Advice on mulching from Stephanie Hafferty

Posted Friday, 26 August 2022, 12.18pm

No Dig bed
Spinach hummous
Steph Hafferty - No Dig gardener, garden & food writer

Here at Ael Y Bryn, I am creating a productive homestead on just under half an acre, almost entirely by myself, using different kinds of mulches and no dig gardening methods. My aim is to (eventually!) be around 80% self sufficient in fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers. Since moving here in March 2021 I have made many no dig beds on top of weedy grass mostly using card covered with 5cm of compost, often making the new bed just before planting or sowing.

An unusual summer

Since spring, the weather has been unusually dry and at times very hot which has been causing all kinds of problems for home gardeners including soil drying out and cracking, plants dying or bolting, an increase in pest damage and having to spend a lot of time watering veg beds.

Although there are some signs of plant stress here caused by the hot, dry weather (mainly trees showing autumn colour earlier than usual), my garden is still lush, green and abundant thanks to mulches. The surface looked dry, yet the soil underneath was retaining moisture.

Compost mulches conserve moisture

Most of the beds here have been mulched with peat free compost, mainly Dalefoot Veg compost (the one in the green sack). This helps prevent water from evaporating from the soil, keeping it in the earth for the plant roots and soil life for far longer than if there is no mulch protecting the surface of the soil.

Wool naturally helps to retain moisture and having that as one of the ingredients in the Dalefoot veg compost seems to be helping the compost from drying out too quickly. I’ve been making some new beds here during the recent period of hot weather (early in the morning, I don’t garden in the blazing sunshine) using card on the weedy grass. After watering this throughly, I mulched with 5cm compost, watered that and then sowed seeds and planted small transplants. I was impressed how despite very high temperatures the compost held the moisture. The plants have all thrived (except for one that was munched by a slug!) and the seeds have started germinating.

Mulches feed the soil

A compost mulch also has the extra benefit of feeding the soil life and plants. In most cases* there is no need to use any other feeds even for ‘hungry feeders’ such as squash and tomatoes. So you’re saving time with less watering and no extra feeding - especially useful for gardeners growing away from home on allotments, or with busy work and life schedules.

Other mulches (see below) also feed the soil, but more slowly, as they break down.

*Some composts, such as some municipal waste composts, can be very low in nutrients and require extra feeds.

When to mulch?

If your plot is looking very dry, now is a good time to mulch. 1-2 cm of compost (or other mulch) will help conserve moisture in the ground, and help the soil to repair itself.

If you can’t get enough compost to mulch the whole of the bed now, concentrate on spreading a little around the plant stems to protect that area.

Any rainfall will go through the compost layer into the ground below.

Get the mulching routine

I mulch my veg beds annually with 1-2 cm compost, usually in the wintertime (because it’s a nice job to do on a cold day) but any time of year is fine. This is spread on the surface and left for the soil life to gradually incorporate into the ground, feeding the plants and soil life for a year.

Looking forwards, it is a good idea to mulch everything by the spring if you can, to help conserve moisture in the ground before the main sowing and planting commences in the spring.

Different kinds of compost mulches

You can use any kind of compost to mulch beds.

If you’re using bagged composts, I always recommend using peat free compost because of the environmental damage caused by industries digging up peat from peat bogs. Check the label carefully to make sure that there is no peat in the ingredients. I like to use composts that are free from chemical fertilisers and other additives too.

Homemade compost is fantastic stuff, and free.

Municipal waste compost is usually available either in sacks or bulk orders. This can work well as a mulch but can dry out quickly. If you find that to be the case, avoid sowing into it until the compost has matured on the surface of the bed for six month or so.

Composted manures are often available from farmers and horse stables. Check in your area. It should be dark and crumbly before use.

Composted wood chip is fantastic for the soil, and especially enjoyed by soil fungi.

Mushroom compost is another that can be available in bulk. It works fine as a mulch but can contain peat, so do check first.

Other mulches

Some of these mulches would normally create a slug habitat here in the UK, but during hot dry weather they are a useful and free way to conserve moisture and protect plants.

Fresh leaf mulches such as grass clippings and comfrey leaves are ideal for larger plants and potatoes.

‘Chop and drop’ non-flowering weeds and plant matter (such as leaves left from harvesting veg) on the beds.

Wood chip is great for perennials such as fruit bushes and flower borders.

Sheep ‘dags’ form a protective layer over the soil and are ideal for established plants. ‘Dags’ are the soiled parts of the fleece which are otherwise discarded after shearing.

Nice weather for slugs?

When the weather becomes wetter again, slugs and snails will start their slithering in greater numbers, so if you’ve mulched plants susceptible to munching by these creatures with non-composted mulches, rake it up and add to your compost heap. This helps to prevent creating a cosy habitat for slugs and snails right next to your lettuces.

Seasonal Hummus Recipe

I make hummus year round, using whatever vegetables I am harvesting. This is a great way of using up vegetables lurking in the fridge, too.

Veg suggestions:

Cooked - squash, beetroot, parsnip, carrot, onion, swede, sweet pepper, kale, tomatoes, courgette

Raw - spinach, kale, tomatoes, courgette, cucumber, beetroot

Herbs - French tarragon, basil, coriander, dill, parsley


250g seasonal vegetables

1 x 400g can chickpeas (use the chickpeas and the liquid - known as aquafaba)

1 lemon, juiced

4 tbsp tahini

2-3 tbsp olive oil (or other light oil, such as rapeseed)

1-3 garlic cloves, depending on your tastebuds

2 tbsp chopped fresh seasonal herbs (or 1 tsp dried)

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp ground cumin

sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Place everything except the olive oil into a food processor. Turn on and whizz into a puree, gradually adding a little olive oil. If the veg ingredients are very moist you’ll need less oil, if they are drier you may need to add a little more oil, or a tablespoon or two of water.

Taste and season. Whizz again, taste and add a little more salt and pepper if needed.

The hummus will keep for a few days in the fridge. It freezes well.

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