The Genius of Living Mulch

Soil that’s undercover, hums with life. In this cool, moist environment mineral exchange and immunity are high.

Whether mulch is inert – hay, straw, woodchip or living – or a living cover of plants, doesn’t matter. I use a mixture … either way works. Though living mulch has a few trumps – diversity and all the benefits thereof, plus savings of time + money. Less work, less shopping, less lugging stuff around = all good here.

Living mulches in the veggie patch

A living mulch of phacelia supports the newly germinated green climbing beans and will provide chop and drop mulch

Create good flow by sowing or planting new crops amongst the soon to be finished older crops. Team plants up in supportive networks is a heavy feeder and a nitrogen fixer, a tap root and a groundcover. This read about guilds will help you here should you need it.

The old crop protects the new, thus accelerating its growth. As the new crop builds strength, slowly chop the old crop back returning it as mulch on the spot it once grew. Chop and drop. Layers of depth and goodness here, including savings of your own precious energy.

new yams coming up under old brocolli and seeding coriander
New yams under old broccoli and seeding coriander

In this photo, yams are coming up beneath the finishing broccoli, allowing us to harvest broccoli shoots while developing the new crop. Such a buzz to maximise your space and amp your production in this way.

pockets in the lupin play host to the next crop - squash
Can you see the holes in the lupin?! The new squash seedlings are tucked in there. The trick is creating enough light.

Another way is to create pockets amongst greencrops. This nearly finished lupin greencrop houses squash seedlings, protecting them from the ups and downs of spring weather. As the squash grow, the lupin is chopped down to make way and as more space opens, I sow phacelia, buckwheat and cosmos. Nectar rich flowers alongside cucurbits improves pollination no end. Eventually, the flowers and squash take over and the lupin is left to melt into the soil for a flush of nitrogen. Just what squash need!

Crimson clover

If planting into clear ground, sow/ plant living mulches at the same time as sowing/ planting the crop. Fast-growing groundcovers like radish, phacelia or crimson clover save you the job of mulching.

Group plants together in combos that stretch the benefits into pollination, nitrogen fixation, perhaps a quick turn around food crop or a useful herb. The more layers you can conjure the stronger your garden and the more you free yourself from weeding and feeding. Less labour + less inputs means more energy for other things.

zuchinni and living mulch mustard and marigold
African marigold, mustard and zucchini happily share the space.

African marigold is the ultimate chop-and-drop crop in the greenhouse. It spreads out, covering the ground, enticing the bees in to pollinate. Break off the bossy bits and drop them as mulch.

High nectar phacelia – one of my veggie garden essentials

Chamomile, calendula, phacelia, buckwheat, crimson clover, nasturtium, chickweed, african marigold are all useful for many reasons, but particularly brilliant as chop + drop living mulch in the veggie patch.

Living mulches and fruit trees

Daylillies, comfrey, sedum, lemon balm, pumpkin and dahlias make a winning ground covering team beneath the apples

There’s no end to the possibilities here! Perennial vegetables, companion flowers, herbs, leafy greens – grow a mash-up in the ground beneath your fruit trees.

yarrow, lemon balm, verbena and lavendar cover the ground beneath the nashi pear espalier

Yarrow, crimson clover, verbena, borage, lemon balm and kale cover the ground beneath the nashi espalier. The only job here is chop and drop.

Perennial gardens

living mulch

Such a lot of work is saved when the ground is completely covered with plants. Besides which, plants do best in a community – it’s what they know, its a homecoming. Go forest styles in all your gardens and you’ll be gardening less and enjoying more.

renga rengas flowering in spring, cover the ground and beat out the weeds

Renga rengas, lady’s mantle, pratia and hellebores cover the ground beneath hydrangeas, daphnes, magnolia, putaputaweta and kowhai.

penstemon is a living mulch beneath globe artichokes
Penstemon keeps the weeds at bay beneath artichokes

So many ways to roll with this my friends. You’ll be coming up with winning combinations till the end of your days.


  1. Christine Chatterton says

    So inspiring!!

  2. Hi Kath, I have been reading your blog with great interest. We’ve just moved into our first home in the Northland region and have a spare corner in our backyward. I read your article on avo pruning – would you suggest we get a dwarf avo or a full size one and keep it well pruned? Many thanks