How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

If you want to increase the size, growth rate, and overall productivity of your homegrown veggies, then a mulch is what you need.

Here’s how to pick the best mulch for vegetable garden, along with everything you need to know about when and how to use mulch.

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

What is a Mulch?

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

A mulch is a material that’s laid over the top of your garden soil, around the base of your plants. It can also be applied over the top of the soil in pots and containers.

This may seem like a lot of extra work, especially if you have a large garden packed with numerous plants, but the benefits that mulching brings makes the effort more than worthwhile. It will also end up saving you so much time in the long run!

The Benefits of Mulching a Vegetable Garden

A mulch can benefit your vegetable garden in a few different ways:

  • By providing a barrier between the sun and your soil, a mulch suppresses weeds from growing around your plants. This not only saves you from having to weed as often, but also eliminates any competition when it comes to nutrients, moisture, and light, allowing your vegetables to thrive.
  • A mulch protects the soil that your vegetables are growing in from the elements. Whether it may be scorching summer sun, bitter winter frosts, heavy rains, strong winds, or anything else, a mulch keeps the soil temperature consistent and prevents the elements from causing damage.
  • Not only do mulches themselves hold water, but they also prevent water from evaporating out of the soil. So long as you water your vegetable plants before mulching them, the extra moisture provided by a mulch means that you won’t need to water them much during the growing season.
  • Organic mulches break down over time. This not only releases nutrients to your vegetables, but also helps to aerate and condition the soil.
  • Have you ever accidentally damaged your plants with your lawn mower, or when weeding? Mulching your vegetables means that you won’t need to go so near to your plants, keeping them safe from injuries.
  • Some mulches look far more attractive than bare soil, giving your vegetable garden greater visual appeal.

Best Organic Mulches for a Vegetable Garden

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

Organic mulches are natural materials. This means that they break down over time, feeding the soil as they do so.

These are some of the best organic mulches for vegetable gardens:

Grass Clippings

For many, grass clippings are so easy to come by. Simply empty your lawn mower container into your vegetable garden and spread those clippings around your plants.

Grass clippings are great for suppressing weeds. They do break down faster than other mulches, meaning that you will need to re-mulch more often, but this won’t be a problem for those who regularly mow their lawn anyway.

Plus, as those clippings break down, they’ll be feeding your vegetable plants with plenty of nitrogen.

Straw and Hay

Just like grass clippings, both straw and hay break down quite quickly.

They’re both easy to use and keep things looking clean. However, make sure that the straw or hay you’re using hasn’t been sprayed with harmful pesticides or weed killers – these could leach into your garden and cause problems for your vegetables.

Leaves

Those leaves that cover your garden each fall make a fantastic, nutrient-rich mulch.

However, you will need to shred your leaves before using them around your plants. Left whole, they’ll form a tight mat and prevent water from passing through.

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

Well-Rotted Animal Manure

Animal manure is one of the best mulches to use in your vegetable garden.

However, it’s important to make sure that you never use fresh manure around your plants. This is extremely high in urea, which will burn young vegetables pretty much straight away.

Cardboard

Carboard may not look very pretty, but it’s easy to come by for many, especially urban gardeners.

Surprisingly, cardboard is great for adding nutrients into the soil, and forms a great weed suppressant too.

However, cardboard needs to be well-soaked before being laid around your vegetable plants – this accelerates the decomposition process while preventing the cardboard from being blown away.

Shredded Bark

One of the most attractive vegetable garden mulches out there, shredded bark is a popular choice.

It breaks down slowly, saving you from having to re-mulch quite so often. However, many bark mulches are acidic in pH, which could affect the pH of your soil.

Let’s walk through Joe’ recommendation of each type of mulch:

Best Inorganic Mulches for a Vegetable Garden

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

Although inorganic mulches won’t be able to add nutrients to your soil over time like an organic garden mulch, they can be reused. This can make them more cost-efficient if you don’t have a free source of an organic mulch to use.

These are some of the best inorganic mulches to use in a vegetable garden:

Plastic

Plastic is great for keeping the soil warm, especially if you go for black plastic.

However, certain vegetables do best when grown in plastic that’s a specific color, such as:

  • Melons prefer dark green plastic
  • Tomatoes, strawberries, and eggplants do best in a red plastic
  • Peppers thrive in silver plastic

Landscape Fabric

Although not great for temperature regulation, landscape fabric is permeable. This means that, unlike other inorganic mulches, you’ll be able to water directly through it, rather than having to lift it up and remove it.

The tighter the fabric weave, the better. Anything too light will let the sun through, which will then allow weeds to grow beneath the fabric, making them even harder to weed out.

Recycled Rubber

Recycled rubber mulches are made from old tires, which saves more waste from heading to landfills.

While they may be eco-friendly in that sense, they run the risk of contaminating your soil with metals and chemicals – it all depends on how the tires were processed.

When to Mulch a Vegetable Garden

How to Choose the Best Mulch for Vegetable Garden

Ideally, you should be mulching your vegetable garden twice a year.

The first time is in the spring, just when the soil begins to warm up. Don’t mulch before then – this will only trap the cold, rather than the heat, into the soil. It will also keep the soil too wet, which will impact new root growth.

You should then re-mulch in the fall. This will help to insulate any winter vegetables from the cold, which will help to extend your growing season.

The exception to this would be if you’re using a mulch that breaks down especially quickly. In these cases, you may need to mulch every couple of months, especially during the growing season.

How to Use Mulch in Your Vegetable Garden

Mulching a vegetable garden is easy.

Simply lay your mulch of choice about 4 inches thick around your plants. Make sure that you leave a couple of inches between the stems and foliage of your plants and the mulch – you don’t want to end up damaging your plants in any way.

You should also always water your plants well before applying a mulch. This will help to promote moisture retention in the soil once your mulch has been laid.

Get the low down on mulch and how to avoid four common mulch mistakes:

Conclusion

Organic mulches are usually the best mulch for vegetable garden, simply because of the way in which they break down and feed both your soil and your vegetable plants over time.

However, if you don’t have access to an organic mulch, then inorganic mulches are still so much more beneficial than having no mulch at all!

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Jill Sandy

Jill Sandy

Jill is a sustainable focus gardener. She loves decorating her home backyard with beautiful landscape design and creative garden care techniques she develops herself. You can reach her at jill.sandy@constantdelights.com

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh is our Head of Medical Review. He is a research physician at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. After accomplishing the program of level 1 sub-specialty in Pediatrics, he was awarded the Chevening Scholarship for his Master’s degree of Public Health in the University of Edinburgh in 2019

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