Best mulch for containers

pepper_lover(6)June 3, 2007


I realize this question has probably been asked a million times, but what is the best mulch medium for container plants? I grow only tomatoes and peppers, and it gets hot and dry here in southwest Idaho in the summer.

I've read in some of the GW forums that organic mulch, like bark chips or old Maple leaves, encourage pill bugs and other pests. True? If so, what about sand as a mulch? Black or other colored plastic?

Thanks, Russ

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jenny_in_se_pa(USDA7 Sunset 32)

I don't know if one can say there is a "best mulch" because it will depend on the person's climate and growing practices (watering, cultivating, etc). You have to experiment a bit to see what works best. I use a myriad of mulches for my plants here (hot, humid, muggy climate in summer and cold wet winters) depending on the plant.

Many who grow veggies like tomatoes/peppers do use plastic but that also depends on the climate and whether there is some way that water will be able to reach the plants underneath (whether a drip irrigation system is installed or the container is bottom or self watered via a wick or pipe, or there are holes punched in the plastic for rain or other water to get in). Note too that plastics that are clear or black tend to heat up the soil more than other types.

Sand/gravel is often used for some trees, xeric plants, cactuses, and succulents, but these plants often either have surface roots or send tap roots down deep to get their water. This type of mulch does help to reduce the incidence of gnat species like fungus gnats that can breed in soil. Sand and fine gravel (or equivalent inorganics like turface, other volcanic rock, etc) seem to be easier to handle and deal with for smaller containers and plants. But note that these tend to heat up in the sun as well and that's a consideration that one would need to take into account.

For my veggies, I have used pine needles in the past (which are slow to break down but are airy enough to let water in and I don't usually see things crawling on it) and I have been using shredded newspaper the past couple years because I had it around and both have worked for me for the veggies. Straw (as opposed to hay which often is filled with seeds) may work as well, although it's hard to find in small quantiles for container use except maybe in October for Halloween. LOL I use Right Dress licorice root mulch for most of the rest of my shrubs and perennials (blueberries get shredded oak leaves when I can get them) and my tropicals often have their own leaves as mulch (eg., my coffee) or will get some bark chips (my tropical hibiscus).

Whether you grow in a pot or in the ground, you still have to expect insects or even crustaceans like pillbugs, sowbugs, etc., and your goal should be to grow healthy plants that will hopefully not succumb to the worst pests. If you start with a good container mix, you limit the possibility of bringing home some of the soil-dwellers that don't have the ability to fly in (like the sowbugs), but you won't be able to stop everything (including those that can just crawl right in). And as a note, they usually aren't harmful except perhaps to nearby young seedlings and plants as they tend to congregate around natural decaying materials.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 9:12AM
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hitexplanter(8 a)

The only time I have a pillbug problem with containers is when they are in contact with the soil. My deck is 15 feet in the air and this eliminates them from being a problem regardless of mulch used. This year I am putting landscape fabric on drain holes for my containers and this may help with the sow bugs that come in thru this route. They do get thru the newspaper I used to use for this purpose. I also would consider alfalfa hay as a mulch for your containers or in the garden for maters and peppers. Don't put in on too thick so as to allow the media to breathe and for water to flow thru at each watering. I have read on the organic forum that bark mulches are best for trees and shrubs, and that vegatative matter (leaves, straw, hay, etc.:) is best for flowers and veggies. I have used bark mulch pine, or cedar for tomatoes in past years and they have done fine for me. I like many of us continue to experiment to optimize our personal results.
Hope this is of some help.
Happy Growing David

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 9:32AM
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jenny_in_se_pa(USDA7 Sunset 32)

David - my balcony is almost 150 ft in the air and that doesn't eliminate the problem. ;) They can come in the soil of purchased, non-barerooted plants but would agree that for those closer to the ground, keeping pots directly off of it is a good practice - including using pot feet or some way to raise them up (which also allows better drainage). However they do have many legs and can crawl. I expect they are less a problem in general in hot dry areas because as crustaceans (with gills) they prefer moist conditions.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 9:43AM
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hitexplanter(8 a)

This has been the wettest spring in this part of Texas I have seen in my 11 years here. I have rarely had to water my Al's type mix and yet I have not had but a few pill bugs and this is after planting some of my containers that were at ground level and had some pillbug problems until I trasnplanted then and moved them up on the deck. I realize this is ancedotal evidence but too me its says that even with infested pots it still wasn't a problem after the move and it was somewhat of a problem before the move. BTW, I have heard more complaints about pillbugs this year here in Texas than any other in the last 11 years. I just don't seem to have any pillbug issues on my deck and have thousands of thousands of the guys in the soil and cruising anywhere that they can get to (to get dry:) as the next bout of rains come thru. They have still not been that much of a problem for the containers left on the ground down below but do seem to cause some damage. (Just not enough for me to get too worked up about.
I don't want to be in any disagreement but to offer my experience to use or not as anyone sees fit. SW Idaho is quite dry as is the Hill Country of Texas most years.
I agree with all you stated earlier other than the alfalfa hay I have used over the years have never given me a weed seed problem, nor has the bark mulches seem to slow my production of tomatoes down. A best mulch for a given purpose is highly subjective and depends on too many variables to do more than offer ideas from personal experiences IMHO.
Happy Growing David

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 10:30AM
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I would agree, too, there may not be a best mulch but one that suits the plant in question and the objectives of the gardener. To mulch or not to mulch and with what would depend on the characteristics of the plant, the enviornment, the growing condition, and various factors and preferences. Under my circumstance - containers growing in TX and in shade on an east-facing balcony, for example, I personally don't need to mulch. If what I do is considered mulching, I topdress with homemade composts (will get to vermicomposting eventually) to provide some micronutrients and reduce the splattering and lost of potting mix and perlite from storms and down-pour in Texas. I also stack my planters for intensive planting and to conserve moisture.

I'm not growing my hot peppers with plastic covers (for rain water and needed space and direct sunlight to harden other containers of seedlings), and the hot peppers are growing profusely and very large. I just need to figure out how to make them hot. Tips and thoughts?

Many large retailed self-watering containers come with plastic covering to keep a constant ideal growing condition and micro-climate for growing tomatoes (and other moisture-loving crops). Thus, you could grow your tomatoes covered with plastics if you wish; black side to let in more heat and the white side to reduce heat.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 6:59PM
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Thanks everyone! You all have got me thinking that perhaps I should experiment with various mulches (the exception being plastic because of breathability).

I have a suplus of pine needles, so I'm going to try that with a couple of the pots. I also have some fine pine bark, so I'll try that on a couple of the others.

BTW, it appears that sw Idaho may already be heading for drought conditions this year. You folks in Texas, PLEASE send us some of your rain asap (:-o

Anyway, thanks again. This is my first year container gardening, and I appreciate the feedback!


    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 8:33PM
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jenny_in_se_pa(USDA7 Sunset 32)

Yeah - you Texans have really been inundated this year. Feast or famine! I know folks down there are bracing for the usual flame to get turned on soon! LOL

I actually don't mulch my peppers (I grew and overwintered a bunch of habs for 5 years and finally got tired of them and tossed them and have a Giant Marconi hybrid this year). I have heard good things about alfalfa hay (which is also a good amendment) and coastal bermuda hay. But if one doesn't have access to those, then straw would be a bit better (although sometimes straw isn't weedless either).

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 8:35PM
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shredded, moist, paper works well

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 10:43PM
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hitexplanter(8 a)

What types of peppers are you growing that aren't providing you heat. I personally have never had that problem and am curious as to what might be going on?
I have not played with pine needles but would if I had ready access. This is a part of the mulch or container media question. What is readily avalaible and economically feasible for you to use where you are? Answer this and you have a starting point to work from. We all face these challenges and thru discussions like this we find ideas that we may not of thought of and to me this is why I participate in these forums, to share and learn outside my immediate scope of thinking. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but learning that is what excites me. That and bringing in a better pepper or tomato or (fill in the blank) because someone else, some where else, shared an idea that I hadn't thought of that way or used that way before.
Good Luck, Happy Growing and share your experience with us so we all can learn together. David

    Bookmark   June 4, 2007 at 8:02AM
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I'm growing both sweet peppers (bell and Lipstick) as well as Anaheim, NuMex Big Jim, and habanero hots.

I guess that I thought, being a newbie at this, that mulch was preferred in vegetable containers to prevent rapid water loss thru evaporation. But perhaps I'm worrying about it too much.

I do appreciate everyone's input. It's invaluable to us beginners as we learn the ropes!

Thanks David!

    Bookmark   June 5, 2007 at 12:13AM
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Hi hitexplanter,

Thanks for asking. It's either a version of Thai from the supermarket or the Goat Horn from my seed packet. This one survived the first harsh and improper overwintering (mix of lost label or being moved w/o my permission while still overwintering - so much for my experiment).

I checked the Hot Pepper and the Chili Pepper forums for corroborating clues, and it appears that underwatering hot peppers to the point of them slightly wilting b/t watering increases the heat of the peppers. This explanation would be consistent with the lack of heat problem with my otherwise healthy and fruit-bearing pepper plant due to the weeks of non-stop rain we have been getting. You think?

    Bookmark   June 5, 2007 at 2:07AM
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hitexplanter(8 a)

I guess from what I recall I have had my habenero's water stressed a few times each season for my not watching their needs. I think it seems a stretch but if many folks have found this to be their experience then maybe there is something to it. I think the more plausible explaination is a different seed that is not a hot or not as hot as you may think it is.
Best guess but if they are in containers it is easier to water-stress test than not and I would give it a try to verify. Can't hurt and maybe it will provide and answer to your question.
Happy Growing David

    Bookmark   June 5, 2007 at 8:49AM
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In my country, we add chicken manure to hot peppers to make it really hot. I don't know if that works here, though.


    Bookmark   June 6, 2007 at 12:59PM
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