Mulches for Vegetable Gardens
Stephen Reiners, Ph.D., Extension Specialist, Vegetable Crops & Peter J. Nitzsche, Morris County Agricultural Agent
A good mulch is a valuable addition to any vegetablegarden. First, mulches conserve soil moisture, decreasingthe amount of water you need to apply. By keeping soilmoisture more uniform, drought-induced problems (likeblossom end rot of tomato) can be reduced. In addition,natural mulches allow rain to penetrate the soil slowly,eliminating runoff in a heavy storm.Mulches also reduce weed growth. This means lesstime spent weeding, freeing you to do more enjoyable jobsin your garden. Nothing dampens a gardener’s enthusiasmmore than the thought of spending an entire weekendweeding.Mulches modify the soil temperature. Clear and dark colored synthetic mulches are effective in elevating soiltemperatures. The warmer soil quickens plant growthresulting in earlier yields. Light colored natural andsynthetic mulches moderate soil temperatures even in thehottest summer, reducing plant stress.Finally, mulches may help to decrease disease prob-lems in the home vegetable garden. Tomatoes, squash,and cucumbers can rot if soil-borne disease organismssplash from the soil onto the fruit. A mulch provides abarrier, resulting in cleaner fruit with fewer rotting prob-lems.
Mulches may be divided into two basic types; naturaland synthetic. Natural mulches are materials like grassclippings and leaves, which add organic matter to the soilas they decompose. Gardens mulched with natural mate-rials will need some additional nitrogen early in the seasonto feed the microorganisms which break them down. Thisnitrogen will be released to the plants later in the seasonwhen the breakdown process is complete. These materialsmust be applied to a depth of at least three inches to beeffective. Natural mulches tend to keep soil temperaturescooler, so they shouldn’t be applied before the soil warmsin the spring. Mulching too early could result in cool soiltemperatures, slowing growth and delaying harvest. In thesummer, these materials protect against high soil tempera-tures.
—One of the best natural mulches for thegarden. Use weed free salt hay to avoid addingweed seeds to the garden. A typical bale cancover a 10' x 10' garden with about three inchesof hay.
—Less desirable than hay becausethey tend to get moldy and may add weed seedsto the garden. The advantage of grass clippingsis that they are readily available. Make sure youdry the grass slightly before applying it to thegarden and use only clippings from lawns thathave NOT been treated with herbicides.
—Tend to mat down and breakdown slowly.If you must use leaves, shred them first.
—Includes everything from newspapers, torolls of paper designed for garden use. Unlikeother natural mulches, a thin layer will effec-tively control weeds. Old newspapers are theleast desirable. They are unsightly and tend toblow away. It’s best to save newspapers forrecycling. Rolls of paper mulch are similar tosynthetic mulch. The advantage is that paper isbiodegradable and can simply be turned into thesoil at year’s end. Disadvantages include limitedavailability and high cost.
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