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One word: mulch.

I had heard of mulch, but it was one of those gardening terms that I did not know much about or how useful it is. Mulching will save you tons of work and make your garden much more productive.

Garlic Thriving in Wood Chips and Grass Clippings
Our Garlic Thriving in Wood Chips and Grass Clippings

On its own, soil will grow weeds to cover itself. Using mulch is simply mimicking nature’s way of covering soil. With a thick enough layer of mulch, weeds are kept from growing. Soil stays moist even in some of the hottest of summer afternoons meaning you may not even have to water your garden. Soil is insulated from cold temperatures as fall sets in. Natural mulch breaks down and improves the quality of soil. Thus no fertilizer is needed with nitrogen rich mulch choices. Many mulch types balance the PH of soil avoiding the need for artificial soil amendments. Mulch can look better and keep your shoes cleaner than the muddy alternative. With less need to till, weed, water, fertilize, or amend the soil, the overwhelming parts of gardening are avoided.

You may have heard of lasagna gardening. This is the practice of using multiple methods of mulch in thin layers to get the benefits of different mulch types.

Lots of mulch can prevent weeds and watering completely. If you do not have enough, you may wish to place a layer of cardboard or newspaper first to avoid weeds growing through. I unfortunately did not use enough wood chips on mine to not use cardboard, so I am having to fix this after the fact with more mulch or digging up the chips to place cardboard underneath. It is much easier to do this before the fact.

Our Mulched Garden
Our Mulched Garden

Some mulch smells or attracts pests such as slugs or ants, so do some research and decide what works for you. If you have a problem with slugs, bringing ducks into your garden can be a good solution. Toads or turtles may take care of these without you having to do anything.

Find a mulch that is plentiful and easy to obtain for you. That may be grass clippings from the rest of your lawn that you are keeping alongside your garden (assuming this grass is not treated with weed killer). Or this might be the leaves from the trees that fall on your yard that you have been burning or blowing to the street for others to haul away. Maybe you have trees around your house that the power company trims every year, grinds branches up into wood chips, and pays a dump to get rid of. They are often happy to dump the wood chips in your yard (research what few trees to avoid as some such as black walnut must decompose for a while before being used in a garden).

Do you throw out your excess food? Start using it as a compost mulch. Maybe you already have chickens, and they take care of your excess food. Dump their manure somewhere for a while for it to start to decompose then use it as a mulch. Do you have access to hay or straw? Or pine needles (no, they are not as acidic as we all once thought)? Maybe you have a mixture of many of these and can create a well rounded mulch that your garden will thrive under.

Grass Clippings on top of Wood Chips
Wood Chip Mulch with a layer of Grass Clippings on Top

Weigh the availability with the cost versus labor and pick the most accessible mulch available to you today. Some mulch such as straw or grass clippings may have to be reapplied frequently as it decomposes (you could apply a little every couple times you mow the lawn). Grass clippings, compost, and manure are high nitrogen sources of mulch (think of them as also a fertilizer). These can be especially useful for high nitrogen hungry plants such as tomatoes or watermelon. Applying a layer of 4-6 inches of wood chips can last several years. Eight or more could last decades. Wood chips work well with grass clippings or manure to fertilize the soil with all the other benefits of mulch. Wood chips also create a friendly environment for mushrooms (do not eat them unless you know what you are doing, but even not edible mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with your plants).

See the following post on how to plant in mulch. Mulch allows your soil to improve over time rather than become depleted through the years. Just this simple practice will revolutionize gardening for you.

A Mushroom growing in wood chips