Magic mulching: What’s it all about?

If you’ve ever been to a strawberry plantation for pick-your-own, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of straw spread around the plants. While the thick layer makes for softer knees when picking, the straw’s main function is actually quite different: it serves as a so-called mulch layer.

What is mulch?

The word mulch was taken from English and Europeanized, it means something like “soil cover of organic material”. This material has not yet rotted, but is gradually decomposed by a wide variety of soil organisms. In the course of time, new humus, i.e. fertile soil, is created.

A good example of this is the forest: leaves trickle to the ground and old wood remains on the earth. In and on the forest floor, countless little animals, bacteria and fungi are on the move, crushing the material ever finer. In the garden, but also for potted plants, leaves can also be used as organic material, but also, for example, lawn cuttings or plant residues with which the soil is covered.

Why mulch?

Why would you even cover the soil around your plants with organic material that slowly rots? Doesn’t it smell unpleasant? We can answer that quickly: No! Mulched soil offers many crucial pluses, so you should definitely get involved in this exciting topic.

We are especially interested in mulching vegetable plants, herbs, fruit bushes and trees. Lawns, flower beds or ornamental shrubs can also be mulched, but for now we want to focus on the plants that promise us self-harvested fruits and vegetables.

There are many reasons why this technique is used in the first place. They are all to be found in the interaction of plants, man as well as the soil with all its inhabitants. The goal is to improve growing conditions for plants so that they grow healthier and stronger. This requires a living, nutrient-rich soil. Healthy plants have more strength to form many flowers and fruits and therefore provide us humans with a rich harvest. As a gardener, you therefore have to grow fewer plants and can get by with less space to get the same harvest – or you can feed more people with the same garden size. In addition, the amount of care required is reduced. Either due to fewer plants and smaller beds, or due to the fact that healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and pests. Mulched beds are also usually free of weeds. There is more time to relax in the garden or do a little gardening despite a stressful daily routine.

One layer of mulch, many benefits

As you can see, mulching offers many benefits – for indispensable soil organisms, for your plants and for you. Specifically, a layer of mulch offers:

  • Protection from drying out, as water can be better retained in the soil.
  • Protection from cold, as the layer has a warming effect
  • Protection from heavy rain and wind
  • Protection against strong weed growth
  • protection against diseases and pests, because the plants are stronger, but also because fruits and leaves close to the ground are drier
  • a long-term improvement of the soil with humus enrichment, even in sandy or clayey garden soils

However, mulching can also have a few disadvantages under certain circumstances. For example, the mulch material may rot or mold if it was not sufficiently dry beforehand, was applied too thickly, or is too dense and compact. Damp material also attracts slugs, and a layer that is too thick is loved by voles as a hiding place.

So, depending on the location, you should consider how and with which materials you mulch best to prevent these disadvantages.

Magic mulching: What's it all about?
In very wet weather, slugs overcome even otherwise dry wood chips.

What is mulched with?

There are a number of mulch materials that can be used for different purposes. You can also make a decision based on what materials you may already have available to you, or which ones you can easily obtain.

First, let’s remember the strawberry orchard that was mulched with straw. Straw is lightweight due to its structure, allows plenty of air to reach the plants, and dries quickly. It is also inexpensive and can be purchased from a farm as well as packaged.

Hay has similar properties, but is finer and, when wet, tends to form a layer that does not allow as much oxygen to reach the plants. Likewise, dried grass clippings. Turf has the great advantage of being completely free in a garden. Dried grass can be used universally for mulching any type of plant and is also rich in nitrogen, which plants need for healthy growth.

Foliage is also available for free. Leaves, such as those from fruit trees, should be dry and healthy. Your wallet will also be saved if you use other plant residues for mulching. For example, you can just leave tomato leaves next to the plant.

In addition, mulching can be done with various materials made of wood. Very well known is bark mulch made from shredded pieces of bark. Likewise, you can use wood chips, wood shavings or (chopped) hedge trimmings. Wood has the disadvantage that the microorganisms in the soil, which decompose the mulch layer, remove nitrogen from the soil and thus more fertilizer must be applied.

Somewhat unusual, but especially valuable to the soil, is sheep wool as a mulch material. It is rich in nitrogen and can store water incredibly well.

Is mulching a must?

As we’ve seen, mulching offers a whole range of benefits for your plants and you. Many of them you will not want to miss once you have experienced them. Therefore, we advise that you definitely give mulching a try.

The model for mulching is nature, because in our latitudes there is almost no “bare earth”. Pioneer plants settle on fallow land within a very short time. If plants die, they simply remain on the ground and rot to form new soil. This can be seen particularly well on the forest floor.

But bare soil can also (additionally) be avoided by other tricks. By choosing suitable partners for your plants, you can sometimes plant them quite densely in mixed cultures. For example, it is possible to plant basil or other herbs under tomatoes. When doing so, remove the lowest large leaves from the tomatoes so as not to shade the herbs too much. Another great combination is nasturtium under fruit trees or in the potato field. Cress sprawls and covers the ground, plus it blooms great and all the parts on it are edible. More info on mixed culture and plant partnerships coming soon here in Bloomify Magazine.