Tag Archives: mulch

The Importance of Sustainable Soil Management

Your garden harvest starts with healthy soil. How much produce you get, whether your plants are affected by disease, and even how many pests you have can be affected by how you treat your soil. But how you manage your soil can also affect wildlife and the environment.

Algal Blooms

On this blog, we’ve frequently discussed the importance of mulch and cover crops. They are two simple ways to help prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff. While these effects are obviously bad for your garden they also have more far-reaching consequences. When soil and nutrients erode they contribute to algal blooms in streams, lakes, rivers, and eventually the ocean. 

Algal blooms can be green, red, blue, or brown. They affect both marine and freshwater environments and produce toxins that have a variety of negative effects. The toxins can sicken or kill people and animals, create dead zones in the water, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and hurt industries that depend on clean water. One way we can prevent these algal blooms is to practice good soil management.

Good Soil Practices

Sustainable soil management means using practices that build healthy soil, reduce erosion, and reduce the need for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. They include:

  • Planting cover crops, especially in the fall to prevent erosion and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
  • Using mulch around plants whenever possible to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, hold moisture, and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  
  • Rotating crops to disrupt disease and pest life cycles and reduce excess nutrients.
  • Reducing soil compaction which helps fungal and insect life in soil thrive. Whenever possible reduce tilling and using equipment. 
  • Providing habitat for beneficial insects like cover crops, mulch, wildflower patches, and insect hotels.

While small gardeners and farmers are not the biggest contributors to this type of pollution every little bit helps. Making these small changes can improve your garden, improve water quality, and help wildlife.

Do Wood Chips Make Good Mulch?

I may never be able to say enough good things about mulch. It protects soil from erosion, adds nutrients, and so much more. Despite the growing interest in no-till gardening and permaculture, some people are still hesitant to use wood chips as mulch in their garden. They may not break down as quickly as other mulches but wood chips still have many benefits. 

Wood chip mulch are not only a favorite of some for gardening purposes, even animals like it and actually is beneficial to them. A pet lover from TreeHousePuppies, Janni, reported that the reason why dogs love bedding mulch is because “it is gentle on the paws, it protects the soil below, it is surprisingly comfortable to lay in, and it does not require much maintenance.” There are quite a few choices when choosing which one is for your dog and doing a little research will help you be informed before getting it.

Where to Find Wood Chips

One of the best things about wood chips is that you can often find them for free and you can be fairly certain that they’re free of chemicals, trash, and weed seeds. To locate free wood chips ask your town or city for the company that trims roadsides and power-lines. These companies are often looking for ways to get rid of the excess of wood chips they create. Sometimes if you live near where they’re cutting they’ll even deliver it to your yard for free. Alternatively, check with local landscaping companies and arborists as well as garden supply and feed stores. While colored bark mulches are usually pricey they may offer plain wood chips for a decent price. 

What About “Nitrogen Tie-Up”

For anyone unfamiliar, “nitrogen tie-up” is when the nitrogen in your soil is being used by microorganisms to break down carbon material (like wood chips) making it unavailable to plants for a time. However this doesn’t make wood chips bad, remember plants need carbon too! Some farmers also see other benefits of “nitrogen tie-up” like the fact that the nitrogen doesn’t leach out of the soil or too far down for plants to reach. If it seems like your wood chips are taking too long to break down or you’re seeing signs of nitrogen deficiency you can add amendments to boost your nitrogen levels and help your wood chips break down. Grass clippings, seaweed, chicken manure, and soy meal are all great options depending on where you live and what you have available.

Moisture Control & Weed Suppression

Wood chips do an excellent job at helping to keep your soils evenly moist. Many people know that they help keep your soil from drying out which is very important in dry climates or for those without access to irrigation. However, fewer people are aware that wood chips can help with soggy soils too. Wood chips help absorb excess moisture and are a great way to add organic matter to heavy clay soils. Also worth noting is how a thick layer of wood chips can help suppress weeds and unlike black plastic, it will fully break down leaving you without clean up and a smaller environmental impact.

Wood Chips are Prime Habitat

Two important features in organic gardens are fungus and beneficial insects. Wood chips are an excellent way to encourage both of these. Many of the types of fungus in your garden that help break down organic material into usable nutrients for plants will thrive with the addition of wood chips. Some people, like awesome folks of Edible Acres, actually grow edible mushrooms like wine caps on the wood chips in their garden! Several insects like earthworms and predatory beetles also enjoy habitat created by wood chips. Earthworms like the moist soil and will feed on the wood chips as they break down and predatory beetles will use them as shelter as they feed on the harmful pests that attack garden plants. 

If you’re looking to add mulch to your garden this year consider wood chips. In most areas of the east coast, they’re readily available and can help you create healthier soils and a more productive garden. 

How to Grow Your Own Mulch

I can’t say enough good things about mulch. We have several blog post that mention the importance of mulch but if you want to learn more about why it’s so great check out this post, Mulch Ado… The Best Mulch for Your Garden.

If you’re on board with the importance of mulch but trying save money or make your garden as efficient as possible this is the perfect post for you.

Having a well mulched garden doesn’t have to cost a lot or require a lot of outside inputs to your garden. Don’t let those perfect Pinterest gardens with tons of beautiful, golden straw evenly spread around each plant fool you! Growing some or all of your own mulch is totally feasible and chances you already have some growing without even realizing it.

Use weeds.

As long as you don’t let them go to seed, even weeds make excellent mulch. In what some people call the “chop and drop method” you just go through your garden cutting your weeds and dropping them around plants.

Plant your pathways in a clover.

If you’re using permanent beds you can plant your pathways in a perennial cover crop like clover. Clover will add nitrogen to the soil as it grows plus your pathways can be mowed and used to mulch your beds.

Use your lawn.

You don’t need a hayfield to grow a significant amount of your own mulch. If you mow any lawn area at all you should invest in a bagger for your lawn mower. Grass clippings can immediately be dumped in the garden around plants and are great for adding nitrogen to the soil.

Don’t remove dead material from around perennials.

I’ve said this before but “cleaning up” your garden is not only unnecessary but harmful for your garden. By removing dead plant material you’re removing nutrients and homes for beneficial insects. The only only exception is when you need to remove plant material that you know is home to a pest like if you had a lot of asparagus beetles you’ll want to remove the dead asparagus fronds in the fall.

Plant some cover crops.

Cover crops are not just for large farms or when you’re resting a garden bed. Cover crops like alfalfa and buckwheat are perfect for sneaking in any small available garden space to grow and cut for mulch.

Check out this post for more great ideas, Cover Crops for Great Green Manure, Mulch, and More.

Grow comfrey.

Comfrey is an excellent choice for mulch because of its deep tap root. It brings nutrients and minerals up from deep in the soil and using its leaves as mulch will make these accessible to other plants. It’s also a hardy perennial and will easily tolerate being trimmed back for mulch.

Use any extra plant material you have.

If you think about the plants you grow chances are you’re probably already growing some of your own mulch and are just composting or tilling it in instead. Try thinking of every non-edible plant material as potential mulch. When you pull pea plants off their trellises when they’re finished for the year use them to mulch around your next crop. Did you grow hardneck garlic? Lay down the stalks as mulch after you harvest the bulbs. Even peanut shells can be used for mulch.

Try growing some of your own grains.

Most grains offer mulch as a secondary product. Whether you’re interested in rye, wheat, or rice once you’ve threshed the cereal off the plant you’ll be left with a lot of straw. This straw is perfect mulch. Did you know older grain varieties are much taller than modern varieties partially because straw isn’t valued in modern commercial agriculture?

The importance of mulch in your garden cannot be understated. Whether you’re trying to conserve moisture, add nutrients to the soil, create habitat for beneficials, or just cut back on weeding mulch is an integral part of maintaining a healthy garden. Using these tips you can mulch your garden without spending tons of money or relying solely on outside inputs.

Pin it for later.