How And When To Use Organic and Plastic Mulches For Plants

Mulching is an important cultural practice in garden keeping and crop production generally. It is one of the post-planting operations that ensure the healthy and vigorous growth of plants. Mulching simply means placing a protective barrier (mulch) around your plants and over the bare soil to enable moisture retention, even soil temperature, and minimizes weeds.

Mulching can be done using various materials. There are organic mulches, which include bark or wood chips, pine needles, straw, sawdust, wood shavings, and cocoa bean shells. These materials will decompose and become part of the soil constituents with time. In addition, there are inorganic mulches that will never decompose; they are mulching film or plastic, landscaping fabric, recycled tires, pebbles, etc.

The reasons for applying mulch are copious; they are mainly to support the garden, thereby creating an atmosphere that would provide the basic needs required by the garden crops or sown plants to grow and yield the desired result. The mulch applied to crops differs with the type of crop and length of the growing period of the crop. The mulch for a vegetable garden is not the same as tree crops; this is because of the difference in the length of their growing period. This and some key ideas of mulching would be shared with you as you read this article.



How And When To Apply Mulches

The result of mulching is usually the same but the method may differ. There are ways to put mulch around the plant to make it serve the intended purpose; the mulch may be permanent (e.g. inorganic mulch plastic sheeting) or temporary (organic mulch.)

In addition, the types of mulch you use also determine how to apply it.  Mulches of manure or compost are organic mulches; it is regarded as the best mulch for gardens. Mulching plastic or film is also good for garden crops but they are often expensive. The aim of mulching, irrespective of the type of mulch used, is to cover the topsoil to create favorable conditions such as moisture, regulated soil temperature, etc. for the plants.

vegetable plants mulched with straw

Organic mulches are applied through top dressing; it means covering the base of the plant and the soil surface around the garden or farm with the mulch. This is best done for vegetables in the garden or farm like tomato, cucumber, watermelon, cabbage, and other indigenous and exotic vegetables. The best organic mulches for vegetables are the mulches of manure and compost; these mulches contain good nutrients that can be used up by the plants for their immediate production.

yam mulch
Yam heaps mulched with soybean straw

For annual crops like yam and other tree crops, the mulch is heaped around the root zone of the plants and the surface of the soil within the planted areas.

Mulching is very important in yam production; the high the density of the mulch, the better is it for the yam due to the beneficial effects the yam would derive from the mulch. In addition, it is best to apply organic mulches to yam.

Plantain mulched with sawdust

The best mulch for trees and tree crops like pawpaw, plantain, banana, oil palm, coconut palm, etc. and annual crops like vegetables are the organic mulch; they are debris, soybean straw, bark or Wood chips, pine needles, straw, sawdust, wood shavings, etc.

plastic mulch for capsicum plant

Inorganic mulch like plastic mulch or mulching film can also be used in the vegetable garden; the plastic mulch is highly effective at eradicating weeds and conserving soil moisture, better than the organic mulches. As seen below, it covers the entire soil, and pockets or spaces for the plants to emerge are made on the plastic mulch. The plastic mulch is widely used for tomato, cucumber, pepper, and other garden crops on a commercial scale of production.

newly laid plastic mulch

The best time to apply mulch is immediately after planting; this provides a good environment for the emerging seedling, such as preventing weed competition, regulation of soil temperate, control of erosion in vulnerable areas, and in the long run, supplementing soil nutrients as the mulch (organic) decomposes. Mulches should be to 2–3 inches minimum close to plants.

Benefits & Advantages of Mulches and Mulching

Mulching is one of the best cultural practices you can do for your garden. Mulches do wonders in crop yield and profit maximization. You may not really know much about the advantages of mulching, the benefits of mulching are mutual between the crop and the soil. The two entities benefit greatly from the act of mulching.

In order to bring you closer to reality and see what you have been or you will miss out if you do not mulch your garden or farm; here are six of the economic advantages of mulching.

#1. Mulching Controls Weeds

One of the important advantages of mulching is weed control.  Mulches help to control weed effectively. The effects of weeds on crop growth, yield, and returns are obviously not an encouraging one. Weeds compete with the crops for all needs of growth, talk of water, nutrient, and air. The competition is not healthy for the crops grown, this is why you need to get rid of weeds as much as possible to have a good yield and return on investment. This can be cheaply and effectively done through mulching.  The mulches act as a barrier, limiting the amount of sunlight that can find its way to the weeds for their growth.

#2. Mulch Retains Moisture

Water is very essential for plant growth and yield; moisture aids the movement of material within the soil and aids the survival of soil microorganisms. Lack or shortage of water in the soil leads to wilting of the plant (drying up) or stunted growth as the case may be. For optimum soil moisture, consider applying mulches in your garden or farm immediately after planting. Organic mulches absorb water and make it available to the plants steadily and regularly. Similarly, both organic and non-organic mulches cover the surface of the soil and limit the rate at which water is lost from the soil to the atmosphere through evaporation. 

#3. Organic Mulches Prevents Soil Erosion

Mulching does not only keep existing water trapped in the soil, but it also prevents rainwater from washing away the topsoil through erosion. The topsoil is the nutrient bank of the soil; it is where all essential nutrients are trapped and housed. When erosion occurs and the topsoil is washed away, the soil becomes less fertile and any crop grown on such soil will suffer a deficiency of essential minerals like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium.

To prevent this, just apply any organic mulches; it prevents erosion by breaking the fall of the water and therefore lessening the force when the water impacts the ground.

#4. Organic Mulches Maintain Soil Nutrients

One of the advantages of organic mulches over the inorganic is soil nutrient management. Organic mulches like animal manure or farm waste, tree bark or Wood chips, pine needles, straw, sawdust, wood shavings, and cocoa bean shells decomposes with time and help to replenish the soil nutrients. This complements the existing nutrients in the soil and reduces the cost of fertilization for subsequent cultivation. Organic mulch does not only keep soil nutrients from being washed away by the rain, but it also can release nutrients into the soil. 

#5. Some Organic Mulch Controls Pests

There are certain types of mulch, such as neem bark or leaves and cedar bark, that can repel certain pests from the garden due to the fact that these plants have pest-repellant property. Neem leaves and cedar bark have natural oils that act as insect pests repellent.  Mulching your garden with neem leaves greatly helps in pest control amidst other benefits.

#6. Organic Mulch Encourages The Activities Of Earthworms

Using organic mulches can encourage the activities of earthworms in your garden soil or farm. Earthworm plays highly beneficial roles in soil environment and plant growth; earthworms play important roles in the soil such as

  • Improve soil structure for better movement of materials such as water, air and nutrients within the soil.
  • Increase soil moisture through their movement in the soil.
  • Improves soil aeration through their burrowing activity
  • Recycle  nutrients by further facilitating decomposition of organic materials

Only organic mulches can facilitate the activities of earthworms in the soil. Use any of these (bark or Wood chips, pine needles, straw, sawdust, wood shavings, and cocoa bean shells) as mulch to take advantage of the beneficial effects of earthworm in the soil.

Mulching is a good post-planting activity that must be encouraged to greatly improve farm yield and the soil conditions for a better and longer planting experience. It is a cheap way of ensuring a reasonable yield from the farm. Any of the mulches (organic or inorganic) can be used irrespective of the system and scale of the production.  The organic mulches can be cheaply sourced as the inorganic may be expensive; both materials do a great job in nutrient management, crop yield, and returns from the farm.

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Author: Agbabiaka Abdulquadri

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