Mulching, grow with less effort and less watering

Gardeners talk about mulch and mulching, particularly organic gardeners and there’s a really good reason for it. So what is mulch? Very simply, it is a layer that is put over the surface of the soil.

Why use a mulch?

First of all, a layer that excludes the light will reduce the amount of weeding that needs to be done because without the light, a lot of weed seeds won’t germinate.

The second and really useful thing it does is locks moisture down into the soil. If you put a mulch layer on to damp soil, it will hold that moisture down into the soil. This makes it available for the plants to use and reduce the amount of evaporation due to the glorious sunshine.

Thirdly, when you use an organic matter on the ground, all the nutrients return to the soil. Mulches can be, for example, wood chips, homemade compost, straw, hay, newspaper or leaf mould. Because worms do what worms do, they will come up from the soil. They will take the mulch layer down, incorporate and mix it into the soil and it will improve the soil. It will improve the soil structure and it can improve the soils microbiology, the living organisms within the soil.

Wood chips for mulching

What material is best for mulch?

There’s a whole host of materials that can be used as mulches, one of my favourites is wood chips and these will break down over time and be highly water attentive. Another mulch that I like to use is grass clippings as long as the grass hasn’t been treated with weedkiller. Recently Erica from Erica’s Little Welsh Garden and I were talking about this what an amazing job grass clippings do for keeping the ground moist. I use grass clippings as a mulch around my potatoes. Over the winter it breaks down, adding its nutrients to the soil. Bit by bit, both the soil structure and microbiology are improved.

The other thing that I have access to an awful lot of is used chicken bedding. This is very strong, it is high in alkalinity, so it needs to sit in a heap and rest for at least 12 to 18 months, if not longer so that it doesn’t actually burn the plants that you are growing around it or in it. Once it’s rested and has broken down, it’s also really good; it’s high in nitrogen and again the soil underneath it stays very moist.

Alternative ideas for mulches

I also use weed suppressing membrane as a mulch to suppress the weeds and effectively. I’ll leave it on the ground for three to 12 months and then take the plastic up and cover this area in organic matter and allow that to work itself into the soil for the winter and then the area is ready for growing in next year.

I have access to large quantities of used duck bedding and unlike chicken bedding this is mild enough to be able to put straight on to the growing beds. The other thing that I use regularly is pond weed. One of my neighbours has got quite a big pond and they’ve got a weed in it and I would consider this an invasive weed. I wouldn’t want it in my pond, but our ducks love to eat it. I’ve tried several times growing it for them in the pond but they’ve just eaten it. However the neighbour very kindly gives us huge quantities of this. It is high in nutrients, high in nitrogen, breaks down quite quickly. Mixed with the straw from the duck bedding very quickly forms a really nice compost and in the meantime it’s great for excluding the light from around plants.

Living Mulch

Earlier this year I saw a post on social media from Katy Shepherd who teaches permaculture. She showed a pile of seeds that she was going to be use to grow a living mulch. The plants will be edibles and flowers for pollinators and they’ll form a thick layer to cover the soil. It would be a slower way to cover the soil, but an attractive, productive one which I tried for the first time in 2020. My first attempt wasn’t entirely successful, the weather was very dry after I scattered the seeds over the soil surface. I failed to water them enough, so only a few seeds germinated. I will try this method again next year.

There is an accompanying video for this post.

If you enjoyed this post, you may like to learn more about the flower gardens at Byther Farm.

Liz Zorab
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One Comment

  1. Mulch is brilliant! We are especially conscious of water saving here in Australia and mulched beds makes an enormous difference. Our latest favourite for around veg is compressed sugar cane mulch. It goes a long way, allows water to penetrate and is easy to work with.
    I tried the living mulch with mixed seeds and had similar luck – lack of water meant lack of success! Will have another go though because I really like the idea. Great article.

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