Garden Mulch

Question from Newport News, VA. What are good mulches for the vegetable garden?

Answer: I use a variety of materials and all have merit. Melons do well with black plastic mulch. Tomatoes here in Oregon are showing good results from red plastic mulch. This year I will plant peppers with a newspaper mulch to suppress weeds, about three sheets seems sufficient and it just breaks down into the soil. Straw makes a good mulch, but can be weedy so you might seek out rotted oat or wheat straw. Plastic is kind of a hassle at a cleanup time but it is reliable. Shredded leaves are excellent. You will conserve water with mulches but need to adjust irrigation, running leaky pipe under the mulch is probably the easiest. Match your mulch to the plants requirements, don’t use acidic pine needles with lime loving cucumbers, or heat retaining plastic with cool crops such as broccoli or cabbage. If your garden is in a breezy location fix the mulch in place so it doesn’t blow around and make a mess. If slugs and snails are an issue in your area don’t create a safe haven under the mulch. Keep an eye out for them, trap and cleanup and consider using a safe product like sluggo.

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Winter Composting

Don’t stop now, composting and the decomposition of garden and kitchen waste continues all year. It’s better for your soil and the environment to add vegetable trimmings to the garden than a landfill or your local wastewater. These amendments feed the friendly organisms in your garden soil and improve tilth and fertility.
What to compost: grass clippings, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit peels and trimmings and limited amounts of wood ash. When using wood ash add it in layers interspersed with other materials.
What not to compost: meat or animal products, fat or grease, large unchipped branches.
Setting up a new composting system is pretty simple. A pile, while not elegant will break down in time. Many municipalities offer use of small stackable units that do a good job of composting. If your compost doesn’t seem to be shrinking as it works, toss in a little blood meal or alfalfa pellets to act as a starter and heat it up a bit.
Sheet composting involves covering the soil with biodegradable materials. It’s a valuable soil conditioning technique in the Pacific Northwest where we get pounding rains that tend to compact our soil over the winter. The soil in our perennial beds that have a good mulch of leaves and plants in place seems looser in spring than my vegetable garden. The perennial plants and mulch cushion bare soil from the rains and the roots open the soil for worms.
When our home herb garden was originally planted we covered the soil with compost, fish meal fertilizer, layers of newspaper and a layer of leaves on top. The following spring we had a loose friable soil, no weeds and we dug holes for plants but didn’t disturb the surrounding soil.
Our home vegetable garden has a high water table in winter and with our heavy rainfall, weeds can get a head start in spring. The area is too large to start spreading layers of newspaper. Planting in straw bales has been successful and the soil after the bales break down is a gardeners confection.
Recently I attended an Oregon Tilth conference and gained some new ideas about composting that we’re trying. They’ve been using large pieces of cardboard in their demonstration gardens. Even piano and refrigerator boxes were recommended. First step was a layer of leaves, pine needles, a covering of cardboard and more leaves or straw and soil to hold it in place. All these materials will breakdown and improve the soil, helping to control weeds, raise fertility and reduce water use. This just begins to scratch the surface of what can be said about composting, simply begin and let nature help.