What is the best mulch for a vegetable garden?


Today I decided that I was going to make my vegetable garden a little larger than originally planned. Actually, I’m going to have it be two separate raised bed vegetable gardens. The current garden space I have needs some work to be cleaned up and ready for planting, and the new garden space is covered in grass right now. The old garden space hasn’t been worked in a couple years and is covered in old mulch. With both gardens likely needing new mulch I got to wondering what the best mulch is for my vegetable garden.

So, what is the best mulch for my vegetable garden? The best mulches for a vegetable garden are organic mulches such as sawdust, hay, pine needles, grass clippings, leaves, compost, and wood chips.

Using multiple types of mulch will improve your garden by providing additional nutrients and barriers for weeds. Organic mulches are those that are made from organic or natural materials. Inorganic such as black plastic or newspaper also work well, but are less environmentally friendly.

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch is great for any garden because it’s full of natural materials that will break down and help your garden grow, while at the same time when used properly the organic mulch will help reduce the weeds in the garden. Organic mulches come from a wide variety of materials.

Sawdust

Sawdust can be a fantastic mulch for your vegetable garden depending on what you are using it for. A thin layer of sawdust is great for moisture control when starting your seedlings while a thick layer of sawdust can provide for an excellent weed control. When sawdust is fresh it contains a large amount of carbon, but only small amounts of nitrogen. This means that breaking it down requires the microorganisms to take nitrogen from the soil. After sawdust is laid it often hardens slightly causing a “crust” that makes it difficult to soak up rain. One of the great benefits of sawdust is how readily available it is from many sawmills or construction sites. Sawdust is not the main mulch I use so I typically just use whatever sawdust I create from my personal woodworking projects.

Straw and Hay

Straw and Hay are some of the best mulches for providing weed control and improving the soil as it breaks down and decays. Straw and hay are available at many garden centers, but may be expensive. It’s also worth noting that straw and hay are quick to decompose and therefore must be replaced quickly to maintain a solid weed barrier. It’s also important to choose straw and hay that is free from other seeds and brambles.

Pine Needles

While pine needles are a good organic mulch, they are not my favorite because they tend to raise the acidity of the soil which can cause adverse effect on your garden. I definitely don’t recommend pine needles as your main source of mulch in your garden.

Leaves

Due to the fact that leaves are so readily available just about anywhere you are they earn my recommendation for organic mulch to use in your garden. A thick layer of leaves provide for a great weed control that will decompose at a good pace, creating a great soil and plenty of steady nutrients for your plants. The biggest risk with using leaves as mulch is that some leaves (specifically black walnut leaves) have a chemical called juglone which can prevent your plants from growing. This typically isn’t an issue if you’re using a mix of multiple types of leaves, but if all your leaves or a large portion of them come from black walnut trees (and some other nut trees) you may end up just killing off your garden before you even start.

Compost

This is my top choice for vegetable garden mulch. Compost is created by gathering all the food waste in your home and allowing it time to break down into a nutrient rich material to add to your soil. A good layer of compost provides for a great amount of weed control, but most importantly is the ability for your compost to be a great soil amendment. I’ve used a few different composters for my garden and find that they all work fairly well.

Wood Chips and Bark

Many gardeners use the wood chips and bark to create pathways through the garden. Due to its density and larger size it tends to decay slower and keep weeds to a minimum. I used to buy wood chip mulch from local home improvement stores, but I recently found a service called Chip Drop that connects tree trimming companies/arborists with gardeners – at no cost to you the arborists will dump an entire load of wood chips at your home. It’s a great service if you need some free mulch!

Inorganic Mulch

Cardboard

Cardboard makes for a great mulch to eliminate weeds and hold in moisture. Although it doesn’t provide the nutrients that organic mulches provide, it definitely does a good job with the weed control.

Newspaper

A few layers of newspaper works very similarly to the cardboard when it comes to weed control. They both decompose within about one season and are fairly inexpensive. It’s best to make sure to use an organic mulch as a partner to any inorganic mulch like cardboard or newspaper. The biggest concern with newspaper mulch is the ink that will bleed into the soil. While this isn’t a huge issue because most inks don’t contain lead. However, there are some color inks that do contain small traces of lead so be careful when using newspaper mulch.

Black Plastic

Okay, so this one isn’t actually a mulch, but it’s a great way to control weeds in your garden. The black plastics for gardens typically decompose very slowly and should be replaced every few years. The other worry with using black plastic is that it will affect the temperature of the ground itself by keeping the ground a few degrees warmer. In colder climates this probably isn’t a big deal, but here where I live in Texas the additional heat can kill the plant roots in the summer so we choose not to use black plastic in our garden.

Related Questions

Do you have to remove old mulch before applying new mulch?

Removing old mulch is necessary before adding new mulch to your garden. Old mulch, left alone or covered with new mulch can cause rot and decay while starving the soil of valuable nutrients which can cause your plants to die. Before adding your new mulch be sure to remove as much of the old mulch as possible.

Is dyed mulch safe for vegetable gardens?

The dyes used to color mulch are typically vegetable-based which makes them completely harmless and perfectly safe for use in your vegetable garden. Do you homework as some dyed mulches may vary, however, rest assured if you’re buying gardening mulch from a trusted source you will probably not need to worry about the dyes used for your mulch.

Do you lay mulch over grass?

Before laying mulch over a grass you need to do some basic prep to help the grass stop growing as quickly and eventually die off. To prepare the area be sure to mow the area of the lawn you want to convert to a garden on a very low lawn mowing setting, remove perennial weeds like dandelions, and then lay down a good weed barrier.

What is the best mulch to prevent weeds?

The best mulch to use to prevent weeds are those that let the least amount of light through and decompose the slowest. For inorganic mulches that would be the black plastic, but for organic mulches you’d be best off using heavy wood chips that break down slowly over time and let very little light through to the soil. Leaves and grass clippings also make for good weed control due to the coverage they provide, but they tend to decompose quicker.

What is a good mulch for tomatoes?

The best mulch around tomatoes plants is organic mulch that can provide great nutrients and weed control like grass clippings and leaves.

Eyerly Family

The Eyerly Family is a family of 8 that loves gardening. Over the past several years we have been applying what we learn about gardening to our own 16x16 raised back yard garden. Our garden is very prolific and we grow a wide variety of vegetables which we love to eat! Click here to learn more about the Eyerly Family.

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