Living Breathing Plants: the Best Mulch of All

May 22, 2008

Recently I outlined the limits that I set when mulching the veggie garden. But I do away with all reservations when it comes to my favorite type of garden mulch — a living one!

If you’re not familiar with the term, a “living mulch” simply refers to the use of live vegetation growing in the garden to produce many of the same benefits as your ordinary straw, wood chips, shells, needles, grass clippings, plastic films, shredded leaves, landscape fabrics, sawdust, newspaper, or stone mulches.

Mulching the Vegetable Garden with Plants

With a living mulch the same plants that are being cultivated to yield a delicious harvest will also provide the additional benefits of shading the soil to conserve moisture, reduce competition from weed growth, and protect the garden’s soil from exposure to the elements just as an organic mulch would.

This mulching strategy is best employed in concert with the use of raised beds, and works to perfection when the entire growing area is covered from one end to the other by a crop of veggies spreading their canopy of leaves across the bed.

The key is proper spacing when you seed or transplant the crops within the raised bed and keeping the weeds under control when the veggie seedlings are just starting out. Try to space the plants just far enough apart in each direction so that upon maturity the crop will fill out the beds and the tips of adjoining plants will just barely touch each other, as shown in the broccoli photo above.

If you plan and plant it right you’ll wind up with a garden bed that’s covered with healthy plants all shading the ground to conserve moisture, boost humidity levels, protect the soil, and provide a micro growing environment that your vegetable crops will love.

Choking Out Weeds While Building Soil Fertility

Another good example of a living mulch is a thick and lush cover crop such as oats, buckwheat, rye, or legumes. The right cover crop can blanket the garden all winter long or during periods when the beds are temporarily vacant in order to prevent erosion, loosen soils, and increase the garden’s fertility.

Planted thickly, a cover crop will deprive weed seeds of the sunlight and favorable growing conditions that they need to germinate and thrive in the garden. Some cover crops are useful for attracting beneficial insects, or can even yield an edible harvest of their own if you desire.

Growing mulches of cover crops is also a great way to produce large amounts of organic matter for use in building compost piles to further enrich the garden. You really can’t go wrong by incorporating cover crops into your planting rotations.

If you like the idea of allowing your plants to shoulder some of the responsibilities of water conservation, weed control, and general maintenance, then it’s time to put living mulches into play in your own veggie patch. The result will be a productive and attractive garden with soil that is healthy and fertile, along with increased resistance towards weed growth.

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  • Great post, I should do more mulching with plants than I do. A good informational piece.

  • Very informative — living mulch makes much sense.

  • mike

    Interesting info. Thanks.

  • I like this idea and try to keep my plantings as close together as possible. Just one plug though for doing both if your climate necessitates it, that is, live vegetables keeping the sun off the mulch keeping the moisture in the ground.

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  • This is great information. This is my first time gardening, so I can use all the help I can get 🙂
    I just planted my seedlings (tomato, sweet peppers, summer squash and cucumber), not really knowing if they are too far apart or not. They are about 1 foot apart. Should I plant companion plants (such as marigolds, basil, and other protective plants) around the plants as mulches?
    By the way, thanks for the info about frost. We have a frost advisory tonight and I just planted the seedlings yesterday.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Renata, thanks for stopping by. If anything your tomato, pepper, and squash seedlings may be too close together if you planted them a foot apart. The plants are going to need additional room as they mature and spread out. I would leave them alone for now and just keep them well weeded until they begin to branch out, at that point you may need to thin them a bit if they start to over crowd each other. It would be fine to add the companion plants that you mentioned where you can find the room but I would plant them as companions rather than as a living mulch. Hope your plants are safe from the frost!

  • I am not sure when to harvest my broccoli. It looks like it’s starting to flower and the heads aren’t as firm as they were, however, I didn’t plant them that long ago and the heads aren’t that big. Should I grab them now while they are still firm?
    Thank you,
    Kristy “the newbie”

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