Mulching Benefits All Year Long
Plus Cover Crops for Gardens
In my dream world, every gardening season starts with a blank slate of properly prepared, weed-free beds just waiting to be planted. Of course, that’s not how reality works. But what can you do to get closer to the dream? Removing dead plants, planting a cover crop, and mulching benefits the next season’s garden.
At the end of the gardening season, it’s super easy to just let it all go and deal with it later. The problem with that is that later usually comes when you want to plant the new garden and you’re stuck cleaning up last season’s mess.
I’ve learned over the years that even if I can’t accomplish everything I want to do to prepare my garden for the next season, at least when I do some of these things I get better results.
Dead and Diseased Plants
Removing dead and diseased plants is the best thing you can do to get ready for the next season. Some people pull them and some cut them off at the soil line; either way is fine.
I prefer to cut most of ours at the soil line. This keeps the soil undisturbed and since we practice no-till gardening this is one of our goals. It also allows the roots to compost down into the soil and adds more nutrients.
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As long as the old plants aren’t diseased they can go into the compost bin or be given to the chickens if they’re plants that chickens will eat. Most home compost piles do not get hot enough to kill all pathogens so it’s best to not chance it by putting diseased plants in the compost pile.
We burn all diseased plants. When we’re cleaning up the garden we drop the diseased plants into a burn barrel and light it. If you don’t have a burn barrel, you could use an outdoor fire pit. If you chose to burn the plants it’s important to make sure you’re following all your local burn ordinances. You certainly don’t want the fire department showing up at your house because you’re burning when there’s a burn ban in effect.
I prefer to burn the plants as we pull them and not pile them until we have a bonfire stack of the unwanted brush. This is more manageable for us and we don’t have to worry about the fire getting out of control or irritating our neighbors.
Some people will bury diseased plants and that can be a good option if you know the disease isn’t soil born. Choose a site that is away from your vegetable beds and fruit trees and bury the plants at least 12 inches deep. This should keep them from being dug up by critters.
Most gardeners mulch during the growing season to help keep the soil moist. But mulching benefits don’t end with the current growing season. Mulching in between seasons can help keep the weeds down, keep the soil warmer, and add extra nutrients to the soil as the mulch breaks down.
Only use organic mulches in your garden. Inorganic mulches, such as those made from plastics or old tires have no mulching benefits and have no place in the vegetable garden. Organic mulches include wood chips, straw, hay, leaves, and even newspaper and cardboard.
Honestly, the best mulch to prevent weeds is the one you can readily get and that you’ll actually lay down. We use a combination of mulches depending on what we can get.
Our local newspaper sells end rolls for a crazy low price and sometimes won’t charge for them at all. These are great to use in the garden. Sometimes we roll them out in long strips and put down six to seven layers and sometimes we shred them in large strips and pile them on the bed and water it to keep it down.
We can usually get all the cardboard we need just by asking at the grocery store. The stockers are very happy for me to take the boxes off their hands for them.
During the winter we gather our neighbor’s leaves that they leave on the curb. We’ve never had a problem using these leaves as mulch. There is very little tree spraying that goes on in our area. And using leaves for mulching benefits your yard and is a great way to keep yard waste out of the landfill.
We usually buy several bales of straw a year to use in the garden. Loose straw needs to be laid down 12 to 18 inches deep to keep weeds down. If the straw is still compacted into a block you only need it to be three to four inches deep. Just know that the compacted straw will not break down easily.
Old hay can also be used as a mulch. Unlike straw, hay often has seeds in it which you don’t want in your garden. However, if you can find hay that is a year or two old the seeds are usually not viable. You might have some seeds germinate but I know gardeners who use old hay year after year with no problem.
Another controversial mulch is woodchips in the vegetable garden. And again, I know gardeners who have successfully used woodchips as a mulch. When using wood chips as a mulch the most important thing to remember is that they should remain on top of the soil and not be worked into the soil. That could also be said of straw, leaves, newspaper, and cardboard. Mulches are for sitting on top of the soil and compost is for working into the soil.
Using organic matter that’s not composted, means that the mulch will use nitrogen from the soil to break down. Instead, we want that nitrogen to be there for the plants to use.
Over time all of these mulches will turn into compost and when they do, you just add more mulch on top of the compost.
Unless we’re planting a cover crop, once we’ve cleaned out all the old plants from a bed we go ahead and lay down mulch even if it’s in the middle of the season. This keeps the weeds down for the rest of the season and we can stop tending to that bed.
Learning how to lay mulch isn’t hard but might take some trial and error. Mulching benefits depend on how much or how little you lay. If you don’t get the mulch thick enough weeds will push through. If you get the mulch too thick, air can’t get to the soil and it promotes fungal and bacterial growth.
Tarping the Garden
In addition to, or instead of mulching, some gardeners will lay down tarps or thick black plastic over their garden during the offseason. This does a great job of keeping the weeds down and can even kill weed seeds if the soil gets hot enough.
I’ve tried it a couple of time and it did keep weeds down. However, we live in an area that has fire ants and the ants loved hiding under the black plastic. So when I pulled the plastic back in the spring I was greeted with a huge bed of fire ants.
I love the idea of tarping my garden at the end of the season and then taking off the tarp at the beginning of the next season so I’ll likely try it again once we get the fire ants completely out of our garden.
Cover Crops for Gardens
Cover crops are crops that are grown to amend the soil and suppress weeds but aren’t usually harvested. Popular cover crops include buckwheat, clover, Austrian winter peas, vetch, and rye.
Cover crops are planted in between seasons and if they’re turned into the soil before they set seed they become a green manure. The key to using cover crops successfully is to not let them go to seed and reseed themselves. Otherwise, you’ll have volunteer plants of your cover crop coming up all over the place.
Buckwheat is a warm weather cover crop that matures in six to eight weeks. If you live in the south you can probably squeeze it in between your summer and fall gardens. Buckwheat is also really great at helping to break up clay soil and will die back with the first frost.
Clover, vetch, and Austrian winter peas are legumes and they are great at fixing the nitrogen in the soil. They are cold weather crops so they are great to plant for overwintering after the fall garden.
Rye is a grass that comes in annual and winter varieties. Annual rye will die back during winters in zones five and colder. Winter rye is planted in the fall and then will resume growing in the spring. In the spring you’ll need to cut it down and work it into the soil.
Regardless of your chosen cover crop, when you cut the crop and work it into the soil, you’ll need to wait three weeks before planting. This will give the green manure time break down.
Cover crops also limit erosion and often provide food for bees and other pollinators. Heavy rains in the fall and winter can wash away bare soil. The cover crop will keep the soil intact. In the spring, clovers and peas will be some of the first flowers available for pollinators. During the heat of the summer when very little is blooming buckwheat provides food for pollinators.
Gardening is a journey and there are times when it’s just down-right tiring. But when we get into the habit of removing dead plants, planting cover crops and mulching, benefits abound not only for this year but for years to come.
Do you use mulching benefits and any of these other techniques to transition your garden into the next season? What do you find works best? Join the conversation in the comments below.