5 Best Mulches for Vegetable Gardens

Amp up your growing game this year with vegetable garden mulch recommended by experts.

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Compost and native soilANNICK VANDERSCHELDEN PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES

Choosing the Best Mulch for Vegetable Gardens

Mulch is vital to a garden because it provides six benefits for growing vegetables throughout the season. You want a mulch that adds a nutritional power punch, protects young plants from frost heave, controls weeds, keeps moisture in the soil, regulates soil temperature and decomposes by the end of the season.

Here, C.L. Fornari, an author and self-described “plant geek” better known as The Garden Lady, and two university extension services provide expert advice for choosing the best mulch for vegetable gardens.

Considerations when choosing mulch for a vegetable garden

  • Plant-based: Chopped leaves, straw, hay and compost break down easily in the soil.
  • Locally sourced: “My favorite mulch in my vegetable garden is the leaves from our property,” Fornari says. “We gather them with the lawn mower in the fall, which chops them up and piles them near the garden for use the following spring.”
  • Fine consistency: “In the vegetable garden, you’re better off with finer mulches, such as chopped leaves, straw or cocoa hulls,” she says. “Larger pieces of wood, such as landscaper’s chips, don’t break down as quickly and can fall into your seed rows or onto young plants.”

And don’t pile on too much mulch. “A two- to three-inch layer of chopped leaves is mostly decomposed by the end of the summer,” says Fornari. “No-till gardeners can add more mulch on the top in the fall or spring, and those who till can turn the remains under in the spring before planting and mulching again.”

Read on for more mulch options to consider for your vegetable garden.

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Mulch bags piled high on a cart in the garden
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Bagged Mulch

If you don’t want to use leaves or don’t have any around, you can buy bagged mulch. Fornari recommends Coast of Maine Dark Harbor Blend Enriching Mulch for vegetable gardens. Its fine texture doesn’t suffocate young plants, and it decomposes by the end of the summer.

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indian corn field after the harvest, frame filled
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Corncob Mulch

If you live in a farming community, you may find corncob mulch at your local garden center. According to the University of Illinois (UI) Extension, corncob mulch is lightweight and easy to handle. University of Georgia (UGA) Extension says ground corncobs are another excellent mulch for the vegetable garden.

“A ground corncob mulch would be better than big cob pieces since larger chunks don’t smother weeds or keep in soil moisture,” Fornari says. “Corncob mulch is only locally available in places where this crop is grown. I know of no brand that sells it.”

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A woman tipping compost from a bucket into a wheelbarrow
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Compost

Compost (leaves, grass clippings, newspapers, and other organic materials) is gardeners’ gold. While it looks like soil, compost’s end product, hummus, makes an excellent mulch that adds nutrients, moisture and weed control.

While you can add compost in spring, UGA Extension recommends putting unfinished compost as mulch around garden plants in fall. You can purchase compost if you don’t have a compost bin.

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Mulching young strawberry bushes with a layer of dry straw
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Hay and Straw

“I know that some people say to stay away from hay because it has weed seeds, but I think this is bad advice,” says Fornari. “Also, straw is widely available and sometimes free!”

Check with sources near you to find hay bales. Always remember to ask before taking any hay.

“Hay bales are often used for erosion control in construction projects,” Fornari says. “After the project is done, those hay bales would be free for the taking once you’ve connected with the contractors, of course. Hay can also be found on racetracks where it’s gotten too old or wet to use for the horses. And some farmers have hay that has gotten too wet for their animals.”

Straw is available nationwide. Buy EZ Straw online or find it and other brands at big box and other brick-and-mortar retailers and garden centers.

One Lowes.com reviewer called EZ Straw a great and convenient product, writing: “I’ve used this to protect freshly applied grass seed and also for weed control in the garden. The coverage is great, and it’s easy to spread.”

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Crushed, roasted cocoa beans with husk
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Cocoa Husks

Cocoa husks are a popular mulch. The husks (aka shells) of cocoa beans are light but won’t blow away in the wind. Some experts say cocoa husks shouldn’t be used because of their high potash content, but Fornari disagrees.

Cocoa husks contain about 2.5% nitrogen, 1% phosphate and 3% potash,” she says. “None of those levels are very high, and all organic mulches decompose slowly, over time, without harm to plants as long as they’re put down in thin layers. The only concern about cocoa husks is that dogs are attracted to and might eat them. Cocoa is toxic to dogs.”

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Wendy Komancheck ~ The Landscape Writer
Wendy Komancheck is The Landscape Writer, a content writing service she started in 2013. Komancheck has vast experience writing about pollinator gardens, lawn care (including organic lawn care), landscaping, native plants, water conservation, hardscaping, green walls, green roofs, vertical growing, urban gardening, plant health care, soil health, farming and other topics within the gardening, landscaping and lawn care industries.
Komancheck has written for green industry trade magazines, consumer magazines and her local newspaper about various gardening topics. She cares about environmental issues, such as declining pollinators, keeping lawn products out of stormwaters, yard drainage issues and organic gardening. At the Landscape Writer, she writes digital content for garden design, landscaping and lawn care company owners.