Mulching Vegetables

Vegetable Beds Need Mulch Too!

Why are you still hoeing when a mulch could be doing all the work? Photo:

The age-old tradition for vegetable gardens is to plow the soil deeply at the beginning of each season and then do like Santa and hoe, hoe, hoe all summer. The laidback gardener—as well as anyone who knows the slightest thing about permaculture!—knows that plowing, hoeing and other forms of cultivation are not good for the soil: they destroy its structure, eliminate most of the beneficial microorganisms that should live there and stimulate the growth of weeds. (If the latter remark seems surprising, think back to your own experiences: an honest gardener will admit that the more he hoes or cultivates, the more weeds grow back!) Also, repeated cultivation requires a lot of physical effort!

The experienced laidback gardener knows instead that it is far better to keep the soil covered with a good mulch (about 2 to 4 inches/5 to 10 cm thick) at all times, thus keeping the soil moist, friable, and essentially weed free without having to cultivate.

Planting through a mulch is a snap: push it aside, plant, then push it back into place! Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux.

Now, it’s easy enough to insert vegetable transplants (tomatoes, peppers, leeks, etc.) into a mulched garden. Just push the mulch back a bit to reveal the soil beneath, dig a quick planting hole, drop the root ball in and add a pinch of mycorrhizae to the roots, then fill in with soil and replace the mulch. The final step with any planting, of course, is to water to settle the plant in.

But how do you sow vegetables in a bed that is constantly covered with mulch? After all, we all know that the seeds will not germinate in a soil that is buried in mulch. So, you have to cheat a little.

Just before sowing, move the mulch off the area where you want to sow, be it a row, a patch or an individual sowing hole. Sow the seeds at the depth indicated on the label or that you’ve found on-line or in a book. Water well. Do not put the mulch back in place right away! Remember, seeds can’t germinate through a mulch!

When sowing seeds, leave the soil exposed until the seedlings are tall enough, then push the mulch back into place. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les idées du jardinier paresseux: Potager

This will leave the soil exposed to the elements and therefore a few weed seeds will probably also sprout along with your veggies, but you don’t have a choice. When your vegetables sprouts are about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) high, therefore, you’ll have to eliminate the weeds manually (fortunately, since they’re simply young seedlings, they’ll be easy to yank out). When that’s done, push the mulch back into place among the new vegetables so no further weeds can germinate! (Ignore the urban legend that says you have to leave a mulch-free space around each plant: that will just let weeds sprout. Instead, just mulch evenly, everywhere!)

And there you go: a working mulched vegetable bed. 

Your Veggie Patch is Still Unmulched?

Your garden is already up and growing and you didn’t put in any mulch? Well, it’s never too late to start!

First, eliminate all weeds that grow there, even if that means cultivating one last time. You really have to get them all out before adding mulch, because although mulches do an excellent job of preventing weed seeds from germinating, they will not stop a weed that is already growing, especially a weed with creeping rhizomes, such as quack grass, bindweed or horsetail. It will simply sprout from any buried section of rhizome left behind and push its way through the mulch until it sees the light, then send out more rhizomes and set about taking over the entire garden.

After you’ve finished weeding, you can apply the mulch. Photo:

So, you’ve finished weeding: there is not a single rhizome left. Congratulations! Now just spread a 2 to 4 inch (5 to 10 cm) layer of mulch all through the vegetable bed, right up to the base of the plant!

What mulch should you apply? I prefer shredded fall leaves (which have the advantage of being free), but RCW (ramial chipped wood), compost, buckwheat hulls, cocoa bean mulch and grass clippings (the latter mixed with some other material; otherwise they become too compact) all make excellent mulches for vegetable gardens, as they are both light and enrich the soil.

Other mulches are perhaps less rich, but still accomplish the main jobs a mulch is supposed to do, that is keeping the soil moist while preventing the germination of weed seeds. You just have to combine their use with a bit of fertilizer, since they offer few minerals. This group of products includes forest mulch, peat moss, straw (you need a thicker layer of straw, about 6 inches/15 cm, for it to be effective), shredded newspaper, hardwood sawdust, etc. 

However, if possible, avoid conifer mulches (especially cedar mulch), as they decompose very slowly and in a vegetable garden, where you tend to work the soil often, even if it’s just for planting and sowing, end up mixing in with the soil then stay there for years where they can hinder the development of young vegetable roots. Also, many people believe they may repel some beneficial insects and microbes your plants need for healthy growth, although I don’t think that has been proven.

There you go: mulching gives you a vegetable patch that practically takes care of itself, the dream of any truly laidback gardener!

For more information on mulching, here’s a very complete article by Ryan Tollefsen of Unity Home Group: The Complete Guide to Mulch: Tips, Tricks, and Considerations for Beginners.

Article adapted from one published on June 17, 2015.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

6 comments on “Vegetable Beds Need Mulch Too!

  1. Pingback: Planting Your Victory Garden 2.0 – Laidback Gardener

  2. I’ve been devouring info on cover cropping as living mulch that can be grown and cut down before flowering/going to seed (thereby building up the soil) as well as other similar soil-related topics. I tripped over a link to a small-scale farm & garden business that I found while trying to locate seeds. I guess that lazy outfit (a different one!) who sold me bum seeds (and half of the advertised number on the packet, at that!) was good for something after all! This other place has been building soil for a long time. I am excited to try some of their common-sense advice about soil builders, many of which line right up with the laidback approach. I’m not sure if you allow links to businesses in comments in your blog, so I’ll refrain on the side of courtesy but it sure is interesting stuff!

  3. Yup; I did not mulch mine. There was plenty of organic matter already in the soil, so I left it as it was. Now (!) I need to mulch for the obvious reasons. There are weeds all over, and the water runs off the sloped part.

  4. Christine Lemieux

    I am using wood chips from the outer edges of the trees that are made into lumber on my regular garden beds. As I can’t find a source for the RCW and leaves and even straw are not available until the fall, I am thinking of using these chips now on vegetables in raised beds. The soil is good. In past years we have used wood chips from an arborist in our regular gardens. These would come from whole trees. I am hoping you can advise me. Should I use one of these chip types or hold off until the fall for leaves or straw? Thank you so much!

    • They’ll be fine. Just add a fertilizer with a reasonable amount of nitrogen to the soil, as they can steal a bit of nitrogen when they’re fresh.

    • They’ll be fine. Just add a fertilizer with a reasonable amount of nitrogen to the soil, as they can steal a bit of nitrogen when they’re fresh.

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