Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!


Mulch shredded yard waste 300x225 Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

Organic Mulch from Yard Waste


Protecting your organic garden….

Mulches and green manures (cover crops) are like aces and kings in a poker hand. When the driest season in a century smacks us in the face, your stockpile of mulching materials and the organic content of your soil – bolstered over the years by green manures – are what keep your crops in the game. Mulches and cover crops are both composed of biological mass, either once-living or still-living, used to optimize soil conditions.

Mulches, which consist of dead plant material like compost, leaves, spoiled hay, grass clippings and pine needles, keep moisture in the root zone and also control weeds that would otherwise steal water from the crop. With lower water evaporation rates, soil moisture remains ideal, which makes nutrient uptake more effective.

Mulches also moderate soil temperatures, keeping the grow zone cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In the summer, the insulating qualities provided by mulch help protect roots from heat stress, resulting in stronger, healthier plants. In the winter, a layer of mulch protects the roots of perennial plants by keeping the soil from freezing and thawing.

One of the best mulches, especially for acid-loving crops like potatoes, is pine needles, which you can scavenge from schoolyards and parks in the late fall.


pine needles Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

Pine Needles


When garlic shoots first emerge in the spring, lay a thick layer of pine needles on top to keep the soil temperature constant. As May temperatures shoot up in the daytime, the pine needles also keep the root zone cool and the garlic happy.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about mulches:

  • Never use material from the crop that is to be covered. For example, don’t use potato vines from last year’s crop to mulch this year’s potatoes, because the old vines might transmit disease.
  • Use a light-colored mulch during the summer and early fall to reflect heat. Use a dark-colored mulch in winter and early spring to help warm the soil to permit earlier planting and hasten early growth.
  • Older grass clippings, leaves, and sawdust laid down as a mulch can cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency in the soil, as soil microbes tap into soil nitrogen to break down the vegetation. Add a source of nitrogen, such as well-rotted manure, before you lay down the mulch.

Soil scientists refer to the “carbon-to-nitrogen ratio” as a key indicator of whether an organic material will add nitrogen or cause a deficiency of it. The carbon-nitrogen ratio of sawdust is 400 to 1, for example, while the C-N ratio for a cover crop like sweet clover is only 12 to 1. This is why cover crops are a valuable card to have in your poker hand.

Cover crops are living plant crops and are most valuable when they are incorporated into the soil, where they build soil structure and provide nutrients for upcoming crops. Instead of buying and bringing home bags or truckloads of compost or manure, bring home some seeds to plant a “green manure” crop.


wheat cover crop Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

Wheat Cover Crop

The added organic matter from cover crops increases populations of beneficial soil microorganisms and earthworms, and also increases the soil’s ability to hold water. An active, diverse community of organisms such as bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, centipedes, springtails, mites, millipedes, spiders, beetles and earthworms performs many critical functions, including:

  • producing vitamins and other growth-enhancing compounds;
  • increasing plant uptake of soil phosphorus;
  • controlling outbreaks of soil pathogens;
  • releasing carbon dioxide, that is then absorbed by plants to form new plant tissue;
  • creating more soil aeration and distributing nutrients by continuous tunneling and burrowing. (Think of all the miles traveled by these busy, uncountable critters!)

There are several kinds of cover crops. The first kind is grasses and leafy plants like rye, winter wheat, buckwheat, barley, oats, millet and brassicas (kale, radish). These are generally fast growing and provide lots of biomass to aerate the soil and build soil structure when they are turned under.

The second kind of cover crop is the legume, which pulls nitrogen right out of the air and into the soil. Some legumes, like alfalfa, clover and vetch, are multi season crops, providing nutrients as they grow and also whenever they are turned under. Some cover crops,such as alfalfa, have roots that reach down into the subsoil up to eight feet, bringing valuable hard-to-reach nutrients up to the soil surface as the crops are harvested. You can sow cover-crop seeds like clover and winter rye in the fall and turn them under in the spring, or sow more tender seeds like buckwheat and millet in the spring and turn them under in time to plant fall crops like spinach, lettuce, radishes, and broccoli.


soybeans cover grop legumes 300x224 Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

Soybeans Cover Crop


Both kinds of cover crops can become “too much of a good thing” if they are allowed to go to seed. So either mow or turn under cover crops before they seed. Sometimes mulches can be cover crops, and cover crops can be mulches.

Similarly, cover crops can be mulches when they are planted right under another main crop, such as melons, squash or tomatoes. In fact, recent Department of Agriculture research demonstrated that tomatoes planted in a cover crop of hairy vetch had fewer insect problems and were twice as productive as tomatoes grown without the cover crop. Vetch, a legume, fed nitrogen to the tomatoes’ roots, kept the crop cool and weed-free. In general, cover crops also reduce soil loss from wind and water erosion.

When you begin to garden holistically, feeding the soil rather than just the crop, you begin to work with materials that are close at hand and that don’t require heavy inputs of energy, like powdered fertilizers do. You begin to realize that cover crops and mulches are like aces in the hole.

Ornamental Rule Lines in Different Design 2 150x44 Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

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Medical Disclaimer:

Nothing in this post is to be construed as medical advice, simply a sharing of things that have worked for me & my family. If you have any symptoms of serious illness, taking medication, pregnant or nursing, or have never worked with herbal materials or essential oils before, please consider consulting a medical professional before use. I am unable to offer advise for your particular medical situation; please ask your Doctor, Nurse Practitioner or Naturopath for further guidance.  The statements made here have not been approved by the Food & Drug Administration. These statements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. This notice is required by the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act.

Ornamental Rule Lines in Different Design 2 150x44 Mulch It! Cover Crops for Organic Gardens!

About Simply Living Simply

I am a "red-neck country wife" to one wonderfully amazing man, mother to many outrageous children, daughter of the ONE Glorious God. Learning to be more self-reliant & self-sufficient in a semi-homemade, homesteading way!
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  1. I had never really thought about not using material from the crop that is to be covered. Makes total sense, though. :) Kudos!



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