A guide to living mulch and how to use it

The key to a lush garden with a bountiful harvest of vegetables is that it all starts with healthy soil. Living mulch provides your soil with a nutrient boost, among other benefits, and is easy to grow.

Whether you’re new to gardening or want to try something new on your property, improving the condition of your soil is always worth the effort. But in addition to increasing nutrients in the soil, living mulch also retains moisture, suppresses weeds and improvises fertility.

So how can you use living mulch at home? Keep reading to find out.


What is Living Mulch?

Living mulch is low growing plants grown to cover the ground between crops. Typically, living mulch is used for vegetable gardens during the summer months, but it has other uses as well.

Living mulch is often paired with cover crops or green manures, but there are a few differences between these gardening techniques. Living mulch is mainly used when the the crops are still growing not between seasons because cover crops are.

A cover crop or green manure plot is used to fill in an area during crop rotation and winter months when plant growth slows.

You can use living mulch in vegetable gardens, perennial plantings, sloped sites, orchards and other garden locations. Before you can benefit from this ground cover, you need to choose the right mulch.

How to Choose the Right Mulch

First, consider the surrounding plants and how they will interfere with the living mulch (and vice versa). Some things to think about are growth habits, root systems, and nutrient needs. Carrots with long taproots can grow happily next to living mulch with a spreading root system like sweet alyssum.

Consider the height of the mulch once it has reached full maturity. You don’t want the surrounding vegetables to be shaded and deprived of light. If you choose to plant living mulches next to tall plants, choose something that can handle shade.

Another aspect of picking living mulch is choosing between annuals and perennials. If you want to keep the same plant year after year, opt for a perennial. But if you like the idea of ​​switching things up as your crops change, go with an annual.

Here are the best examples of living mulch to plant in your home:

  • Clovers
  • Alfalfa
  • Phacelia
  • sweet alyssum
  • Purslane
  • Chickweed
  • creeping thyme
  • Comfrey
  • Canadian Wild Ginger
  • Sedge
  • Sterile bur
  • green and gold
  • moss phlox
  • Alto

If you plant any of these herbs as living mulch, you can harvest them for use in your cooking, and local wildlife will love to munch on them during the day:

  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Pepper mint
  • lemon balm
  • Roman chamomile

There are plenty of other species you can plant if none of these options appeal to you, so don’t feel limited. For example, although tall, buckwheat grows quickly and can cover a large amount of ground.

If you have the space and time, it’s a good idea to experiment with different plants to see what works best for your crops and space.

You don’t have to limit yourself to just one type of plant either. Many gardeners decide to combine flowers, plants and herbs for a colorful effect on their property.

Benefits of living mulch

Living mulch is undeniably a fantastic choice for growing vegetable crops in your garden, but what are the benefits of this planting method?

1. Controls weeds

Weeds can be a challenge when you’re a gardener. Living mulch helps you control weeds. Instead of weed control, you can plant alfalfa or chickweed, which will smother the weeds and spend more time tending to your crops.

If you cover the ground between your crops with living mulch, you won’t have to worry about weed maintenance and your garden will look great!

2. Stops Soil Erosion

Living mulch also prevents the soil from eroding. Unlike traditional mulch, which covers the soil instead of developing roots, this method has a root system that strengthens the soil. By planting a seed, you provide a more concrete root system in the soil, which helps keep everything in place.

3. Retains moisture

In addition to preventing soil erosion, living mulch helps the soil retain moisture. Although traditional mulch such as wood chips or other dried organic material helps maintain moisture in the soil, it can also lead to root rot and disease.

Living mulch is a better option because it can retain moisture while providing excellent airflow to the rest of the soil.

4. Encourages the growth of microbes

Microbes are essential for healthy crops, so it is a good idea to increase their quantity in the soil whenever possible. Some of the best microbes are fungi like mycorrhizae which are beneficial to the roots and overall health of the plant.

Fortunately, living mulch can give soil the right environment for these microbes to thrive.

5. Attracts pollinators

When you plant flowers and crops, it’s not just about soil, water levels and layout; you must attract pollinators to develop a healthy ecosystem. Living mulch is great for attracting local wildlife to your garden.

Think of it this way; if you plant fragrant flowers, animals will be more likely to visit your plant and pollinate your crops. Additionally, wildlife can help keep other insects away from your crops and act as a natural bodyguard.

So you want to have as many as possible in your garden!

6. It’s easy and effective

Growing living mulch is easy and efficient, so there’s no reason not to try this method of growing at home. Gardeners are always looking for methods that can reduce maintenance and annual chores.

If you suffer from back pain or other health issues, you can still benefit from living mulch and improve the quality of soil for your crops. You can just sprinkle a packet of seeds on a piece of land and wait for the magic to happen!

Plant living mulch

Once you’ve decided on the type of living mulch you want to use, it’s time to plant. If your plant requires direct seeding, you should sow the seeds soon after you have laid out the rest of your garden.

Also, you need to plan a path if you are growing something that cannot be walked on. This is why white clover is an excellent low-growing living mulch. This will prevent weeds from growing and you can walk on them.

Obviously, the planting steps will vary depending on the species you choose. Some plants are best propagated by seed while others are best purchased from a reliable nursery.

Even if you’re planting something to improve the soil, it never hurts to work in some manure or compost (well-rotted, of course) before planting your living mulch. It’s not a cover crop, it’s something you want to survive maybe year after year, so give it a head start.

You may want to fertilize your mulch after a few weeks in the ground to give it an extra boost. You won’t need to fertilize again after this, but it can be a useful perk.

chop and drop

When you read about living mulch, you’ll come across the term “chop and drop,” which refers to the method of chopping plants where they are planted. After cutting the crops, you leave the cut material in place like traditional mulch.

Roots in place so they can continue to grow back. Or, you can let the plant go to seed, then chop and drop it.

This allows you to continue growing your green mulch for years without planting new seeds every year. This is a great method to limit planting time so you can focus on general maintenance during the winter and peak growing season.

Common problems with living mulch

Of course, some problems always arise when growing living mulch.

Living mulch can compete with surrounding crops for sun exposure. Sometimes the soil can’t support both types of plants in an area, so you need to choose something that blends in well with other plants.

Living mulch can also spread quickly, which means you may need to harvest or cut them regularly to control the growth and height of the mulch.

Although living mulch can be good for attracting wildlife, it can also encourage insects and pests to use the mulch as cover. This provides the perfect place for nocturnal insects such as slugs to hide until it gets dark.

If you want to be sure that no pests are hiding secretly under the mulch, it is better to choose low-growing varieties of mulch so that you can better monitor the wandering insects.

Apart from these minor issues, growing living mulch is a suitable alternative to traditional mulch and can add extra nutrients to the soil for your crops.

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