For an organic gardener, mulching is not an option and burning leaves, a crime. It is in fact an under-appreciated and powerful tool for creating low maintenance and sustainable gardens
While organic approaches to growing warn against the idea of “magic pills”, Mulching offers a form of this to the soil in any garden. The overwhelmingly positive role that it plays for the soil in your garden make it something that we feel all gardeners (and especially organic kitchen gardeners), MUST DO.
Dried monsoon over-growth, coconut shells/husk, wood shavings – all can be used as mulching material
What is mulch?
Any material used as a cover for soil, dead/live, natural/synthetic can be called ‘mulch’. Mulch finds use in both the garden, as well as in potted plants. If carried out regularly and correctly, mulching is a great way to recycle nutrients from your soil, and improve your soil fertility over time. The importance of mulching can never be overstressed.
Why is it important critical?
There are several reasons mulching is important and is great for both kitchen as well as ornamental gardens. While gardeners who use synthetic chemicals will also find it useful, mulching is one of the key pillars of organic gardens with multiple benefits to the organic gardener.
- Saves water: Mulch covered soils lose less water due to evaporation and wind actions. This means that not only do you need to water less frequently, but also there is a consistent, continuous supply of moisture for your plants. Fluctuating moisture levels can be disastrous for some plants, tomatoes, for example.
- Saves your soil: Watering a garden where the soil is bare inevitably results in the good stuff washing off. This can be noticed a couple of weeks after the rains, when what started out as good soil begins to look ‘pebbly’ because the rain washes away the loose, uncovered top-soil.
- Improves soil: As natural mulches decompose, they add organic matter to your soil, thereby increasing its fertility. Adding dried leaves, grasses and weeds from your own garden ensures that the nutrients from the garden are recycled and you build healthy soil over time. Continuous and regular additions of mulch continuously increase the fertility of your soil, thereby reducing the need for external fertilisers.
- Checks weed growth: Thick layers of mulch prevent the germination of weeds. If weeds do germinate, it prevents survival by keeping them from getting sunlight.
- Creates healthy, living soils: Soils that are mulched provide an ideal environment for microbes and other beneficial creatures to thrive. This life in the soil is what assists an organic gardener in keeping her plants well-nourished and her soil aerated and loose.
What materials can we use for mulch?
Mulch can be of both natural as well as synthetic materials (like rubber bits, plastic sheets etc…), but we’ll focus on the natural materials that can be found easily around your garden, like dried leaves, weeds, grass clippings. If you have a large garden and need lots of mulch, you can even dedicate an area to grow you mulch (eg. Lemongrass, fodder grasses etc…).
Dry or Fresh mulch?
Both dry and fresh leaves can be used to mulch; however, dry leaves are ‘safer’. Fresh leaves, like large quantities of fresh grass clippings, have too much nitrogen and being very fine, tend to clump together and begin rotting in patches (the decomposition becomes anaerobic). These rotting patches can be harmful for your plants. Therefore using dry leaves is always safer.
Some examples of mulch you can easily find are:
Dried leaves – If you are a gardener, it is a crime, nay, a sin to burn dry leaves from your garden. All leaves (except infected ones) can safely be used as mulch, including paddy straw and all other kind of garden leaves. If you have a shortage of mulch, consider growing some plants (like lemongrass, beans, moong etc, to generate materials for mulch. If available leaves are very large like banana or coconut, they can be used around fruit trees rather than in vegetable beds.
Weeds – weeds that have been removed, can be set aside for a week or so to dry (often weeds tend to re-root very easily, therefore it is better they are used once they have dried out). These can then be used to cover your beds.
Grass clippings – dried clippings are ideal for covering soil as they form a dense mat and prevent the growth of weeds. Avoid using fresh grass clippings as these are most likely to clump up and have rotting patches that will harm your plants.
Coco-soil/Coconut husk – Coco-soil (dust from the coconut-fibre-making process) as well as coconut husk both make excellent mulches. The common concern that these will attract white-ants is not necessarily correct. Even if it does, white ants only further the breakdown of dead matter, they do not eat things that are alive, and so your plants will not be affected. Both coco-soil and coconut husk have excellent water retention capacity and can keep soils moist for long periods, even if they end up looking dry on the surface.
Both dry and fresh leaves can be used to mulch; however, dry leaves are ‘safer’.
Wood shavings – these also make excellent mulch, but remember to get shavings from wood and not ply wood, as those will have chemicals and resins in them that are not good for your plants.
Live mulches – sometimes live plants can be used as ‘ground cover’ and they perform the functions of mulch, for example plants like bamboo spinach, sweet potato, some beans… It is important to remember not to let the live mulch ‘take over’ your garden and keep cutting it back when you think it has over-grown.
How to mulch?
Once you’ve prepared your garden beds (by tilling the soil, adding manures, compost, coco-soil etc…) cover them so as to prevent rapid drying out. If you are using transplants, simply part the mulch at the spot you wish to plant creating an opening of about 2-3 inches in diameter, and sow your plant in this hole ensuring the mulch is clear of the base (collar area) of the transplant.
Mulch should be laid thick, about 3” on beds in the ground, as it rapidly gets compressed as it decomposes
When sowing seeds, especially large ones like beans, bhindi, gourds etc… the same approach can be used, ensuring the germinating seeds have a clear spot to come out and reach the sun.
It gets a little tricky when direct sowing of smaller seeds like Amaranth (Tambadi Bhaji), methi, palak etc… is to be done. In this case, consider parting the mulch in a line and sprinkle the seeds in this. Alternately, you could sow seeds in an un-mulched bed and let the plants grow to be 8-10 inches in height before mulching in the spaces in between.
Mulch is parted to make a clear spot where the transplants/seeds have to go
Mulching is equally valuable for potted plants in pots of all sizes. It performs the same functions and provides the same benefits as in garden beds. Prepared pots can similarly be mulched and parted to sow transplants and seeds. Pots already having plants in them can be mulched to cover the soil around the plant.