Choosing Mulch for Vegetable Gardens

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Weed control, moisture retention and soil temperature regulation keep your vegetable plants growing well. Mulch is a simple gardening tool that helps in those areas. With so many mulch options available, it is often challenging to pick the one that will work best. The mulch you use in your vegetable can affect yield and the safety of the food you grow.

Handful of mulch
Handful of mulch (Image: Marina Lohrbach/iStock/Getty Images)

Mulch Types

The two primary types of mulch are inorganic and organic. Inorganic mulches are materials such as plastic or rock that won't break down. Organic mulches decompose over time and add nutrients to the soil, which can benefit the vegetables that grow in the garden. Over time, the organic mulch can improve the soil structure of the garden. Examples of organic mulches include leaves, straw, pine needles, compost, hay, wood chips and grass clippings. Many organic mulch options are free from your own property, such as fall leaves or grass clippings from your lawn care.

Assortment of fall leaves
Assortment of fall leaves (Image: leungchopan/iStock/Getty Images)

Crop Considerations

The specific fruits and vegetables you plant in the garden help determine the best type of mulch for the bed. Black plastic is a popular mulch option for vegetables that prefer heat, such as peppers (Capsicum annuum), melons (Cucumis melo) and tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). The plastic increases the temperature in the soil and surrounding air, giving the plants the heat they like earlier in the growing season. Veggies that thrive in cooler temps, such as lettuce (Lactuca sativa), carrots (Daucus carota) and broccoli (Brassica oleracea), may suffer with plastic mulch. Peat moss and pine needles work best for plants that like acidic soil, such as potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and strawberries (Fragaria ananassa), which grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 to 10.

Pile of pine needles
Pile of pine needles (Image: Todd Arena/Hemera/Getty Images)

Weather Impact

Your local weather is a factor in deciding on the mulch for your veggie garden. If you live in a cool climate, plastic mulch in the garden can give your plants the extra warmth they need to start growing early in the season. Plastic is also beneficial in wet climates, since it doesn't allow water to soak into the soil. Many organic mulches retain moisture in the soil. Holding in the extra moisture can harm the plants. For hot areas, black plastic may be too much for your plants to handle. Organic mulch, such as straw or grass clippings, can lower the soil temperature so your veggies don't fry as they grow.

Pile of straw clippings
Pile of straw clippings (Image: ookawa/iStock/Getty Images)

Mulch Dangers

Despite the benefits, certain types of mulches can be dangerous or harmful in your vegetable garden. Any lawn clippings treated with chemicals can contaminate the soil in the garden. Since the garden contains edibles, you don't want to introduce any unnecessary chemicals. If you choose black plastic mulch, add holes to the sheets so water can filter into the soil. Hay and straw sometimes contain weed seeds, which is counterproductive. If you use wood chips, choose a variety that isn't dyed, painted or otherwise treated, as those chemicals can leach into the soil.

Pile of wood chips
Pile of wood chips (Image: MMattes/iStock/Getty Images)

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