With all the fruit harvesting we’ve been doing over the last few weeks, I’ve had orchard care and maintenance on the brain. I want to make sure I lay down the best mulch for berries and grapes.
In The Holistic Orchard, it is recommended that a pile of mulch is dumped annually, north side this year, the east side next year, and so on. (Point being: rotate the four corners, it needn’t be specific.)
Just like you, feeder roots like an array of nutrient choices and environments. The reception found beneath fresh ramial wood chips is different from that beneath a one-year-old pile or a two-year-old pile or the remnants of a three-year-old pile. All are worthy, just offering slightly different available nutrients and soil food web happenings.
What is Mulch?
Mulch is a material that is spread over the soil surface in order to retain moisture, suppress weed growth, and regulate soil temperature. Mulch can be made of a variety of materials, such as shredded leaves, bark, straw, grass clippings, or even plastic. As it breaks down, mulch also adds nutrients to the soil, improving soil health and fertility. Mulch is often used in gardening and landscaping to help plants grow healthier and more efficiently.
Types of Mulch
- Organic mulch: This type of mulch is made from natural materials such as leaves, grass clippings, straws, wood chips, or shredded bark. Organic mulch breaks down over time and adds nutrients to the soil.
- Inorganic mulch: Inorganic mulch is made from materials that do not break down, such as rocks, gravel, or black plastic. It is often used when erosion is a concern or a more permanent solution is needed.
- Compost: Compost is a type of organic mulch that is made from decomposed plant matter. It is rich in nutrients and is an excellent soil amendment.
- Newspaper: Newspaper can be used as a temporary mulch to help suppress weed growth. It is best used in layers and covered with another type of mulch.
- Living mulch: Living mulch is made up of low-growing plants that are planted directly in the soil. They help to suppress weed growth, retain moisture, and add nutrients to the soil. Examples include clover and creeping thyme.
- Rubber mulch: Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires and is often used in playgrounds and other high-traffic areas. It does not break down but can harm plants and soil if not used properly.
Wood chips are specifically recommended for the orchard because trees thrive in a fungally-dominated soil food web.
But what about the berries and grapes? Do they prefer a bacterial or fungal dominance in their soil food webs?
I want to promote a healthy soil food web for all of our plants, annual or perennial. I feel a deep responsibility to properly steward their health. But for some reason more so now that I’m dealing with another family’s time and investment.
In other words, I don’t want to ruin all of their hard work!
I happened to listen to a podcast this weekend where soil biology was being discussed. (I won’t link to it because I think it is no longer free to listen to.) And I visited the website of the gentleman being interviewed. I thought I was understanding him properly when he was describing the scale from bacterial to fungal dominance in the food web and where different types of plants fell on it and found on their faq page a helpful reference that coincidentally has given me a clue as to how I should manage the berries and grapes in our orchard.
What type of environment do plants need?
- Broccoli/Cabbage (Strongly bacterial)
- Row Crops/Grasses (Slightly bacterial)
- Berries (Equal bacteria and fungi)
- Deciduous Trees/Vines (2-10 times more fungal)
- Conifers (100+ more fungal than bacterial)
Note: Tomatoes are in the grass/row crop category, while strawberries, grapevines, kiwi, rhododendron, and snowbrush fall in the berry/vine/shrub category. Deciduous trees include poplar, almond, peach, citrus, coffee, apple, avocado and olive. Conifers include pines and most evergreens.
This was incredibly helpful! I was thinking that since they were fruit that I should mulch them like fruit trees and was planning on having a ton of wood chip mulch brought home.
What is the Best Mulch for Berries and Grapes?
Strawberries: Hay Mulch
Note: Slugs, however, love strawberries and love to hide in the hay mulch so I’ll wait until after fruiting next year to lay the mulch down. This should give the hay plenty of time to do its job and decompose over the winter and once the harvest is over, I’ll lay more down again. If I find the winter is harsh enough in any given year that protecting the berries with mulch is necessary, I would pull the hay completely off in the spring until after harvest. Or get ducks. And figure out how to keep them in the strawberries.
Raspberries & Blackberries: Woodsy compost
Note: This is not the same as ramial wood chips… much, much more decomposed and including green materials and therefore not as fungal. Quoting again from The Holistic Orchard:
An integrated orchard consists of far more than trees. The very same woodsy ecology principles apply to all sorts of berries. Fruiting brambles, bushes, and shrubs are the lower-lying understory of a productive fruit guild. -p.285
Incorporating a woodsy compost into the planting bed suits all brambles. Studies in Switzerland have shown that compost made from green material and wood chips produced the best results for nutrient availability and aeration around the roots and the highest levels of beneficial fungi. -p.287
I’ve read the pros and cons of using everything from pomace (which I doubt we’d get enough of) to stones (which makes sense since grapes like that type of environment with the downside being they don’t give fertility back to the soil). Since they prefer equal bacteria and fungi, I’m not sure how to go about achieving that balance. I’ll probably tackle them similar to the brambles, I suppose.
Why does it matter if you use the best mulch for berries and grapes?
One of my goals as a gardener is to encourage the invisible life in the soil. I know they will help the produce our land yields have the optimal nutrient density and health.
Healthy plants are not only better for our health, but also are more resistant to disease and harmful pests. Investing the time into researching and using the most beneficial mulches makes my job easier in the end and hopefully, we’ll feel healthier too.
My plan to achieve this includes not tilling up the soil in a conventional way, but rather cultivating it. Tilling worked well for early America because fields were created from forest floors. It destroyed the soil food web and shocked the ground from its fungally-dominated state into a bacterially-dominated one. Annual vegetables and crops as mentioned above thrived in this environment. But over time they deplete the soil of nutrients that have been built up over the years. By not tilling, we can encourage that soil food web to rebuild itself in our gardens. But it requires careful management through bacterial compost teas and (originally) green mulches that will nurture a bacterial environment for our vegetables.
Before I close, I want to bring a couple links on mulching to your attention so you can choose the best mulch for your plants:
First is Mulch and Soil Fertility from Organic Gardening. In it, the results of a study done by an Ohio State Research Team are discussed. Including which mulches are appropriate for which areas based on their carbon to nitrogen ratio.
Second is a Christian Farm and Homestead Radio broadcast from earlier this month where this article I just referenced and the topic of mulch gardening is discussed from a Biblical worldview. The host, Scott Terry, made some really excellent points and insight I’d never thought of before which I greatly appreciated. (And I’m not just saying that because he had some kind words to say about yours truly.)
Among the tools on my to-purchase list for my holistic management arsenal are cold-pressed fish hydrolysate, kaolin clay (for next year though), and neem oil. Although I’d like to get on a spring rotation with laying down ramial wood chips in the orchard, I’m eager to get the first pile down this fall. Especially since there is a mountain where my husband works free for the taking.
Between using these tools along with using the best mulch, our orchard will have a great start to the year and feed us abundantly this year!
What do you think is the best mulch for berries and grapes?