Mulch is one of the main growing methods here at Kingfisher Farm and we do a tremendous amount of experimenting with various materials.
The basic concept is to cover the ground so that soil is not exposed to sun and rain. This immediately helps with water retention, soil temperature moderation and erosion prevention. In a no till and no dig system like ours, it is also crucial for replenishing soil with vital nutrients.
Basics of Mulch
There is more to mulch than simply spreading wood chips on our garden beds. In fact, wood chips can actually initially hinder your garden growth because of it's tendency to absorb available nitrogen, making it unavailable for your plants. The type of mulch used, the time of application and the depth of the mulch all play an important role in its effect and effectiveness. However, the general idea is to cover any exposed soil with a material in order to improve water retention through decreased evaporation, regulate soil temperature, decrease erosion and add nutrients to the soil. It also drastically improves soil life and provides a home for some very useful critters.
Types of Mulch
Mulch comes in all types, all the way from synthetic black plastic to native tree leaves and everything in between. Our farm uses strictly organic, biodegradable mulches but that's not to say that the others are not worth trying. Black plastic for example has great benefits when growing plants that require very warm soil temperatures. Below is a list of some of the mulches we use and their generalized purpose:
Straw - General mulch. Slow to break down. Adds minimal nutrients. Affordable. Easy to work around.
Alder Leaves and Chips - Dense mulch. Slow to break down. Seeds have difficulty penetrating through mulch. Slow release nitrogen source. Can tie up nitrogen in early years. Good mulch around fruit trees.
Grass Clippings - Used for nitrogen boost. A favourite of earth worms. Promotes bacterial activity. Must be used sparingly and thinly. Best applied in early spring or late fall.
Maple Leaves - Excellent Carbon source. Breaks down relatively quickly. Easy to handle. Best applied in late fall. Readily available in our area.
Birch Leaves - Good source of Carbon. Slower to break down due to high tannin levels. Less valuable than maple leaves as a mulch.
Yarrow - High in potassium. Breaks down quickly. Easy to grow in dry areas. Source of nectar during growing stage. Extremely useful as mulch for large fruiting plants such as tomatoes.
Comfrey - Excellent source of nutrients. Extremely hardy and fast growing. Can become invasive. Breaks down quickly. Excellent source of nectar during growing season.
Recommendations for Straw and Hay Use as Mulch:
6 inch layer for Fall planted Garlic.
12 inch layer for over-wintered vegetables
Around Squash Plants and other mature plants
Around Strawberry Plants
Straw and Hay
As mentioned in the list above, straw is used on our farm as a general mulch when we need something quick and easy to work with. We have found that both straw and hay have their benefits and drawbacks as a mulch and as a general farm material. In terms of benefits, they are both easy to work with and go on quickly. I would recommend using at least a 6 inch layer and, as with any mulch, be sure to keep it at least 2 inches away from the base of your plants. They are both good mulches to apply to Fall planted garlic as they provide good insulation over the winter but should be pulled back in the spring to allow the soil to warm up and applied again once the soil has warmed. They are also easily applied to already existing vegetable gardens where large plants are already established. Squash plants are a great example as the straw or hay can serve as a mulch and a bed on which the fruiting bodies can remain off the ground. The drawbacks of straw and hay come in their break down times, their minimal appeal to soil organisms, the possibility for weed propagation and their possibility to be composed of non-native plants as much is brought in from other areas.
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