An important addition to any vegetable garden, living mulch provides food and habitat for beneficial insects, retains moisture, regulates soil temperature, improves soil structure and adds nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
We use dwarf white clover between the vegetables planted in our raised beds to act as a living mulch. Other popular living mulches are alfalfa, hairy vetch, red clover and winter rye. Dwarf white clover is best for our intensive city gardens as it doesn’t grow more than 6 – 8 inches tall.
“A living mulch is a cover crop interplanted or undersown with a main crop, and intended to serve the functions of a mulch, such as weed suppression and regulation of soil temperature. Living mulches grow for a long time with the main crops, whereas cover crops are incorporated into the soil.”
Lets explore the benefits of living mulches more thoroughly:
- Repress weeds: The dense clover shades out and smothers other weeds in your garden
- Retain moisture: Just like regular mulches, the clover will retain moisture in the soil by providing shade and shelter from desiccating wind and sun.
- Regulates temperature: Shelters soil and plant roots from cold spring rains and low temperatures, and shades roots and soil from hot summer sun.
- Add essential nutrients: Clover’s deep taproot brings up and cycles nutrients found deep in the lower levels of your soil. The complex secondary root system, like other legumes will fix nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous into the soil.
- Improves soil structure: Clover’s root system improves friability of soil almost immediately. When the clover dies and is turned into the soil, it adds organic matter.
- Attract beneficial insects: Clover attracts bees and other insects that will then pollinate your flowers and vegetables, and hunt pests in your garden.
It is best to start the clover in your garden a couple of weeks after planting your vegetables to allow them to get a headstart. You don’t want the clover to shade out the vegetables as well as the weeds!
It is best to cut or ‘mow’ your clover once a month down to 1 or 2 inches tall. The clover tops decompose and add nutrients and organic matter to your soil, and this way you are preventing the clover from going to seed and spreading where you don’t want it.
While there is competition between plants, the benefits of biodiversity within any system greatly outweigh the potential disadvantages. Planting a living mulch is companion planting at it’s best: The roots of the clover provide a structure for your vegetable roots to inhabit. The decomposing clover cuttings feed the worms and beneficial microorganisms in your soil. The clover leaves provide shelter for predatory insects and the clover flowers provide food for pollinators. This kind of inter-connectivity is what permaculture is all about.
Want to know more? Check out this great video:
and read some of the research:
“…analysis shows that plant communities with many different species are nearly 1.5 times more productive than those with only one species (such as a cornfield or carefully tended lawn), and ongoing research finds even stronger benefits of diversity when the various other important natural services of ecosystems are considered. Diverse communities are also more efficient at capturing nutrients, light, and other limiting resources.”
(Source: ScienceDaily.com via Virginia Institute of Marine Science)