Mulch – Use What You’ve Got!


If you grow vegetable gardens, you probably know that mulching around plants is essential – not only does a thick layer of mulch control weed growth in your beds, but it shades the soil, keeping it cooler and helping retain soil moisture during the dry spells of summer.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on bagged mulch, though. Look around. You might have materials that can double as mulch and save you money. Cut sheets of cardboard into long strips and lay them between rows of vegetables to cover the soil. Stockpile your dry fall leaves, and run them through a chipper or shredder to use as mulch for next year’s gardens.  If you bag your lawn clippings during mowing, use a few inches of clippings as a nutritious garden mulch that will also feed the soil as it breaks down. Important: NEVER use grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with Weed & Feed or other pesticides! You don’t want those chemicals in your food.

Get creative! Do you have anything growing that you could sacrifice for mulch? One plant growing in abundance here on our farm is hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). This aggressive native fern takes over my planting beds, so I occasionally pull up armloads of the stems to keep the ferns from invading nearby garden areas.

Hay-scented fern makes an excellent natural-looking mulch!

hayscented fern armload IMG_0269_2

You can bundle small amounts of fern foliage together and fit them between rows in your garden. The green fronds dry quickly and unlike other weed plants, ferns won’t bring scads of unwanted seeds into your beds.

Below: the green fronds dry out and turn beige after a few days.hayscented fern tomato mulch IMG_0277

It’s easy to fold the stems into angles to neatly fit around each plant. Always keep mulch a few inches away from plant stems to prevent stem rot and the introduction of pathogens.

Another great “free” mulch is the trimmings from ornamental grasses when you cut them down to the ground in early spring. Dried stems and leaves make great mulch for strawberry plants or potatoes. I’ve heard of gardeners who grow large grasses just for the sheer bio-mass they produce, which can be used to feed compost piles too.

In the woods of New England, hay-scented fern colonizes areas of moist shade, such as this slope at our farm. There was once a garden here, but the fern has taken over completely:


Below: Hay-scented fern growing out of our front steps. Yep – this is one of our most tenacious weeds…

hayscented fern steps IMG_0901

Do you have weeds that can play double-duty as garden mulch? I’ve been known to use the enormous leaves of burdock or squash as a temporary mulch around newly planted veggie seedlings to shade the soil. Be careful what you choose though – don’t pull up weeds that have gone to seed, and don’t introduce roots from weeds that spread through underground rhizomes (some field grasses and goldenrods) – they may root in your garden.

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