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How To Grow Garden Mulch For Free! This Year’s Top Garden Experiment

Wouldn’t it be incredible if you could grow your own garden mulch for free? Well, you actually can!

When it comes to weed-free, low maintenance gardening, mulch is one of the biggest keys of all. It helps insulate the soil, as well as hold in valuable moisture for the roots of garden plants.

mulch the garden
Straw has been a mainstay in our garden as a mulch. Unfortunately, it is becoming more cost prohibitive with each passing year.

Even more, it helps suppress existing weeds, all while preventing new weed seeds from finding a home in the soil below. (See : How To Stop Garden Weeds For Good With Mulch)

The Soaring Cost Of Straw – How To Grow Your Own Mulch

For years, straw has been our go-to mulch in our Raised Row growing rows. But straw is becoming more and more expensive every year. In fact, in some areas of the country, it now runs as high as $8 to $10 per bale, if not more.

Then there is the question if you are going totally organic, can you find straw that is organic too?

Like us, many fellow gardeners have expressed concern about both the rising cost and finding organic straw. So with that in mind, we decided to trial a new experiment this past year to grow and create our own mulch for a small portion of our garden.

pruning tomato plants
For years we have used mulch in our growing rows for weed control. But the cost is certainly getting prohibitive.

The result was honestly more than we could have ever wished for. And we hope it just might be the long-term solution to eliminating costly straw all-together. All while helping improve our garden’s soil more than ever – naturally!

An All-Organic Solution For Inexpensive Garden Mulch

For years, we have planted cereal rye (annual) in the growing rows of our garden each fall. It is the perfect cover crop choice for overwintering and recharging the garden.

It fills in quickly in the fall to protect the soil, and then goes dormant for winter. In early spring, it then comes back to life with a thick growth of vegetation in early spring.

fall garden cover crop

As it does, we begin to mow it off until it completely dies back, just in time for planting day in mid to late May. (See : No Till Fall Garden Crops)

We have always used those fresh, green clippings in our compost bin. In fact, we usually fill one of our large 3′ x 3′ deep x 4′ compost bins from a single cutting of our garden’s raised rows.

Now, although it is a great addition to our spring compost bins, annual rye clippings are also a perfect mulch. They are high in nitrogen, form a great weed barrier, and help to conserve moisture. They also, of course, break down over time to enrich the soil.

So it got us to thinking, why not grow our own crop of annual rye throughout the growing season to use as our mulch in the garden?

growing garden mulch
We used to place our extra annual rye clippings in our compost pile each spring. But this year, we decided to trial them as a plant mulch too.

Creating and Growing Mulch

For our home-grown garden mulch experiment, we seeded a 15 x 20 plot of land behind our garden with annual (cereal) rye as soon as the ground was workable in late March.

Because annual rye germinates and grows quickly, we were able to get our first cutting by late April. To cut and harvest, we simply used our push mower with the bag attachment.

We trialed this year’s home-grown mulch experiment on 4 of our 20′ long raised row garden beds. Three rows of peppers and tomatoes, and a salad row mix as well. The first cutting was more than enough to pile a 4″ mulch layer on each of the 4 rows. In fact, we still had plenty left over to nearly fill one of our homemade compost bins too.

salad crops with clippings
Instead of using our traditional mulch of straw, we opted for the clippings from our annual rye plot. And the results, it worked like a charm – and cut our mulching costs to almost nothing,

Over the course of the first few months, we were able to cut the rye 4 times before it began to die off. Each cutting was bit less, but always enough to fill in any mulch we needed. Again, we simply tossed the extra into the compost bins for extra composting material.

Re-Growing The Mulch Plot

As the rye died off in the small plot, we used a hand rake to scratch the surface, and over seeded a second planting. Within weeks, it was up, and by late summer, we had another full round of homegrown mulch to apply to the beds where needed.

As with our no-till raised beds, no tilling was needed to replant. Annual rye will sprout easily on just a bit of exposed ground. It is just one more reason that it makes this such an easy concept of “home growing” mulch.

The Benefits Of Growing Annual Rye Garden Mulch

How did the crops turn out in our trial rows?

grass clippings - growing your own mulch
The energy filled clippings from the annual rye “harvest” make for incredible mulch. And because you can grow several crops in one season, you can always have a steady supply on hand.

In place of a more lifeless and costly straw, we were able to surround our tomato and pepper plants with a thick coating of green clippings. Clippings that leach nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil below. Even better, the rye will continue breaking down into the soil to create better soil structure over time as well.

Growing Our Own Garden Mulch – The Results

The rye clippings certainly did not hurt our yields at all in those rows. In fact, we both thought the plants with rye as the mulch performed better than the straw covered rows.

But the rye did do something better than the straw for sure – keeping all weeds completely out! The thick covering of the rye blades really helped to snuff out even the smallest weeds from ever appearing.

planting annual rye - how to grow your own mulch
Annual rye (cereal rye) seed is a grain and not a grass. The seed is large and sprouts quickly, usually within 7 days.

Straw has always worked well too, but the rye definitely worked better! And here is the best part: We can buy a 50 lb. bag of annual (cereal) rye at our local feed mill for just under $30. Using only about 15 pounds of seed per planting – it was a significant cost reduction for sure from straw!

Next year, we will be switching to annual rye clippings to move the experiment to the entire garden. Here is to growing and creating your own mulch – and gardening for less! Happy Gardening – Jim & Mary.

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