Mulch is useful, but we’re better off growing living mulch- a mixture of plants growing a permanent ground cover, producing mulch right where you need it.
- Mulch is expensive, doesn’t last long, and spreading it is hard, dusty work!
- Living mulch provides twice the protection – it produces a thick ground cover of living plants AND mulch from the dead leaves and stems. You double your protection against weeds and water loss from soil through evaporation.
- Living mulch creates twice the habitat – a mini-ecosystem of plants and flowers for birds and insects PLUS mulch for beetles, earthworms, and other detritivores.
- Fire protection – Living mulch is generally less fire-prone than dry mulch and even more so when we use fire-retardant plants.
But did you also know that living mulch is better at delivering food to our soil ecosystem and increasing organic matter and carbon levels in our soil?
Living Mulch provides ‘Silver Service Catering’
Growing living mulch, we increase the amount, diversity, and consistency of food supplied to our willing teams of nutrient recyclers and soil structural engineers (see diagram below). Provided with a decent diet, these microbes and other soil organisms work 24/7 recycling plant nutrients and making them available to plants when they are needed.
“Plants get ‘Silver Service’ catering directly from our soil ecosystem, rather than intermittent, and inadequate inputs supplied by us.” Wendy Seabrook
Living mulch also supplies additional organic material from roots and root exudates to our soil ecosystem. Root exudates are the sugars and proteins plants release from their roots to feed fungi and bacteria in our soil. Plants allocate 20-60% of the solar energy they capture to produce these exudates.
When scientists first discovered root exudates, they thought the plants had something wrong with them and called the phenomenon ‘Leaky Root Syndrome’. But plants know what they are doing! Growing in functioning soil ecosystems, plants get 85 to 90% of the nutrients they need via the exchange of sugars for nutrients with microbes, and there are many other benefits.
Living Mulch increases Organic Matter and Carbon Levels in our Soil
We used to think that above-ground inputs of organic materials like mulch, crop stubble, and compost increased organic matter and carbon retention in our soil. But it’s not true. These above-ground sources of organic materials have a limited effect on carbon and, therefore, the organic matter levels in our soil.
Most of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere with each ‘out-breath’ of the soil organisms feeding on the plant remains! That’s why mulch has the annoying habit of disappearing so quickly!
Next time you’re working hard spreading dead plant material, think instead about growing living mulch and discover the fail-safe techniques in our publication – Living Mulch – Tired of Mulching? Grow Mulch right where you need it
References – Grow Mulch right where you need it!
 Mark Chladil and Jennifer Sheridan, 2006, Fire retardant garden plants for the urban fringe and rural areas (https://www.fire.tas.gov.au/publications/1709 Brochure.pdf). Tasmanian Fire Research Fund.
 Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Eco-logical Farming Handbook. Publ Learning from Nature
 Daniel P. Rasse, C. R. &. M.-F. D., 2005. Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation. Plant and Soil 269, 341–356. (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11104-004-0907-y)
 Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478 (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10386)
 Daniel P. Rasse, Cornelia Rumpel & Marie-France Dignac, 2005, Plant and Soil (2005) 269: pp 341–356 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11104-004-0907-y)
Feature image by Simon Berger