There’s one underrated and effortlessly simple technique that can save hours of watering: Mulching.
Mulching is an incredibly powerful technique to unleash in your garden. By shading the soil mulches help to conserve soil moisture, reducing the amount you have to water by as much as two-thirds. Covered soil means fewer weeds, which would otherwise compete for that precious moisture and space. Mulches also help to slow run-off during very heavy rain. Then, as they break down, they help build soil structure and its ability to hold onto moisture for longer. It really is powerful stuff!
Best Types of Mulch for Moisture Retention
The best mulches to use during the growing season, or indeed at any time of year, are organic mulches – which means any material consisting of decomposed or decomposing plant matter. Compost, grass clippings, bark chippings, straw, and leafmould, which is made from composted tree leaves, are just a few examples.
Woody mulches like bark chippings or shredded prunings are great to use around permanent plants like fruits trees and bushes. Lay it up to two inches or 5cm thick but take care to keep stems and trunks clear to prevent problems with rotting. Woody mulches break down slowly and may last up to a couple of years before they need replenishing. You’ll need to water really thoroughly to ensure the water reaches the ground below, but on the flipside you won’t have to water nearly as often.
Straw mulches are great where slugs aren’t a big problem. They are particularly suitable for spreading around more established, larger plants like tomatoes, squash and, of course, strawberries.
Use straw that’s local to you. This could be, for example, pea straw, sugar cane straw, or good old wheat straw like this. Remove any weeds and thoroughly water the soil before you lay your straw. Lay it nice and thick – at least a couple of inches (5cm) deep, although because it’s quite loose you could go up to twice that depth. Straw begins to break down fairly quickly, adding nutrients to the soil to contribute to its organic content and structure.
You can also lay straw around smaller plants but be careful not to swamp them. In wetter climates where slugs are more active, avoid laying mulch until plants are a little bigger.
Dried grass clippings are an excellent and readily available alternative to straw. The finer texture of clippings make them a fantastic organic mulch to use throughout the vegetable garden. Just lay them on beds as you collect them.
If it’s windy, water your straw or grass mulch once you’ve laid it to help settle it into position. Then when you need to water your plants, aim the water at the base of plants and be really thorough, so it can penetrate the mulch to reach the soil beneath. In some cases, you may find it easier to peel back the mulch, water, then put it back again.
Then there’s lovely, crumbly garden compost, which makes for one of the most nutrient-rich mulches. Compost is soon incorporated into the soil by worms and other soil fauna. Use it around actively growing plants once you’ve weeded and watered. If you can’t make enough compost or have a very large area to mulch it may prove worthwhile buying bulk bags of compost or other mulch, delivered to your door.
Watering through a mulch of compost is simply a case of being thorough to make sure the root zone beneath it gets a good soaking.
What you use ultimately depends on what you can easily get hold of. For me it’s shredded prunings and straw from a farmer friend and, of course, there’s the compost I make too. What do you use to mulch your garden? Let us know in the comments section below.