July 1, 2018

Mulch Days

While I was on blog break last month, I was busy mulching the garden. Our summers can be  hot and dry, so it's imperative to preserve as much moisture in the soil as possible. We had quite a few rainy evenings toward the end of June, so with the soil moist, it was the perfect time to mulch.

Most years I seem to run out of mulch before I run out of garden. This summer, I made a commitment to myself to get the entire garden mulched. That has meant using whatever mulch materials I can get my hands on. Here's my rundown on mulching materials for the hot, muggy, no-tellin'-when-it's-gonna-rain South. I've listed a few things I avoid at the end of the post.

Dried Leaves

Dried leaves mulching corn.

Dried leaves are my old standby, mostly because we have a lot of them! They do make a good mulch, but they aren't perfect.

  • plentiful (if you have deciduous trees)
  • a good way to recycle them
  • decompose quickly (build soil quickly)
  • not as ugly as a few other things
  • have to be raked and hauled (time consuming)
  • usually full of acorns, pecans, etc (which sprout and grow)
  • also usually full of sticks
  • can harbor fire (and other biting) ants
  • usually needs a 2nd layer later in the season
  • doesn't deter wiregrass

Summary: Dried leaves have been my primary mulch for a long time. They are the traditional earth mulch and build beautiful soil in the forests! Because we have lots of trees, they are plentiful here and using the leaves as mulch is certainly better than stuffing them in plastic bags to be thrown away.

To simplify the two-part process of raking/hauling and mulching, we've taken to doing the raking in the fall and winter and storing them in our future laundry water recycling bed.

Convenient for leaf storage.

Paper Feed or Seed Bags

Paper feed bags mulching aisles between rows of okra.

I showed you how I was using these to mulch aisles in my "What's Growing in the Garden" post last month. Like everything else, they have their good points and bad.

  • excellent way to recycle them
  • if plentiful, can cover an area quickly
  • last the entire summer 
  • smothers grasses 
  • help conserve other mulches like wood chips if not plentiful
  • can blow away in a strong wind (have to be weighted)
  • needs a covering layer of fine mulch
  • not good for mulching small areas, such as between plants
  • can be hard to find. Many feedbags are either plastic or plastic lined
  • far from aesthetic!

Summary: I like these for mulching aisles. They go down first and then the plants are mulched with dried leaves or wood chips. The top layer of mulch helps hold them down and hide them.

Wood Chips

Wood chips mulching beans with feed bags in the aisles. They
are deepest around the plants, with a light layer over the bags.

If you've watched the Back To Eden video, then you may think wood chips are the perfect mulch. Maybe that's true in some parts of the country, but in other parts it has both good points and bad.

  • can be readily available for free
  • slow to decompose
  • attractive
  • if you can't find them for free, they are expensive to buy
  • slow to decompose
  • harbor fire ants and black widow spiders
  • doesn't deter wiregrass

Summary: Wait a minute. Did I put "slow to decompose" under both pros and cons? Yes I did. I like that they last an entire gardening season (or longer), but if the soil must be worked at the end of the season they are in the way. I usually rake them into the aisles until I need to use them for mulch again. Wiregrass growing in wood chips is particularly annoying, and if it isn't removed it will continue to grow until it covers and consumes the wood chips. At the end of the season I rake them into a pile so I can pull the wiregrass. This is why I like first putting down a layer of feed bags or ...


Cardboard between rows of tomatoes

  • readily available (usually)
  • slow to decompose
  • can quickly cover a large area
  • smothers grasses 
  • earthworm friendly (used in compost worm beds) 
  • help conserve other mulches like wood chips if not plentiful 
  • have to remove tape, labels, and staples
  • can't fit them around individual plants
  • can blow away in a strong wind, must be weighted
  • not aesthetic 
  • needs a top layer of mulch to cover
  • flaps can create slits for weeds to grow through

Summary: I really like cardboard for covering walkways or large areas, because cardboard smothers well and helps me conserve my other mulching materials. Large corrugated cardboard boxes works best. I don't use cardboard with glossy color pictures on the box. Most stores are willing to give it away, but sometimes they have contracts with a company that collects and hauls off their boxes.


Wheat straw mulching tomatoes.

I don't often use straw, because I don't have a free source for it. But I had some leftover after we used it as bedding when hauling goats. So it made its way into the garden as mulch.

  • easy to handle and work with
  • quick to mulch with
  • not usually free, but can be cheap
  • can contain seeds which introduce more weeds
  • doesn't deter wiregrass
  • price has been going up and can be expensive to buy from a garden center.

Summary: I first used straw for mulch when I had rabbits. In winter I'd stuff their hutches with straw, which would fall out the wire cage bottom along with their manure. What I learned, however, is that all the grain seed is rarely removed. I inadvertently introduced oat grass all over my garden and had a heck of a time getting rid of that!


I admit I haven't used newspaper in a long time, because I don't have a free source for it. Most of our newspaper is saved for fire starting.

  • decomposes quickly
  • good way to recycle it
  • can be readily available for free
  • must be sorted to remove glossy ads
  • requires a lot to get a good thick layer 
  • needs less fine mulch materials for a covering layer

Summary: Newspaper works best in a thick layer. A couple of sheets decompose quickly in moisture which means it doesn't keep weeds down for long.

Living Mulch

This photo of clover as living mulch was taken last year.

AKA ground cover, I call it living mulch if it's growing in garden beds and aisles.

  • builds the soil
  • aesthetic 
  • can be used as green manure after harvest
  • have to buy seed every year
  • not always dense enough suppress weeds
  • has to be timed properly so that ground cover and crop grow together and weed seeds don't get a head start and dominate 
  • seasonal, i.e. grows either during warm or cool weather
  • hard to maintain in perennial beds. For example, my chicory bed is mulched with violets, but I've had blackberry and honeysuckle vines coming up there.

Summary: I love the idea of living mulch but have had mixed success. If it grows densely, like in the above photo of my melon bed last year, then it works well. If the seed doesn't germinate well, then I only get a sparse covering which isn't much help as mulch. Timing is important too, and that's something I'm still learning. If the seed isn't planted at the right time it can either interfere with crop seed growth, or can be overtaken by weeds first. I think it's best use is with field crops where the area is too large to mulch, but I'm still negotiating a learning curve with that.

My biggest mulch mistake...

... was using landscape cloth. It was expensive to buy and time-consuming to put down. Then, even with a good thick layer of wood chips the wiregrass grew right on up through it. And if that wasn't bad enough, the wiregrass secured the cloth to the ground! It was impossible to remove. Dan finally put the tiller to it to chop it up, but four years later I'm still picking up bits of the stuff. You can read all about that fiasco in this post, but needless to say I do not recommend landscape cloth!

Plastic is another one I don't recommend. I know commercial organic growers use it, but it IMO it has more counts against than pluses to outweigh them.
  • It's a petroleum product
  • It doesn't decompose, it deteriorates
  • Must be discarded when replaced (not good repurposing material)
  • It doesn't breathe so when it heats up, I can only imagine that it kills every soil organism beneath it. 
  • Rain can't penetrate it so
    • can't renew soil moisture
    • where does a gullywasher go when the ground can't absorb it???

So that's the rundown on my experience with mulch. Now it's your turn. What's your favorite way to mulch? Any lessons learned? Any tips for the rest of us?

Mulch Days © July 2018 by Leigh 


Judy said...

Beleive it or not but the old timers used dirt. When you hoe a row the loosened dirt acts a mulch. It retains moisture and the weeds are removed. Breaking up the crust will break the wicking of moisture out of the soil. The biggest disadvantage is after it rains you have to hoe again.

tpals said...

You covered everything I ever tried plus some. Good comprehensive post.

Mama Pea said...

Very interesting post! Thanks for taking the time to put it all together along with the pictures that add so much.

My main mulch is grass clippings. We have too much "lawn" to mow right in our fenced in gardening area so we collect the grass with the bagger attached to the lawn mower. I use the clippings to mulch heavily and even then have to do it twice during the summer. A few weeds will pop up through the mulch but if I stay on top of pulling those out when they're little, it's an easy task.

I've had terrible luck using straw or old hay. There are always seeds in it which sprout and once with a batch of oat straw covered everything with sprouted seeds worse than any weeds would have.

You've certainly done extensive hands-on research in finding what's best for you. And worst for your awful, terrible wiregrass!

Mrs Shoes said...

I used straw for the second time (first and last, as my Dad would say!). Yes, I have oat grass coming up... made more work for myself. On the plus side, I haven't had to water at all - a once weekly rain has kept the hose dry.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

Hi Leigh, I am wondering about using wood chip mulch on my raised beds with legs. I did get some free and put a little around my strawberry plants so they wouldn't have the dirt stick to them. I am wondering if I should try some on my other raised beds. Nancy

Judy said...

Guys, a trick for hay or straw, my dad would leave the bales out in the weather for a year, so the seeds had a chance to sprout before he spread the straw or hay as mulch.

Mark said...

Leigh, this is a great post! Mulch has been our biggest problem for most of the time we've kept a garden. We've made all the mistakes too with the biggest, as you state, being the landscaping cloth. Ugh!! I've used everything on your list, and have become very familiar with all the 'cons' you list. Currently I have a little bit of area down with feed sacks held down by landscaping staples, but that is just truly ugly. The rest of the garden between the beds is now just weeds i'm keeping down down with the weed-wacker. Also not a good solution.

After reading your summary, I'm thinking I may do the combo thing with feed sacks and wood chips. I think I can live with the cons and, after I get it down, it will be a lot less work than the weed-wacker wars.

Ed said...

Great post though I have some concerns with some of them. I would be concerned with the sacks and cardboard with letting enough moisture through in light or infrequent rains. After they break down some, I can see them working well but sometimes up here where the gardens are dry until the early summer rains come, I would wonder if they would let enough moisture through to be beneficial. Perhaps there is enough going down immediately where the roots are concerned it isn't a problem.

As someone who used to grow pumpkins for a business, how do those things do with the squash family or any plants where the fruits rest upon the ground?

Woolly Bits said...

argh, that weed cover fabric was a total failure here! I wanted to plant strawberries into the slits, worked great for about 2 weeks - guess, where all the weeds came out? exactly, right around the strawbs:( and when trying to pull it out the plants came out with the weeds:( and it has to be covered or it looks ugly:( cardboard is no good with our rain amounts, because it turns soft and can get very slippery. wood chips cost a fortune and we use all the wood and small branches etc. for heating.... all the sacks I could get here would be plastic, so a no-go:( we don't have lawn, so no grass. the only thing that works for me is leaves - luckily we have mostly ash and sycamore, which compost quite well and add humus to the soil! and once they are wet enough they don't really fly about either! on the other hand I only really need mulch in the polytunnel to conserve moisture - usually we get enough rain to do without in the rest of the garden. and even a lot of leaves don't help with ground elder etc., that stuff is like your wire grass it seems:)

kt said...

I use pine needles, have lots of pine trees here so LOTS of needles! Works pretty good, rain can go through, looks ok, doesn't blow around very much in the wind. They say needles will make the soil too acidic but haven't noticed that happening. They ARE slippery if put on top of cardboard (did this in my paths) but that's the only bad thing I've found.

Leigh said...

Judy, I believe it. But I think success would depend in part on the part of the country. In my garden I'd have to be hoeing every week!

Tpals, thanks!

Mama Pea, I've wondered about using grass clippings but never tried them. Ours always go to the chickens, so they still aren't wasted. The straw I have now is wheat straw and seems to have most of the grains removed (knock on wood!) The place where I used it last year had only a few wheat plants grow, which I let mature and collected the heads for the wheat berries.

Mrs. Shoes, seems like oat straw is the worst!

Nancy, if it was me I would! I used them to mulch my potted plants and they seem to do okay. One thing about thick wood chips is even when weeds do come up, they are usually stretching for sun and easier to pull.

Judy, that's a good idea. Plus it would be partially composted which would make it even better for the soil!

Mark, between the beds is the hardest, especially raised beds. Dan weed-wacks those too! And I agree about having to live with at least some of the cons. I suppose it's just a matter of which ones we can work with in our particular gardens. :)

Ed, good questions. The feed bags and cardboard should not be put down on dry soil for that very reason. When the soil is nice and damp is the time to lay them down, or the ground should be well watered first. I really like the wood chips as a bed for squash, melons, and pumpkins to lay on. Seems like the ones I leave on the dirt always end up with rotted spots or bugs eating the underside. The chips keep them clean.

Bettina, leaves make a great mulch. And if you have a good supply and get enough rain, they'd be about perfect. It's mostly a matter of using what's available.

Kt, pine needles are a great idea too. I had always wondered if they'd increase soil acidity too, but someone else said the same as you, that it really doesn't. I can't recall who it was, but I read it in a book. Thanks for adding that to the list!

~Trema~ said...

Hi. I love your detailed list!
I also had a horrible experience with the store bought garden liner. The garbage bag, DIY liner was also a fail. Good old leaves and mulch is what we stick too.
I would use grass clippings but honestly...we're too impatient to let them sit around and dry out.

Sandi said...

It is overwhelming! Nature protests. It fights our mulch. :-) Nature wins. Always.

Harry Flashman said...

It's way too hot up here to be working outside. Unless we get up at dawn, or go out just after dusk, the heat and humidity in North Georgia is just too much. First this terrible winter last year, and now "heat domes".

Ed said...

Watering beforehand totally makes sense. When we raised pumpkins, we had access to lots of cheap straw so we used a "slice" from a square bale to put under the pumpkins which worked well although I think wood chips would work better simply because they hold up much longer. For the big pumpkins, we used old pallets and burlap.

Leigh said...

Trema, thank you! Leaves are the classic go-to!

Sandi, so true! My wiregrass is a continual reminder that nature always wins. The best I can do is hope to stay half a step ahead and get a harvest. :)

Harry, yeah, the weather has given us a break in awhile! It would seem that being in the mountains you would have a little cooler temperatures, but obviously not!

Ed, indeed. I've never had enough straw to raise pumpkins and squashes, but that seems like it would be a good choice too. I've used rocks and bricks though. :)

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

I use a combination of hay/used wood litter (the pelleted kind) that i use for the rabbits' litters boxes and trays (thus getting the urine and rabbit manure as well). I have a small garden at this point so we generate more than enough. I actually have keeping the extra in our lawn waste recycling bins, allowing it to decompose a bit more.

A 40 lb bag of litter runs me $10 and will last me a month. In this case, it was money I was already going to spend.

Leigh said...

TB, interesting. I've seen the pelleted bedding at Tractor Supply but it didn't seem practical for me. For rabbits though, it does seem practical and that's a great way to recycle the stuff. Great idea!

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Fantastic post Leigh. I just wrote a blog about using straw as mulch (in que for later this week). I guess we've all learned over time how vital it is. I HATE to see a bare soil garden when weeding is done by tilling alone. We use the huge bales of partially rotted hay or straw for mulch that we get for free from a farmer Keith works for part time. The pads are thick and a bit difficult to move around but they are 6-8 inches thick and keep weeds out, moisture in. Worst mistake? Using black plastic. A mess to remove and the soil suffered because of it.

Leigh said...

Thanks Donna! I'm looking forward to your mulch post now. Lucky you to get free partially rotted straw or hay! That's an excellent layer. I think we all agree about the black plastic. Outta know better but seems we all learn by experience.

Sam I Am...... said...

Is wiregrass the same as Bermuda grass? That's what I have and I had a fiasco with landscape cloth also and I'm still recovering from it! The Bermuda grass did a great job of holding it down! LOL! I have used old rugs that are deteriorating and can no longer be used. I only use them in my flower beds as I'm not sure about their composition..petroleum based? But they cover a nice large area and then I cover with cedar mulch to discourage bugs. I use a lot of throw rugs so I always have some that are old. I've used cardboard and newspaper too. This was a great post and very helpful. I also made the mistake of using old straw from my horses years ago and boy did I get a mess of weeds! Live and learn...always the hard way for me! I also had a great idea of using grass around my trees as I had a bagger on my mower. Little did I know it smothers them someone told me so I had to undo all my hard work as I had a lot of trees on my farm acreage.

Leigh said...

Sam, yes! Wiregrass is "uncultivated bermuda." In other words, any place it isn't grown on purpose it becomes an persistent, invasive weed. You experienced the same thing I did with the landscape cloth! You are so right it's all live-and-learn.

Chris said...

I recently came in from the yard, dealing with mulch. Having so many acres of native scrub is a bonus, because nature grows the mulch for us. We just go around and grab twigs, bark, even branches which have been in contact with the ground for over a year - as they turn to sawdust in your hand, when you squeeze them.

So whenever we have downed branches, we go around the yard and pile them up. After a year or so, we either step on them, or break them up with our hands. They're very fragile. Depends on the wood though. Black wattle takes longer. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's meditative and done sporadically. It's here anyway, so why not use it?

The other kind of mulch I like is chop'n drop mulch, you grow yourself. Lemon grass, arrowroot, Leucaena and pigeon pea trees, geraniums. old man saltbush and wormwood. All make fast growing mulch, you can trim regularly through the season. I reckon I could even cultivate mulberry as a reliable chop and drop material. I even use overgrown weeds as chop'n drop mulch.

I've actually heard of a technique involving goats, where you bring forage branches to their stalls (or a special eating area). They eat them, step on them which break up the finner twigs, they finally poop on them - and you have a lovely pile of mulch to put on the garden. If you wanted to improve your leaf mulch as well, you could mix them up with grass clippings. If it didn't transfer any wire grass in the clippings, that is.

Leigh said...

Chris, thank for all the great ideas! Interesting that you have native scrub that breaks down so quickly. Some of those plants are rich in minerals. They would be excellent sources to grow to use as mulch. I'm going to have to try that. The wire grass, on the other hand, transfers itself as if by magic! I've just resigned myself to trying to stay half-a-step ahead of it in order to get a harvest.

Chris said...

I should add, Leigh, we have a healthy population of wood termites, which eat out the wood. Making it somewhat like honeycomb. That's why it turns to sawdust!! :)