Mulching: the best way to do it

Protect the plants in your vegetable patch and garden

Inspirations / How to

22/03/2021

Estimated reading time 5 minutes

Have you noticed that in nature, the ground is rarely bare? Even where there is no vegetation, it is usually covered with dead leaves, dry twigs and various green detritus. Mulching is the technique that involves covering the ground with natural or synthetic materials to more or less replicate what happens spontaneously, in woodland for example.

Mulching is a fairly ancient, multipurpose agricultural practice that was developed particularly in drought-affected areas in order to save water. Both in the garden and in the vegetable patch, mulching serves several functions that we will talk about in this article, as well as explaining how and when to do it.

Why mulching is important

We said that mulching serves several functions. Below we list all the ways it can help you in the vegetable patch and garden:

  • Weed control: it means not having to use herbicides and saving time otherwise spent pulling out weeds by hand.

  • Counteracts thermal changes and frosts by conserving heat in the ground: this is the primary purpose of winter mulching.

  • Protects against water stress (especially) in summer by preventing water in the soil from evaporating due to the sun and wind: by maintaining the soil’s moisture, you save both water and irrigation time.

  • Protects the soil from erosion due to rain and irrigation.

  • Keeps the soil soft so that it doesn’t compact, again due to rain and irrigation.

  • Enriches the soil with organic matter (if you are mulching with plant material), which will eventually decompose.

  • Production of cleaner and healthier vegetables, since they don’t grow in contact with the soil of your vegetable patch.

  • Practical way to recycle plant waste resulting from gardening and working on the vegetable patch.

  • Aesthetic effect: because garden mulching can also have cosmetic benefits.

When should you mulch? As a general rule, both for the vegetable patch and for the garden, the best times are in spring and autumn: that is to say, when sowing/transplanting and preparing for the coldest months. Mulching can actually protect plants against the winter cold: we talk about this in our article on jobs in the winter garden.

Natural and non-natural mulch: the materials to use

To create mulch you can use various materials:

  • Natural materials, which are available at no cost if you have a garden or live in the countryside.

  • Compostable corn starch-based biofilm.

  • Fabrics made from biodegradable natural fibres, such as jute.

  • Black plastic sheeting in polyethylene or polypropylene (anti-algae sheets), which is not biodegradable but can be reused for several years.

  • Materials such as gravel or lava rock.

Specifically, you can make natural mulch (which you should also replenish as it decomposes) using straw, dry leaves, dry grass, shredded bark, sawdust (from unpainted or untreated wood), wood chips cut from dead branches, shells (from acorns, chestnuts, hazelnuts etc.) or mature compost. If you use materials of organic origin for mulching, always check that they are free from weed seeds, eggs or insect larvae and that they are healthy, so that they cannot transmit diseases to the plants.

Mulching in the vegetable patch and garden

Straw, dry grass clippings and different types of sheeting (biodegradable or otherwise) are suitable for mulching in the vegetable patch. For mulching the rest of your garden, however, use dry grass and leaves or sawdust, which are perfect for covering the roots and base of trees and shrubs.

Also in the garden you can mulch flower beds with bark, fruit peel, gravel or lava rocks to create a tidy and aesthetically pleasing finish: we advise you not to spread these materials directly on the ground, but to insulate them by laying them on top of plastic sheeting. Use sawdust and other wood-derived mulches with caution, because when they decompose they consume nitrogen from the soil and, consequently, from your plants, so we advise spreading them on plastic sheeting.

In the vegetable patch, mulching is beneficial for various crops, from winter to summer. The only exception is vegetables that need earthing up, i.e. heaping up soil all around the base of the plant. This applies to potatoes, fennel or leeks, for example: for these and other vegetables that need earthing up, mulching isn’t necessary.

How to apply mulch

We've explained all the benefits of mulching and which are the best materials to use. But how do you apply mulch in the vegetable patch and garden?

Before applying mulch, the soil on your vegetable patch or flower bed needs to be tilled in order to prepare the seeding/transplanting beds. Depending on the area and levelness of the surface, you can use a spade and hoe, or alternatively a rotary tiller, such as an Oleo-Mac compact rotary tiller or medium power rotary tiller.

Do you want to learn more about how to prepare soil for a vegetable patch? You can check out our blog article on how to grow a vegetable garden.

Natural mulching materials (such as straw) and anti-algae polypropylene sheets allow water to penetrate, whereas biodegradable and polyethylene sheets are water-repellent. So after tilling the soil prior to mulching your vegetable patch:

  • If using a polyethylene sheet, place the perforated hoses or driplines for irrigation on the beds, which ideally should be “formed”, i.e. raised. On the other hand, if you apply a natural mulch, you don't need to install an irrigation system, you can simply use a regular hosepipe or a watering can.

  • Spread the natural or synthetic mulch: if using plant materials, distribute them evenly to a thickness of at least 5 cm.

  • Sow or plant seedlings: if you have used a biodegradable or plastic mulch sheet, it needs to be cut where you want the sowing/transplanting holes to go.

For mulching flower beds in the garden using decorative materials such as bark or lava rocks, after tilling the soil:

  • Spread out a polypropylene mulch sheet.

  • Lay out the hose pipes or driplines for irrigation.

  • Sow or bed in the plants.

  • Spread the decorative mulch material: one layer deep enough to mask the underlying fabric will be sufficient.

Not using a rotary tiller to prepare the soil for your vegetable patch? It could help you get the job done faster and with less effort — here are our tips on how to choose a rotary tiller.

If you have a rotary tiller, do you already know what to do if your rotary tiller won’t start or cuts out immediately? Read our article to find out the checks you can perform yourself.

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