How to grow your own mulch feat

How To Grow Your Own Mulch?

Paul Alfrey from the Balkan Ecology Project looks at some of the best plants for growing your own mulch – http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/growing-mulch.html

Growing my own mulch has long been a goal of mine. We use a lot of mulch in the nursery and garden and at the moment we have no problem sourcing straw but if/when the day comes that the farmers start using their own straw to improve their soil (which is becoming a more common practice), We’ll be needing to step up our mulch growing efforts. Currently, we grow enough mulch to sustain the perennial beds and around 10 % of the annual beds but rely on imported straw for mulching the other 90% of annual vegetable and nursery beds.

Please visit PRI Supporter https://kendallpermaculture.com/ by clicking here or the image.
Please visit PRI Supporter https://kendallpermaculture.com/ by clicking here or the image.

During this post we’ll look at what makes a good mulch, a range of plants that we use for mulch and some possibilities for growing mulch for broad scale use.

Mulch Growing in the Garden
Mulch Growing in the Garden

What makes a good mulch plant ?

My ideal mulch plant grows fast, is drought tolerant, competes minimally with crop plants, does not contain seed that easily spreads, is easy to handle and cut, i.e, not thorny/prickly or tough and fibrous, and can biodegrade relatively quickly (thereby returning the nutrients back to soil).

I’ve broadly categorized the main sources of mulch we produce in our 1500 m2 garden and 2500 m2 market garden.

Aquatic Plants

We grow emergent wetland species such us cattails (Typha spp), sedges (Carex spp. ) and rushes (Juncus spp.) on the banks of a small pond (6m x 3m), and within a grey water reed bed (1m x 6m). The pond also provides suitable habitat for hornworts – Ceratophyllum spp. a submerged rootless perennial that gathers on the surface en masse. This plant makes an excellent mulch being rich in nitrogen, growing very fast and is easy to position around the base of plants. The emergent species provide a good thick carbon rich mulch that helps to reduce evaporation on the terrestrial beds and we cut these back in the spring in case they are used for overwintering invertebrates. Aquatic plants are an excellent source of mulch as there are no issues with seed germinating amongst your land based crops.

The wildlife pond, aka 'the mulch machine'
The wildlife pond, aka ‘the mulch machine’

Tap rooted Perennial/ Biennials

Deep rooted perennial plants tend to produce a good amount of biomass, are generally drought tolerant and do not compete strongly with our crop plants. I have found native biennial weeds such as greater burdock – Arctium lappa a very useful mulch plant with the gigantic leaves growing back very fast after a cut. Lesser burdock – Arctium minus is also useful albeit to lesser extent :) Although biennial, if you cut back these plants before flowering you can prolong their life, harvesting good quantities of seed free biomass. It’s good to allow some of the plants to flower as they are much loved by bees among other insects.

Comfrey- Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’ is a classic example of a deep rooted mulch plant. We have the plant scattered throughout the garden and planted in dedicated mulch production patches. The plants do require irrigation however and will only provide good leaf yields if grown on fertile soil. For more on comfrey check out our blog article here. We are also using comfrey in an experimental perennial polyculture we call the biomass belt ,dedicated to growing mulch see here more on this.

A Perennial Polyculture dedicated to growing Mulch. - The Biomass Belt
A Perennial Polyculture dedicated to growing Mulch. – The Biomass Belt

Helianthus tuberosus – Jerusalem Artichoke provide a great source of biomass. For a good tuber harvest its best to wait until the end of the season before harvesting the mulch. We can never consume as much as we produce of these tubers in the kitchen but have found them to be much appreciated by our pigs and an excellent source of fresh winter food for our rabbits.

Leaves of Greater Burdock - Arctium lappa
Leaves of Greater Burdock – Arctium lappa

Nitrogen Fixing Trees and Shrubs

These plants take a while to establish but make an excellent contribution. I’ve had good results from coppicing Paulownia tomentosa – Empress Tree when they are 3 yrs old and chop and dropping the soft new growth 3 or 4 times a year. I am expecting to also see good results from Alnus incana – Grey Alder and Alnus cordata – Italian Alder. I avoid using thorny nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs for this purpose. Annual trimming of shrubs such as Elaeagnus umbellata – Autumn Olive and Cytisus scoparius – Broom also provides good quantities of mulch.

Click here for more info on nitrogen fixing plants.

Lawn and Ground Cover

One of my favourite sources of mulch is lawn trimmings. They are great for mulching potted plants or applying a mulch into tight spots. Mixed species lawns will contain a more diverse mix of mineral nutrients, and lawns including a legume such as Trifolim repens – White Clover can provide a nitrogen rich mulch. It’s a good idea to leave some of the trimmings behind to keep the lawn healthy.

Bellis perennis, Trifolium pratense, Taraxadum officinale amongst others in our lawn
Bellis perennis, Trifolium pratense, Taraxadum officinale amongst others in our lawn

Autumn Leaf Fall and Herbaceous Stem Residue.

The annual shedding of leaves from trees and shrubs in our garden make a great contribution to our mulch capital. Leaves can be cleared from paths, lawns and wildflower beds (as they will disrupt the growth in these areas) and concentrated where they are of benefit such as the base of high demanding fruiting shrubs such as Blackcurrants or Blackberries.

Herbaceous perennials such as Mellisa officinalis – Lemon Balm and Mentha spp.- Mints will provide dead stems annually. It’s always a good idea to leave hollow stems of some herbaceous perennials to remain for the winter as they are utilized by invertebrates for egg laying and hibernating. If the plant does not have a hollow stem it can be cut back and used for mulch. Foeniculm vulgare – Fennel provides large quantities of biomass and as far as I can tell the stems are not utilised by any organism over the winter.

In the vegetable garden all the remnants of my crops after harvesting go straight back to the surface for recycling.

Foeniculum vulgare and other herbaceous perennials
Foeniculum vulgare and other herbaceous perennials

Tree Prunings

Woody prunings from shrubs, trees and vines cut into small pieces (5-10cm) make good mulch in the mature areas of the forest garden with well established fungal soils specializing in breaking down the lignified woody material.

Living Mulches

In the more mature areas of the garden where the trees have established (5 yrs and older) I have dispensed with mulch all together in favour of ground cover plants that can be considered living mulches. Some the most successful perennial living mulches I have found that form good dense cover in the shade include Ajuga reptans – Bugle, Lamium maculatum – Spotted Dead Nettle, Sedem spurium – Caucasian Stonecrop , Vinca major -Perwinkle and Stachys officinalis – Betony.

Lamium maculatum spreading well under a Morus alba -  Mullbery
Lamium maculatum spreading well under a Morus alba – Mullbery

C4 and other Grasses

Another great option for mulch production is perennial grasses that produce large amounts of biomass, can grow on poor to average soils are drought tolerant, reproduce via rhizomatous growth and have seed ripening from late June on wards or have sterile seed. C4 grasses are even more suitable – For more on C4 plants see here.

Two plants that appear most suitable are Miscanthus x giganteus (C4) and Arundo donax (C3). In an experiment you can find here recorded yields of biomass were 40 t/ha/yr in M.giganteus and 30 t/ha/yr in A.donax.

We are offering Miscanthus x giganteus plants from our nursery stock see here for our plant profile and have started growing it this year.

Scaling up Mulch Production

In order to grow enough mulch to provide a water retaining, weed excluding barrier for my annual and nursery beds I would certainly need more space. A larger wetland area would be ideal, with aquatic species growing very fast and the seed bearing parts of the plants being non problematic to use on terrestrial beds. If you don’t have a reliable aquatic habitat, the next best option for growing quantities of mulch without irrigation and fertilization is probably grass.

Check here where I share a plan to grow enough mulch to support approx 670 fruit trees and 1360 soft fruit shrubs on a 5ha Agroforestry Project.

Alley Cropping Site Design
Alley Cropping Site Design

If you have a favourite mulch plant, let us know in the comment box below and if you have found this post informative please share.

Our plant and seed orders are coming in for Autumn delivery. If you would like to purchase some plants this year to avoid disappointment order early as we have limited stock available.

Seeds for Forest Gardens and Permaculture
Seeds for Forest Gardens and Permaculture
Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery
Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery

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21 thoughts on “How To Grow Your Own Mulch?

  1. I try to grow as much mulch as possible, with Comfrey of course, but as stated, it needs watering and sometimes I cannot give it that water. I also grow Pigeon Pea trees, (young at the moment), Crotolaria trees, Queensland Arrowroot, Lemongrass and Black Sugar Cane. The sugar cane is new to my garden and I don’t have a lot of it yet. I’m still always scratching around for more and more mulch, so I do buy some bales in occasionally.

  2. I have planted various plants for mulch production in my garden as I don’t want to keep buying it in. I have young pigeon pea trees and black sugar cane. Plus arrowroot, lemongrass, comfrey and crotolaria. I will use anything I can for mulch, there is never enough.

  3. Lucerne planted beside pathways we use… just cut it and place it where you want… the more we cut it the more it grows… also use the weed from the pond when it gets too dense….. otherwise we just cop and drop what ever we prune. Our block was bare rock two years ago… we started off with just mowing weeds. We still have some bare areas but hope by next year to have total coverage even if some areas are weeds….

  4. *What is most important in Permaculture, preserve the soil with microorganisms and keep clean water and allow the water circulation;everything else is sybiosis life of plants in different (where no doubt there is a rule of symbiosis) air zone and of course creative imagination. :)Such is my opinion. o.O

  5. I like rhubarb as it provides large mulch leaves and delicious food. The rhubarb also loves being mulched with its own leaves.

    Where it is not an ‘eyesore’ to neighbors, I let lawns grow high and cut them to make straw which I dry out in the greenhouse to provide a longer term (higher carbon:nitrogen ratio) mulch cover.

    Autumn leaf fall is another excellent source of relatively high carbon mulch.

    Lawn clippings, comfrey and other fast growing leafy herbs generally break down fast and while this is useful to the soil the ground cover does not last exposing soil to the elements. Due to this I like to have the high carbon e.g. straw and high nitrogen mulches for both soil food and weather protection.

    Using the straw I generate for chook bedding I get a medium soil cover time with high nutrient input added – useful for hungrier plants eg solanums, bananas – basically fast growing plants I harvest from above ground to avoid any food complications as chook manure is now part of the mulch. Otherwise it makes a great compost addition.

    When I have enough mulch, compost is not necessary, but I still import free tree chip mulch to cover hugel beds and fill swale paths. So long as it’s free I’ll keep building soil with it.

  6. I would like to plant nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs as I set up a fruit forest. The examples and seeds on the Balkan Ecology site all seem to be for very low winter temperatures (-20) Please advise where I would find a list of plants to suit the Melbourne, Australia site and where I could purchase the plants.
    Thanks in anticipation!

  7. We grow phormium tenax in the effluent field to absorb moisture and nutrients. The pruned leaves decompose quicker under a layer of bark and make beautiful soil.

  8. Last year while growing my Jerusalem Artichokes I decided to top them during early growth when the center was still solid. It slowed down the top growth for a while then all the lower digits put on amazing side to upper growth creating many more blooms and mass. This created immediate compost materials from the trimmings, an amazing harvest and 2nd mulch compost harvest after bloom. I plan on pruning the bunch a little earlier next year and hopefully will get a 2nd pruning in creating more of a low bush growth.

  9. Great article. I agree, finding a good mulch plant to meet your requirements can be tough. Here in Nicaragua we have been using Moringa Oleifera. It is very drought resistant, grows up to 22 feet a year, great for chop and drop, fertilizer and you can use all of the plant. It is very high in nutritional value for us to eat and livestock. Possibly the new all round developing world superfood for humans and the earth.

  10. Let me share an experiment I once did while living in Christchurch where I had a small Herb Farm. From the previous owner of the land, I’d inherited two Golden Delicious apple trees which were troubled by Codlin Moth. The following experiment which took place under one of the trees (I left the other tree to demonstrate what the right under-planting can achieve) was a complete success. Every year, from then on, one tree became free of the pest, while the other situated just four feet away had grub in every apple. I planted Peppermint, Calendula Marigold and Nasturtiums and left them to sprawl up against the trunk of the tree and look after themselves. The Codlin Moth refused to come down and complete its cycle with those herbs there. As you would know, Nasturtiums form a living mulch, reducing weeds and maintaining soil moisture. Finally; ancient man on the Indian subcontinent as well as people living far away in South America, knew the value of putting corn, bean and pumpkin seed together into a small heap of soil. The corn rises up, the bean entwines, the pumpkin shades the roots. Finally; years after I ‘discovered’ that everything above ground grew faster when red cloth or plastic was put nearby, New Scientist published an interesting article about the very same findings giving scientific proof and explaining the nutritional benefits. Their article also stated that blue placed near root vegetables and low growing food like strawberries, increased flavour and vitamin content.

    1. Hi Maria, thanks for the useful info. I have tried google search for that New Scientist article you mentioned (colours-red helps things grow) but can’t find it. Have you got a link you could provide? Thanks in advance.

  11. I have a perennial flax in my field which produces seed similar to lettuce So when I cut it in the fall most of the seed is dispersed before I use it for mulch.
    Regular flax is also useful as both a cover crop and mulch. When cut rather than pulled the roots leave a lot of biomass in the soil. The central fibers of the stalks [linen] make a persistent mulch.

    1. Strawberries growing unchecked produce a superb soil after a few years!
      Problem is that you get more strawberries than you can eat. If you would want to consider that to be a problem ;)

      But off course not in your annual veg plot :p
      At the moment, we use mostly wild strawberry under our low stem fruit trees but I’m thinking of switching to a higher yielding variety with sellable fruit as the wild strawberry is almost spoiled by the time you have it picked and lifted to you mouth.
      The cultivars are also bigger plants and in my impression provide a thicker cover.

  12. Tagasaste or tree lucerne is a useful mulch plant. leguminous and nitrogen fixing, it is deep rooting brings up water and nutrients from deep. Handy for windbreaks and hedges, can be cut hard for lucerne like mulch. Does not have thorns. Also can be fed to stock.

  13. Thanks for this useful and important article Paul. The point about straw availability dropping, as farmers become aware they need to be keeping fertility on their property, is an important one. As a suburban gardener I’ve been trying to grow my own mulch for 5 years now. I find in my warm temperate climate the small leaved perennials (example plumbago, which grows like a weed here and provides useful small sticks and leaves) together with comfrey and clover (medica) plus the crucial lawn clippings provide at least 90-95% of my mulch needs now when teamed with the deciduous fruit tree leaf drop. But, no matter how hard I try I always run out of home made compost! The important point is trying to close the loop for as many resources as we can in our own gardens, before it’s forced up on us due to reduced availability.

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