Living Mulches

Oct 11, 2016

soil food web. But in our perennial gardens (herbs, orchard and perennial veggies) it’s generally a different story. Having the soil covered permanently (or close to it) prevents evaporation, fosters a stable soil food web and will generally improve the health of all plants. So in our garden, rather than only relying on buying mulch we also grow living mulches that have multiple benefits… They reduce evaporation, can provide nutrients to the soil, attract bees, fix nitrogen and help stabilise steep slopes.  Here are four examples of living mulches we use in our own cool temperate garden…

Vetch

Vetch (Vicia sativa) is a nitrogen-fixing ground cover that (to our delight) actually volunteered in our garden. We foster it in our herb garden where it fills in any gaps between plants and adds to the colour of the area with its purple flowers (not flowering at the moment). img_6745

img_6743Vetch filling in the gaps between our purple sage and curry bush

Comfrey

We’re big fans of comfrey (Symphytum) and plant it amongst our orchards and globe artichoke patch where it also helps stabilise the slope.   It’s deep tap root can “mine” minerals into its leaves which we then chop and drop beneath our fruit trees where they release these minerals into the top layers of the soil. We’ve written extensively about comfrey and its uses – see our past blogs and photos here.

img_6740Comfrey helping to stabilise our slope and acting as a living mulch for our globe artichokes and fruit trees.

img_6739

Clover

We use white clover (Trifolium repens) throughout our small edible forest garden. This quick growing, nitrogen-fixing ground cover is super hardy and popular amongst the honey bees. They’ll flock to the flowers, which of course ensure the fruit trees nearby benefit from pollination. FYI – never plant this in your annual veggie patch as it’ll become invasive and you’ll never get rid of it! img_6748

img_6749Clover (plus yarrow and plantain) flanking one our feijoa trees

Mixed floral

Easy on the eye and a hot spot for the bees, a mixed floral living mulch system is a great way to go for both the soil and often your tummy. A lot of these flowers are edible, including the nasturtium and calendula flowers – add these to your salads (and more) and you’ll end up eating rainbow dishes! img_6738Nasturtiums, calendula and sweet alyssum all acting as a living mulch and looking fine in the process.*  We use nasturtium (Tropaeolum), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and calendula (Calendula officinalis) as our main living mulch options as they self seed *prolifically*, are tough and the bees love them. We’re big fans of plants that can handle the ‘tough love’ approach to gardening. You wont fine anything that needs constant pampering on our property – we’re all about minimal input and maximum output. * Please excuse the rain tank’s overflow pipe not being connected to anything (yet). We’re in the process of connecting it into an overflow system that will pipe it through our orchard (to its benefit) with all excess water then going into the storm water drain. 

img_6734A nasturtium creeper beneath our young medlar tree

What about native plants as living mulches?

Good question. We currently have two native plants we use in our garden as living mulches – the creeping boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium) beneath our young grevilleas and tea trees and creeping saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) which we’ve planted beneath our young olives – this last one is recognised as a local bush tucker plant as well.

img_6728Creeping boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium) smothers out grass beneath a young grevillea.

The boobialla grows incredibly close to the ground, while this particular variety of salt bush will grow to around 30cm before spreading out – they’re both beautiful and vigorous plants.

img_6732Creeping saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens)

Obviously there are many more plant options available to you depending on your climate and context. The key thing to aim for is to choose plants that benefit, rather than compete with one another.  As a general rule, most ground cover plants will have shallow root systems, meaning they’ll be suitable as a living mulch around fruit trees or larger plants that generally have a deeper root system.

At the end of the day, maintaining bare soil in your perennial crops is a lot of work (think weeding and watering). Why bother when you can grow a living mulch – the benefits are many and while it still requires input from you, it’s significantly less and the rewards and more!

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your thoughts:

16 Comments

  1. Tracey !!

    We have a small lawn with some white clover in it which I was leaving for nitrogen and bees but now after reading this I’m worried it might take over?

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      You don’t have to worry about your lawn Tracey – it’s one of the most dominating plants *ever*! The clover will just integrate into it nicely 🙂

      Reply
  2. MJ

    I second your advice not to put white clover in the veggie patch, oh the regret! But live and learn, I am now experimenting with red clover to improve the drought tolerance of our small patch of lawn. Quite impressed so far, as the flowers are tall which means that it can be mown to discourage bees from the lawn when we want to use it, and let it go a bit wild and meadowy when we don’t.

    Reply
  3. Lisa

    Love your post. I am looking for a annual flowering plant that can act as a mulch plus a reminder of where another plant is, but dies down and self seeds in April or so (central vic)

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Talk to your local garden clubs/networks to find the right flowers you’re looking for :-).

      Reply
  4. Katkinkate

    I knew a family about 2 decades ago in Brisbane, who used strawberries as a living mulch in all their perennial gardens. They let the strawberries grow too thickly for the best yield, but there were so many plants that there were still ample strawberries when they fruited.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      That’s right Katkinkate – strawberries can be a fantastic, tasty ground cover! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Tracy Walker

    Love this article. I have used living mulches in the past and now that we have moved I will be looking to do some more living mulching (is that an actual term?) in our new garden.

    I also add 2 different varieties of lucerne to the mix which seems to work well.

    Plus I tip in 3 types of clover.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Sounds good Tracey :-). And sure, living mulching can be a term!

      Reply
  6. Portia Whatley

    Ia there anything wrong with the clover becoming prolific? If it’s a living mulch isnt that what we want for it to cover as much soil as possible? I’m new to gardening and LOVE the idea of living mulch 🙂

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      We love clover becoming prolific in perennial gardens (i.e. orchards), but no tin annual vegetable beds as it competes with the crops and becomes “weedy”. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Fiona

    What’s the best plan of attack if I have let Clover become a living mulch for Annuals?? Should I cut it back and cover with wood chip mulch or pull out and dig back in? Soil is obviously nitrogen poor so I want to keep all the goodness I can.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      We actually don’t recommend planting clover in veggie patches as it can compete with them – we only put it in our orchards or food forests. Re nitrogen staying in the soil- yes keep roots in the ground… But I’m not sure how it’ll go long term with your annuals in the same space?

      Reply
  8. Jo

    Great information, thanks Hannah. I’m looking for a good living mulch for the paths between the annuals, something that is hardy enough to take a bit of foot traffic. Any suggestions would be amazing 🙏

    Reply

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