The Case for Mulch: Growing in Understanding New Perspectives

Mulch. It’s probably not the most exciting topic of conversation, and most people don’t spend that much time thinking about it. Actually, if you haven’t gardened and have no idea what mulch is (or even if you have gardened but aren’t maniacal about it) you’ve probably spent no mental energy at all on mulch. So for those of you who are mulch newbies, I’ll break it down for you: mulch is the best.

As a self-confirmed worm lover, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve chosen to write a blog post about my journey to create a worm heaven in the form of healthy, beautiful soil. But since mulch protects the earth from the moisture-zapping effects of the sun, I promise I’ll try to make this topic less “dry” than you might expect (including by adding terrible puns).

A garden bed at school mulched with banana leaves and palm fronds.

To get to the “root” of my love for mulch, let’s first look at what it is. Mulch is essentially any material that is spread or laid over the surface of the soil as a covering. It can be grass clippings, woodchips, straw, newspaper, or even plastic sheeting. As a personal choice, I prefer not to use inorganic materials, instead focusing on repurposing traditional garden waste into something usable. Here at my service site, we have started to incorporate dead banana leaves, palm fronds, and mown grass as mulch.

Some of the reasons mulch is amazing is that it:

  1. Retains moisture in the soil, requiring less water
  2. Suppresses unwanted plant growth, meaning less weeding
  3. Provides habitat for those wonderful worms and other microorganisms that make up a healthy soil
  4. Decomposes into compost to help the soil fertility (if the mulch is an organic material)

So why doesn’t everyone mulch? When I first came to my host organization to work on the 3-acre garden on site, I was surprised there was no mulching to be seen, and quickly made it my number one priority to cover up all that bare soil. With January being the coldest month at an average of 24 degrees Celcius (75F) and an annual rainfall average of just 1083 mm, increasing the ability of the soil to retain water in this tropical climate is crucial for creating healthy plant growth in a sustainable way. “This will be such an easy fix,” I naively thought to myself as I walked around the garden my first week. “All I need to do is pull up this grass here, take these weeds, lay them down under these tomato plants… wow! I’m so amazing. This project will be so easy.” How wrong I was.

The first thing I’ve learned about working in the development sector is that even if you think – even if you know – you have the right answer, the fix, the magic solution, before you can do anything else, you have to understand why things are the way they are. And that first day I finished weeding and promptly put the weeds back in the garden, “harvesting” a number of of confused looks and a flurry of conversation my introductory Tamil language course didn’t prepare me for, I learned that the hard way. Because it wasn’t just about the mulch. Not really. It was also about the cultural notion of what a garden should look like, and, perhaps more importantly, how a garden shouldn’t look. It was about a worry that the weeds would regrow stronger, a snake would make a new home under the leaves, that the plants we didn’t want would overtake the plants we did. And in my excitement to show that I knew what I was doing, all that I showed was that I didn’t really understand the area.

Students gathering dead leaves to mulch a new garden bed.

Of course, once I explained the reasoning for why I had left weeds strewn around the planting area and talked up the benefits of keeping the soil covered, people became a lot more willing to give it a try. But it was far from the easy fix I thought it would be. And that stems from learning that yes, venomous snakes really would come live in piles of leaves, something I hadn’t experienced in Midwest America. Or realizing that the notion of a good garden means a clean garden- everything extraneous is removed out of sight. So my brilliant idea of mulching the garden becomes a lot more complicated to implement without understanding the reason the garden looks the way it does, and addressing those concerns.

Taking into account all of the reasons the garden looked the way it did, we had many discussions about how, and if, there could be a way to have mulching be part of the garden practice in a way that was safe, effective, and still allowed the garden to look clean and well-kept. Those conversations “blossomed” into trial plots with mulch channels in between the beds, 3 sisters garden plots using intercropping methods, and a suggestion to plant more densely.

I’m happy to say now that mulching has finally been integrated into the garden practices. Sure, I could have mulched the whole garden by myself in my first week on site, but it would have looked vastly different than the system we ended up creating specifically for the needs of the school. And more importantly, it wouldn’t have allowed for all those “fruitful” conversations that ensured everyone felt they had a voice. And when you are there to serve, that’s perhaps the most important thing you can do – just listen.

With that smile, you can tell mulching really “grew” on her!

Works Cited:

  • Engles, Jonathan. “Mulching with Purpose and Precision.” Permaculture News, 2016, permaculturenews.org/2016/01/22/mulching-with-purpose-and-precision/.
  • Ianotti, Marie. “What Is Mulch?” The Spruce, Jan. 2019, https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-mulch-1402413 .
  • “Kanchipuram Climate.” Climate Data, 9 Aug. 2015, en.climate-data.org/asia/india/tamil-nadu/kancheepuram-26316/.
  • Pleasant, Barbara. “Companion Planting: Three Sisters Garden.” GrowVeg, 2015, www.growveg.com/guides/companion-planting-three-sisters-garden-plans/.

Tessa grew up in Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in Political Science and minors in Environmental Studies and Economics from Luther College in Iowa. After studying sustainable international development at the University of Oslo International Summer School, she returned to Iowa to give back to her community by serving as a FoodCorps member and then as Youth Education Coordinator at a local non-profit. Tessa has spent five years in the Cedar Rapids community, working with youth aged preschool through high school to create a love of growing and eating healthy food. She has also worked with teachers in the school district to implement nutrition and garden lessons into the curriculum, reaching those students who learn best through alternate, hands-on activities. In her free time, Tessa is a voracious reader and loves experimenting with new vegan cooking recipes. She is excited to take her experiences of outdoor education into a new setting in southern India.

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