What kind of mulch is everyone using for their tomatoes?

anne_ncApril 23, 2007

I was wondering what everyone is using as far as mulch for their tomatoes. I was thinking about straw but I wanted to be sure and use the type that doesn't have any weed seed.

Anyone have any suggestions?

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Anything you can get your hands on. Shredded bark mulch, shredded leaves, grass clippings, shredded newspaper, etc.

Try freecycle.org in your area for free grass clippings and other materials, call tree trimming companies, ask neighbors.

The issue with straw are seeds which might sprout and cause problems. Make sure you know what you're getting:

When using hay or straw, you need to know your source and exactly what is in the bales.

Hay and Straw Glossary
A popular organic mulch, hay is commonly used to protect soil and plants from the elements, to line pathways, and to address various needs in the garden. What many people don�t realize, however, is that various products are often labeled as "hay" at garden centers, but there are many different types of hay and straw that are commonly sold in bales. While they are easily confused, it�s important for gardeners to become familiar with the differences.

Salt hay
Salt hay, or Spartina patens, is a grassy plant that grows in salt marshes and wetlands. Martha has long used salt hay in her gardens. It is useful for keeping weeds from growing in paths, preventing runoff, and keeping soil from turning into mud whenever it rains or the garden is watered. A layer of salt hay will keep soil moist and encourage worms to come to the surface, which will help to aerate the soil. It also makes an attractive path to walk on between garden rows. Salt hay is an ideal all-purpose mulch because its seeds won�t grow away from salt water�so it won�t germinate in your garden.

Golden straw
What is commonly termed "Golden straw" is either oat straw, Avena, or wheat straw, Triticum. This straw is a by-product of the process of separating oat or wheat seeds from their stalks. Golden straw is often used as bedding in horse stalls; because there are no seeds, the horses won�t eat it. This straw spreads nicely, and the lack of seeds means there is no risk of it germinating in your garden. It can be used in the same way as salt hay.

Wheat straw
An excellent choice for straw for use in the vegetable garden. Lay down six inches in height in the fall then direct sow seeds in the spring. No need to dig. There will be a handful of weak sprouts from seeds, just pull them out.

Feed hay
Just as its name implies, feed hay is used to feed livestock. Though inexpensive and plentiful, it is not a good choice for use in gardens because it is full of seeds. The main ingredient of feed hay is alfalfa, Medicago sativa. It also frequently contains flowers and seeds from many other plants and weeds such as clover and golden rod. These seeds are likely to germinate, resulting in a garden full of weeds rather than flowers and vegetables.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2007 at 11:56AM
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alicate(SW Michigan, zone 5)

Nothing here yet as it would only cool the soil. I'll mulch in June when things are really hot. Now I have flat dark rocks (like slate only cheap) around my tomatoes. It kills anything growing and gives heat to the tomatoes at night. I got the idea from Eliot Coleman's book. Since I'm in Michigan and tomatoes aren't normally planted until Memorial Day, I also have them growing in a hoophouse I made over the raised bed.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2007 at 1:14PM
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Thanks for your help. The Salt Hay sounds interesting, haven't heard about that one. Wonder where I could find some?

    Bookmark   April 23, 2007 at 2:14PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

yep pretty much anything but mainly for us sugar cane mulch or any of the spoilt hays that are around.


Here is a link that might be useful: len's garden page

    Bookmark   April 23, 2007 at 3:59PM
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Ask around at your local farm supply stores and garden centers. I use grass clippings because my neighbors give it to me free. So it's what is readily available and at lowest cost to me.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 10:48PM
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I use grass clippings because they are in abundant supply and very easy to apply. The only problem I've had is that the mulch cover tends to be TOO efficient and sheds water. My grass is a fine Bermuda so that's probably why. A coarser grass might be a little more permeable.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 10:51PM
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I am doing an experiment to see what works for me. On one set I have them in ground with some black landscapers fabric and the other is in a raised bed with free mulch of shredded leaves from the local dump. I was so excited when I found out our dump composts. There is one pile of compost, one pile of leaves/grass and one of wood chips. LOL at least my tax dollars go to something. Anyway I have seen no difference at all between the tomatoes, both groups are over 4 feet tall and have small little green fruit.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 11:43PM
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Stupid question, but why do you mulch tomatoes? I have grown them for years without mulch - would they grow even better with mulch? I would love to mulch to keep the weeds down, but because I till the soil every year, I wouldn't want to mix it into the soil.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 11:49PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

4-6 inches of hay. More when I can get it. ;)


    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 11:50PM
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I use mulch for my tomatoes because right now we are going thru a 40+ days without rain and the temps for the past week have been around 98 - 101 degrees. I use hay bought from the previous year. It has a chance to sit under snow all winter and rot a little. The following spring it's ready to use and no seed sprouting.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 12:09AM
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lelia(Northern Cal)

I use alfalfa hay, about 6", and have no problems with weeds. I use it to reduce watering needs, and boy has it! I live in an area where there is no summer rain, so it's important to conserve water. Also, I don't want to dilute the flavor of the tomatoes by watering too much, which is what happened last year with daily drip irrigation and no mulch. Tomatoes last year were better than store bought, but nothing special. It'll be interesting to see how this works, because I haven't appreciated a tomato in years, and think that store bought heirlooms are bland. I hope my taste buds aren't morphing into something that can't appreciate a fine tomato..... yikes!

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 12:46AM
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I collect the "decorative" straw bales people use for holidays. They usually go out to the curb between Halloween and Thanksgiving. They stay out all winter. Use about 10-12 every year. When the bales sprout I turn them. Really havenÂt had many problems with seed germination once it goes on the garden. Look close when you take the bales apart, one contained a family of slugs. Made me think twice about using this stuff.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 6:53AM
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Homemade Compost! I can never make enough though I make it constantly. This summer's new compost piles will end up being used to mulch next Spring's newly planted tomatoes. It's not only a good slow release fertilizer but it also protects the lower leaves from soil splash-back during heavy rains which seems to help delay soil born blight making for a longer living more productive plant. In fact, when rain splashes on the compost mulch it creates it's own compost tea shower ;o).

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 8:06AM
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ben_950(5b West MI)

I'm using black plastic for the first time this year, and my tomatoes are bigger and greener then ever before, and full of fruit. There is a considerable improvement from the newspaper/straw mulch I used to use. It's a real pain to put down the plastic (I bury the edges under the dirt), but it's well worth it.

Next year I plan to try the red plastic for comparison.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 10:57AM
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Since nobody mentioned plastic mulch, I'll pipe in with many of the advantages:

1. It comes in an array of colors and predetermined widths and thicknesses. Black is the color of choice.

2. It is much easier to put down than organic forms; I layed almost two miles of 4' plastic in a few hours this spring.

3. It warms the soil much better than rocks.

4. It retains soil moisture by creating an impenetrable barrier.

5. NO weed seeds. The only other product that comes close is newspaper.

6. It can be recycled into plastic lumber, etc.

7. It is healthier to use; no dust, mold or pollen to worry about. No string burns, back sprains or blisters from opening and forking hay or straw bales.

8. With labor and materials calculated it is the cheapest per sq. ft. of all the mulches to use. I may get an argument from people using lawn clippings but plastic will roll out in a fraction of the time it takes to spread lawn clippings= labor saved.

9. One thin layer means that it is easy to plant into it and it will not only eliminatte weeds but it stimulates them to germinate, then cooks them in total darkness.

I've used all of the other types and don't want to deminish their benifits either. But the most technological advances have been made in this area. There are a few disadvantages too to using plastic, especially if you use the corn based self-degrading types. Just thought everyone should be aware of the options available.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 11:19AM
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ediej1209(5 N Central OH)

We used the black landscape fabric this year and are totally taken by how well it has performed. For looks, since the tomato bed is right next to the deck, we also put a layer of reddish-colored wood chips over the fabric. We anchored the ends of the fabric with landscape timbers and a few cement blocks when we realized we didn't quite measure right for the timbers. Can you use the fabric for more than one season?

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 1:02PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

would they grow even better with mulch?

Most definitely for all the reasons mention so far and many others. Check out the Soil, Compost, & Mulch forum here for lots of good reading on the benefits of mulching.

I would love to mulch to keep the weeds down, but because I till the soil every year, I wouldn't want to mix it into the soil.

Many of us till every year and any of the organic mulches mentioned above can easily be tilled into the soil and should be. They are great soil amendments! Wood chips is the only thing I have ever found that might be a problem with the tiller. Tilling in grass clippings, straw, hay, compost, etc. not only improves the soil tilth but adds nutrients for the plants and balances PH problems in the soil.

Please don't let the need to till keep you from using a mulch. Experiment next year. Heavily mulch half your plants and grow the others as you always have. I can guarantee you you'll see the difference.;)

The plastic mulches (great points bmoser!!) can't be tilled in of course but they just strip right off in the fall so they don't interfere with tilling either.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 1:11PM
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Thanks Dave, I appreciate the info!

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 7:06PM
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I'm using red plastic. My husband complained that it was ugly, but now the plants are so big you can't really see it. The plants have lots of green tomatoes but nothing ripe yet. Last year I used no mulch and got the first ripe cherry tomatoes in late July. I think I'll beat that by a week this year.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 7:15PM
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I use shredded leaves. Speaking of which, I need to renew the layer, as it has thinned a lot since I harvested onions the other day (the onions were planted around the tomatoes).

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 7:17PM
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I used red plastic under several plants this year.

When I went to purchase the plastic, the retail packaged material seemed rather expensive and flimsy. So, I went to Menards and got for FREE several feet of their thick, dark red plastic which is used as a flag for the back of your car/truck when you buy lumber. It is very thick plastic, not like Home Depot's which was not a good color red and very thin. I used garden staples to tack it down, and so far it seems to have done the trick.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 7:56PM
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Straw first, then as the season wears on I add grass clippings because they are free and plentiful. The worms really love the straw, though, and I believe it increases my worm castings.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 9:05PM
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>>>The worms really love the straw, though, and I believe it increases my worm castings.

Ditto on that, something that never happened back when I used landscape fabric.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 4:55AM
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phloyd(7 (MD))

I was advised not to mulch at my local nursery to avoid anything in the mulch (fungus, diseases, etc.) infecting my plants. They are doing great.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 12:28PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

I'm glad your plants are doing well phloyd but the advice they gave you goes against all the nursery advice given around here - all their plants are mulched ;)- and against all the research on the subject. ;)

Unless one uses some sort of highly infectious mulch then the vast majority of the pathological fungi and bacteria are in the soil, NOT in the mulch and the mulch prevents soil splash of those infectious agents onto the plants.

Why not do some web research on the subject or try experimenting in your own garden to see what works best for you. ;)


    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 3:07PM
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phloyd(7 (MD))

Trust me Dave, I was definitely planning on mulching before I spoke to the woman at the store. I tend to over-research. She told me that for the most part all of the advice that garden centers give is to help them sell stuff (rare honesty, huh?). The only reason I wish I had mulched is for weed prevention, although if my plants get sick I guess it will all be on me and my cheapness. :)


    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 4:00PM
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There is a possibility that Phytopthera or Botyris in mulch could be spread to plant leaves but usually the mulch dampens splash and is better at preventing soil splash onto plants.

On the other hand if raw animal manure in a straw bedding mix were used there is adequate research evidence to show that bacteria does get deposited on leaves thru rain splash, etc.

I've used moldy hay for many years in garden rows and never noticed an increased disease problem. I think Phytopthera shows up mostly in low spots of fields where water lays for a few days. It loves wet areas. The moisture (at ground and on plant tissue) is probably more of an issue here than the mulch itself.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 4:49PM
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crabjoe(z7 MD)

Unless you want to grow whatever the Hay bale is, do NOT use Hay.

Although people use the term Hay and Straw interchangeably, Hey should have seeds. Straw should not have seeds because it's what's left after that plant, wheat, barley or whatever has been de-seeded.

BTW, I use Barley straw in the garden because it lasts longer then straw made from other grasses.

I also have never mulched around my Tomatoes. Then again, this is the 1st year I have a real garden. In the past, it was a Tom plant here or there.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 4:59PM
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I live right smack in the middle of wheat country...in fact 25 feet to my east is a wheat field. I get wheat straw for mulch and there is no difference between "Golden Straw" and "Wheat Straw". It's golden when it's this years bales but sometimes after long periods of storage it looks old and tan in color. No matter which I get (I have 3 different choices to get from) I only get wheat sprouts in the garden in early spring after raking away. I don't mind it and I let it grow a good 4" and then work it in.
I add grass clippings during the season too :D

    Bookmark   April 21, 2008 at 12:00AM
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Has anyone tried using black planter's paper? That's what I was planning on using this year. My "theory" is that it will warm the soil in the spring and then I can lay down organic mulch on top of it as the temperature warms up, which should compensate for the paper starting to break down. We have a horrible problem with weeds in our community garden plot, probably because so many people never bother to plant and let their plots get full of 5' weeds so I definitely need to do something different this year!

    Bookmark   April 21, 2008 at 9:20AM
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What kind of varmits do all you mulchers contend with? I'm mulching extensively this year...but when I'm crawling around on my hands and knees pickin mators...you just might hear me in New York if a mouse or snake starts crawlin up my pants!!

    Bookmark   April 28, 2008 at 2:33AM
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Last year was my first attempt at using mulch. I put down cardboard and covered it with free wood chips from the city recycling center. I was amazed at how little I had to water and I had no problems with weeds. The only thing that managed to grow up through the seems was bermuda grass which might as well be a weed. By this spring, all the cardboard had broken down and there were many times more worms this year than last when I turned the ground with a shovel and fork. The only problem is the pile of mulch that has to be moved around when putting more cardboard down this spring. But that's a small price to pay for the benefits. Without the mulch, I would have had to water at least every other day here in West Texas. I watered once a week with the mulch. And the best thing about it was it was all free except the gas to and from the recycling center, but I would have that expense going to the store to buy another kind of mulch too.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2008 at 3:52PM
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instead of using wood chips over the cardboard and haveing to remove it to reapply this year. you could have used quicker composting mulch. Grass clippings, chopped leaves, or staw. That way you could have just applied more cardboard over the old mulch and remulched. The left overs would be quickly decomped and the worms would have worked it into the soil for you.
just an idea for next year.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2008 at 8:48AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

What kind of varmits do all you mulchers contend with?

None that you won't find in any garden anyway. But the plants and production sure are better than in an un-mulched garden. Bare garden soil is a crime. ;)


    Bookmark   April 29, 2008 at 9:16AM
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Normally I use grass clippings and chopped leaves. But this year I discovered a seemingly limitless supply of pine needles just begging for my attention. The local VFW cares for the township graveyard and their idea of spring clean up is to rake up all the pine needles and pile them up towards the back of the graveyard. That's what I call free, easy mulch. Kay.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2008 at 9:04PM
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timprotech(8 PNW)

Pine needles should be a great mulch. But remember they'll make the soil more acid (lower the pH) so plan accordingly by adding lime. Or, don't turn them into the soil, but use them in next season's compost. Then add the compost back to your beds. Nice that you have such a generous supply.

So far, I've had "mulch" success with plain homemade compost. I probably could do a better job of water retention, though, with a thicker layer of something else. I'll probably experiment this year.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2008 at 3:53PM
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planting tomatoes near walnut trees will kill them so will using mulch with a lot of walnut bark.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2011 at 3:16PM
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