If you think about all of the leaves, twigs, nutshells, and plants covering the ground in a forest, it’s easy to see why mulch is an essential component of growing a permaculture garden.
The soil in a forest is covered by all of this organic material that protects it while adding nutrients. And by placing mulch around plants in the vegetable garden, you can mimic this natural process and reap similar benefits!
Benefits of Mulch in the Vegetable Garden
Mulch in the vegetable garden offers a wide variety of benefits, including:
- Shading the soil to keep weeds down.
- Preventing water evaporation, which saves you time and water.
- Providing soil protection to prevent erosion and encourage beneficial insects and soil organisms to thrive, reducing the presence of pests and diseases.
- Fertilizing the soil with organic material as the mulch breaks down.
- Keeping plant roots cool and safe from drought conditions. Healthy roots are crucial to growing resilient, nutrient-dense vegetables.
- Making your garden look orderly and well-maintained.
As you can see, mulch in the vegetable garden leads to saving time, energy and resources, and growing healthier, more resilient vegetables—it’s a win-win!
Types of Mulch for the Permaculture Vegetable Garden
There are many different types of mulch you can spread around vegetables to achieve your garden goals.
Permaculture gardeners avoid non-organic materials like plastics and products containing chemicals that could leach into the soil (more on that in a bit). I recommend using the following organic materials as mulch in the vegetable garden.
If you live in an area with lots of trees, you could collect fallen leaves and use a lawnmower to shred them. Then you simply layer them over the soil around your vegetables.
This is my favorite type of mulch because it’s inexpensive, and I’m using a natural resource I already have on hand.
A downside to leaf mulch is that it tends to blow around in larger open spaces. Raised garden beds and fences can help to minimize this problem. You can also add other organic forms of mulch to help hold leaves in place.
Leaf mulch will break down quicker than other types of mulch. But if you have lots of leaves to work with, you can simply add more as this starts to happen.
Straw makes for an excellent mulch in the vegetable garden, too. Wheat, barley, and rice straw are all popular options.
Straw mulch doesn’t blow around as much as leaf mulch, offering a bit thicker soil coverage. Plus, it’s an excellent organic material for feeding the soil as it breaks down.
However, you’ll want to make sure you use guaranteed weed-free straw. Often hay is mixed with straw. And since hay contains seeds, you could have weeds sprouting from your mulch.
Wood mulch is great for the vegetable garden as it doesn’t blow around and provides plenty of soil coverage. Plus, it’s an ideal option for the permaculture garden since it works well around perennial plants.
You can purchase wood chips from a hardware store or ask if local tree service companies would give you some for free. You could also use a wood mulcher to make your own mulch with twigs and branches from your yard.
The most important thing to note about using wood mulch is to avoid letting the wood chips touch plant stems as the wood isn’t going to break down very quickly and could harm your plants if it stays in contact with them.
If you’ve been studying permaculture gardening for some time, you’ve likely heard of the chop-and-drop method or green mulching.
This is where you cut leaves or the whole plant from the base (leaving the roots) and “chop” the plant material into two to three-inch pieces. Then you “drop” the green mulch around your vegetables.
Often the types of plants that make excellent green mulch or “chop-and-drop” plants are what most people think of as weeds—dandelions, comfrey, chickweed, and yarrow are a few that come to mind.
These weeds generally have long taproots that draw various nutrients up from deep within the earth, storing them in their leaves. When you use these leaves for mulch, those nutrients feed the top layers of soil where your plants are growing.
Additionally, grass clippings could be used as a green mulch too. Just be careful not to pile it too thick to allow for good drainage and airflow.
Green mulch is often used along with other types of mulch.
Living mulch is the practice of planting beneficial plants around other plants to protect and nourish the soil.
A classic permaculture example is planting comfrey around fruit trees. These plants don’t compete for resources because what they need and return to the soil are different.
However, using living mulch in the vegetable garden requires extra planning since you’ll need to consider the needs and preferred growing conditions for each plant you hope to include.
If you are interested in learning more about this technique, I recommend starting with companion planting and plant guilds.
Newspaper or Cardboard as Mulch
Another option is to use cardboard and paper—especially if your goal is to reduce weeds in the garden. Pairing leaf mulch, wood mulch, and green mulch with shredded newspaper and cardboard can improve weed suppression while adding nutrients back into the soil.
The important thing to remember about using newspaper and cardboard in the garden is to avoid color-coated newspaper and cardboard containing dyes and chemicals.
What Type of Mulch to Use in the Vegetable Garden
The type of mulch you use in the garden will depend on your gardening goals and what you have to work with.
I recommend taking a good look at your soil and landscape first. If you’re planning to grow a garden in an area where the soil is heavily depleted, then planting comfrey and practicing a chop-and-drop method of mulching would be best to replenish the soil.
However, if your soil isn’t in terrible shape, but your area experiences frequent droughts, then combining leaves and wood mulch or using a straw mulch might be best. By doing so, you’ll reduce evaporation and provide the soil around your plants with a bit of protection from the sweltering sun.
Combining various forms of mulch is also beneficial in that it can increase the length of time that the mulch lasts. Green mulch and most leaf mulches will break down quickly, whereas wood chips break down slower.
For a beginner gardener, it’s best to start with what’s available to you. Don’t worry about finding the perfect solution. Instead, use the resources that you have and that you can afford.
What NOT to Use for Mulch in the Vegetable Garden
There are a few things to avoid using as mulch in the vegetable garden that you should be aware of, too. These include:
- Inorganic materials. Anything sprayed with or made using chemicals, from painted wood chips to rubber or plastic materials, will leach toxins into the soil and, eventually, your plants.
- Rocks, stones, or gravel. These won’t contribute nutrients to the soil. And they tend to soak up heat from the sun, which won’t help with water retention or keeping the ground around your plant’s roots cool.
- Pine needles. A naturally acidic organic material, pine needles inhibit the growth of most plants, so using them widely in the garden isn’t a good idea. There is one exception, and that is for plants that prefer more acidic soil (like blueberries). Pine needles can be beneficial to these plants but should be used judiciously.
You may find some people recommending you don’t use wood chips as mulch in the garden because they tend to tie up nitrogen in the soil. However, using other forms of mulch along with wood chips helps mitigate this problem.
How to Use Mulch in the Permaculture Vegetable Garden
You don’t need to be an expert gardener to successfully grow a permaculture vegetable garden using mulch. Here are my best tips to help you get started:
Too much or too little mulch causes problems. Over-mulch and your plants’ roots will be unable to get enough air. But under-mulch, and you risk weeds overtaking your garden.
Many permaculture gardeners will tell you that the sweet spot is two to three inches of mulch. However, I’ve had great success using much less. The key is not to see soil through the mulch. You can always add more if needed.
Also, I mentioned above that you shouldn’t pile mulch up around the base of your plants to avoid rotting stems. Your plants will be much healthier if you give them room to breathe at their bases.
Vegetable Garden Mulching FAQs
If you’ve never used mulch in the vegetable garden before, here are a few frequently asked questions I have received from those curious about getting started.
Can I Use Pine Bark Mulch in my Vegetable Garden?
Yes, pine bark mulch can be very beneficial to the vegetable garden, especially if you set up a permaculture garden or food forest with lots of perennial plants. However, pine bark mulch is not a great option if your soil is already pretty acidic.
Pine bark mulch will take a while to break down. Mixing it with other nutrient-rich forms of mulch that break down quicker is a good idea.
Can You Put Dyed Mulch in the Vegetable Garden?
Using dyed mulch in the vegetable garden should only be done if you are certain that the mulch was dyed using organic materials and not chemicals.
However, I prefer to stay away from dyed mulch and use what I have on hand instead, just to be safe.
How Thick Should the Mulch Be?
The ideal thickness for mulching the vegetable garden is somewhere between two to three inches. However, this will depend on the type of mulch you use.
Instead of worrying about an exact thickness, I recommend spreading your mulch just to the point where you can no longer see the soil. You can always add more if you notice weeds poking through. Just chop and drop the weeds and add more mulch!
Where Can I Buy or Acquire Mulch for the Vegetable Garden?
You can purchase mulch at a variety of places, including lawn and garden or hardware stores.
You can also check with your city council office to see if they offer free mulch (many do!). Local tree service companies may give or sell mulch as a byproduct of their work, too.
When Should I Apply Mulch?
When temperatures begin to warm in spring is an excellent time to apply mulch to your garden. You can also add mulch in the fall in preparation for the next spring. Just be aware that the longer the mulch is in place, the more time it has to start breaking down.
This is beneficial in that it helps add nutrients to the soil. But it also means you may need to add more mulch later.
If you’re growing perennials, it’s a good idea to mulch your garden in the spring and the fall to provide added insulation for the upcoming winter months.
If you’re interested in learning how to grow more food with less effort, then adding mulch to the vegetable garden is a skill you need to practice.
Don’t make it complicated or feel like you have to spend a ton of money on mulch to do it “right.” Even if you simply start by collecting leaves from your yard (or someone else’s) and chopping them with a lawnmower, you can still make big improvements in your garden.
The most important thing is that you’re taking steps to get started!
So now I’m curious to know if you’ve tried mulching the vegetable garden before? What worked best for you?