Posted on 07 July 2010 by

The Tomato Chronicles: Mulching

grass-clippingsBy Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

Mulching was never something I did as a child when I used to help my Dad in the garden.

We simply took the plants out of their pots, teased the roots, wrapped newspaper around the stem and planted them in the hole.

But when I started gardening for myself I learned the value of mulching.

Mulch creates a moisture-retaining layer for the garden. Tomatoes love this and the constant level of moisture in the soil helps prevent bottom-rot. Mulch also creates a weed barrier that saves time and reduces plant competition so that your soil resources go to the tomatoes, not the grass in your garden. Finally organic mulch builds stronger tomato plants by building organic matter up the stem.

There are 2 general types of mulch. These are organic and inorganic. The organic mulch can be broken into grass clippings and straw while the inorganic mulch is red plastic. Each type of mulch has its positives and negatives so individual situations will have to be considered.

Organic Mulch

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are great, cheap organic mulch that is easy to gather and apply to the garden. Just simply bag your grass and apply to a depth of 3-4 inches when your tomatoes are 1 foot in height. Continue adding grass clipping throughout the season. The pros of this type of mulch are the organic nature of it, and the price. The negative of this type of mulch is the fact that grass clippings supercharge your garden with nitrogen, which can be a problem.


Straw while sometimes free, is also overall great mulch for any gardener. But to use this type of mulch one must only use “aged straw.” This type of straw is one that has weathered outside for several months to kill any weeds and/or weed seeds. Nothing is more discouraging than to put mulch down that produces weeds.

To apply this type of mulch simply break up the straw bale and distribute the straw through the garden to 3-4 inches in depth. The pros of this type of mulch are again the fact that it is organic and can be tilled under after the growing season. Also it is cheap mulch that can serve as a decoration in the fall and mulch in the spring. The cons are the exposure one has to weeds and their seeds if the straw is not aged enough.

Inorganic Mulch

Red plastic is a great mulch and plant enhancer. The concept of using red plastic is simple. The plastic warms the soil, produces stronger plants, increases yield, and allows tomato plants to produce sooner. All this occurs because the red color reflects a particular UV wavelength back onto the tomatoes, which they love. The pros of this type of mulch are it can be used again, can be used in containers, provides weed control and increases yield without much additional effort or time.

The cons are the cost, which is more than grass clippings or straw, and the additional cost of landscape spikes to hold the plastic down. Also some type of water system needs to be laid because the plastic does not allow water to go through nor does it allow any type of exchange with the environment. This causes plant and animal life in the soil to die. Red plastic requires a little more maintenance because as it gets dirty, it also needs to be sprayed off to keep the reflective value intact.

If one is going to use this type of mulch, simply lay out the mulch, and spike down. If some form of irrigation is going to be used, such as drip line, simply lay the irrigation out and lay red plastic mulch on top. When ready to plant cut an “x” in the plastic and fold the “x” back., then plant and bring the “x” back together. If needed spike down.

Mulching tomatoes help reduce bottom-rot and spore related diseases of tomato plants. It also is a back saver because it cuts down on weeding, creates a use for organic material that may end up in the landfill, and saves water. It in addition increases yields for any gardener especially urban gardeners where space is limited.

So this season take heart on a motto that has hurt us as a society in recent time and may sound real familiar that is mulch baby mulch. I promise that regardless of what type you choose, it will be worth your time, your dollar, and your yield. So, until next time on The Tomato Chronicles, keep gardening.

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