For those who are into sustainable gardening, producing food long-term without a lot of external inputs like fertilizer, mulching can be crucial to what’s happening. For many, mulching equates to going to the garden center or hardware store and buying a product in a bag, but sustainable gardeners think differently. They grow their own.
Good mulch plants have some common traits. They tend to be fast-growing plants, providing an abundance of organic matter. Drought-resistance, non-competitiveness, and slow-spreading are all notable qualities. Ideally, for humans at least, mulch plants don’t tend to be thorny or rough to touch, and they are easy to cut. Lastly, it helps if they break down fast, moving from mulch to soil so that those nutrients are available to plants.
While it may seem strange to use up garden space to grow things that aren’t for the kitchen, it’s important to remember they are also contributing. Mulch plants are giving back to the soil because we can’t continually take from it and expect it to stay fertile. They are protecting the garden from erosion, and they are keeping the soil moist by shading it from the sun. They are adding valuable biodiversity, which helps with pollinators and can deter or distract pests.
Frankly put, there is no debate as to whether or not mulch plants are beneficial, but more so, the debate lies in choosing which ones to grow.
Comfrey is the permaculture champion. It’s a vigorous grower with huge leaves that have medicinal qualities and tiny flowers that bees absolutely love. It is also a dynamic accumulator, meaning it has a deep-reaching taproot that pulls up nutrients from far below the reach of other plants and makes them available at the surface. The leaves can also be used to make a rich tea to be used as a fertilizer or to speed up compost decomposition. Though it has been known to spread too much, comfrey’s positives outweigh the negatives.
2. Aquatic Plants
Reeds, rushes, and cattails all make fantastic mulch plants. They grow very quickly, and for those with small ponds or graywater systems, they help filter the water. They also tend to be high in nitrogen. The other beauty of using aquatic plants for mulch is that there is no threat of them spreading or causing a competitive problem with the crop. Obviously, the downside is that they require water, but for those with water harvesting or graywater cycling going on, these can be a real possibility.
3. Jerusalem Artichoke
Like comfrey, perhaps even more so, Jerusalem artichoke has the reputation as being a tad intrusive, i.e. taking over a garden bed. Perhaps the trick to dealing with this, however, is to put these into a contained bed. They propagate by root, so this will eliminate them growing where they aren’t wanted. Otherwise, they are awesome mulch plants because they produce a huge amount of biomass to use for mulch, as well as more tubers than most growers can eat.
4. Nitrogen-Fixing Trees/Shrubs
There is a select group of plants that have a symbiotic relationship with bacterial nodes on their roots. The nodes trade nitrogen for oxygen from the plant. Nitrogen then fertilizes the plant. When the top of the plant is cut, all of the nitrogen from the roots is released into the soil for other plants to use, and the nitrogen-fixer grows back. Plus, the leaves and branches of the cut plant are put on top of the ground to feed the soil. Alders, locusts, and pea shrubs (Russian, Siberian, or Pygmy) are all good for this. Some do require some timely maintenance to prevent spreading.
Big leaves and a far-reaching taproot make burdock another great plant for growing mulch. Otherwise, nearly all parts of it can be used for something medicinal, specifically with regards to digestion and livers. The whole plant is also edible. As far as mulch, its leaves and stems can be chopped and thrown into the garden, and the plant will regrow quickly. It’s biennial (has a two-year life cycle), though, so at some point a few plants will need to be left to go to seed.
For those looking for groundcover mulch plants, there are a lot of options out there. Clover, especially the low-growing ones like New Zealand white clover, are fantastic. They can act as living mulches, doing all the work of mulch while they are alive. The roots of clover even work well for soil conditioning. They can spread very well, fixing nitrogen no less, but they are easy to remove when it’s time to plant something. Though they are considered a weed in lawns, in gardens they are respected for preventing weeds.
Planting for the good of the garden is a very important part of growing food sustainably. If we simply harvest without ever giving back, it will lead to an agricultural system completely dependent on chemical fertilizers and biocides. Instead, with a little mulch growing, we can make healthy gardens at home that supply healthy ingredients for healthy meals from our kitchens.
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