A Guide To Living Mulch and How To Use It

The key to a luscious garden with a bountiful harvest of vegetable crops is all starts with healthy soil. Living mulch provides your soil with a boost of nutrients, among other benefits, and it’s easy to grow.

Whether you’re new to gardening or want to try something new on your homestead, improving your soil condition is always worthwhile. But besides increasing the nutrients in the soil, living mulch also retains moisture, suppresses weeds, and improvises fertility.

So, how can you use living mulch at home? Keep reading to find out.

living mulch guide

What Is Living Mulch?

Living mulch consists of low-growing plants grown to cover the ground between crops. Commonly, living mulch is used for vegetable gardens during the summer months, but it has other uses as well.

Living mulch is often associated with cover crops or green manure, but there are some differences between these gardening techniques. Living mulch is primarily used when the crops are still growing and not in between seasons as cover crops are.

living mulch in the garden

A cover crop or patch of green manure is used to fill an area during crop rotation and the winter months when plant growth slows down.

You can use living mulch in vegetable gardens, perennial planting schemes, sloping sites, orchards, and other garden locations. Before benefiting from this plant cover, you must pick the correct mulch.

How To Choose the Right Mulch

First, consider the surrounding plants and how they will interfere with the living mulch (and visa versa). Some things to think about are growth habits, root systems, and nutrient needs. Carrots with long taproots can grow happily next to a living mulch with a spreading root system like sweet alyssum.

Think about the height of the mulch once it reaches full maturity. You don’t want the surrounding vegetables to be shaded and deprived of light. If you choose to plant living mulches next to tall plants, choose something that can handle shade.

Another aspect of picking living mulch is deciding between annuals and perennials. If you want to maintain the same plant year after year, go with a perennial. But if you like the idea of switching things up as your crops change, go with an annual.

living mulch

Here are the best examples of living mulch to plant at home:

  • Clovers
  • Alfalfa
  • Phacelia
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Purslane
  • Chickweed
  • Creeping thyme
  • Comfrey
  • Canadian wild ginger
  • Sedges
  • Barren strawberry
  • Green-and-gold
  • Moss phlox
  • Viola

If you plant one of these herbs as living mulch, you’ll be able to harvest them for use in your kitchen, and the local wildlife will love nibbling on them during the day:

  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon balm
  • Roman chamomile

There are lots of other species that you can plant if none of these options appeal to you, so don’t feel constrained. For instance, while tall, buckwheat grows quickly and can cover a large amount of terrain.

If you have the space and time, it’s good to test out various plants to see what works best for your crops and space.

You don’t need to limit yourself to one type of plant, either. Many gardeners decide to combine flowers, plants, and herbs for a colorful effect on their property.

Benefits of Living Mulch

Living mulch is undeniably a fantastic choice for growing vegetable crops in your garden, but what are the benefits of this planting method?

1. Controls Weeds

clover

Weeds can be a challenge when you’re a gardener. Living mulch helps you control weeds. Instead of clearing weeds, you can plant some alfalfa or chickweed, which will smother weeds, and spend more time tending to your crops.

If you cover the ground between your crops with living mulch, you won’t need to worry about weed maintenance, and your garden will look great!

2. Stops Soil Erosion

Living mulch also stops soil from eroding. Unlike traditional mulch, which covers the ground instead of developing any roots, this method has a root system that shores up the soil. By planting a seed, you are providing a more concrete root system into the soil, which helps keep everything in place.

3. Retains Moisture

Apart from preventing soil erosion, living mulch helps the soil retain moisture. Even though traditional mulch like wood chips or other dried organic matter helps keep the moisture in the soil, it can also lead to root rot and diseases.

Living mulch is a better option as it can retain moisture while providing an excellent airflow to the rest of the soil.

4. Encourages the Growth of Microbes

Microbes are essential for healthy crops, so it’s smart to increase their amount in the soil wherever possible. Some of the best microbes are fungi like mycorrhizae which are beneficial to the roots and overall health of the plant.

Thankfully, living mulch can give the soil the right environment for these microbes to grow.

5. Attracts Pollinators

peach pollination

When you’re planting flowers and crops, it’s not only about the soil, water levels, and layout; you need to attract pollinators to develop a healthy ecosystem. Living mulch is super for attracting local wildlife to your garden.

Think of it this way; if you plant fragrant flowers, animals will be more likely to visit your plant and pollinate your crops. Plus, wildlife can help keep other insects away from your crops and act as a natural bodyguard.

So, you want to have as many of them as possible in your garden!

6. It’s Easy and Effective

Growing living mulch is easy and effective, so there’s no reason not to try this growing method at home. Gardeners are always looking for methods that can reduce maintenance and annual chores.

If you suffer from back pain or other health issues, you can still benefit from living mulch and improving soil quality for your crops. You can simply sprinkle a packet of seeds over a land area and wait for the magic to happen!

Planting Living Mulch

Once you’ve decided the type of living mulch you’d like to use, it’s time to plant. If your plant requires a direct sow, you should sow the seeds shortly after you’ve laid out the rest of your garden.

Additionally, you need to plan where a path out if you grow something that can’t be walked on. That’s why white clover is an excellent low-growing living mulch. It will prevent weeds from growing and you can walk on it.

Obviously, the planting steps will vary depending on which species you choose. Some plants are better propagated by seed while others are best purchased from a reliable nursery.

Even though you’re planting something to improve the soil, it never hurts to work in some manure or compost (well rotted, of course) before planting your living mulch. This isn’t a cover crop, it’s something you want to survive perhaps year after year, so give it a good start.

You might want to fertilize your mulch after it has been in the ground for a few weeks to give it an extra boost. You won’t need to fertilize at all after that, but it can be a useful advantage.

Chop and Drop

chop and drop

When you read about living mulch, you’ll come across the term “chop and drop,” which refers to the method of chopping plants where they are planted. After you’ve cut the crops, you leave the cut material in place as a traditional mulch.

The roots in place so they can keep growing back. Or, you can allow the plant to go to seed and then chop and drop it.

This allows you to keep growing your green mulch for years without planting new seeds yearly. It’s an excellent method for limiting planting time so you can focus on general maintenance over winter and during the prime growing season.

Common Issues With Living Mulch

rows of mulch

Of course, some issues always arise when growing living mulch.

Living mulch might compete with surrounding crops for sun exposure. Sometimes, the soil can’t support both types of plants in one area, so you need to pick something that fits well with other plants.

Living mulch can also spread quickly, which means you might have to harvest or cut them down regularly to control the growth and height of the mulch.

Although living mulch can be good for attracting wildlife, it can also encourage insects and pests to use the mulch as cover. This provides the perfect place for nighttime insects such as slugs to hide until it’s dark.

If you want to be sure that no pests are secretly hiding beneath the mulch, it’s better to pick low-growing mulch varieties so you can keep a better eye on the insects strolling around.

Apart from these minor issues, growing living mulch is a suitable alternative to traditional mulch and can add some extra nutrients to the soil for your crops.

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