(Disclosure. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links and if you use them to make a purchase I may earn a commission.)
Gardeners talk about mulch and 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, (if you’ve watered the soil or it’s been raining) and you put a layer of mulch – just a couple of inches will do – that will hold that moisture down into the soil, make it available for the plants to use and reduce the amount of evaporation due to the glorious sunshine.
The other thing, which is possibly the most important, is when you use an organic matter on the ground, whether wood chips or homemade compost, straw, hay, newspaper, there’s a whole load of different things that you can use as a mulch, these will all return nutrients to the soil. Because worms do what worms do, they will come up from the soil and they will take your mulch layer down and incorporate it 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.
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 and then over the winter it breaks down, it will add its nutrients to the soil and bit by bit the soil structure and microbiology is 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.
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 lets us have huge quantities of this which high in nutrients, high in nitrogen, breaks down quite quickly and 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.
Earlier this year I saw a post on social media from Katy Shepherd who teaches permaculture and she was showing a pile of seeds that she was going to be using on the ground a to grow a living mulch. The plants that grow 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 hasn’t been entirely successful, the weather was very dry after I scattered the seeds over the soil surface and 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.