Get crafty with these cost effective options.
Mulching. It’s a technique that many first-time gardeners often gloss over when they start their food-growing journey.
This practice, which involves spreading a thin layer of material on the top soil of your garden, offers many perks from smothering your weeds, adding nutrients, reducing run-off, and insulating your soil to cutting your water use up to 50 percent. Right now, during the summer, mulch will help retain moisture and keep your plants cool. Expert gardeners from the Texas A&M University Extension also say that if done properly, a well-mulched garden can yield 50 percent more vegetables than an unmulched garden of the same size.
You can get mulch at your local garden center for a pretty penny, but there are also a number of ways to make your own for much cheaper. You can use a cocktail of materials for effective mulch or opt for a single ingredient. This guide will give you a variety of options.
Branches, Bark and Pine Needles
The amount of materials you collect will depend on the size of your garden but the end product should result in no more than a four-inch layer over your soil.
Feed your bark, branches and pine needles through a wood chipper and don’t forget to wear safety goggles! If you don’t own a wood chipper you can rent a machine at your local hardware store.
For leaf mulch, you can use scraps that you’ve taken off your garden when you’ve been pruning. You’re going to need to chop these up too. To do this, you can use a lawn mower or you can use some hedge trimmers.
Spread your leaves out into a pile that is no more than two inches thick. Turn on your lawn mower and run over the pile a few times to shred the leaves up into pieces. If you’ve opted to use hedge trimmers, make sure your leaf pieces are about the size of a dime.
You can combine your leaves with your homemade wood mulch, add it with grass clippings (see below) or you can leave it on its own.
For proper mulch that uses grass clippings, you’ll need to make sure that your grass is pesticide free. Never use wet or damp grass as mulch because it has a tendency to reduce the amount of oxygen and soil from getting into the soil. Gardeners recommend that you should leave your clippings out in the sun to dry out anywhere from a week to a day. You will know they are ready because they’ll feel looser and they’ll be slightly brown.
Sprinkle a one-inch layer of clippings over your topsoil. You won’t need more than that.
A layer of four to eight sheets of newspapers will work as effective mulch. As you place your newspaper in the garden, rip the paper slightly so that your pieces can wrap around the base of your plant. Moisten the sheets when you place them on the soil to ensure they stick in place. Running your hose or watering can over the sheets is an easy way to do this. Top them off with a one to three inch layer of grass clippings, straw or compost (more below) to prevent it from drying out.
It’s important to know that newspapers that are older than 1990 are not safe for your vegetable garden. They are known to contain harmful chemicals like cadmium, lead and chromium.
Your compost should be aged if you plan on using it as a mulch. You’ll know that it’s ready when it looks and feels like a dark earthy substance instead of rotten trash.
This option is likely the most straightforward. You can make your compost into mulch by scattering a layer over your soil that is two to four inches thick.
If you don’t have straw handy, reach out to your local farmer or head to a nearby home and garden store. Yes, you might have to venture a little farther than your backyard to find this one, but it definitely has a more appealing price tag than regular store bought mulch.
Once you have your bale, you can place it at one end of your garden and cut the ties that are holding it together. Use a shovel to break it up into pieces. When you place the straw on your soil, have no more than a three to six inch layer in between your plant rows. If you can see your soil, you aren’t using enough. Keep your straw away from any leaves or stems of your plants and leave about a one to two inch space.
Make sure you store any extra straw in a dry area. This will prevent it from decomposing.
To Shred or Not to Shred ( from the Xerces Society ) Many organic gardeners opt for shredding their fall leaves for use in compost piles. While this is certainly a more environmentally friendly practice than bagging leaves and sending them to the landfill – shredded leaves will not provide the same cover as leaving them whole, and you may be destroying eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis along with the leaves. We suggest that leaves in garden beds and lawn edges be left whole. Where space allows, consider creating a leaf pile and allowing it to break down naturally, or add… Read more »
Be careful of straw, farmers don’t always garden organic. Herbicides!
One of my favorite free mulches, especially good for keeping strawberries clean and off the ground, is shredded paper. Every spring I shred one year’s tax returns and supporting data from our business, and then spread it in the garden. The worms eventually take care of it, and the paper is kept out of the landfill and requires no more processing.
Can you use leaves that haven’t been shredded (but have been sitting for a year or more)?
Nowadays farmers in my area only make those huge rolls of straw. Great if you have the necessary farm equipment to handle them, but they exclude individual gardeners. I did manage to find ONE farmer not too far from me that had small bales, but he ONLY wanted to sell ALL 150 bales! I could have picked up three or four bales in my SUV, but he wasn’t interested. Sniff!
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