Mulching Options for Urban Homesteaders

Mulching fruit trees, shrubs, and garden beds serve several purposes.  First, it protects the bare soil from the sun drying it out quickly.  This keeps the moisture in and maximizes all of your watering efforts.  Second, mulch covers the soil preventing weeds from sprouting and crowding the plants you want to grow.  Third, it helps regulate the temperature of the soil keeping it insulated.  In general, during the summer the ground is kept cooler and during the winter it is kept warmer than it would otherwise, helping to prevent frost damage in sensitive plants.  Mulch comes in many different forms. 

The following highlights the various types of mulch that are common to the urban homesteader.  Mulch is important to both the short-term and long-term development of a successful food forest garden.

  • Wood Chips

One of the most common types of mulch is wood chips in a garden.  The chips come in many different forms.  While it is possible to buy wood chips in the form of bark mulch or clean-cut chips this can be expensive both for the material and the delivery fee.  Arborist chips are wood chips that are created from tree trimmers and can be available for free or a very small fee.  Arborist chips may come from any type of tree and include small branches, leaves, big chunks, and small chips.  Depending on the source of arborist wood chips, it is possible to request certain tree species and refuse orders that would include larger logs and limbs.  A wide pitchfork like a manure fork makes moving the pile to a wheelbarrow much better than a shovel.

  • Chop and Drop Mulching

Chop and drop mulch is material that is harvested from trees, shrubs, and plants for the purpose of placing directly back on the ground.  For example, prunings from fruit trees and shrubs are excellent sources of chop and drop material.  In fact, plants such as comfrey can be grown in the food forest with the sole intent and purpose to be used as chop and drop materials.  

Anytime a vegetable has been harvested and the remains of the plant need to be removed and discarded consider chopping and dropping them to feed your other plants.  While harvesting a row of cabbages or artichokes you can take the remaining leaves and place them around planted fruit trees to decompose in place.  This is in lieu of dragging them to a specific location to be composted.  

  • Poultry Straw

Raising backyard chickens or ducks often results in a large pile of poultry straw.  This is composted and results in amazing straw as a mulch for the gardens and food forest.

While it is often wise to compost this material first, especially with chickens.  If it is duck coop straw this can be scooped with a pitchfork and placed directly around trees and shrubs as mulch.  

The manure in the chickens may be too “hot” to use the straw as mulch around sensitive plants.  However, if you are preparing a new garden bed and don’t intend to plant directly into it right then it can be an excellent mulch to cover the bed.  Poultry straw has a nice mix of carbon and nitrogen and can kickstart the microbiology processes desired for enriching soil.  Use chicken straw as a layer in a sheet mulch or buried into a compost trench garden bed.

  • Fall Leaves  

Fall leaves are an exceptional resource for the urban homestead.  Tons of neighbors will bag up their leaves and place them by the side of the road to be picked up.  These bags can be saved for many different purposes.  For instance, making leaf mold, adding carbon to a compost pile, and mulching garden beds and fruit trees.  

Fall leaves are one of the few resources that can be picked up without a lot of worries.  Using lawn clippings from a neighbor may be a risk.  Due to the number of chemicals sprayed on modern grass lawns.  However, fall leaves from mature trees rarely receive such treatments resulting in a clean resource to add to the garden.

Leaves are known to matte up when used as mulch.  Use leaves to create a pile to become leaf mold or mulching with them, it is wise to chop them up.  Leaves should be chopped into small pieces so it breaks down faster.  This eliminates thick clumping which resists decomposition.

  • Cardboard

Cardboard works well as a base layer for sheet mulching.  It can be used to block the sun from an area to kill off grass lawns and weeds.  While cardboard is great for this purpose it is unsightly for a regular mulch.  Use gathered cardboard to eliminate weeds from returning and place a layer of wood chips or other mulch so it is out of sight.

  • Mulches to Avoid

There are several mulches found in big box stores that should be avoided. 

  • Do not use any rubber-based mulches.  These pelletized rubber products will get buried into the soil and be very difficult to ever remove. 
  • Do not use rocks.  Rock can be used as a mulch for paths or near structures to eliminate the growth of weeds in areas you do not want to maintain.  Remember where you place gravel or rock it will be very difficult to remove.
  • Do not use sheet plastic or landscape fabric unless it is temporary.  Plastic sheeting can be used to kill everything to help establish new ground, but there are methods that do not require the use of plastic.  Landscape fabric can serve very specific purposes for individuals that are farming larger plots of land to keep weeds down, but for most urban homesteaders the garden spaces are small enough to maintain without needing to use landscape fabric.

It is so easy to get a delivery of woodchips from an arborist that there is no reason to ever use these alternative mulches.  The soil loves woodchips covering the bare ground and provides so many benefits.

In conclusion

Always mulch the ground of a food forest garden.  The benefits far outweigh the negatives.  Gardening in a very dry climate, it is essential to mulch to manage water use for plants to thrive.  Try and get as much mulch as possible for as little money as possible.  There are so many free or very cheap resources to take advantage of.  Whether it is acquiring someone else’s waste stream or growing plants for chop and drop.