Farmers and gardeners everywhere recognise the value of mulch. Instead of bringing it in from someone else at cost, we’ve better off growing mulch right where we need it. By growing living mulch, we create a permanent living ground cover using a mixture of perennial and self-seeding ground cover plants.[1]

Growing living mulch is cheaper and less back-breaking than spreading mulch. It reduces weed issues producing a thick ground cover of living plants and mulch from the dead leaves and stems. It’s also generally less fire-prone than dry mulch, particularly when using fire-retardant plants.[1]Photos showing rows in orchard mulched and then with living mulch

Switching from mulch to living mulch in the Orchard at Hill Top Farm[2]

Growing living mulch is also more eco-logical! Here’s why.

Eco-Logic of Growing Living Mulch

Take a look at the native vegetation in your region. In these natural areas, no one needs to spread mulch. Mulch gets produced right where it’s needed, either sourced from living ground covers or from trees and shrubs growing above. Compared to our sporadic mulch applications, living mulch provides a more consistent and generous food supply of organic materials for the soil organisms maintaining our soil infrastructure and nutrient recycling system.[3]

Ground cover plants also supply roots and root exudates, enabling more organic matter to be stored in our soil.[4] Only a small portion of the organic materials from above-ground inputs like leaf litter, mulch, crop stubble, and compost is stored long term as organic matter in our soil.[5,6] That’s why it has the annoying habit of quickly disappearing!

Guidelines for Growing Living Mulch

  1. Grow mixtures of perennials, self-seeding annual and bi-annual plants to create low maintenance permanent ground covers.
  2. Use species that thrive in your growing conditions to grow from your strengths.[7]
  3. Use plant species producing a thick ground cover of leaves and mulch to reduce the growth of undesirable plants.
  4. Create habitat diversity by choosing plants with different growth forms (leaves, shoots and roots) –  it’s a simple way to build connections increasing biodiversity (see Eco-logical Farming or Gardening Handbook for details).
  5. Get free ecological services using ecological support plants in your living mulch species mix.[8]
  6. Use clumping and mat-forming species work well, but running plants spread out across the ground and root in new spots reducing establishment costs
  7. Grow taller and climbing plants if you have time to cut and drop as they generally grow more plant biomass for mulch.

Remember that not all weeds are bad![9] Weeds are usually indicators of degraded soil. Weeds can grow in these conditions because they are the experts at regenerating soil. Given a chance, they will enthusiastically help us improve our soil.[3]

So 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 for farmers and gardeners – Living Mulch.

The handbook takes you through a series of straightforward, tried and tested steps to prepare your site and select species producing a dense ground cover. The handbook is 100% focused on helping you achieve practical outcomes – saving you the time and trouble of finding your own way.

Front cover of the learning from Nature publication - Living Mulch

References – How to Grow Living Mulch

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, Living Mulch, Published by Learning from Nature

[2] Hill Top Farm is the education centre and demonstration site for Learning from Nature in far north Queensland, Australia.

[3] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil? Learning from Nature

[4] 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.

[5] Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478

[6] Daniel P. Rasse, Cornelia Rumpel & Marie-France Dignac, 2005, Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation, Plant and Soil (2005) 269: pp 341–356

[7] ‘Growing from our Strengths’ is a fundamental eco-logical principle.

[8] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Get a helping hand – Ecological Support Species, Publ Learning from Nature

[9] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, How to get rid of Weeds – A Remarkably Radical but Practical Solution, Learning from Nature

 

Feature image by Simon Berger

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