The word is getting out. Mulching the garden beds is becoming more and more popular. Nonetheless, I still see bare ground on many gardens and that bare ground is bare due to one of three reasons: 1) Freshly tilled and planted. 2) Intensive weeding all the time. 3) Toxic and cancer-causing poison sprayed on the ground around the plants that provide our food…that we eat…and feed our family with. Yes, I kinda drug out the #3 point. Regardless, why don’t all homesteaders and gardeners mulch their garden beds? Maybe they don’t realize how FREE mulch is.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- How to Make Mulch (with Video)
- What Kind of Mulch to Use
- Where to get FREE Mulch Material
- The Benefits of Mulch
How to Make Mulch
Dry, airy straw and hay makes an OK mulch. The problems with dry grass-like mulches are:
They Blow Away
They Will Not Pack Down
They Don’t Break Down As Readily (good and bad)
They Don’t Insulate The Soil as Well
Weeds Have an Easier Time Popping Up
There’s a SUPER simple solution: soak your mulch before laying it down and around your plants.
Step 1: Obtain or Grow straw, alfalfa, grass, or other non-composted material (if you are going to apply a top layer of compost, do it first and then add the mulch).
Step 2: Fill a container packed-full of the dry mulch. You can use a garbage can, 55-gallon barrel, ICB tote or other large container.
Step 3: Fill the packed container with water and weigh the dry mulch down with a heavy object like a rock. As the dry material soaks up the water, it will start to “rise” out of the container and the top will dry out.
Step 4: Soak the material for 24-48 hours. A little longer will be OK but too long will result in the mulch becoming rancid and began to become anaerobic (decomposition without oxygen). That means it’ll stink the high heaven BUT will be A-OK for the garden. As a matter of fact, it may be even more beneficial for the garden despite the stink…but your neighbors will think otherwise. Not to mention, YOU will not want to smell it either if your garden beds are close to the house or where you spend time outside. It’ll attract flies too.
Step 5: Remove the soaked mulch with a pitchfork or other device and transport it to the garden beds you will be applying the mulch to.
Step 6: Using gloved hands, apply the mulch to the garden beds. Lay it on thick!!
Now, if you are asking, “Why ‘gloved-hands’?” This mixture will began to decompose almost within the hour you soak the straw. The smell will permeate your skin if you bare-hand this stuff. I don’t want to shy you away from creating mulch like this in fear of walking around smelling like a cow’s behind for a day or two. Use an old pair of kitchen gloves or non-sterile medical gloves and you’ll be A-OK. Like cow manure and other decaying, organic materials you add to your garden soil, organic mulches and compost stink…pure and simple.
The water that is left over in the container can be used to water your plants, used to start the next batch of mulch soaking or can be just dumped out onto the ground.
What Kind of Mulch to Use
We use organic mulch. When I say, “organic,” I am not necessarily referring to the USDA’s “organic” reference. I am referring to simple, carbon-based compounds. You know; stuff that comes from living stuff and contains no artificial compounds such as rubber, dyes and the like.
Finding (or even being able to afford) mulch that is officially classified as USDA “organic” mulch may not be a viable possibility. Nonetheless, we strive to use organic (from living matter) mulch grown “organically.” Clear as mud, right?
I like wood chips for my pathways and wood bark mulch for my perennial garden beds that are street-visible. I like straw for my garden beds that contain my annuals and other perennials that are in the back of the homestead. Why? Because the wood chips last a lot longer and the straw can be soaked and laid on thick. You can lay wood chips on thick too but not as thick as straw. Straw will break down easier and render the nutrients to the soil more readily than wood chips. And I would consider straw less of a carbon-thief than wood chips. This is not a debatable preference. It’s okay to use straw for the pathways and wood chips for the beds. It’s okay to use wood chips for everything and straw for everything. This is the methods that works for me.
If you take dry straw and lay it on the garden beds, it’s going to blow away and you’ll be hard pressed to get a good, insulating volume of straw down that will preserve the moisture and soil temperature to “make it all work.”
I would avoid artificial mulches such as rubber mulches. Do they work…I can assume that they may work but if you ever change you mind…what a mess you’ll have. Rock mulch will work but then again…nope. Don’t use rocks unless they are great, big rocks. Very large rocks will hold the moisture, maintain soil temperatures and have 100% water run off (to your plants). Plus, rocks last forever! The small rocks will work themselves into the soil and…well…nope. I just don’t like small rock mulch.
Mulches that have dyes. Hummm. All I will say is this: The powers-that-be say that monoisopropanolamine poses no threat to people, pets or the environment. Question: can you easily pronounce “monoisopropanolamine?” Me neither. And I avoid mulches with dyes. The ONLY reason to use mulches with dyes is the increase the aesthetics of the garden beds. I love the way fresh wood bark looks on my front yard garden beds and I refresh it yearly as the old mulches render their carbon-based nutrients into my soil (even though I said I like to use straw, I like wood bark for my front, visible-from-the-road garden beds that I don’t have seasonal plantings in).
Other kinds of mulches include:
You do not have to pay $50 a yard for mulch. I get mine for FREE.
Where to get FREE Mulch Material
I get my mulch from a friend. She use to throw her moldy straw and hay away. Ms. Vie has horses and loves her animals. She buys hay and feeds it to her horses. If the hay becomes moldy or starts to smell “wet,” she chunks it in the trash. Well, she use to until she met me. Now I get it and use it for mulch.
Ask EVERYONE you know if they ever throw away hay, straw, grass or anything else that is compostable. Don’t end up finding out that someone you know has been throwing good mulch materials away. You know how it goes. “I didn’t know you needed mulch; I had a ton of it that I threw away just yesterday. Dang!”
Put an ad out on Craigslist. Be sure to ask for “bottom bales.” Farmers will have bales of straw, hay, alfalfa and other grasses stacked up. Even if they start the stack on a wooden pallet or something else to elevate the bottom bale, there’s still a bottom bale that usually gets a bit…well…not so fresh. Often they will keep using the same bale as the “bottom bale” until that bale just will not support any more stacking. That’s where you come in with your trailer or pick up and get those bales for your mulch.
You can use plants that have been dried (or not) that you have grown on your homestead. And, it does not have to be straw, grass or alfalfa. It can be harvested comfrey, last year’s plants that didn’t decompose very well or wood chips (wood chips soak well too despite my preferences as mentioned earlier).
The Benefits of Mulch
We’ve done all this talking without discussing the benefits of mulch
Helps Maintain Soil Moisture. We all know this but still there are folks out there with bare, dry ground around their plants. Places you don’t want plants to grow need to be heavily mulched. The argument I hear is: That stuff contains seeds and will add weeds to my garden. This is sort of a true statement. There is a risk of adding weed and grass seeds to your garden by mulching. What we do here on our homestead is let the chickens “shop” the dry materials (as well as add a bit of manure) to pick out the seeds before we soak it.
If you don’t have chickens to reduce the seeds, then just carry one as-is. The more-than-likely reason for weed growth in your mulched areas is NOT because of seeds from the mulch. It’s likely due to the seeds that are already in the ground that are taking advantage of the retained moisture the mulch is providing. Don’t fret. A few weeds in a garden are A-OK. The benefits outweigh the possible negative results.
- Improves Soil Fertility: This happens in many ways: Directly and Indirectly. The mulch benefits the soil directly due to the material itself being broken down (composted) and rendering the nutrients into the soil. It benefits the soil indirectly as it keeps the soil insulated from the cold of the winter and the hot of the summer allowing your worm and other soil-borne life to proliferate. Their biological activity benefits the soil WAY better than any fertilizer you could ever add to your soil.
- Reduces Weed Growth: As I mentioned in #1, you may add a few unwanted seeds to your garden by mulching this way. That’s okay. This mulch will cause the weed to have to work extra hard to reach the light of day. The weeds may pop up either having been born from the mulch or from the soil itself, yet either way, the weeds will be long, spindly and weak. Pick them during your brief weeding sessions and move on. Do not overthink this. Those weeds are likely from your soil and only germinated due to the retained moisture that benefits your wanted garden plants 10-fold.
- Mulch Makes a Garden Pretty: I often delay in cutting my comfrey because after cutting the comfrey, the comfrey bed looks ugly. We all like a pretty garden. Mulch, along with all the other benefits, adds a “finishing touch” to the garden.
There are more benefits of mulch on the garden but I can tell that you are anxious to wrap this up and get back outside to your garden and get to mulching. Until next time, do the best you can and let the rough end drag.