Ask a Question forum: How to use mulch and compost? (Mega newbie/stupid question warning!)

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Name: Kelly Inglett
Georgia (Zone 7b)
KellyI
Jul 11, 2016 9:36 AM CST
I'm missing something really obvious. I see that you're supposed to fertilize with (ideally) compost, and that you also want to put mulch on top of your soil to keep it from drying out. But if you have mulch on top, how do you add your compost to the soil periodically? Are there things that can do double duty (as in lay it down as mulch, then later mix it in to the soil and add more back on top as mulch)?

FYI, I'm in zone 7b, and I'm attempting to grow vegetables in a raised bed (due to my ground being all GA red clay).

Thanks in advance! Again, sorry for the stupid question. I have the brownest thumb on the earth but really want to get the hang of doing this well.
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Name: Hetty
Sunny Naples, Florida (Zone 10a)
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Dutchlady1
Jul 11, 2016 9:39 AM CST
Welcome! Kellyl to the wonderful world of gardening. Someone more familiar with your zone and what you're growing will give you a good answer I'm sure.
The only stupid questions are the ones you don't ask, by the way Hilarious!
Name: Cindy
Hobart, IN zone 5
aka CindyMzone5
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Shadegardener
Jul 11, 2016 10:02 AM CST
Kelly - if you have enough compost, it can do double duty. Mulch - not sure what type you're using. If shredded leaves put down in the spring when you plant your raised bed, it will break down and encourage earthworm activity but not as nutrient-rich as compost. If wood mulch, better not to dig that into the soil. Theoretically, you would have to pull the wood mulch aside, add a layer of compost, and then recover with the mulch.
Name: Robyn
Minnesota (Zone 4a)
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robynanne
Jul 11, 2016 10:37 AM CST
Shadegardener said:Kelly - if you have enough compost, it can do double duty. Mulch - not sure what type you're using. If shredded leaves put down in the spring when you plant your raised bed, it will break down and encourage earthworm activity but not as nutrient-rich as compost. If wood mulch, better not to dig that into the soil. Theoretically, you would have to pull the wood mulch aside, add a layer of compost, and then recover with the mulch.


that brings up an interesting question for me. I have wood mulch over my berry bushes and hay over my tomato plants. The berries I obviously leave growing, but overtime the mulch will break down and I'd need to keep refreshing it. Do I just pile the new stuff on top? Rake off the old stuff before putting on new? Then I don't know what I'd do with the old stuff though..

I had been intending on raking off all the hay and tossing it into the compose but now that I write this - I don't like to compose things that have been in the dirt under tomatoes. I might just rake up the hay and burn it this fall.
Name: Cindy
Hobart, IN zone 5
aka CindyMzone5
Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
Shadegardener
Jul 11, 2016 10:47 AM CST
Robyn - I know some folks are very cautious about even putting tomato plants or fruit into compost piles for fear of transferring disease. Other folks - not so much. Same with potatoes. As for your wood mulch, maybe just a thin, refreshing layer on top of the old? I wouldn't go more than 2" deep in total.
Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
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Newyorkrita
Jul 11, 2016 10:53 AM CST
I never compost my tomato plants or clippings, I make sure those are bagged and taken away. If your out in the country you could probably burn them.

The old hay under the tomato plants I either turn under (rarely do that) or rake up and put out in my backyard woodsy area.

If I am going to put a think layer of compost down in the Fall then I might just lay that over the old straw.
Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
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Newyorkrita
Jul 11, 2016 10:54 AM CST
The mulch breaks down so that this springs mulch will need to be renewed next spring. So you put down your compost then your mulch. By the time your ready to re do it next year it breaks down.
Name: Porkpal
Richmond, TX
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porkpal
Jul 11, 2016 11:21 AM CST
I do what I call composting in place. I put all sorts of organic material on top of the soil in my garden as mulch and allow it to break down over time to feed the plants as it becomes compost. Not highly ornamental, perhaps, but minimal effort involved.
Porkpal
Name: stone
near Macon Georgia (USA) (Zone 8a)
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stone
Jul 11, 2016 11:39 AM CST
Hey Kellyl...
Welcome to the site.
I'm jealous of your red clay, best soil in the state! I'm totally serious..
I'm in the upland sand hills... And if you have a moment... Google it... Will make you appreciate your clay.

Anyway...
For veggies, mulching with compost is fine... Adding hay on top of the mulch will help prevent the sun from burning the nutrients and organic matterial out of the compost...

In Georgia we have to worry about a host of things that people north of us have never even heard of...
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
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Weedwhacker
Jul 11, 2016 7:57 PM CST
Welcome to NGA, @KellyI !

You didn't say what type of mulch you are using (or thinking of using), but for a veggie garden I would recommend something that will break down and add organic matter to your soil (which I would think would be helpful for that red clay soil). My garden originally had very heavy clay-loam soil that always had standing water af, but over the years we've incorporated enough grass clippings, leaves, etc. that it is now loose and well draining. I mainly use grass clippings (from our rather large lawn) as mulch during the summer, and add a lot of leaves along with more clippings in the fall; over the course of the winter most of it has broken down, and what's left I can rake aside for planting and fertilizing. For some plants I add compost to the planting holes (especially tomatoes), for others I just side-dress with the compost and rake the mulch back over them.

I'm not sure whether the grass clippings would be a good mulch for you; some southern gardeners have mentioned that they don't use them because they cause grass to sprout up all over their garden. I think they were talking about Bermuda grass? Ours is mainly bluegrass and fescue. (This must be one of those things Stone was talking about that northerners have never heard of!) At any rate, a mulch will definitely help conserve the moisture in your soil, as well as suppressing weeds (and the weeds that do grow are usually much easier to remove).

Happy gardening! Smiling
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Name: Cheryl
Kingwood, Texas (Zone 9a)
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ShadyGreenThumb
Jul 11, 2016 8:58 PM CST
I use cut up (lawn mower) leaves, grass clippings, and pulverized pine bark mulch. In one season, all of it breaks down essentially turning into compost. I replace the mulch as needed as some will wash away. It s both decorative, functional in that it keeps weeds down and water in, and as it breaks down it's good for the soil. Over the years, the soil in my flower beds have become rich , dark and wormy with the breakdown of these items over time. Welcome! Welcome!

I don't grow veggies but I do put mulch in my citrus pots.
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Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
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dyzzypyxxy
Jul 12, 2016 1:26 PM CST
Kelly, as with most things, it depends upon a few factors. First how coarse is your mulch, and second how hot and humid is your weather, for how long each year? Those two factors amongst others will determine how fast your mulch breaks down to compost.

Down here, a few hundred miles south of you, my Florimulch wood chip mulch dependably breaks down after about a year. But if I use large pine bark nuggets, it takes two years.

So, the answer is, if the mulch is still pretty recognizable as wood chips when you are ready to add more compost, just rake it or scrape it back from around your plants, add your compost and then re-distribute it over the compost again.

Btw, using just compost might not be quite enough to feed your vegetables until you get your soil richness built up. Might take a few years, so find an organic fertilizer you're comfortable with, and use that in the meantime. Nothing is more disappointing than to put in the work to grow vegetables and get a meager harvest.
Elaine

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Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
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Weedwhacker
Jul 12, 2016 7:16 PM CST
dyzzypyxxy said:
Btw, using just compost might not be quite enough to feed your vegetables until you get your soil richness built up. Might take a few years, so find an organic fertilizer you're comfortable with, and use that in the meantime. Nothing is more disappointing than to put in the work to grow vegetables and get a meager harvest.


I agree

"Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself, for he shall never cease to be entertained."
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Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
Jul 12, 2016 10:22 PM CST
robynanne said:

that brings up an interesting question for me. I have wood mulch over my berry bushes and hay over my tomato plants. The berries I obviously leave growing, but overtime the mulch will break down and I'd need to keep refreshing it. Do I just pile the new stuff on top? Rake off the old stuff before putting on new? Then I don't know what I'd do with the old stuff though..

I had been intending on raking off all the hay and tossing it into the compose but now that I write this - I don't like to compose things that have been in the dirt under tomatoes. I might just rake up the hay and burn it this fall.

The berry bushes I would just keep putting new mulch over the old.
My roses where the soil is not disturbed by burying I just put new mulch over the old when I used to use eucalyptus mulch and the same when I still used cypress; I do put some Serenade or Sonata on to kill disease but the mulch will just rot away into soil quicker than you think.

Depending on how energetic I am; I either dig a hole, at least twelve inches deep and bury the tomatoes or put them on my cold compost pile and let them sit there till spring when they get covered with leaves. I let the pile usually sit for two to four years. The pile is only about six by four feet wide by four feet high and you will be amazed how much stuff you can pile before it is permanently full.
I fill it in spring with some of the leaves that covered my roses and by this time of year always drops from one to two feet, although I do hop on to stomp it down till it will stomp no more and I usually use a compost boost product.
I bury my potato plants and on some occasions put the tomatoes in the same holes.
When I bury either potato or tomato, I scrape with a flat shovel all dirt within about two feet into the hole before I put the dead plant in and stomp it down before covering.

[Last edited by RpR - Jul 14, 2016 9:14 AM (+)]
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Name: Kelly Inglett
Georgia (Zone 7b)
KellyI
Jul 14, 2016 8:58 AM CST
OMG! So many replies!!! I had asked it to email me when there were replies, and I got no emails, so I had no idea these were sitting here! LOL.

Thank you so much - reading through them now!
Total gardening newbie - be gentle! Smiling
Name: Kelly Inglett
Georgia (Zone 7b)
KellyI
Jul 14, 2016 9:04 AM CST
Ok, done reading now. Thank you so much for the excellent answers! So I'm leaning away from using wood chips and will instead use something that will break down - just to avoid having to rake back the mulch to add the compost/fertilizer.

I'm very excited to get started on this - and also have low expectations for my first couple of seasons, so if it all goes to crap, I'll just consider it a learning experience. LOL. I also plan on taking some agriculture courses at the local tech school in the next couple of years, because I want to get REALLY good at this.

Thanks again, everyone!
Total gardening newbie - be gentle! Smiling
Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
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dyzzypyxxy
Jul 14, 2016 9:08 AM CST
@dave Kelly got no notifications, although she asked for them. Maybe a problem?

There have been several other OP's on this forum that have not come back for their replies, too.
Elaine

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." –Winston Churchill
Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Jul 14, 2016 11:17 AM CST

Garden.org Admin

I checked the logs and this user did not check off the box asking for email notifications.
Name: Kelly Inglett
Georgia (Zone 7b)
KellyI
Jul 14, 2016 12:00 PM CST
Whoops, sorry! I really thought I had. Smiling Thanks for checking!
Total gardening newbie - be gentle! Smiling
Name: Ken Ramsey
Starkville, MS (Zone 8a)
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drdawg
Jul 14, 2016 12:58 PM CST
@Kellyl, if your red clay is like mine here in NE Mississippi, it is basically good for absolutely nothing. About the only things that can grow roots through it are trees (think oak and cedar). When it is wet, it is like thick, gooey mud and when dry, it is as hard as concrete. Nothing, and I mean nothing drains through it. I could dig a hole 10' deep (and still be in solid clay), fill it up with water, and use it as a swimming pool..........no liner necessary. Whistling

I use hardwood mulches in all my beds and it typically will break down to compost every year. Worms seem to love it when it breaks down, layer upon layer. I have never used pine mulch but I assume it breaks down similarly to hardwood.
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