Banishing the Uninvited

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My garden on the mulch

I know that mulches are not traditionally used in vegetable gardens, but flossing, driving cars with decent gas mileage, and using Wikipedia to settle dinner-table debates are not traditional, either, and we find that stuff reasonable at this stage of human development.

When considering whether to mulch your vegetable garden, the great question to ask yourself is, do you want to be Sisyphus, or not? 

Because you are inevitably serving up to nature a nice cozy rectangle of carbon and nitrogen that will get filled.  And I don’t care if you start with sterilized soil in a raised bed.  Eventually, you will get weeds.  And unless you are there to pluck them out every night, they will become overpowering.

My garden off the mulch

Here are a few interesting facts about weeds that I just learned from University of Cambridge botanist David Briggs:

  1. Weeds adapt quickly to all kinds of pressures, including the pressure of finding themselves in an immaculate botanical garden, staffed by many young gardeners with horticulture degrees. In such a situation, some of them flower earlier than they do in nature or in the gardens of the sloppy, hoping to set seed before anybody notices.
  2. Many small-seeded weed species can be lulled into dormancy by even a shallow covering.  In other words, they need light to germinate.
  3. However, many weeds of crop lands produce a lot of seed that is viable for a long time, leaving “seed banks” that persist in the soil…just waiting for some foolish gardener to bring out the rototiller and expose them to the sun.
  4. Seeds of some weeds can persist in the soil a hundred years.
  5. One experiment looked at a wheat field and found in 34,000 seeds in a single square meter.

So, as Susan Harris suggests, rake those fall leaves onto your vegetable beds.  Or order a truckload of wood chips, or bury the place in spoiled hay.  And don’t clear it up in spring.  All your crop seeds require to germinate is a shallow stripe of exposed soil made with the handle end of a shovel. 

Safety first!

Posted by

Michele Owens
on November 19, 2010 at 4:40 am, in the category Eat This.


  1. Wood chips in the vegetable garden is the number one search that brings people to Outside Clyde. I’ve inter linked several posts and send them off to Linda Chalker-Scott. The word is getting out that mulching your vegetable garden saves major weeding time and improves the soil dramatically. I swear by arborists wood chips. They are the best as far as I am concerned.

  2. Zone 9 do not till the mulch into the soil. Just leave it on top. There is no need to remove it ever. When you are ready to plant rake on opening in the mulch and plant. Done.

  3. Zone 9, I’m with Christopher C (and the Troll). Don’t remove it–it will break down on its own. Mulch is the only fertilizer I add to my garden, and my garden generates a ton of gorgeous food.

  4. Definitely mulch in the vegetable garden
    1)Helps with weeds
    2)Helps with moisture (hello, lack of rain here in the northeast this past summer)
    3)Breaks down into useable organic matter
    4)Makes your veg. garden look prettier

  5. Anyone have experience mulching large veggie gardens with straw? My church has a half acre garden where we grow food for the homeless. The garden team is pro-till, so we till every year (have already tilled this fall)and this year are mulching the whole enchilada with straw. Any advice on how deep we must mulch to get weed supressing benefits, or whether wood chips are better by far?

  6. The straw made a huge mess of my veg garden at my old house. Lots of weed seeds came with it, I wished that I had used wood chips. Unless your full time job is weeding your garden, you really must mulch. Nature will fill any void.

  7. I have one issue with mulch. Last year I mulched my garden with leaf mold and compost, but found that all the unwelcomed critters like to hide in it. I had tons of pill bugs eating my new seedlings, and they hid in the mulch. I had an infestation of stink bugs, which also hid in the mulch. I’m also concerned that leaving mulch on the ground overwinter just gives the pests a place to hang around so they can bust out again in spring. What do you do about this problem?

  8. I’ve had trouble with straw and hay sprouting, too. Ruth Stout recommended using spoiled hay–with most of the seeds, in other words, ruined by moisture–and said that if you have weeds in your garden despite a grass-based mulch, the mulch is just not deep enough!

  9. Fresh wood chip mulch breaks down quickly in my area and makes absolutely the best composty soil. But, I have found the weeds love it too so I have to mulch the mulch. Strangely, plain old coastal burmuda hay works well for me. I have not found it to sprout and it seems to keep other weeds well under control. I use about 4″ and refresh it twice a year.

  10. I have such a problem with weeds at the community garden – and they suck all the nutrition from the soil. I planted fall rye this year to build the soil and hope that a year of constant weeding will start to break the cycle.

  11. I just spent over 30 hours attending a certification class on compost and mulch. Who knew it was this in depth and interesting !
    Briefly, the name of the game is matching the type of mulch with the type of plant that you are growing.
    As an example ; vegetables are a fast growing one season crop so you want to use a mulch that has already started its decomposition.
    Mulches require nitrogen to break down. If your mulch is too newly harvested it will use/take/steal/ borrow / exchange the nitrogen that is in your soil ( different rates apply ) . This would be fine if you were planting a woody shrub or tree that can wait the time for the nitrogen to become available via decomposition, but for a fast growing seasonal crop such as veggies the desired effect is threefold : to feed the soil, conserve evapotranspiration and suppress weeds.
    A fresh load of green mulch ( non partially decomposed) will suppress the weeds but won’t benefit the plant with nutrient value until it is working in harmony with the natural food web.

  12. It’s been so long since I haven’t mulched my garden that your comment of “mulches are not traditionally used in vegetable gardens” startled me. After so many seasons it’s easy to think that using mulch to prevent weeds and break down into better soil is an obvious addition to the garden. Thanks for reminding me not to take my mulching efforts for granted.

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