than any mulch you can buy.
Store-bought wood mulch (often sold as bark mulch or red wood mulch) is factory-processed into uniform-sized bits with similar chemical properties. Homemade organic mulch contains a mixture of leaves, bark, and wood from different species. The different sizes and species in the mulching material will decompose at different rates, which makes your soil more diverse, too. Experience shows that soil that’s teeming with life makes plants more resistant to disease.
Specialty mulches, like mushroom compost, can be expensive. Homemade mulch is free.
Really, you can’t go wrong with homemade wood chips as a mulch material. Ignore warnings that the remains of your trees could introduce disease to your plants, that they attract termites, or that they are a fire hazard. Washington State University’s horticulture expert Linda Chalker-Scott has demolished these myths with science.
Grass Clippings: Plants Love It, In Moderation
Because they’re packed with nitrogen—like store-bought nitrogen fertilizer—grass clippings are basically plant food. If you grow hungry plants like lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, you’ll get higher yields with the nitrogen-rich soil that a regular dose of grass clippings, yard waste, or other garden compost can provide as organic mulches. Nitrogen-rich plant matter also helps to create acidic soil. Most plants grow better in soil that is slightly acidic. (For extremely acidic mulch, try anaerobic composting).
If you plan to mulch with grass clippings, mow your lawn frequently. Dumping a heavy load of clippings from your lawnmower onto your garden could do more harm than good. “Excessive mulch can inhibit moisture and oxygen penetration into the soil, and may produce offensive odors,” warn experts at the University of Minnesota.
Compost: Slightly Funky Is Best
Before we talk about composting and mulch, a short detour into terminology. “Compost” could include any or all of the other homemade mulch ingredients we’ve mentioned. Also, compost is incorporated into the soil. Mulch is placed upon it. But the composting terminology police are not going to show up at your house if you choose to sprinkle compost on your lawn to cover up and kill weeds.
If your compost heap, bin, or pile is all plant garden waste, like leaves, you can use it whenever you’d like. But if you add kitchen waste like coffee grounds to your compost bin or pile, wait until it’s partially decomposed. Food scraps make for excellent mulch, this type of compost just needs a little time to ripen. You can eat last night’s leftovers, but your vegetable acid-loving plants can’t. (To speed things up, consider using a composting activator to get finished compost faster.)
One drawback of using compost as mulch is that bacteria from food or composted manure can introduce pathogens that will harm your plants, which organic matter like leaves may not. Commercial vegetable producers don’t use kitchen scraps as compost, because they depend on crops for their livelihood and the risk of introducing disease from the compost pile is too great. Diseases like blight can wipe out an entire crop. This is less of a concern for home gardeners, who aren’t likely to devote large amounts of space to a single crop. Still, finding your hard work in the garden destroyed by disease is not something you want to experience. Decide for yourself whether using compost food scraps with mulch is worth the risk.
Leaves: Cut Them Into Baby Bites
Gardeners tend to use fallen tree leaves or pine needles as a winter leaf mulch since that’s when they have the most of them. Decomposing shredded leaves leach nitrogen into the soil and prevent erosion, so your garden will be that much more productive come next spring.
Don’t just dump your leaf mulch pile onto your garden. The leaves could get matted together and turn into leaf mold rather than decomposing into the soil and supplying nutrients to your plants. That’s why the experts at Michigan State University recommend raking leaves, then running over the leaf mulch pile a few times with your mower. It’ll make the leaves easier for your soil to digest.
Shredded Paper: Take That, Identity Thieves!
Security experts recommend that you shred your old tax returns and credit card statements so they aren’t fertile soil for identity theft. Want even more piece of mind? Let your garden take that sensitive information to the ground as compost.
Shredded paper won’t add nutrients to your soil, but it will keep the ground cool—and maybe heat up your plants. This gardener claims that light reflecting off the white paper made her peppers more spicy.
Ideally, you’d mix shredded paper with other compost materials like leaves to have a more diverse organic mulch. But, if you use shredded paper on its own, experts have a couple of suggestions. Unlike heavier material used for composting, a layer of shredded paper could blow away, so wet it down a bit before applying—possibly with a compost tea. You’ll want to make sure it doesn’t become matted like leaves can so get it just wet enough to stay put—not soggy.
Cardboard: When You Need More Garden
There are two main ways to use cardboard in your garden. You can use it to cover up grass or other unwanted plants around your garden’s borders or in a different part of your property, similar to plastic mulch or landscape fabric. This will, after a few months, kill everything underneath it. Dead plants are easier to dig up than living ones, and they’ll form the nitrogen base for your new garden bed, too.
You can also layer cardboard and other organic material, including compost and leaves, to make a sort-of DIY soil for new garden beds or flower beds. This composting process is measured in weeks, not hours. But it’s also more sustainable and an example of “no-till gardening,” which is healthier for soil. “Once you start using it for a couple of years you won’t do it any other way,” master gardener Marsha Graciosa tells Oregon State University’s Extension office.
The fastest way to transform your lawn into a vegetable garden? Rent a mini-excavator. We rent a lot of them, so we’ll be happy to help you with that. You’ll be done in hours. But we won’t be offended if you plan ahead and extend your garden’s space by using cardboard as mulch.
Why Make Mulch?
Homemade mulch is of higher quality than any mulch you can buy, and making your own will give you a sense of accomplishment and pride. A more productive garden will be your ultimate reward.