Once upon a time I was a purest and I thought store-bought mulch was for sissies who weren’t serious about growing organically. Chipped leaves and sticks from my yard were fine for mulch, but as for the rest – I would stay on top of those weeds. [pause for effect....] Then I had kids.
Like so many other things that changed after children like sleep patterns, the cleanliness of my car, and how much time I spend on my hair, I do things differently now. I love mulch and buy it by the pick-up truck load. And every year we buy more. I know this is a terrible thing to confess as one who claims to garden organically.
As my garden has gotten bigger, I’ve learned how to get the most bang for my buck when it comes to mulch. Before any mulch hits the ground, I cover the ground with a layer of newspaper. Our newspaper uses vegetable-based inks, so as it breaks down it won’t harm the soil. And it holds in moisture as well or better than conventional mulch. Here’s the best part about newspaper mulch - it’s free! (well, unless you count the money I spend on my subscription, but I’m a compulsive morning paper person so that would happen even if I didn’t need the paper for mulch!) We stock-pile paper all year long and what isn’t used for starting fires in the fireplace is used for mulch in the spring. We never have enough.
Newspaper alone is a great mulch and if it wouldn’t blow away I’d forget about buying anything else. I’ve heard of hard-core cheap skates who simply weigh down their paper with rocks. I admit to being more than a little vain when it comes to the appearance of my gardens, so that’s just a little too cheesy for me. After the layer of newspaper is thoroughly wetted (sometimes it is necessary to keep a hose handy and sprinkle as you go or the whole process becomes a comedy of errors), I toss out a thin layer of store-bought mulch, just enough to hide the paper and keep it from blowing away.
We do this newspaper/mulch trick around all our fruit trees, blueberry bushes, flower beds, and now our brand new “vineyard” (12 grape vines we’re testing out to see if our south-facing slope will be conducive to grapes). Last year we tested out how well the newspaper/mulch duo worked as compared to the mulch only by papering around half the fruit trees and then (because we had run out of paper) simply mulching around the other half. The paper/mulch half did a better job of keeping the weeds down. The mulch circles around the trees without paper seemed to shrink each week surrendering more and more of their ground to the encroaching grass (thus making it difficult to drive the mower around them without decapitating yourself).
I still don’t do much mulch around the “real” vegetable garden. I’m too worried about what might or might not be in the conventional mulch from the local hardware place. But this year I am going to try the red plastic mulch around my tomatoes. The last two years we were struck with the early blight and then the late blight. So, in the interest of getting no blight, we’re going to mulch our tomatoes. I’m curious to know if the theory that red plastic mulch will make your tomatoes ripen faster is true. Reading a few garden-nerd websites on line, there are a wide varieties of opinions on that, so I’ll have to see for myself. Look for a red-plastic report late this summer. (I know, I know, it’ll be hard to contain yourself!)
Meanwhile, happy mulch season. Maybe it’s time to subscribe.
Note: My husband knew I was musing on mulch and sent me the following article, pointing out that even if we aren't buying it for our gardnes, most of us are eating plenty of mulch!
In case people don’t know it, when they eat low fat foods they are getting their share of mulch…
I'm a reluctantly busy mother of three children, one large partially educated horse, two bossy mares, 12 chickens, 2 cats, and 2 hound dogs. I am blessed with an incredibly patient husband who is almost always a good sport. We live on 6 acres on a hill side in South Central Pennsylvania. I'm a compulsive writer, constant thinker, and passionate believer in organic living. I'm available to lead workshops on any of the topics covered in this blog. As a freelance writer always looking for work, I welcome your suggestions, connections, and sympathy!