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what to use for mulch?

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

I know it's a great idea to cover the garden with a nice layer of mulch to keep moisture in and to discourage weed growth. My problem is, I don't have anything good to use. My compost didn't really break down over the winter, I don't have any trees (so no nice piles of leaves), and even if I did rake up grass clippings (which I don't as I understand it is better to leave them where they are) it would be a pathetic amount and not enough to nicely mulch the garden plot.


So, I am wondering what other good options there may be? I know some people use newspaper or cardboard. Is that safe... I mean from bleach used in the paper-making process, or from inks? What about black plastic or black "landscape fabric"?


Thanks very much for any pointers! I plant a garden every year but I still know very little about it, really.

post #2 of 10
Are you trying not to spend money? If you're willing to pay a bit you can have a truckload of mulch delivered to you. We've gotten different kinds of wood chips in the past and that's really good for keeping moisture in and weeds under control.
post #3 of 10
I use several different things as mulch. I do use grass clippings. Every third mowing or so I use the bag attachment on the mower and collect the clippings as I mow. I use them on my garlic and asparagus beds.

In the fall I rake leaves from nearby public sidewalks, bag them up, and haul them home. Then I mow over them with my mulching lawn mower with the bag attached, and I get lots of great shredded leaf mulch to use on the beds over the winter.

I also get bales of straw to use as mulch. Chopped straw works great, but I usually just use the regular baled kind from the feed store. Be sure to get straw, not hay, or you will end up with tons of seeds.
post #4 of 10

When you say your compost really didn't break down, what do you mean?  Giant stalks, slimey mats of leaves?  


Compost is not mulch.  Mulch has some varying degrees of decomposition, compost is fairly complete and more like good soil.  It will not smother weeds or hold in moisture when exposed to the weather.  Compost is great, but it's not mulch.  So, your "not broken down" compost sounds like it might be about right for mulching.  


You can sometimes get truckloads of tree chips for free, but sometimes it is too rough for some gardens.  If you have the space, you can let it compost for a season before applying it.  My favorite in our region is chipped up Douglas fir, which has loads of green needles mixed in nicely with the chips, and this composts so nicely.  My favorite.  Other kinds are nice, but might need more time to break down a little, unless the landscape is weedy and rough, in which case it is just about right.


For purchase, my favorite when I can get it is a semi-composted blend of chicken manure and wood shavings, which the local company calls "Chicken'n'chips".  Fabulous!

post #5 of 10
Thread Starter 

Thanks for all the suggestions and help!

Straw is a great idea, and probably the most economical, so I'll likely do that.

Sadly, my "unfinished" compost is mostly kitchen scraps so not suitable :-(

post #6 of 10

I have been reluctant about straw because of chlopyralid, which is used as a preemergent in non-organic grain crops and has been shown to be very persistent even through the large-scale commercial composting process.  This might be good for keeping down weeds, if the straw is contaminated with it, but can persist in the soil and prevent your successful starts.  If the straw gets into your compost and your compost gets contaminated, you can have some difficulties.  I have not revisited this issue in years, since one of our largest composting facilities had their finished compost test positive for this chemical. So, Google it, it will pop up with some more recent information.


The USFS tends to use a lot of certified weed-free straw, which is supposed to be free of herbicides at least, so when I called the feed store I would have needed to order 36 bales.  If you live near organic grain farmers you might have a local source.  I have used rotten *hay* as mulch, and yes, you do get some grasses, but we pull and mulch generously and regularly, and it seems to work very well in a pinch.  But, yeah, for most people I wouldn't recommend it. 

post #7 of 10

From experience I would disagree on the straw.  Preemergent herbicides will generally also kill oats. Oats are not tolerant of most chemicals. In fact we have done trials using oats to test herbicide loads in different farms. Additionally oats are very commonly used to clean up a field of weeds- at least in our organic experience- they do a great job of smothering them out.  I imagine there was probably a contaminant somewhere else in the compost situation above.  


So I love mulching with oat straw.  This year though I have a lot of corn stalk bedding from my milking parlor that I am planning on using later in the season...  I wouldn't personally use wood chips- those suck nitrogen like no other!  And I really hate fertilizing my garden- just a pain in the butt.  But if you go that route- I love Dramm O (fish emulsion) and AgriEnergies SP1 (manure tea).  I just pull mine from my DH's bulk tank- but both are available in quarts and gallons from AgriEnergy Resources (google).  

post #8 of 10

I've used wood chips extensively, and you do need to be mindful, but they don't suck nitrogen out of the soil like a lot of people think.  The reason is that the wood chips are not mixed in (or at least should not be mixed in) with the soil.  So, any nitrogen imbalance will be present only in the surface where the soil comes into contact with the mulch.  Worms very quickly colonize the chips and add their frass to it and within a year the mass is crumbly and dark.  I have jump started whole gardens by laying down about 2 feet of the stuff, and it quickly turned into a giant worm bin.


However, jumpstarting a garden wasn't the question.  Yes, you need to be mindful of what plants like the mulch, not because of the nitrogen issue, but because it is a heavy mulch and some plants dislike mulch of this type, or too much of any.  Heath plants--azaleas, blueberries, etc; iris, peony, bee balm and rock rose dislike heavy mulches intensely.  Bee balm dislikes any mulch, so careful to keep any off the crown of the plant.


I've also mulched established gardens with tree chips (not so deeply, of course!) and I have never had any trouble except with the above plants, and I have had to be careful with any kind of mulch for those, so it is more air exchange in the soil than any nitrogen issues.  


My tree chipped gardens were lush and lovely.  


Thanks for sharing your story about the oats, that's good to know.

post #9 of 10

Not all straw is oat straw. In our area it is more likely to be wheat or barley. Not sure how they compare in the herbicide department. I've been worried about the persistent herbicides as well -- some apparently can survive ruminants and be present in manure.


As for the mulch you could check Craig's List. I often see listings for free leaves, wood chips, strawy manure, etc. When I have my husband ask for leaves from folks at work, they're always more than happy to have me come get them -- and then I can make sure they don't use chemicals. Also, the power company in our area trims trees from the power lines and offers the resulting mulch. Some municipalities and landscaping companies also offer chipped tree trimings.


I have successfully used the chipped tree trimings as mulch on the garden and on pathways. Where I live straw mulch tends to just blow away. The wood chip mulch stays put and stays on top quite easily, so I can rake it away when I need to. I love that it isn't "clean" and has lots of leaves and needles in it, which are usually finer and do get incorporated into the top of the soil. I've never had a problem with not enough nitrogen in the soil. Maybe it's because of the green tree parts. We don't really fertilize, just rotate beds each year and manure and mulch in the fall. Although I do incorporate used coffee grounds into the soil before planting and usually add some extra around things like tomatoes and corn.


Also, if you weed before seed heads develop, you can always just use the weeds as mulch right where you pulled them!

post #10 of 10

If you're not opposed to buying some, what about pecan shell mulch? It's a by product from pecan orchards. 

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