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There are many reasons to mulch vegetable crops, but for me the biggest one is to prevent weeds. With 20 raised beds in my garden, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with weeding if I didn’t mulch. Mulching the soil is also water wise because it reduces the need to irrigate. Mulch can prevent certain pest issues and improve soil structure and fertility, depending on the type of mulch.
There are two types of mulches: organic materials like straw, which break down and enrich the soil, and inorganic products like plastic or fabric. These don’t decompose and improve the soil, but they still can offer benefits to a food gardener.
Straw is my go-to mulch for my raised vegetable beds. It’s inexpensive and effective and it can also help prevent certain pest issues, like squash vine borers, which lay their eggs on the stems of squash plants.
Gathered in the autumn and used in the spring garden, shredded leaves or leaf compost is a weed-free choice for food gardeners. It breaks down quickly, adds organic matter to the soil and holds moisture.
I recently visited a home garden where the gardener laid black fabric mulch around his heat-loving plants. It prevented weed growth and also warmed the soil, encouraging his tomatoes, peppers and artichokes to grow rampantly. Impressed with the harvest, I am trying fabric in a few of my beds this year.
Plastic mulches are also often used to increase soil temperature for heat-loving vegetables like melons, tomatoes and peppers. There are a variety of colors available, each of which affect different crops in different ways. Plastic mulch isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as natural materials, but it can help extend the growing season in a cool climate.
Compost is an inexpensive and effective mulch in a vegetable garden. It helps hold moisture, and it adds organic matter as it breaks down.
The best time to apply any mulch is right after a deep, soaking rain. Lay the mulch on top of the soil, around the plants. Organic mulches should be applied in a two- to three-inch-deep layer. You may need to top this off in midsummer as the materials begin to decompose.
Niki Jabbour grows and harvests vegetables all year at her home in Nova Scotia. Find her online at savvygardening.com and in every issue of Horticulture. She is the award-winning author of The Year-round Vegetable Gardener and Groundbreaking Food Gardens, as well as Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix.