Living mulch is essential in the permaculture garden. Adding any type of mulch around garden plants provides many health and protective benefits for your plants and the soil.
However, if your homesteading goals include creating systems that allow you to grow more food with less effort, then learning to use living mulch in the vegetable garden is a must!
What is Living Mulch?
Leaf litter, wood chips, straw, and grass clippings are probably some of the first things that come to mind when you think about mulch.
These non-living, organic materials make excellent mulch. And by placing them around the base of your plants, you’ll certainly reap some fantastic benefits.
Yet, there’s a big difference between non-living and living mulches. With living mulch, you intentionally grow specific plants alongside fruits and vegetables to add soil nutrients, suppress weeds, prevent soil erosion, and more.
Sometimes referred to as living green mulch or companion plants, this practice is similar to planting cover crops. In fact, many plants grown as living mulch are often grown as cover crops, too.
The difference is that cover crops are planted and then removed from the garden before the primary crop is grown while living mulch plants and the primary fruit or vegetable grow side-by-side.
Benefits of Planting Living Mulch
Living and non-living mulches share many of the same garden benefits. They both provide weed control, protect the soil, and improve moisture retention. Both can even add nutrients back into the earth.
But there are a few specific advantages to using living mulch in the vegetable garden. Living mulches are also excellent for:
- attracting pollinators and beneficial insects into the garden.
- deterring pests with strong aromas.
- breaking up compact and clay-like soil.
- providing food and habitats for soil organisms to thrive at the root level.
Plus, if you use perennial plants as a living mulch around your perennial crops, you won’t have to worry about reapplying mulch year after year.
9 Best Living Mulches for Your Garden
Plants that work well as living mulch tend to be low-growing, widespread, or bushy plants. Some perennial plants used as living mulch can grow to be quite tall in some cases. These are excellent planted around fruit trees and other taller perennial plants.
The following plants are some of the best living mulches I’ve had success adding to my gardens over the years.
A classic example of a living mulch that you likely have growing in your yard is white clover.
Clover grows and spreads quickly, giving it an edge over competing weeds. It also creates excellent soil coverage blocking the sun from drying the soil out too quickly. And clover is known for adding nitrogen back into the soil, too.
Sprinkle white clover seeds in moist soil around established garden fruits and vegetables. Cover the seeds with a light layer of soil and keep the ground moist until sprouts appear.
You can avoid white clover taking over your primary plants by planting them in the garden several weeks before sowing the clover seeds.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate living mulch into the garden is by using vining crops like pumpkins, potatoes, cucumbers, squash varieties, and melons.
These plants have broad leaves that shade the soil. Plus, they can spread quite far from their root systems. Plant them along rows of taller vegetables like corn, peppers, tomatoes, and sunflowers.
After allowing your primary crop to become established in the garden for two or three weeks, transplant young vining plants at the end of each row or between primary plants. As the vining crops begin to spread, you can guide them between and around the plants you want to protect.
Growing herbs throughout the vegetable garden can provide your primary crops with many benefits. Not only can you use these in the kitchen or to make herbal home remedies, but their strong scents also help to deter pests.
Some of my favorite herbs to plant in the garden as living mulch include:
- creeping thyme (excellent ground cover, too!)
- lemon balm
To incorporate herbs in the garden as living mulch, you’ll first need to do your research. Determine how much the plants spread and how much space you want to cover.
Calendula, nasturtiums, marigolds, and other flowering annuals can be grown in the garden as living mulch. These bright, aromatic plants attract beneficial insects while deterring pests. Plus, they add hints of color throughout, too!
I like to start flowers like these from seed and transplant them throughout the garden and around my annual vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and beans.
Heads of loose-leaf lettuce make an excellent living mulch, plus you’ll have more leafy greens to harvest throughout the growing season.
These broad, leafy plants prevent weeds and keep the ground beneath moist. Another benefit is that they are light feeders and won’t rob the soil of nutrients your other plants need.
Loose-leaf lettuce works well around onions, carrots, artichokes, broccoli, cabbage, and beets. If you are growing these vegetables by seed, allow them to sprout for a week or two before planting loose-leaf lettuce seeds around the base of the plants.
Heads of loose-leaf lettuce can grow anywhere between 2-12 inches wide. I like to thin them as they grow wider to avoid overcrowding.
Comfrey is an essential plant to grow in the permaculture garden for its variety of uses. It is a medicinal herb often planted around fruit trees to suppress weeds, attract beneficial insects, and add nutrients to the soil.
Comfrey can be grown from seed, root cuttings, or divisions. Root cuttings are my favorite way to grow comfrey because they sprout quicker than seeds but don’t require me to dig large holes to transplant divisions.
Since comfrey can grow anywhere from three to five feet tall, it’s best not to plant it in the middle of the garden or near plants that don’t take well to too much shade.
Perennial bulb crops like onions, garlic, radishes, chives, and rhubarb work well as living mulch if your main concerns are pest control and loosening compact soil.
Mixing these aromatic plants in your garden can help drive away aphids and other pests that can quickly wreak havoc on crops like tomatoes and peppers.
In most places, bulbs can be planted in spring or fall. Placing them alongside plants from the cabbage and lettuce families and tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers often make excellent pairings.
Borage is a beautiful flowering plant closely related to comfrey. It’s excellent as a living mulch to protect the soil and help it retain moisture. It’s even been shown to remove heavy metals from the earth.
Borage is an annual herb that is easy to grow from seed. A common companion planting combination is tomatoes and borage, but it works well planted near various fruits and vegetables.
Sow seeds throughout the garden in early spring. If the borage starts to overcrowd your primary garden plants, thin the borage plants and place the scraps in your compost pile.
Although there are many other plants you can use as a living mulch, I highly recommend starting with these. Most of them are easy to grow and offer more than one benefit—which is essential in the permaculture garden.
How to Choose the Right Living Mulch
Determining what plants to use as living mulch depends on the gardening goals you want to achieve.
If one of your primary goals is to suppress weeds, you’ll want to choose a sprawling plant option like white clover or creeping thyme. However, if your focus is on improving the health of your soil, comfrey is an excellent option.
So before you start garden planning, figure out the purpose of using living mulch in the garden.
And a second thing to consider will be plant combinations. To create a beneficial ecosystem of plants in your garden, you’ll want to pair together those that don’t compete with one another.
For example, borage and comfrey both have long tap roots that reach deep within the earth. A better pairing might be comfrey and white clover since clover has shallow roots.
My best advice is not to overthink it. Do a little background research when planning your garden and then get out there and try different living mulch combinations.
Experience is always your best teacher when it comes to permaculture gardening.
Can Living Mulch Crowd Out the Main Crop?
Unfortunately, living mulch can overcrowd your main crop if not used properly. It isn’t a perfect solution for suppressing weeds or protecting the soil. And it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it option either—although it does require less maintenance than trying to keep up with weeds.
If you are planting living mulch from seed, don’t worry too much about overcrowding until sprouts appear. Simply thin the plants as they get larger and start approaching the bases of your primary plants.
Your area’s climate also influences how to plant living mulch. You can grow more compact living mulches in hot, dry climates to shade more of the soil and help it hold in moisture.
On the other hand, a cooler, wet climate requires gardeners to leave a little extra space between living mulch and plants to encourage proper airflow and access to sunlight.
Don’t worry if this seems like a complex gardening technique. Try several combinations in your garden to determine what will work best for you and your climate. Part of the fun should be getting to know the plants and how they work together!
Curiosity Over Success
Learning to use living mulch in the garden has so many benefits. Although it might take a bit of trial and error to figure out what plant combinations will provide the most benefits, it’s worth the effort to grow more food with less effort in the long run.
I like to think of permaculture gardening as a lifelong experiment. Each season you’ll bring new knowledge and experiences to your garden plans, becoming more successful as you go.
Don’t try to be perfect. Just learn to be curious about trying new combinations!
Which types of living mulch will you try out in your garden this year?