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How To Grow Inexpensive Garden Mulch – No More Costly Straw!

If you are tired of the ever rising cost of organic mulches for your garden – it’s time to try your hand at growing your own incredible yet inexpensive garden mulch! Not only is it easy to do, it can provide your vegetable garden with some great organic mulch. All at just a fraction of the cost!

When it comes to productive, weed-free, low maintenance vegetable gardening, mulch is truly one of the biggest secrets to success. It helps insulate the soil and it’s wonderful for holding in valuable moisture for the roots of garden plants. In addition, it can even provide nutrients to the soil and plants as it breaks down.

But perhaps best of all, mulch stops weeds and the seemingly endless chore of weeding. When applied thick enough, it suppresses and kills existing weeds. And that same layer of mulch can also keep new weed seeds from finding a home in the soil below.

bare soil - weeds
Bare soil is big trouble in a vegetable garden. Without a protective layer of mulch, competing weeds can quickly establish. And when they do, they steal valuable resources away your vegetable plants.

For all of those reasons and more, being able to have plenty of mulch on hand is truly essential. But with each passing year, finding it at a reasonable price has become difficult. Especially when you are looking for organic options to keep harmful chemical residue out of your garden.

For years, straw has been our go-to mulch in our vegetable garden. But with it now going for as much as $8 to $10 (or even more in some locations) per bale, it’s making mulching vegetables without breaking the bank nearly impossible.

A Simple Solution – How To Grow Your Own Inexpensive Garden Mulch

A few years back, we decided to trial a little experiment at our farm. Instead of purchasing straw or finely shredded bark to mulch around our vegetable plants, we decided to instead grow our own mulch.

No, we didn’t plant fields of wheat to produce our own bales. Instead, we opted to turn a small 20′ x 20′ plot of soil into a dedicated patch to grow cereal rye (and later oats). We did this not to prepare the plot of land for future planting, but to grow a thick crop of vegetation. One that we could mow, bag and collect.

We then took the cuttings and used them in place of straw to mulch around our plants. When first cut and green, both annual rye and oats act just like green grass clippings. That means they actually contain a fair amount of nutrients that can leach into the soil around the plants.

grow inexpensive mulch
Whether is it is fresh rye or oats, the cuttings make for an excellent mulch around plants. As they decompose, they not only protect the soil and keep weeds out, they also feed our vegetable plants!

Those nutrients, of course, help to power our vegetable plants. But even more, as the cuttings dry out, they stay in place to act as an incredible organic mulch. One that as it breaks down, also continues to feed and add even more nutrients to the soil.

It is a win-win all the way around. And one made even better by the fact that these grain crops come back and can be mowed several times for more and more mulch. And the cost vs. straw? Well, as you will see below, it might be the best thing of all!

Using Cereal Rye & Oats To Grow Inexpensive Garden Mulch

Unlike planting these two grains in the fall as a cover crop, when using as our mulch, we plant our mulch plot in the early spring. Within three to four weeks, the plot fills thick and is ready for its first cutting. If you struggle for space, you could even plant the areas between your growing rows for this purpose.

Of the two, we actually prefer sowing cereal oats as our crop for mulch. They both perform equally well, but in the two years we have been doing this, the oats seem to regrow faster. But more than anything else, although both are extremely economical when compared to straw, the oat seed is about 1/3rd cheaper than the rye.

Whichever you use, they both germinate and grow fast. In fact, quick enough that we are able to get our first cutting by late April. That means we have plenty of garden mulch on hand well before we begin to plant the large majority of our garden.

To cut and harvest, we simply used our push mower with the bag attachment. Our first cutting is always more than enough to pile a 4″ mulch layer around all of the plants in our Raised Row garden. We store the leftovers, and then continue cutting the little patch as the crop grows back.

oat seed - cover crop
Cereal oats germinate fast, and in our area, are less expensive than annual rye.

Over the course of the first few months, we are usually able to get four to five cuttings before having to reseed the plot to keep it thick and lush. Each cutting after a first cutting is always a bit less, but always enough to keep us more than supplied with mulch.

A Great Mulch For A Vegetable Garden – How To Grow Inexpensive Garden Mulch

The results have honestly been astonishing. In place of a more lifeless and costly straw, we are able to surround our vegetable plants and raised growing rows with a thick coating of fertile green clippings. Clippings that leach nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil below. Even better, they continue breaking down into the soil to create better soil structure over time.

The cover crop clippings certainly did not hinder our garden’s performance in the least. In fact, we both feel as though our plants perform even better than our straw covered rows of the past. The clippings also have a few more built in advantages over straw as well.

For starters, the heavier clippings stay in place far better. That can be huge early in the season when you are trying to keep straw from blowing away. But even more, the thick weave of clippings seem to do a better job of keeping weeds out too.

It’s certainly not to say that straw didn’t perform well for us. But the cover crop clippings have been a true blessing. And here is the best part – the cost savings are enormous!

We can buy a 50 lb. bag of cereal oats at our local feed mill for just under $25. It takes us about 10 pounds of seed to sow our little plot. That means we can sow it 5 times for that cost! For that same $25, we might be lucky to purchase 3 or 4 bales of straw.

Planting & Replanting Our Mulching Plot – How To Grow Your Own Inexpensive Garden Mulch

This method does of course require a bit of extra space to work. We simply use a small extra area, although you could easily use a portion of your garden and rotate the patch each year. If you have the room, it can really be great for crop rotation and building great soil!

If you are limited on space, as stated earlier, another option is to grow the mulch crop in the walking rows in your garden. This would also keep a gardener from having to mulch these areas as well which can save on your expenses as well.

Preparing The Area

As for preparing an area and reseeding throughout the growing season, the process is quite easy and doesn’t have to require tilling. As our cover crop begins to die off in the small plot, we use a hand rake to scratch the surface, and over seed the next planting.

grow inexpensive mulch
Oat and rye clippings are easy to store for later use. They are also far less costly than straw!

Within weeks, we have another thick stand of homegrown mulch to apply to the beds wherever needed. Both rye and oats 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.

One thing is for sure, with the ever rising cost of plants, fertilizer, seed and more, growing and saving on your garden mulch can really help on your gardening budget. And who doesn’t need that right now! Happy Gardening, Jim and Mary.

Jim and Mary Competti have been writing gardening, DIY and recipe articles and books for over 15 years from their 46 acre Ohio farm. The two are frequent speakers on all things gardening and love to travel in their spare time.

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