3 Ways To A Living Mulch

Beans, corn and sunflowers rise up from a living mulch of flowers, squash and kumara

Living mulch (covering the soil with plants), is I’m beginning to believe, the most nourishing mulch of all. It makes perfect sense to me, as this is how mother nature does it and all my garden journeys loop back to her. Think prairie, meadow, forest – self sustaining “gardens” that need no care, no fertiliser, no weeding. All their needs met via animals, birds and a rich diversity of plants. All connected. Every part – you and I included – a cog in the wheel of life.

Though our food gardens wont ever be as hands free as one of natures gardens, we can certainly evolve closer to this model than we are. The benefits weigh heavily – a much smaller footprint on the earth, less buy ins, less work, less problems and greater resilience by far. Living mulch is one of the ways we can achieve this ease.

The below ground connection

Echinacea and gourds

The key to our plants immunity and nutrition, is a living soil. That means, a soil rich in a diversity of life forms – fungi, nematodes, protozoa, bacteria, arthropods and of course worms.

Not so many years ago, I believed the pathway to this living soil was adding lots of ‘stuff’, (affectionately known as the more-on effect). Now I’m slowing down on the stuff front and leaning more on the plants themselves. They are far from inert, closer to amazing, full of life force and connection.

Beneath the soil, theres alot going on and we’re beginning to understand a glimmer of it. One thing we now know, is that plants share resources. I need phosphorus! I have excess nitrogen! – wow, right. They exchange information – “Warning – pest!” “Armour up – disease!” It’s hardly surprising -plants and soil life are long time team mates after all, and they need each other. Plants trade soil life, carbs for minerals (and way more besides). In order to tap into this, the below ground network must be unbroken and multi layered.

This is where living mulch comes in. Cover the ground in a diversity of plants for a diversity of roots below ground. This attracts a diversity of soil life, bringing us back to where we started – the key to our plants immunity and nutrition, is a living soil – a soil rich in a diversity of life forms.

Living mulch in the vegie patch

Living mulch fills the gap where weeds would grow and adds layers of benefit besides – fodder for beneficial insects, material for compost piles and home grown mulch, an array of shapes and scents to confuse pests, a humming soil life, a beautiful garden + extra cropping if you use herbs or food or picking flowers.

My go to plants for this job are chamomile, calendula, chickweed, dwarf beans, phacelia, borage, lupin, daikon, squash, buckwheat, mustard, kumara, soya beans, nasturtium, crimson clover and marigold. Any plant that covers the ground is fit for purpose – so don’t be limited by this list!

nasturtium, melons and phacelia living mulch beneath tomatoes and peppers
Nasturtium, melons and phacelia create a living mulch beneath tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers

My goal is to flow one crop into another without any downtime. Downtime = less cropping. Downtime = weeds = more work. Living mulches bridge the gap, along with a preparedness to replace finished crops right away with a scattering of seed or new seedling. If you are sowing and planting in a little and often way, the gaps you are plugging as crops finish, are small.

Let your favourite green crops, herbs, leafy greens and flowers go to seed and the matter of new seed/ seedlings may be in hand without you getting involved. Ha! now you’re cooking with gas!

squash scramble amongst a living mulch of zinnia, cosmos and calendula
Winter squash scramble amongst a living mulch of zinnia, cosmos and calendula

3 ways to a living mulch

  1. Sow or plant the new crop amongst soon to be finished, older crops. This mimics the age old cycle of the young coming up under the wing of the elder – what a difference to new seedlings when they are not on their own, out in the open! I love the time efficiency here – harvesting the old crop while the new crop gets it grow on for less downtime by far between the two. As the new crop grows and builds in strength, slowly chop the older crop back in order to create enough light and space. Return the chopped bits as mulch. Nourishment plus + oh so easy.
  2. In a similar fashion, transplant seedlings amongst established greencrops. Simply make little pockets in the greencrop, add a dollop of compost if need be and plant away. Chop and drop to let light in as the crop grows.
  3. Sow or plant a living mulch at the same time you sow or plant the crop. Choose fast growing groundcovers like crimson clover, phacelia or mustard or a mixture of all three. Add edibles like radish, dwarf beans, beetroot – the worlds your oyster! The key is to work it like a puzzle and choose a mixture of plants that all fit into each others gaps, rather than competing for the same space. Some upright, some low groundcover , plus nectar and pollen for benies and nitrogen for soil. Include some quick crops and some slower ones. See my article on guilds, at the bottom of this post, for plant lists of all these. And for the real nitty grittys, my book

Here’s a virtual bed to help you. Plant corn seedlings. Beneath them sow crimson clover (nitrogen fixing and bees) and phacelia (soil building and pollination). Plant a few squash seedlings on the sunny side of the corn, amongst the clover and phacelia seed. Plant salad greens, spinach and beetroot in little pockets along the picking edge.

This bed has it all – fast growing vegetables for a harvest soon – in this case salads, spinach + beetroot, and slow growing, longer term crops – corn and squash. Plants for pollination, nitrogen fixation and living mulch – no room for weeds and no problems with birds scratching or cat toliets. Though the bed is jammed full, all the plants have their own place. Its really no big deal to over plant – any extras can be broken off and laid back down as mulch.

Where does mulch fit in?

This isn’t a case of swapping one for the other, mulch has its well earned place. Look to nature. She sheds her skin all the time, drifting it back to earth to cycle through the soil. The two work in tandem.

2 Good reads


  1. Glen Elliott says

    This is an ace article, Kath! Thank you.
    I’ve only recently learned to embrace all those plants that have naturally found spaces amongst my intended cropped. I used to weed them out but that only left gaps and bare soil. Now I let chickweed run free!
    Happy New Year to you and Matt.

    • And to you and Jen also Glen! Its so wonderful what comes with stilling the weeding hands and leaving things be a little. I wonder where our garden journey will take us this year. much love K x

  2. I tried planting crimson clover under my corn and letting self seeded celery have its way. Wow. What a healthy thriving bed. Corn has grown faster than any previous crop, I don’t have the problem of keeping up with the watering and the celery is tender and tall! It’s so simple!

  3. Hi,
    I’m new to gardening this year and not sure where to start with the living mulch. i have veggies in my bed and interplanted with flowers and herbs but i think i was a bit too hesitant as there are still rather big gaps. i want to have more living mulch, what would you recommend? i have mostly tomatoes, and capsicum (which is not doing very well atm), also lettuce, kale, cucumber. my corn is almost done and i was planning to sow carrots there…. what kind of living mulch could i plant and also what do i have to consider for them to germinate (have not been lucky this spring with seeds)

    • Fill any gaps with greencrops. Have to hand a few types of seed so you can easily toss the seed in. Check out my blog for how to sow a greencrop if need be. Use low growing ones beneath crops and taller ones in open spaces. Mix a few different seed together. Or pile mulch in the bare spots. Or fill them with seedlings of whatever you wish! Enjoy

  4. Hi – I was taught that mulch needs to be composted or broken down material. Apparently this is because the green stuff will remove nitrogen from the soil beneath it as it decomposes. Have you come across this idea?

    • Morena Kath, Indeed yes I have – however the great news is that soil life is so varied and complex and adept at managing raw material we dont really need to worry ourselves with these kinds of details. Green stuff isnt all about nitrogen – every stalk containing some carbon and some nitrogen. As in all things the key is to make a mixture. If you pile on for example a thick layer of very fresh grass you will perhaps notice an impact of the plants – and herein lies the heart of it all – try stuff and rather than trusting someone elses experience – trust what you see. If your garden flourishes then all is well and good.
      Look at mulch as the roof over the soil thats providing safe harbour for the soil life and a fresh supply of fodder for them as well. Mulch is the raw stuff, compost the broken down stuff.
      I hope this helps K x

  5. Hi, awesome article, I also start to experiment with living mulch (easier, simplier, healthier !). I am wondering if you have experienced anything with new plants planted around other plants going to seed ? Theoritically, they might get the information that it is seeding time and go straight to seed ?

    I realized recently how mint is actually a great one to loosen the soil, and seemed to have a nice carbon/nitrogen ratio when decomposing.

    • Hi Margaux, no I havent noticed seeding plants triggering others too seed in my garden. Every bed is a mix of young and old seedlings/ plants and they jog along plenty fine. Love your observations and wonderings here. Happy gardening, Kath