Keep the ground covered on all sizes of trusses

More and more growers are adopting no-till crops and cover crops to control erosion and help strengthen soil organic matter. It helps suppress weeds and feeds soil biology.

Did you realize that many specialty farms, city farms, and even gardeners apply mulch to get residue and help achieve many of the same goals? It seems that a large row crop farm and a small urban farm couldn’t be more different. However, when you examine the growing practices, you will find more similarities than you might think!

Mulching is defined as any suitable plant or material applied to the soil surface. Almost any material used to cover the soil could be considered a mulch. Mulching supports the principle of soil health of keeping the soil covered.

Some of the benefits of mulching are weed control, soil moisture retention, increased soil organic matter, temperature regulation, and reduced erosion. Mulch can be synthetic or natural, but natural is the most common, as these materials are often available on the farm. Plant residue, leaves, grass clippings and newspapers can be recycled and used as mulch. Straw and hay can also be bought or purchased to be used as mulch.

These materials can be left on the ground at the end of the growing season to provide cover over the winter. They can also help increase soil organic matter as they break down, and serve as a source of carbon and nitrogen that impacts soil nutrient availability. It is important to consider the carbon to nitrogen ratio of the mulch to prepare for any nutrient build-up that may occur as it decomposes. Make sure the source is free of weed seeds or other contaminants to avoid making unwanted additions to your grow area.

Add natural mulch

As a rule of thumb, if you are transplanting plants, mulch is placed on the grow bed before transplanting. If the plants are directly sown, mulch is added when the cultivated plant is well established. Some growers plant winter-killing cover crops, such as oats and oilseed radish, then a gap is made between crop residues or raked to direct the seeds, or left in place for transplanting.

However, there are ways to incorporate mulch without long term planning. For example, plant residue can be placed on walkways to reduce soil compaction, and tree leaves can be placed on top of flower beds, preferably after being composted. You can also lay newspaper on the floor before adding straw. This method will increase weed control with multiple layers of mulch.

For everyone from the small gardener to the large row farmer, mulch can offer great benefits. Every size and type of farm just needs to find the practices that lead to good quality mulch at its scale.

For row crop farmers, cover crops, no-till, and evenly distributed combine residue are common ways to provide mulch. For small gardens and urban farms, these practices, along with adding natural mulch from already available materials, are a great way to keep the soil covered and improve soil health. Mulching works at all scales – it just looks different depending on the size of the farm.

Rodriguez-Soto is a Regional Urban Soil Health Specialist for the Urban Soil Health Program of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Kautz is a District Soil Curator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. They are writing on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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