Straw or hay
Another great mulch for the vegetable garden is straw, salt hay, or weed-free hay. It looks good and has most of the benefits of the other mulches: retaining soil moisture, keeping down weeds, and adding organic matter to the soil when it breaks down. But be sure the hay you use is weed and seed free, or you’ll just be making trouble for your garden. And don’t pull hay or straw up to the stems of vegetables or the trunks of fruit trees or you’ll be inviting slug and rodent damage.
Mulching a vegetable garden with sheets of black plastic film can do wonders. When it’s spread tightly over a smooth soil surface, black plastic will transmit the sun’s heat to the soil beneath, effectively creating a microclimate about three degrees warmer than an unmulched garden. Because the plastic film remains warm and dry, it protects the fruits of vining crops such as strawberries, melons, and cucumbers from rotting and keeps them clean. And of course, the mulch prevents weed growth and retains soil moisture.
Infrared transmitting (IRT) plastics cost more than standard black plastic, but they can result in even higher yields. These plastics warm the soil as well as clear plastic does, but also control weeds as well as black plastic does. In raised bed gardens, lay down a sheet of plastic over the entire bed. Bury it at the edges or weigh the plastic down with rocks. Then punch holes in it for the plants. A bulb planter makes quick work of hole cutting. Sow seeds or plant transplants in the holes. Because water can’t permeate plastic, the mulch retains soil moisture but it also keeps rainwater from soaking the planting bed. Thus, the ideal watering system for a plastic-covered bed is soaker hoses or drip hoses laid on the soil surface before you put down the plastic.
Don’t use plastic as a mulch under shrubs. Although it keeps out weeds and can be camouflaged with decorative mulch, black plastic destroys the shrubs’ long-term health. Because water and air cannot penetrate the plastic, roots grow very close to the soil surface—sometimes right beneath the plastic—seeking moisture and oxygen. The shallow roots suffer from lack of oxygen and moisture and from extremes of heat and cold. Eventually the plants decline and die. Stick to organic mulches such as shredded leaves, bark, wood chips, or compost under your trees and shrubs.
Although black plastic mulch seems like a great boon to organic gardeners, its use is not problem free. One issue of concern with black plastic is its manufacture (it’s a petroleum product) and its disposal—there are very few places it can be recycled. If you carefully lift black plastic at the end of the growing season and store it in a dry place over winter, you should be able to reuse it for several years, but eventually if will become torn and you’ll have to throw it away. An alternative is a biodegradable plastic mulch (cornstarch based). These materials are designed to break down in place by the end of the growing season, and you can dig any remaining bits into the soil. However, one of the breakdown products of biodegradable plastic mulch is carbon dioxide. Black paper mulch made from recycled paper is also available, but these products are usually treated with a synthetic antimicrobial substance to prevent them from breaking down too quickly.
Unlike black plastic, gravel, stones, and geotextiles, also called landscape fabrics, let air and water through to the soil beneath while keeping weeds from coming up. But geotexiles have some of the same drawbacks as black plastic. To begin with, they are petroleum products. When exposed to light, they degrade over time, so to make them last longer, you have to cover them with a second mulch (they’re ugly, so you’d want to, anyway). However, many gardeners have discovered that shrub roots grow up into the landscape fabric, creating real problems when you eventually want to remove it. And weeds that germinate in the surface mulch send roots down into the fabric, too, tearing it when you pull them out.