I often advocate the use of mulches for your tomato garden. A good mulch used correctly can be of great benefit. However there are both good and bad mulches and right and wrong ways to apply them. Knowing the differences are vital and getting mulching right will have a dramatic effect on your tomato garden.
The Benefits of Mulching
- can protect your soil from erosion by heavy rains
- wards against soil compaction
- discourages weed growth
- insulates the soil evening out temperature effects
- helps regulate water loss, evening out watering requirements somewhat
- improves soil composition (if organic)
- helps isolate the soil from the leaves and reduce the likelihood of soil borne diseases spreading
Choosing a Good Mulch
There are various materials that you can make mulch with. The key really is to match the crop to the mulch. Some of the more usual and unusual mulches (with comments listed) are…
- Compost – has the benefit of adding organic matter to the ground but looks unsightly and if it contains moulds and spores can be more detrimental than beneficial. Not strictly a mulch.
- Lawn Clippings – can contain grass seeds if it is from a late spring growing and as you want a garden not a second lawn this is not a desirable thing. Also if the lawn has been treated with Herbicide or Weed Killer it will not be a pretty thing. If you want to use grass clippings then let them dry out completely first.
- Leaves – be wary about using leaves that have not been aged for a considerable period (at least nine months) as the phenols which inhibit growth may still be present.
- Sawdust – again it is best if it is allowed to decompose for a year before use and you will require additional Nitrogen if using it.
- Straw – messy and can be hard to apply but is an excellent mulch. Not free you have to buy it. Definitely do not use hay though as it is full of weed seeds.
- Wood Chips – same as sawdust essentially with the added issue that they should not be dug into the soil, which can be an issue.
- Newspaper – quite commonly used. Will fly away very easily so usually needs to be watered in and requires a heavier mulch over the top which seems to be self defeating to me.
- Black Plastic – environmentally unfriendly. Best to put in down before transplanting and then cut holes to lay plants in however if this seems attractive then you should consider…
- Landscape Fabric – easier to work with than plastic and lets natural water through. Better still though is…
- Bio-degradable Weed Mats – all the benefits of plastic and fabric and completely eco-friendly.
- Pea Straw – Adds good organic matter. Decomposes quickly and can be sown in at the end of the season.
- Barley Straw – Softer than Pea and other straws and absorbs water more readily.
How to Apply Mulch
Mulch is not difficult to apply generally speaking as it is essentially just surrounding the plants with the materials used. However there are some points that definitely need to be followed…
- The first and most important point is don’t mulch until the plant has established itself. Mulching fresh seedlings is not good. Remember that one of the effects of mulching is to retard new growth, which is how it helps to control weeds. Obviously this is counter productive for fresh seedlings.
- Weed your garden prior to applying any mulch. For the same reasons as the first point we want to make it hard for weeds to establish themselves.
- Put a good amount of mulch around each individual plant a two or three inch layer is good.
- DO NOT place the mulch closer to the plant stem than three inches. Mulch right up against the stem can encourage rot.
Best Mulch for Tomatoes
Barley or Pea Straw would be a top choice or Bio-degradable mats. Landscape fabric is good to lay from scratch if you are setting up your garden and can be easier to manage. Unfortunately none of these are free so your budget will be a consideration in your choice.
The subject of mulching should be a simple one. If you understand the reasons that you are using mulch and the requirements of your particular vegetable then simply pick one that you like which will fit the bill and go for it.
One last thing… remember that this article is written with tomatoes in mind and the information will not apply to all vegetables. Good growing…
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