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Jun 29, 2009 10:54 AM

To mulch or not to mulch?

I assume the answer is "OMG I can't believe you haven't mulched yet!?!" But just in case there is more to the issue than this novice gardener guesses, do you mulch? and if so, with what? I am in SF, CA with 2 4x4 raised beds and some container plantings and am wondering what kind of mulch is recommended as well as how much and...why? Holds the moisture in? Because I'm actually a crazy person that loves weeding... Can I just smack some grass clippings on top of my beds? Is there any veggie you shouldn't mulch?


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  1. Hi crazy person...I kinda like weeding too, its therapeutic! I'm in SW Ohio so I can only speak on what works for me. I've had good luck using straw in my beds with smaller plants ( larger leaved plants are easier to hoe around and the shade they create seem to hinder weed growth ) I like the straw because it allows for good air circulation and keeps mud off my feet. I also use it for my pathways through the garden. I'm not sure about grass clippings, here, they heat up fast and can "burn" some plants.

    1. Despite you being a crazy person that loves to weed (:p) mulching is a good idea to keep the moisture in and to control the weeds. Weeds will compete with your plants for nutrients and use water, although on the scale you have it won't be huge. Grass clippings work in a thinnish layer but beware of introducing weeds that live in the lawn, and as callipoethreee mentions they can heat up, especially if piled on too thick. Try drying them for a day or so first. I don't bother mulching container plants but always mulch the veggie beds with a good 2" layer of compost. The rest of the gardens gets leaf litter or fine bark.

      1. In your containers you can mulch with small bark. In your 4x4's, you might consider mulching with crushed cocoa beans. Keeps the slugs and cats at bay. Plus it smells divine. You could also use a bag or mixed compost like manure or mushroom. Spread it thinly. I am not sure why your friend was so aghast. SOME PEOPLE!

        A word about the grass clippings - consider what the clippings have been exposed to - like pesicides and what might also be living in the clippings like eggs of slugs and the very weeds you are fighting.

        15 Replies
        1. re: Sal Vanilla

          Oooh - cocoa hulls. What a delicious idea. I'll have to look for that when I go to the garden store this weekend. And when all else fails, what isn't compost good for, right?

          Thanks all!

          1. re: emmaroseeats

            I'm assuming you are mulching mostly veggies? Mulch can be done with many things, straw, compost, etc. I will mention this in case you don't know..cocoa hulls are toxic to dogs. Also I'm not a fan as they mat down and often mold. You want to mulch to keep the soil warm, discourage weeds and keep moisture in. For veggies, I always go with a variety of composts.

            1. re: cakebaker

              Ooh - good call on the dog front. I am mulching mostly veggies (my nonedibles need some general soil tlc but have plenty of mulch).

              1. re: emmaroseeats

                I'm glad that was helpful re: the cocoa hulls. I see so many people use it on sidewalk strips and then all neighbor dogs can get to it. Depending on what you are growing; you can also use companion planting to discourage weeds. thats growing compatible veggies underneath larger plants (carrots w/tomatoes for example) which have a symbiotic benefit for both plants and soil and discourage weeds. Also for the best soil you want a variety of composts as mulch. Good soil takes years but you have to start somewhere. Straw is also good and can be composted later.

                1. re: cakebaker

                  Thanks! I have carrots and basil under/surrounding my tomatoes, so I'm half way there. :) I'm loving learning about companion planting (thanks library!). Fascinating stuff.

                  1. re: emmaroseeats

                    The sad truth is that careful studies have concluded that companion planting is almost entirely a myth. Still, it doesn't hurt anything and if it entertains you, go ahead. But don't believe everything you read in those books.

                    1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                      I used to be so very proud of my companion plantings in my carefully laid out garden - early in the season. They looked so lovely.
                      Until the big plants grew large enough to shade out the little plants, which grew increasingly leggy and scraggly looking. They rarely produced anything worth much.
                      The only things that worked were plants that grew and matured quickly like onion sets, but they aren't very decorative. Just a way to maximize space...
                      Lettuce did fine early on as a ground cover and I could harvest the last of it when the heat came.

                      1. re: MakingSense

                        Oh, right, I was thinking of the 'carrots love tomatoes' kind of companion planting, but you're right that interplanting (which is what I learned to call what you're doing) is tricky too. I've only seen it work well, as you say, for stuff that's fast like radishes or that benefits from the shade like lettuce. But hey, maximizing space is worthwhile too.

                        I remember years ago reading that I should plant my basil by my tomatoes, and every year my basil got totally overwhelmed by the tomatoes. Who writes that crap? I finally realized that basil did much better if given its own space, thank you very much.

                        1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                          Wellllll, basil does taste good with tomatoes, doesn't it?
                          I think that a lot of this stuff started popping up when general circulation magazines started doing big garden spreads that had to be pretty, pretty, pretty. The writers and photographers weren't gardeners. Hey, what did they know? So they foo-fooed the gardens that they presented for readers.

                          There was one that I cut out (for the plant list) that gave a design for an 8 x 8 raised bed. It had enough seedlings and plants for a garden at least 6 times that size. For example, they specified about 15 thyme plants in an area less than 2 square feet. Each of those plants would cover a sq. ft. by itself! It had one or two full-size Knock-out rose bushes, several tomato plants. And a half whiskey barrel in the middle. I think the entire plant list was between 20 and 25 different plants, many of them in 8 to 15 seedlings. Yeah, in an 8 x 8 bed....
                          But it looked sooooo pretty in the photographs.

                          1. re: MakingSense

                            Oh, I know what you mean! That's why I like showing people in my gardening classes this article and garden plan from Sunset.


                            I show them the photo from March first, where all the plants look so tiny and the garden looks so bare. Then I show them the August picture. Talk about gasps of amazement. But even for experienced gardeners, it's easy to plant stuff too close together. My spacing these days is generally dictated by the spacing of my irrigation, which helps a lot, lol!

                            1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                              Gardening classes, eh? in SF??

                              My fellow planter and I have been working with the book Square Foot Gardening and I have to say, I needed to thin things out quite a bit recently because things were just not getting any bigger. Darn books!

                              1. re: emmaroseeats

                                Well, in Santa Clara County, actually, as a Master Gardener volunteer (http://www.mastergardeners.org/events...). I teach the vegetable class at Campbell in the winter.

                                Square Foot Gardening is a great book with lots of sensible advice. I don't necessarily agree with all of his spacing recommendations and I certainly don't follow his system faithfully, but it's a super starting point, so good for you!

                                If you're in the Bay Area, the other book you really, really need is Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Peirce (yes, that's how it's spelled). It's so great to have a gardening book that's really specific to our area with the Mediterranean climate and all. It's pretty SF-centric, since that's where she lives, but you can extrapolate fairly easily to elsewhere in the Bay Area. I know she's working on a revision to make it more relevant to the whole Bay Area, but even the current version is great.

                                1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                                  I just got Pam's book out of the library and am loving it! I am waiting to buy my own copy early next year when the next edition comes out. The few pages I've read make me talk out loud to the book saying "exactly!" after my early struggles in our climate. :)

                                  1. re: emmaroseeats

                                    Yeah, I moved here from Minnesota. Talk about a change! I was used to planting tomatoes as soon as the danger of freezing was past. So my first year here, I checked the frost dates and planted my tomatoes at the end of February. The poor things didn't die, but they just sat there and shivered until the weather finally warmed up in May! I was astonished to finally work out that it didn't make sense to plant tomatoes that much earlier here than I did in Minnesota. Maybe a month earlier, but not as much as I thought. It's the long fall harvest without the threat of frost that's the real saving grace here.

                                    And then there's our winter growing season, which is my passion! I need to order seeds today, as a matter of fact, for our (MG) fall vegetable seedling sale.

                                    1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                                      A few years ago I took a gardening class with Pam at the SF City College which was great. Totally taught me how gardening here in the Bay Area is different from most other places in the world plus so much more. I generally re-read her book once a year.