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Cover Crops Vs. Mulch: Which To Choose?

A cover crop and mulch can both help plants thrive in your garden. If you have not decided which one to use to keep your garden healthy, this post is for you. We have researched this subject and come up with suggestions to help you make up your mind.

Cover crops and mulches both prevent soil erosion and weeds. Picking between the two depends on what you want for your garden. A cover crop keeps living roots on the ground, making the soil healthy. It encourages the growth of fungi and bacteria that are beneficial to the soil and the plants. It can also grow organic mulch for you. 

Mulch improves soil moisture and helps promote the growth of microorganisms, but without living roots. It can attract worms, insects, and other macroorganisms that help make the soil fertile. Mulch also keeps crops from coming in contact with the soil. If you want your garden to look neat, you should choose mulch. 

This post will detail how mulch or a cover crop can benefit your garden. We will also discuss the disadvantages of both. Keep reading to find out more.

The Good And The Bad About Mulching

There are many types of mulches you can choose from. Generally, mulch falls into categories: organic and inorganic. 

Organic mulch is leaves, hay, straw, tree bark, or compost. On the other hand, plastics, fabrics, bricks, or stones are categorized as inorganic mulches.

Pros Of Mulch

If your goal is to make your garden look well-kept, you should use mulch. Mulching is often done to spruce up a garden and make it look tidy.

However, mulch does more than that. Organic mulch like dried leaves, compost, or wood chips attracts worms, centipedes, and the like to help keep your soil healthy. Mulch also keeps the soil moist. Water evaporation is slow in soil covered with mulch. This reduces the need for watering. 

Mulch is also helpful in keeping the soil warm and ready for planting after the cold season. Plastic mulch is often used for this purpose. 

If you want to keep weeds from growing in your garden, you should add mulch, as this prevents their growth.  Mulch blocks the sunlight that weeds need to prosper.

Some crops may rot when they come in contact with the soil, and the solution to this is mulching. Mulch is good for raised plant beds, as they make barriers that protect crops from rotting.

Cons Of Mulch

If you pick the right mulch and apply it correctly, you shouldn't have much trouble with maintenance. However, with the pros come the cons.

mulching garden conifer bed with pine tree bark mulch

One disadvantage of organic mulching is that it can cause the plants to rot if it comes in contact with their stems. Organic mulch, like hay or straw, can also rot and cause your crops to rot. In addition, decomposed mulch needs to be replaced by adding another layer to the soil. 

We mentioned previously that mulch helps to keep the soil moist. The catch is that you need to put in extra water, as it takes time to reach the roots.

Over-mulching can also suffocate the plants. It can provide too much heat if not applied correctly. 

Picking The Right Mulch

When choosing mulch, go for something that will provide aesthetic value and help your plants grow. Usually, going natural is a better choice.

Organic mulches like leaves, tree bark, hay, and straw are cheap and easy to source compared to non-biodegradable ones. Moreover, they provide a natural appeal to your garden. Stay away from dyed mulch, as it is not as visually appealing.  

Where Should You Use Mulch?

man's hands in gardening gloves are sorting through the chopped wood of trees. Mulching tree trunk circle with wood chips. Organic matter of natural origin

The proper placement of mulch is important. Try not to put mulch around the foundation of your house. Mulch can be a fire hazard and attract insects like termites that will damage your home. 

If you need to add mulch around the foundation of your home, make sure that you put mulch barriers, such as small rocks, in place. You can also use mulch that's not flammable or doesn't attract insects.

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The Benefits and Downside Of Cover Crops

Like mulch, there are also a variety of cover crops you can use for your gardens. Unlike mulch, cover crops are living plants used to cover the soil. They are not usually gathered but are used for soil management. 

Click here to see this cover crop on Amazon.

The Advantages of Cover Crops 

If you're aiming to increase soil fertility, go with a cover crop. A cover crop is called green manure. It is grown before planting crops and then plowed to be incorporated into the soil, thus improving its quality.   

Vineyards in the winter with cover crops

Another way that cover crops help in soil management is by increasing the carbon stored in the soil. The carbon in the soil provides nutrients to plants and helps keep the soil from deteriorating.

Cover crops protect the surface of the soil. They also encourage helpful bacteria to thrive and help keep the soil healthy. Another advantage of cover crops is that they increase water infiltration in the soil. Cover crops are also good for controlling weeds. 

Unlike mulch, cover crops help aerate the soil because they have roots that break up the soil naturally. 

The Disadvantages Of Cover Crops

 Rye field. Ripe grain spikelets. Cover crop and a forage crop. Blue sky background. Agricultural concept. Gramineae.

Cover crops may be more expensive than mulching. They need to be planted, which adds to the cost of labor. They also need to be killed when it is time to plant crops or plants. 

Some cover crops require time and effort, especially if your chosen crop is deeply rooted. Moreover, you will not be able to plant anything immediately after adding a cover crop.

You should wait at least two to four weeks to make sure that the cover crop is broken down by the microorganisms in the soil before planting. This is because these microorganisms digest fresh materials. If you plant or sow seeds immediately, they may be digested along with the cover crop.

Having said that, cover crops may be difficult to incorporate with mechanical manipulation of the soil.  Another disadvantage is the possibility of attracting insects or pests that can impact the actual crops. 

Also, a cover crop may damage other plants by preventing them from growing.  

How To Choose A Cover Crop

No-till soybeans planted in wheat field stubble cover crop. After a wet spring with flooding that delayed planting, a hot, dry summer is stressing crops in parts of the Midwest Cover Crops Vs. Mulch: Which To Choose?

As previously mentioned, there are a variety of cover crops to choose from, and picking one may be difficult. When choosing a cover crop, consider the following:

1. Soil Issues

Identifying any problems with your garden soil will make selecting a cover crop easy. For example, if you need to fix nitrogen levels, plant nitrogen-scavenging crops like radish, rye, or a legume such as peas. 

If you're dealing with soil structure problems, plant a cover crop that aerates the soil, such as mustard or daikon radishes.

2. Easy Termination

Do not pick a crop that is hard to terminate or deeply rooted. You could choose annual ryegrass, which is commonly used with land cultivation. You can also go with clover, which is easily terminated by tilling into the soil.

3. Choose A Crop That Fits Your Region

You can check out the US Hardiness Zones to find out what cover crops are suitable in your area. 

4. Gardening Timeline

You can choose from winter cover crops and warm-season cover crops. The timing of planting should also be taken into consideration. Some crops are better suited to cold temperatures, while others thrive more in warm temperatures.

For example, most grains, like winter rye, wheat, and barley, are planted during fall. Buckwheat, soybeans, and hempseed are planted during summer.

What Is Living Mulch?

Living mulch is planted along with a main crop. It can be called a cover crop, but living mulch is not killed. Instead, it stays with the crop and serves the purpose of mulch. It serves as a companion to your plants or crops. 

Living mulches suppress weed growth and help regulate soil temperature too. 

Summing It All Up

Throughout this post, we discussed the factors you should consider when choosing between a cover crop and a mulch.

Make sure you consider the advantages and disadvantages of both methods when making your decision. Now that you are aware of these facts, you should be able to decide which is more suitable for your gardening needs.

Ultimately, picking one depends on what goal you want to achieve for your garden. 

If you found this post helpful, be sure to check out these other articles:

How To Garden With Mulch [Step-By-Step Guide]

10 Ground Cover Plants That Choke Out Weeds