Mulch: the key to successful gardening

I get asked a lot for gardening tips: what to do and not to do.

These, of course, are never replied with straightforward answers. There are so many factors in such a dynamic environment that it’s never an exact science.

However, if I could choose one word that always defines success it would be MULCH!

A weedy bed is not only unsightly, it competes for sun and nutrients. Weeds are a breeding ground for pests and diseases. They usually outperform your desired crop and can physically and emotionally exhaust you. Just when you think you’ve tackled them they reappear with vigour. It’s a never-ending losing battle.

Some say to use a sterilized potting mix and well-heated compost, but these lack the nutrients, micro organisms and minerals of real soil. Weeds will eventually be introduced by wind and birds anyways.Weed seeds can live in the soil for over 7 years, so why fight it? Mulch.


A good mulch is a thick layer of almost anything bio-degradable.

A light sprinkling serves no benefit. It has to smother the weeds completely. I use a good 3-5 inches of hay or bark mulch. Straw is superior over hay because it lacks grass and weed seeds but is difficult to obtain and expensive. I prefer rotting hay from square bales left outside for a few months . The weed seeds have usually decomposed and the hay is already on its way to becoming soil, full of moisture and bacteria.

If weed seeds still persist, who cares? As long you continually keep mulching, it’s not an issue.

Fir bark mulch is superior to cedar, as the latter contains a natural growth-inhibiting preservative, creosote.

The best, I find, are the wood chips from the tree services that usually contain a good mix of hard and soft woods and promote mycelium fungus that is beneficial to the soil.

You can use so many recycled items to mulch. Lumber tarps are temporarily good for smothering the grass on a new field. Newspapers, feedbags and cardboard work great between rows and even better with a layer of hay on top to keep it down. Landscape fabric works great and breathes. We use a corn-based bio-mulch – essentially a compostable black plastic film, on all our beds. We just poke a hole in it and plant. We install a drip system of watering under the bio-mulch, otherwise only the plant bases get moisture. Besides pulling a few weeds that grow in the same hole we really don’t have to weed it. We can focus on fertilizing , staking and harvesting.

Mulching is best when its done after a good soak and when the soil has warmed.  You don’t want to preserve the cold dry ground. It’s also best when your seedlings or transplants are well established.

Be gentle at first and don’t be shy. Use it liberally. It’s hard to over-mulch but detrimental if there is still exposed soil. In that case you’re promoting weeds and losing moisture. Go heavy.


A popular gardening trend in permaculture is the no till method. This is when instead of tilling your soil every season and continually between rows, you just keep mulching and plant directly in it. Tilling may make the ground temporarily weed-free and easy to work, but it also disrupts the micro-ecology and exposes the soil to wind and water erosion.

In nature the soil strata is layered. Healthy soil in the wild has a top layer of duff or humus on the surface from decaying  plants, leaves and branches, therefor creating a layer of composted top soil followed by mineral rich sub soil and then gravels.

Mother Nature has the perfect recipe for the richest medium providing the best protection, drainage and nutrients in layers for the plants to access, encouraging  them to send their roots deeper to get what they want and need. When in doubt always look to nature for guidance. Mother knows best.

An hour of mulching will save you several hours of weeding even more of watering. It will prevent erosion,  the leaching of nutrients and will eventually  feed and condition your soil when it’s tilled in, or better yet, left for the following season. Lift up a section of mulch and you will find worms and a layer of their super nutritious castings. Mulching is the very best thing every gardener should do. Once you’re on the program you will never go back to exposed soil gardening again.