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I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal mulch* thinking to match the plant! Same goes for composting in place. That’s a good idea for some areas of your garden, other areas not at all!

If you are coastal SoCal, in the marine layer zone, your mulch, or composting in place, may be slowing things down a lot more than you realize. The best melons I’ve ever seen grown at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot!  It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground, clean, above soil level insects.

For more heat, put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Permeable shrubs are the most effective wind barriers. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are Mediterranean heat lovers! Okra is Southern, hot.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi, no more than an inch of loose straw to allow airflow at soil level but keep heat down. Let ‘em dry nearby; water a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Drier soil is not comfy for slugs.

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots. Preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles when your cukes bloom. The radish will provide a living mulch as their leaves shade the cuke roots. Eat a few radish, but let the rest grow out to keep repelling the beetles. In time you can gather their seeds. Plant heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. Slugs and snails like peas and lettuce. You will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it.

Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. In drought areas, plant in basins below the main soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant. Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves anyway. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding the basin, but you will need to keep the basin from filling in. Plant companion littles and fillers in the basin around the base of bigger plants. They will enjoy the cooler damper soil and provide living mulch to keep that soil more cool!

LIVING MULCH  is triple productive! It mulches, provides companion plant advantages, and is a crop all at the same time! Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and bigger companion plants you plant them by. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. Cucumbers under broccoli are living mulch while the brocs repel cucumber beetles! If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. They, cucumbers and strawberries, also have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch.

Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can feed their vine up through the largest tomato cages, cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! Especially preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles! All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

Cooler crops, over summering Broccoli, Kale, Chard like moist and cooler, so mulch deeply very early in spring.

Pallet Garden Strawberries Boards as MulchBoards as mulch! Your strawberries like slightly acidic soil, and acidic mulch – redwood or pine needles. Also, you can lay down boards between mini rows of strawberries to keep the soil moist under the boards, the soil between the rows that the berry roots have access to. It’s a variation on pallet gardening. The advantages of using boards are you can space or remove your boards so you can easily access the soil to add amendments, you can add or remove boards to make a bigger or smaller patch, you can make the boards the length you need or want, space them as needed per the plant. Planting between boards can be used for lots of other plants too if you won’t be planting an understory! As for your strawberries, as they leaf out and get bigger, in addition to the boards, they will be living mulch for themselves!

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Besides wanting to cool your soil, keep moisture in, prevent erosion, keep your crop off the soil and away from bugs, and in the long-term, feed your soil, mulching is also to prevent light germinating weed seeds from sprouting. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum, tomatoes being the exception. Less than that may be pretty, but simply make great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, balanced, doing great!

Mulching is double good on slopes and hillsides. Make rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walk ways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Be sure to anchor your mulch in windy areas -biodegradable anchor stakes are available.  has some clever ideas on how to keep your mulch on a slope. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the sunny side under them, on the uphill side of your berms. Make your terrace wide enough so you don’t degrade the berms by walking on them when you harvest.

If you mulch, make it count!  Mulch with an organic degradable mulch. Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries or blueberries.

COMPOSTING IN PLACE  Build soil right where you need it. Tuck green kitchen waste out of sight under your mulch, where you will plant next. Sprinkle with a little soil if you have some to spare, that inoculates your pile with soil organisms; pour on some compost tea to add some more! Throw on some red wriggler surface feeder worms. Grow yarrow or Russian comfrey (Syphytum x uplandicum) near your compost area so you can conveniently add a few sprigs to your pile to speed decomposition. It will compost quickly, no smells, feeding your soil excellently! If you keep doing it in one place, a nice raised bed will be built there with little effort!

Mulch Straw Plant Now!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, your favorite plant specific amendments. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots (exception is Brassicas), and plant! Yes!

*Mulch is when you can see distinct pieces of the original materials. Finished compost is when there are no distinct pieces left, the material is black and fluffy and smells good.

Mulch is magic when done right!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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If you didn’t mulch, didn’t mulch thick enough, or your mulch is thin and tired, now’s the time to put some down! It keeps your soil cooler, reduces evaporation, you use less water. Mulch prevents light germinating seeds from growing, using up soil nutrients and your soil.      

Big weeds – if healthy with no pests, chop and drop – that can also include your spent big plants, tops that have bolted, ones you no longer want. Toss the heavy stems into your long-term compost or green waste disposal. Chop and drop practice makes perfect pure guaranteed organic mulch. Remember, you won’t be doing chop and drop with Brassicas that have poisons that kill small seeds like lettuce seeds.      

Little weeds – get ‘em before they seed. If you see flowers, no matter how cute, pretty, and tiny, tiny seeds are very soon to follow. Every one of those is a new little weed that will need weeding, eats up your time weeding, again, and soil. Grass, with that pretty little plume? Those are flowering, seeding. The wind will blow them about. DO NOT pull and lay them on your soil to regrow right there. Remove them, not even into your compost pile, especially if you are not doing hot compost. Even then, it’s not likely every part of your compost pile will get hot enough to kill those little survivor seeds.      

Pigweed, Lamb's Quarter - Chenopodium, Nutrient Accumulator

When you pull little weeds, and you want to use them for mulch, leave them with their roots up, not down where they may grab what soil they can and grow again. One way to instant ‘weed’ tiny weeds in soft soil, is to use a knife, thin blade or stick, and poke/cut them down, push them into your soil. Instant mulch! Works better than raking or hoeing because that dries out your soil, and exposes more light germinating seeds so they can grow too, more weeding.      

Good weedsGardeners, we can reduce or eliminate fertilizer costs and improve soil naturally with plants that are “dynamic, or nutrient, accumulators.” Often they have long tap roots that gather nutrients deep in our soil and make them available to other plants. Some are very nutritious!  You can steam them or eat tasty young tender leaves in salads!      

Pigweed/lamb’s quarters, comfrey, dandelion, garlic, yarrow (also helps heat, decompose your compost more quickly!), fennel, purslane, buckwheat, parsley, peppermint, chamomile, stinging nettle, thistle, vetch, plantains, are all nutrient accumulators! Yes, several of those are ‘weeds,’ but now you will never think of them quite the same way again!

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Another weed that isn’t a weed! 


Purslane, Highest in Omega-3

Purslane, Highest in Omega-3

Purslane, (Portulaca oleracea) is an annual originally from India but long grown as a vegetable in China, England, and even in Australia by the Aborigines. It thrives in full sun, poor soil and drought. No known insect or disease problems.  Garden purslane is upright, a cleaner harvest, not the little mat plant.  In good conditions, it grows over a foot tall!  Pinch off tops to get it to ‘bush.’  Once started, let it self sow.  The ground cover type is also edible though not as convenient.    

Purslane Power!  Purslane contains one of the highest known concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids — five times the concentration in spinach.  Chickens grazing on purslane produce high omega-3 eggs.  In Mexico, called verdolaga, it is eaten in omelets, as a side dish, rolled in tortillas, or dropped by handfuls into soups and stews.  I simply add it raw to salads.  Precaution:  Individuals with a history of kidney stones should use purslane with caution as it may increase kidney filtration, urine production, and possibly cause a stone to move.  Purslane injection induces powerful contractions of the uterus, but oral purslane is said to weaken uterine contractions. Avoid use during pregnancy.   

Mary Lynn Schlomkowitz, Plot 42, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, says:  Enjoy your fresh herbs – OREGANO is a favorite of her family!   


Harvest long stems of it (full length and this will vary depending on plant size.)  Rinse off dust, strip the leaves off the bottom of the stems for about 4 inches and place them in water.  You will have fresh oregano for several days.  Chop the stripped leaves for cooking or to add to the top of a salad.         If you picked a lot of stems, you may want to dry some leaves and store them in a tight jar in a dark cupboard.  Set them to dry between paper towels in a sunny indoors spot.  The top paper towel keeps the leaves from turning black as they dry.        Fresh herbs are delicious and now I understand why people in northern climes in earlier times eagerly awaited spring so they could resume eating fresh herbs.  They are also nutritious.  We are so spoiled in the Santa Barbara area that we can enjoy fresh herbs year round. 

Enjoy great health and tasty feasting!

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