Rather than toss it, consider whether your kitchen or garden waste can do you a favour.
WORDS & PHOTOS Mark Rayner
We all know that weeds just LOVE bare soil and one of the best ways to keep soil covered up is with an ongoing steady supply of mulch, mulch and more mulch. Whether it’s kitchen waste, garden prunings, grass clippings or even the cut-down weeds themselves, there’s so much green waste available. It makes huge sense to plough all that goodness back into the garden rather than sending it off to landfill. By constantly mulching you’ll not only cut down on time spent weeding, you’ll also feed the soil (and the glorious critters beneath), cut down on watering, save yourself some money and (most importantly of all) do your bit for the environment.
It might sound radical, but the first thing you may wish to consider is doing away with an actual compost heap entirely and treat all your household and garden waste as mulch instead. Because a compost heap is the designated area for all things compostable, it can tend to become a bit of a dumping ground for anything and everything if you’re not careful – not to mention the time spent wheelbarrowing green waste from all over the garden to this one spot – and then barrowing the ready compost back again. Far better then to simply ‘chop and drop’ all over the garden to create instant mulch or spread the lawn or hedge clippings all around any areas of planting.
Daily household scraps such as vegetable or fruit peelings and any smaller biodegradable items such as toilet rolls or used kitchen paper (or the contents of the vacuum cleaner or sweepings after a haircut) can all get disposed of once a day, wrapped up in newspaper and placed underneath a deserving tree or shrub. Even other people’s green waste (such as spent coffee grounds from the neighbourhood café or untreated sawdust from a local mill) can be put to good use to enrich and cover your soil.
Lawn clippings and fallen autumn leaves are great for mulching around plants and are best scattered lightly in layers around the garden, intermixed with other types of mulch. And if you want to go foraging further afield for potential mulch, what could be better than a trip to the beach to gather up some seaweed?
Finer-leafed hedging plants such as lavender, rosemary, buxus and lonicera make marvellous instant mulch as the clippings are great for covering the ground as they are. Larger-leafed hedging plants will also fulfil the same purpose, eventually breaking down and feeding the soil, but to quicken the process (or for aesthetic reasons) you might want to consider investing in a garden shredder/mulcher to reduce the leaves and clippings to a uniform size.
CHOP AND DROP
In the vegetable patch and perennial flower garden, use the much loved ‘chop and drop’ method to mulch the soil where the plants have been growing. Chop plants off at the base and then snip into smaller pieces with secateurs. This can be done on an ongoing basis as you come to harvest crops or when a plant has finished its growing cycle. Chopped-up leafy greens will all return much-needed nitrogen back to the soil.
The chop and drop method can also be used when pruning hedges; simply leave the trimmings at the base of the plant (or tucked out of sight behind if you prefer). Fast-growing hedges such as Teucrium fruticans may need pruning more often but just think of all the extra mulch you’ll have.
Ornamental grasses also make for marvellous mulch. Think of the taller and larger-growing varieties such as the wonderful ‘zebra grass’ (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) and what fabulous mulch you can get from cutting down the stems and leaves at the end of the season and snipping these into little pieces.
Continue this approach with other pruning tasks – when deadheading, allow spent flower heads to simply fall and contribute to the mulch below; and do the same when pruning roses, snipping unwanted canes into small pieces and letting them lie where they fall. Similarly, when thinning fruit on a tree, simply snip off any unwanted fruit and allow it to fall.
Consider, too, using mulch on informal pathways (perhaps through areas of planting) or over other areas of unplanted ground (perhaps around a glasshouse entrance or shed door). A coarser mulch such as shredded bark, wood chips or even cut up bamboo canes will work well for areas like this as it will take longer to break down and will provide greater stability underfoot. Keep on topping up the mulch on an ongoing basis, as and when it’s needed, to keep the soil covered.
MULCH WITH WEEDS
Even weeds themselves can make terrific mulch. Think of all that potential goodness in chopped up self-seeded borage or what a nice pile you’d have with a few pulled-out nasturtiums. When mulching with weeds, the only real potential hazards to watch out for are seeds and roots. The leaves of most weeds are perfectly safe (indeed beneficial) to chop up as mulch, as are weed flowers (which haven’t yet gone to seed) but do avoid mulching the parts of any pernicious thugs such as bindweed, creeping buttercup and wandering willie.
A different option for disposing of weeds
If you’re a little nervous about mulching weeds (or have some particular garden thugs you’d like to dispose of) then consider making ‘weed soup’. Simply fit a tap to a large open-topped plastic (or metal) drum and place your unwanted weeds inside. Fill the drum with water and cover the top of the drum with a piece of plywood. Leave the ‘weed soup’ to stew for a bit and once it’s ready (it will be quite stinky) you can dilute it with water and use it as a fertiliser. Continue putting in more weeds and water as the old weeds break down for a continuing supply of organic plant food.
Here’s another idea
Improve weed suppression even more by placing a biodegradable barrier between the soil and the mulch covering. Thick layers of wet newspaper or old woollen carpet/underlay is ideal but even plain brown cardboard or natural fibre sacking or canvas will help.