ground cover alternatives for raised beds

njitgradMay 9, 2013

Last year I had a soil compaction issue with my raised beds (it was my first year using raised beds), complicated by a very dry growing season. To alleviate this it was suggested I cover the ground with 2" of natural cedar mulch which worked keeping the soil beneath moist.

Recently I learned that use of cedar mulch is frowned upon by some, the reason I'm not sure of. What other alternatives do I have for ground cover? Straw?

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probably because cedar is rare/sort of endangered?

Yeah, straw will work. Any much. I use those black roll-out permeable ground covers, they work better and as long as I keep them (roll/fold them up and store them when I take them off), I never have to buy new mulch saves on money and shopping time. You also need ground staples to secure them, if not just rocks to weight them down, but ground staples too you just make sure you keep them around and reuse them

    Bookmark   May 9, 2013 at 5:14PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Ground cover or mulch? 2 different things. Ground covers are plants such as hairy vetch, buckwheat, rye, clover etc. that are planted to then till into the soil for soil improvement.

Mulch is any organic material thickly laid on top the soil to suppress weeds, keep plant roots cool, and retain soil moisture.

Wood chips can be used but aren't generally recommended for vegetable gardens due to their ability to bind up nitrogen if mixed in with the soil and because they have to be laid on so thick to have any effect that it can be plant and cost prohibitive. Plus they provide minimal if any soil improvement as other mulches can. They are primarily ornamental mulches.

Lots of discussions here about mulches and especially so over on the Soil & Mulch forum here. Straw, hay, grass clippings, pine straw. shredded leaves, leaf mold, newspapers, cardboard, and best of all - compost.


Here is a link that might be useful: Mulch FAQ

    Bookmark   May 9, 2013 at 6:35PM
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When I put compost on top of the beds last summer, it dried out as well and didn't keep the soil beneath it moist. Maybe I'll get a bale of hay. The garden centers around me really do not carry a lot of the things you mentioned, however I know they carry bales of straw. Since my beds are only 2"-3" in width I may just end up cutting the stalks of straw in half a handful at a time using a wheelbarrow to limit mess.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 3:25PM
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uncle_t(Z6 Ontario CAN)

Wood chips as mulch work great in areas where summer humidity levels are high. I have used them as mulch on my raised beds for almost two decades and with excellent results. They reduce weeds, retain moisture and my yields are fine. I get them free from the municipality (public works).

Don't be afraid of wood chips tying up nitrogen from your soil. Several studies have suggested that the benefits of improved soil health from wood chips outweigh the temporary bind. If you're talking intensive raised beds, then your soil probably contains more than enough nitrogen to offset anyway.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 7:37PM
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runswithscissors(MT 4/5)

Please do not buy hay. Buy straw if you decide to go that route. Hay seeds are worse than crab-grass, roots go to china and there is about ninety billion of them in each bale of hay. Straw (wheat or barley) has seeds too, but they are very easy to pull if you water first. Also it comes in "certified weed-free" for a buck more.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 10:53PM
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Dig, the Back to Eden guy messed with lingo by using the word "cover" in place of mulch. It will pass.

I often use cheap "pine mulch" (not pine bark nuggets) when I need to buy mulch in a bag. I use it to mulch my front row herbs because it looks so good. The soil and most veggies like grass clippings, applied weekly in thin layers.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 6:33AM
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Sorry about the confusion. I meant cover as a blanket term. Just something that will keep the soil in my raised beds moist but not detrimentally contribute anything that I would have to alleviate at a later time. I don't use grass clippings (because I spot treat my lawn for weeds) and no matter how much time passes between applications I don't feel comfortable with putting that on my beds or even in my compost tumbler.

In my old garden at my old house (where I lived for 6 years) I didn't have raised beds. Everything was planted in the ground. What I did every season to reduce weeds was to lay down a thick layer of newspaper everywhere (24'x24' area) prior to planting, wet it, then cover it completely in a thick layer of straw. Two weeks later I would puncture holes where needed to plant seedlings.

I'm not so sure I want to do that in my raised beds. Its a smaller garden (16'x16') with 7 raised beds around the perimeter. All of the ground between the raised beds is covered in a layer of large bark nuggets. Last year all I had was cardboard on the ground in between the beds, and well, if I didn't live in an neighborhood where everyone besides me has professionally lanscaped lawns and mulch beds, I probably would have left it that way. So the bark nuggets made the garden a little more aesthetically pleasing.

So anyway, I'm not so sure about the straw idea raised bed sizes are as follows: 2x4. 2x6, 2x8, and 3x4. So each bed is no wider than 2-3 feet. I would really have to chop the straw up pretty small.

I have no leaves around from the fall. The only other thing I could think of is to use the same bark nuggets that I use for the ground between my beds. They are large enough so I don't have to worry about them ever mixing in with the soil in my beds.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 8:15AM
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laceyvail(6A, WV)

A word on hay as mulch. I have been using hay mulch for my almost 50 years of gardening. Hay cut at the proper time never has weed seeds in it. What you want to get is old hay or rained on hay. Hay cut too late, or cut in a field full of briars and weeds starting to grow in it will always be a problem. Ask the farmer about the hay before you buy it or check it out yourself.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2013 at 6:21AM
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A free alternative is your own dried grass clippings from your lawn as long as you don't use weed & feed. I've been using it several years now. Even with the weedy perimeters we mow it's been fine once dried & applied in thin layers around seedlings in our raised beds. It doesn't spread grass or weeds in our beds.

One trick I learned is to slowly & carefully apply it. Do not delegate the job to the ungardener in the family. Spread on moist soil, then water gently to settle it more. This doesn't work it you water full blast.

Carefully inspect that you have none on stems. With small plants you have to guard them a bit for awhile until they grow large enough to hold the soil better.

I like to put it in a bucket or large pot then pinch a bit of the dried grass and set small amounts around plants not touching the stems. It works well to sit on my scoot along seat since it's slow work. I start with just 1 inch or less and as plants grow build up to 2-3' around the largest plants.

I also have soaker hoses & the grass clippings cover them well to help them last longer & I try to follow the contour so it's visible to me where the soakers are & I don't shovel into them. I've thought about putting in bamboo skewers so I can "mark" the soakers this year.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2013 at 10:58AM
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So no one thinks that mini-pine bark nuggets are a good idea to use in my raised beds?

    Bookmark   May 16, 2013 at 1:37PM
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Since none of my local garden centers carry pine straw, I just found an online site where I can get it delivered. My beds amount to 72 sq feet and the medium box for $59 shipped covers 120 sq feet. I suppose I could use some of the leftover in my GeoPots as well. The rest...well maybe I could find a good use for it.

Kinda pricey, but I can't find any other alternative unless I go back to using non-dyed mulch like I did last year, or mini bark nuggets.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pine Straw

    Bookmark   May 16, 2013 at 2:04PM
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Don't worry about cutting up the straw, just place it on the soil--it bends, crumbles, etc. I buy bales of straw for $7 from my local garden center. Any seeds that sprout are easily pulled. I use it for my paths as well as for mulch in my raised beds (3x8, 3x6, and 4x6) as well as among my strawberries. It works great--when you push it aside the soil is dark and moist. I placed it around newly planted tomatoes last night, and I just sort of curved it around the base of the plants.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2013 at 3:32PM
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zeuspaul(9b SoCal)

So no one thinks that mini-pine bark nuggets are a good idea to use in my raised beds?

I do! Bark nuggets are a great mulch. Water penetrates easly and so does air. If I had a choice between pine straw and bark I would choose bark..


    Bookmark   May 16, 2013 at 4:33PM
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t-bird(Chicago 5/6)

coffee grounds are great, and if you live near a coffee house/cafe - maybe able to get them in quantity.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2013 at 9:11AM
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I think I'm going to end up buying and putting down mini bark nuggets on Monday unless I get a better suggestion before that.

Pine straw sounded like my best option but is not available at any of my local garden centers. Online it is $59 for a box delivered, a bit more than I want to pay for a cover.

I am not going to a coffee house to ask for grinds. Besides it would take a long time to accumulate the quantity I need. I want to put the cover down all at once.

I an not going to use straw (whole or shredded) based on the possiblity of it having been previously treated with something (there is another thread in the soil forum that I created after I started this thread in the veggie forum).

    Bookmark   May 18, 2013 at 9:22AM
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