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The Oft-Forgotten Art of Growing Mulch


We know we’ve got to do. Nothing else makes quite so much sense. It drastically lessens the water needed for growing plants, cutting the quantity easily in half and often much better than that. It feeds our plants by breaking down into fertile composted materials right where it’s needed. It protects the soil life, helps to prevent erosion and stops the compacting effects of rain. In the winter, it’s warm, and in the summer, it wards off evaporation. Oh, yes, and it’s thwarting off weeds while doing all of this. It’s just an amazing element for any garden.

What’s more is that mulch can come from so many sources. We can use cardboard boxes, old newspapers, shredded documents and other paper-based garbage. We can use the fallen leaves, grass clippings, pulled weeds, and pruned branches, often found already bagged up right at the end of the neighbors driveway. We can use bark or wood shavings or sawdust. We can use the greens from our veggies, all those carrot tops and discarded out leaves of cabbage. Straw. Hay. Pine needles. Nut shells. Rocks, even.

However, wouldn’t life just be a lot simpler if much of our mulch came right from the garden? I must confess straight out of the gate that I am a habitual bed maker: Sheet mulch beds, hugelkultur, raised beds, sunken beds, herb spirals, magic circles, swale berms, double-reach… Give me a space that ain’t a path, and in all likelihood, I’ll soon be deciding on what kind of bed will work best there. In all honesty, I often find myself in search of, sometimes short of, good mulching material. So, cultivating quality mulch just seems a good idea.

The Soil Enriching, Preliminary Mulch Mission

Green Manure Mulch (Courtesy of Yoann Loyant)
Green Manure Mulch (Courtesy of Yoann Loyant)

On one of the farms where I’ve volunteered, I saw a fantastic mulching idea, that not just covered the soil with fantastically rich chop-and-drop matter, but it also enriched the soil beneath the surface because the entire field was planted with a mixture of legumes that were grown for improving the garden rather than making it to the dinner plate.

I loved the idea. Beans are amongst the easiest things to grow in any climate I’ve been in. They sprout up quickly and are nice full, productive plants. And, of course, we should be growing them for nitrogen-fixing anyhow. Well, it makes perfect sense that the magical legumes provide us with yet one more compelling argument for planting more.

Whether it’s a kitchen garden or food forest, a nice, thick ground cover of beans will provide plenty of organic matter for an airy and nutrient-rich layer of mulch, and that’s in addition to the work the plants are doing underground.

Willingly Growing Wild with Weeds

Comfrey in the Garden (Courtesy of Graibeard)
Comfrey in the Garden (Courtesy of Graibeard)

Another thing I’ve grown to truly appreciate in my quest for more mulch is a good, leafy weed. Not only are they fine instruments in telling us what the soil needs (weeds usually happen because they need to happen, either to prevent erosion or pull up topsoil or provide groundcover), but they often provide a gluttony of mulching matter for garden beds.

What’s more is that there are certain weeds that just seem perfect for mulch production. Of course, just about all permaculture students are well aware of the much beloved comfrey plant: nitrogen fixing and massive leaves with magical powers of decomposition. But, don’t forget to appreciate other ones like burdock, plantain, red clover and mallow, all of which make great mulch and have many other uses.

Instead of trying to eradicate them, I’ve found myself giving over certain spots to weeds, knowing full well that I’ll be harvesting a great bevy a mulch that’ll help me with the plants I’m purposely cultivating.

Nothing Like Swimming in Awesomeness

Cattails about the Pond (Courtesy of JMacPherson)
Cattails about the Pond (Courtesy of JMacPherson)

One of the best and fastest growing sources of mulch is aquatic plant-life, and as an added bonus, it offers no concerns with regards to seeding itself into the garden beds. Permaculture design generally suggests about 15% of the land be used for catching and storing water in ponds, swales, and so on. Plants are an important element for cleaning and oxygenating these catchments.

Some of the more common aquatic plants used for mulching are cattails (edible as well), rushes and sedges, all of which spread very well and are generally considered something to control rather than encourage. But, for mulch, they are ideal. As well, reeds grow thick and are instrumentally useful as a filtering system for graywater. All of these plants make for great mulch and won’t compete with those in the garden.

So, while we undoubtedly would like to devote some ponds and pools to swimming or watering animals and maybe fishing, is it so hard to set aside a few for growing mulch, letting them get overrun specifically for the harvest?

That Ain’t Mulch! It’s Alive!

Incredible Clover (Courtesy of Takashi .M)
Incredible Clover (Courtesy of Takashi .M)

Another popular way to grow mulch at home is to literally grow plants that’ll function as living mulch. Most of the time people associate mulch with a thick carpet of dearly departed plant-life that is feeding the soil, preventing other plants from emerging, and all those aforementioned benefits. Living mulches work much the same.

Generally, living mulches are low-growing plants with specific attributes. They add nutrients to the soil, helping the plants around them, rather than taking it away. They’ll grow thickly enough to snub out weeds yet won’t overtake larger crops. They’ll prevent water and wind erosion. And, they offer the additional benefit of roots that help to loosen up the soil and keep it aerated.

Amongst the most popular living mulches are clover, mustard, sweet potatoes, and phacelia (great for bees). They work well as cover crops during breaks in vegetable cultivation and are then cut to be used as a green manure.

Sometimes Mulch Just Literally Falls from the Sky

Moringa in the Sky (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
Moringa in the Sky (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Go into any forest and therein we can find the ultimate example of how mulch happens naturally. Leaves fall. They fall and fall and fall some more. So many leaves fall in autumn that some people just took to calling the season fall. A healthy forest floor is simply thick with the leaves that have accumulated over years of shedding. Ideally, this self-governing system is what our food forests achieve.

As for how leaves can help us, well, how many bags of leaves are thrown out to the curb when from those lawn manicurists next door? Or, from clearing out the rain harvesting gutters? Or, from cleaning off walking paths? Generally, we are growing trees for many other reasons—windbreaks, fruit, nuts, shade, nitrogen-fixing, and so on—but all those mulching leaves and chipped branches certainly qualify.

Quick growing legume trees and bushes work perfectly for this. Not only will the living tree fix nitrogen in the soil, but as we cut it, that nitrogen is released underneath the surface and the wood and leaves piled as mulch atop it. Plant them right within gardens for this very reason.

A Properly Mulched Garden (Courtesy of the hardworkinghippy)
A Properly Mulched Garden (Courtesy of the hardworkinghippy)

Serious mulching is perhaps the most amazing way to change the prowess of a garden. It severely lessens the need for watering, making the whole process less labor intensive. It keeps the soil rich and compost-y. It protects the topsoil from erosion and provides the soil life with safe habitat. Thus, growing mulch is of paramount importance to any serious gardener, and luckily for us, there are a lot of very sensible, productive ways to do so.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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