One of the objectives of permaculture is to get closer to nature, to observe it, and to be inspired by it while respecting it. And when you bend over to examine it, you will not fail to notice that in nature, the ground is never left bare. As a permaculturist, you will rather be concerned with finding solutions to cover the soil in your garden!
How to carry out this mulching at home? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mulching? What type of mulch to choose and for which crops? Follow our overview of permaculture mulching!
Mulching: What is it?
The initial idea comes, as often, from the observation of nature, our main teacher in permaculture;). It is reproducing what the forest has been doing for centuries without human intervention! , permaculture mulching is not just about adding straw. More broadly, it means placing a cover on the ground made up of materials (organic, mineral, or plastic) the choice of which will be made in particular according to the plants, the surface to be mulched, the season, your resources, and nature of the ground.
What are the advantages of mulching in a permaculture garden?
It’s all well and good to want to imitate the forest ecosystem. But understanding what the real benefits of this ground cover are is even better!
Mulching, is really a multi-function act essential to the good health of a permaculture garden.
Here are the main functions:
The protective role of mulching:
By covering your soil with mulch , you will protect it from the devastating effect of rains but also diseases.
It decreases the effects of erosion:
Bare soil is vulnerable to water and is subject to its every whim. Runoff erodes the land, leaches it, and makes it infertile. And if the wind gets involved, it’s even worse! Thick mulching greatly reduces these phenomena!
Mulching in the vegetable patch prevents the formation of a hard and impermeable beating crust which slows down the infiltration of water into the soil and slows down the growth of plants.
Sloping land is the most sensitive to erosion. By providing them with an appropriate organic mulch, you will make them fertile and conducive to the reception of biodiversity.
Protect the foliage from splashing:
For the cultivation of vegetables susceptible to fungal diseases ( i.e. due to a fungus) such as downy mildew or powdery mildew, it is important to avoid wetting the foliage because it is on the leaves remaining wet that are born these diseases. This is particularly the case for tomatoes, potatoes, or even cucurbits. However, the mulching of your vegetable gardens makes it possible to limit splashing during watering and therefore to reduce the risk of diseases on these sensitive crops.
The insulating and regulating role of mulching:
The addition of mulch plays a considerable role in the protection of your plants against climatic shocks and temperature variations. By installing a ground cover in your garden, you will help it better withstand climatic hazards such as cold, wind, and heatwave.
Depending on the season and the type of mulch chosen, it insulates from heat or cold:
In early spring, you can choose to remove the remaining organic fall/winter mulch for several weeks if the weather is good to allow the soil to warm up faster. Otherwise, thick mulch will prevent the beneficial first rays of the spring sun from warming the earth.
Then, an organic mulch installed in the middle of spring, beginning of summer, will protect against strong heat and will limit the evaporation of the irrigation water on the surface.
In the fall, it will protect the soil from sudden colds and promote plant growth by serving as a “coat” for the soil.
Mulch also plays the role of regulating water requirements because it limits the evaporation of water at ground level since it is protected from winds and sun. Depending on the type of mulch chosen, it can also store and accumulate water a bit like a sponge, this is the case with hemp mulches for example. Hydrophilic plants will then benefit from a favorable environment to grow and flourish. This, therefore, makes it possible to reduce watering and reduce the workload.
It can also have a role of regulating the temperature differences between day and night by accumulating heat from solar radiation, this is notably the case with dark-colored mineral mulches such as slate or pozzolana.
The fertilizing and nourishing role of mulching:
An organic, varied, and balanced mulch feeds the soil on which it is installed. It nourishes the earth and promotes life. When broken down by bacteria and various living organisms in the soil, it becomes nutritious and provides strength and flavor to the vegetables that flourish there. The soil gains in quality and turns into humus essential for fertility.
A generous, balanced, and varied organic mulch will therefore preserve and encourage soil life by stimulating microbial activity and that of all soil fauna. The ground cover will constitute a refuge, a shelter for certain forms of life, a pantry for others and will at the same time favor the reception of a greater fauna and flora biodiversity always welcome in a garden in permaculture because of source of resilience ! In short, one more asset for those who want to strive for a certain food autonomy.
The “weedkiller” role of mulching:
Many gardeners wonder what to put on the ground to prevent weeds? The answer is in mulching! Thanks to its covering power (more or less important depending on the material used), mulching often makes it possible to limit the emergence and growth of weeds. In permaculture, a thick mulch can therefore dispense you from weeding and hoeing chores;).
And the aesthetics in all of this?
Tastes and colors cannot be discussed, so everyone will have their own opinion on this subject. For our part, we find that mulching a garden brings an undeniable decorative touch with interesting contrasts and a wide variety of colors and possible mixtures!
What are the disadvantages of mulching?
The other side of the coin is that mulching can sometimes be a source of difficulty. With the principle of permaculture in mind “The problem is the solution!”, You can however adapt your actions/reactions to always get something positive.
Can mulching cause disease?
Molds, fungi, and bacteria responsible for the decomposition of mulch usually do not cause disease. But some mulches that are too wet or spread in a too thick and compact layer, such as grass clippings, can form impermeable layers where anaerobic fermentation (deprived of oxygen) are triggered, giving off bad odors, preventing good circulation of the soil. air, water and can cause asphyxiation and necrosis on certain plants. In order to avoid these phenomena, we will therefore take care to introduce dry elements mixed or coarse elements into these mulches.like branches to create air circulation in the thick layer of mulch.
We will also avoid mulching hydrophobic plants to avoid the accumulation of moisture on them which could cause them to rot. See the end of the article for details on what to mulch in the vegetable garden …
Does mulch attract slugs and rodents?
While it is true that mulching is often used as a refuge for slugs and other gastropods or to camouflage the entrances to rodent galleries, we notice, however, that with time and the establishment of a balanced ecosystem where the savage keeps a place of choice, the problem resolves itself in a few seasons (admittedly it is slower than with the purchase of chemicals in “cides” but it has the advantage of not being bad neither for you nor for your environment!). The mulch will also attract predators of its unwanted! And by multiplying the ecological niches (heaps of wood, small untouched wilderness, ivy bed, heaps of dead leaves, small pond …) around your mulched surfaces, you will thus welcome a good number of super auxiliaries such as hedgehogs , ground beetles, snakes, orvets, dragonflies, amphibians… willingly ready to defend your crops by feasting on their pests!
Birds playing with mulch?
Yes, birds like to rummage through lightweight organic mulch like straw or hay, scattering it around for food. But nothing very bad in general and we can not blame them for looking for their pittance wherever there is still a little left as the fields cultivated in monoculture have become deserts for them!
With a little ingenuity, we can find solutions: putting chicken netting or branches on top of the mulch can reduce the damage where it is really necessary, that is to say, in particular in the vegetable garden.
The mulched plants cannot reseed naturally?
Indeed, some mulches that are too thick or mineral mulches can prevent the small seeds from finding their way to the ground and from reseeding themselves. But by choosing a mulch that breaks down quickly (cardboard, green and food waste), natural sowing can be done.
Which mulch to choose in your permaculture garden?
There is a wide variety of organic or mineral mulches. Let’s review the different possibilities offered to be able to choose the one that will meet the expectations of your garden and your context.
Manufactured mulch sheets:
There are different types of mulch fabrics, some are organic and biodegradable like hemp, linen or jute fabrics , others are plastic and therefore do not provide nutrients to the soil.
Everyone will choose the material that suits them according to their sensitivity but also according to the intended use, the lifespan of the desired mulch cloth and their budget. If plastic is for some people not at all possible in permaculture, let’s avoid being dogmatic: choosing plastic mulch tarpaulins can be completely compatible with a permaculture approach as long as this choice has been made. carefully considered and that it is the most relevant to the objectives and needs in the specific context of the project …
Most of the time, these mulch sheets or tarpaulins are sold in rolls, cut in a garden center or in rectangular or square pieces.
The biodegradable organic paintings are usually much more expensive than just plastic mulch covering. It will therefore be necessary to study your budget before choosing this type of mulch.
In either case, these mulches are relatively easy to install and greatly limit the necessary maintenance ! They are very practical to use especially when building shrub hedges in zone 3 or 4 , where it will be difficult or difficult to access. They will also do wonders for beds of ornamental perennials or small fruit plantations. Once installed, the mulch cover can remain in place for several years! In the case of plastic sheeting, they can even be moved and reused elsewhere if necessary, thus serving on several occasions.
The different organic mulches
All mulches made up of plant elements fall into this category. Depending on their components, they will degrade more or less quickly and will be more or less suitable.
BRF (Bois Raméal Fragmenté): a great organic mulch
BRF’s mulch originated in Canada. It consists of young twigs (preferably deciduous trees), crushed. It is a fresh living wood shred that is very rich in nutrients. It is ideal for boosting biological activity in poor or degraded soils as well as for protecting perennials: trees, shrubs, hedges and beds, currants, strawberries, blackcurrants, etc.
The advantages of the BRF:
- rather aesthetic (in our opinion;)!)
- fairly long-lasting when installed in a thick layer
- promotes the development of mycorrhizal fungi which can then be associated with the roots of your cultivated plants for the exchange of winning / winning nutrients …
- improves soil structure
- stimulates the biological activity of the soil
- rich in minerals
- keeps humidity well
The cons of the BRF:
- soil covered with BRF warms up less quickly in spring
- can cause a “nitrogen hunger” on the surface of the soil, that is to say that nitrogen will run out for the young plants newly installed in this type of mulch and this will be seen in particular on their leaves which will turn yellow.
- difficult to use well in the vegetable garden, especially at seedling level and therefore rather not recommended for beginners.
- not easy to produce in large quantities for individuals without a minimum of equipment (shredder)!
Bark and pods:
Pine bark: it is a fairly well-known mulch to gardeners that has long been seen in ornamental gardens. Of course, it has these advantages and disadvantages that we invite you to discover in our article dedicated to pine bark mulches!
Buckwheat pods: these are the husks of buckwheat grains also called buckwheat. They are a good accumulator/restorer of heat due to their dark color and are able to retain half their weight in water!
These husks are well suited for mulching medicinal and aromatic plants and water-loving vegetables.
However, they will have difficulty staying in place on sloping soils where they will be easily washed away by runoff due to their small sizes.
However, often produced in large quantities in China, their purchase is not compatible with an ecological approach, and permaculture avoidant local in addition to that it is quite expensive.
Cocoa pods/hulls: The husks of cocoa beans form a fine and light mulch that could be suitable for annual plants in the vegetable garden or to bring an aesthetic touch to the ornamental garden. Rich in nitrogen, they could be an interesting contribution to a soil where this essential nutrient is lacking, or mixed with a high carbon mulch to avoid nitrogen hunger (on the same principle as mentioned above for the BRF)!
However, as this is waste from the chocolate industry, the vast majority of pods are produced in conventional agriculture with chemical inputs. It is therefore not necessarily good to bring this into your garden without taking into account the fact that it is rarely a local resource (unless you live in a producing country of course…)! If you add to that their very high price, you will quickly come to the conclusion that there is sure, near you or even directly on your land, what constitutes a much better mulch, healthier and much less expensive!
Straw and hay:
Both straw and hay are very economical mulch! They are part of the flagship permaculture mulches because they are the most widespread and the easiest to use, especially when you are just starting out!
It will be noted however that these are two mulches which, despite their resemblance, do not have the same properties, in particular in terms of the amendment. It is therefore better to know their characteristics well to use them wisely!
So that they are no longer secrets for you, we invite you to read our articles dedicated to straw or hay-based mulching!
In hemp mulch, the remaining part of the hemp not used for textile production is used. The main advantage of hemp flakes is that they generally contain no pesticides as they are not necessary for their cultivation. They are also very thin and practical to use!
Discover our article dedicated to hemp flakes to find out more 😉!
As with hemp, flax flakes come from the remains of stems collected after the extraction of textile fibers.
Quite attractive in the garden, they nourish and lighten heavy soils without acidifying them and have a fairly long lifespan on condition that a layer at least 5 cm thick is installed.
Again, to know their characteristics well before choosing to use them in the garden, we invite you to read our article dedicated to mulching based on flax sequins.
Mulches made from Poaceae:
It is possible to use the stems of some plants belonging to the Poaceae family for mulching when they wither in autumn. You just need to cut them at the end of their flowering to then crush them and place them in your garden at the feet of plants that fear the winter cold.
Among the Poaceae, we advise you to use the culms:
- of miscanthus
- canes from Provence (Arundo donax)
- pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) – be careful, however, this last classified among the invasive plants in the Mediterranean environment, it is to be used if you already have some there but thinks twice before introducing it at home if you do not have one yet, because it may be problematic in your context …
- of corn, if it is grown organically of course
Mineral mulch side:
They are of several types: volcanic rocks such as pozzolana, schists, clay balls, crushed slates, pebbles, gravel, the debris of pottery/tiles, or even shells !!
All have significant aesthetic value with a wide range of colors and shapes allowing great creativity, the most beautiful effect especially in the ornamental garden or even in an aromatic spiral .
Mineral mulches are extremely durable since they do not degrade easily, especially since you will have taken care to install a felt or geotextile under these mulches that will prevent it from penetrating into the soil below!
They are such as to store heat well, which will particularly appeal to rock garden plants and ornamental grasses!
But they also have several disadvantages in the first ranks of which the fact of not nourishing the soil and being generally quite expensive to obtain !! For more details, see our article dedicated to mineral slate mulching!
Cheap and homemade mulching: the one we prefer!
In permaculture, we will always try to limit inputs from outside our site. As a result, producing your own mulch , whenever possible, follows this fundamental principle of permaculture. The advantage is, in particular, to be able to recycle a whole lot of waste. It’s crazy anything that can be recycled! So enjoy it !!
The raw cardboard, without glue or ink:
An oh-so-economical solution, raw cardboard (not tinted and therefore brown in color) is also a champion of the attraction of biodiversity (starting with the earthworms which adore it) and of “weeding”! It will suffice to overlap several well-moistened cardboard planks to obscure the light underneath and remove many weed shoots while providing a carbonaceous material to be tested for the life of the soil which will quickly transform it into humus. Covered in addition to a mixture of vegetable mulch and / or a little potting soil, the cardboard will therefore do wonders in your garden.
It will be particularly useful at the foot of plantations of young trees and shrubs which may fear drought or competition from weeds during the first two years of their establishment.
The advantages of the box:
- easy and quick to install
- decompose very quickly
- reduces waste and trips to recycling areas
It is also possible to mulch your garden by depositing your waste vegetable cooking: spread on your soil, they will provide him good fertility while maintaining proper moisture, that is what is also called to ” the compost to surface ”! Normally, as part of a varied and balanced diet, your intake of mulch kitchen waste should also be varied and balanced;). However, we should avoid putting large quantities of citrus fruits that are very unpleasant to earthworms and we will, if possible, cut into pieces the largest kitchen waste in order to facilitate decomposition.
That said, remember to keep some for your hens who often also like kitchen waste. In addition, they will give you, through their droppings, a choice amendment to add to your mulches rich in brown carbonaceous materials (BRF, wood chips, straw…)!
Far from being waste, they are in fact resources as the principle of permaculture tells us: “all waste is an untapped resource! “. So, rather than cluttering your sidewalk with bags of green waste of all kinds, you collect them to mulch your garden. Handy and free green waste recycling is awesome!
We can cite in particular:
- lawn mowing
- residues of various sizes, shredded (being limited to a maximum of about 20% conifers to avoid acidifying the soil), whether they are young live branches (BRF) or dry wood chips, or even both mixed
- dead leaves
- the crushed shells of walnuts, hazelnuts, and other chestnut bugs
- parts of vegetables that you don’t eat or that are wilted
- fertility “booster” plants such as nettle or comfrey that you can simply cut and place on the ground as ultra-nourishing mulch several times a year!
The advantages of green waste:
- more economical than commercial mulches
- renewable at will
- products on-site, you know exactly what your mulching is made of
- fertility factor and humus creation
- when they are well balanced in green and brown matter, they are an extremely nutritious cocktail for the soil!
- they save you trips to the recycling center !!
Organic animal waste:
If you have the option of scavenging wool from sheep, do so because this type of mulch is very beneficial for your garden. It will retain heat in winter, preserve good humidity, and increase your productivity.
It is also possible to recover the hair and feathers of your pets as well as your hair and nails. Mixed with other organic matter, they will constitute a fertile ground thanks to their high content of nitrogen and proteins. Do not think this idea is far-fetched 😊, some gardeners have even noticed that human hair is used as a repellant for certain “pests” (moles, deer)!
What should you mulch in a permaculture garden?
The answer is simple: almost any crop can be mulched! It is possible to use the technique of mulching the vegetable garden, with ornamental and medicinal plants, through the orchard and windbreak hedges, not to mention potted plants and planters.
But the choice of mulching will depend on various criteria such as:
- water requirement
- the duration of cultures
- the type of soil and its pH
- the degradation time of the mulch
The water requirement
The more hydrophilic they are, the more plants will appreciate being able to benefit from humidity thanks to organic mulching. In the vegetable garden, mulching will be particularly appreciated for strawberries, tomatoes, cabbages, salads, spinach, zucchini …
Of course, setting up mulching does not always completely eliminate the need for watering. You can thus plan, before putting your mulch, the installation of drip pipes on the ground which will therefore remain under the mulch all season. You can recycle bottles by creating kinds of funnels: planted upside down, neck in the earth, and bottle bottom cut out, they will protrude from the mulch for easy and localized watering. You can also use ollas or oyas, for example, if this irrigation system via buried porous terracotta pots appeals to you.
On the other hand, hydrophobic plants generally should not be mulched. In the vegetable garden, this will be the case in particular with garlic, onion, and shallot crops …
The duration of plant culture
This is a very important mulch selection criterion. Vegetables grown over a short period (radish, lettuce-salad, etc.) will not need to be heavily mulched with long-term mulching. We would prefer, for example, to mulch them with a few centimeters of grass clippings or hay which will decompose quickly.
A BRF type mulch is more suitable for perennial plants, hedges, and small fruit trees.
To cover the soil of crops that remain all summer (2 to 3 months) in the same place such as zucchini, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes … we will choose a balanced mulch in nutrient inputs (therefore mixing in an equivalent proportion of green matter to nitrogen tendencies with brown materials with carbon tendency) in a layer of ten centimeters to withstand the heat!
As nature is well done and the permaculture knows it, in autumn the dead leaves are collected with a shovel, as Prévert said!
They will be an ideal mulch for vegetables that remain in place this season or corners of the vegetable garden where you have not sown green manure.
Use leaves that will decompose quickly during the winter (hazel, lime, birch) by avoiding those of walnut trees because they contain juglone which can inhibit the growth of other plants. A mulch of leaves about fifteen centimeters thick can protect your crops until March!
Choice of mulch according to its soil pH:
To know your soil pH, you can take soil samples and ask for laboratory analyzes or buy a pH test kit or analyze the main bio-indicator plants growing on such or such part of your garden to Deduce the main tendency of the pH (rather acidic, rather neutral, rather basic). Beyond the importance of this knowledge about your soil for the choice of plants to plant, for example, you should know that in the long run, certain mulches can accentuate the acidity of already acidic soil, it is, in particular, the case of grass clippings, pine needles and other resinous residues such as pine bark. So, unless your objective is precisely to further acidify your soil to install heather plants, for example, we recommend that you once again follow a principle of permaculture: promote diversity in your mulches, do not put always the same in the same place, mix it up and you will avoid a lot of inconveniences!