Living Mulch: Powerful Organic Weed Control for Your Garden [Examples, Benefits & Tips]

INSIDE: Discover how living mulches are proven to make gardening easier. Keep reading to see examples of living mulch and choose the best one for your garden.

Is there anything more frustrating than spending an entire weekend weeding your garden to watch new weeds sprout up a few days later?

Growing a living mulch is a low-maintenance solution that can help keep those pesky weeds at bay.

Living mulches cover bare soil and act as a natural, organic weed control.

They also have extra benefits, like attracting beneficial insects to your garden. And when you grow a living mulch, there’s no need to top off your mulch every year.

So if you’re looking for an easy way to keep your garden looking great and weed-free, it’s time to try living mulch!

Heads up: If you buy something after clicking a link in this post, I’ll earn a small commission. I only link to products I’d recommend to my best friend.

a collage of living mulches in gardens
Plant living mulches to prevent weeds from growing in a variety of different ways.

What is living mulch, and how can it benefit your garden?

A living mulch is a carpet of weed-suppressing plants spaced close together. Live mulch has many of the same benefits as traditional organic mulches, such as wood chips.

Living mulches suppress weeds, help keep your soil temperature stable, prevent erosion, and some can even improve soil fertility.

Living mulch vs. regular mulch

Are you tired of constantly replacing organic mulch in your flower or vegetable garden? Maybe it’s time to switch to a living mulch, also known as green mulch.

Instead of adding a layer of organic matter to your garden beds, a living mulch uses live mulching plants as a ground cover.

So, let’s compare using a ground cover instead of mulch to suppress weeds.

Strength/WeaknessLiving MulchOrganic Mulch
Weed suppressionGood-Excellent*Excellent, when thick enough
Stays in place in heavy rains and high windYesSometimes
Good for slopesYesNo
MaintenanceMinimal-Moderate**Top off annually
Competes with desired plantsAggressive ground covers can be a problemNo
Improves soil healthCover crops doYes

*This depends on the plants you choose and their spacing.

**Living mulches can experience die-offs and need to be replaced. And annual cover crops need to be replanted.

If you’re looking for a long-term ground cover option that provides both aesthetic and practical benefits for your garden, living mulch is definitely worth considering.

Will ground cover spread through mulch?

Yes, ground cover plants will spread through mulch, as long as it isn’t too thick. When establishing ground covers, keep your mulch to about 2 inches thick to make it easier for the plants to spread. As the ground cover creeps through your garden, you’ll need to use less mulch each year.

Examples of living mulch: which one is right for your plants?

There are many kinds of living mulches that you can grow in your garden.

Which type you choose depends on your garden and what you want the living mulch to do.

Living mulches can be:

  1. Perennial groundcovers in ornamental beds.
  2. Annual or perennial cover crops grown in your vegetable garden.
  3. Closely spaced edible or ornamental plants that act as their own mulch.

We’ll talk more about each of these living mulch options.

But first, let’s talk about the pros and cons of growing living mulches.

Advantages of using living mulch in your garden

There are many benefits of growing a living mulch in your garden.

  1. Generally, living mulches do a good job of suppressing weeds. It depends on how densely the plant covers the ground.
  2. Living mulch is a low-maintenance alternative to mulch. When you use an organic mulch such as woodchips, you need to top it off annually.
  3. The best living mulches help retain soil moisture. This may seem counterintuitive since a living mulch needs water to live. But the more leaf cover your soil has, the less likely it is to dry out because of wind or summer heat.
densely planted perennial bed
Weeds can’t sprout in this bed!
  1. Living mulches keep your soil in place and don’t wash away in heavy rains like organic mulches can. Once perennial ground covers are established, they prevent soil erosion, which makes them an excellent choice for slopes.
  2. Deep-rooted plants can improve your soil. When you grow annual cover crops and leave them in your garden to decompose, they can improve your soil structure. And legumes will add nitrogen to your soil.
  3. And last, because they flower, some living mulches attract pollinators to your garden.

Related: Make weeding easier and more convenient with a garden weed bucket (full DIY instructions and supply list included)

Disadvantages of living mulch: what you need to know

As with all things in life, living mulches can have drawbacks.

Here’s a quick overview of their disadvantages from my workshop, Freed From Weeding.

  1. Perennials groundcovers can experience die-offs.
    • As is the case with all perennials, drought or severe winter conditions can negatively affect perennial groundcovers, causing bare patches to form.
  2. If they’re too aggressive, they can choke out less assertive plants.
    • So, keep that in mind as you choose plants.
    • Watch out for anything labeled as “fast-spreading” or “fast-growing.”
perennial groundcover growing in a garden
Plant non-aggressive groundcovers to prevent weeds and fill in spaces between taller plants.
  1. If you grow annual cover crops in your kitchen garden, they’re not “set it and forget it.
    • You must cut them back before they produce seeds and become weedy.
    • And if you chop and drop them, you’ll need to wait a couple of weeks for them to decompose before you can re-plant the area.
  2. They may not suppress all weeds.
    • You’ll have to do some hand weeding as plants get established.
    • And you’ll need to weed your perennial ground covers a few times a year.
    • Most of the weeds that sprout in my groundcovers are small, tend to be weak, and easy to pull.

Living mulch for flower beds: how to enhance your garden design

1. Best living mulch for flower gardens: dense landscaping

Your plants can take care of 50-75% of weed suppression when you use them as a living mulch.

You can create a living mulch in flower beds by spacing your plants close together.

Here’s a shot from one of my flower beds.

perennial flower bed acts as a living mulch and prevents weeds
Plant your perennial beds densely for an easy-to-grow living mulch.

As you can see, no weeds are growing through these plants.

It’s just too dense for weeds to sprout.

So, I rarely have to weed this bed.

Densely planted beds are something I rely on quite heavily. So, I have a lot of experience with them.

And I created two courses based on dense plantings: Small Space, Big Harvest, and Love Your Landscape.

Planning and planting densely spaced flower beds is something I talk about in my flower garden planning course, Love Your Landscape.

I teach students in Love Your Landscape that a good rule of thumb for flower beds is to plant about 20-25 percent closer than recommended. So, if a plant tag says to plant at 16” centers, you’d plant at twelve to thirteen-inch centers.

  • If a plant tag indicates a range of spacings, choose the closest spacing.
  • But don’t crowd plants prone to fungal diseases like roses, bee balm, or phlox.

2. Perennial living mulch: a low maintenance alternative to mulch

You can also plant perennial ground covers in perennial beds to grow a living mulch between taller plants.

Groundcovers are also excellent to use in pathways instead of mulch.

Like I did here with this thyme.

flower garden with thyme planted in the pathways
Plant pathways with groundcovers like thyme to suppress weeds.

This whole area was started with thyme plugs.

In about a year, they grew into a mature ground cover that prevents weeds and doesn’t wash away in heavy rains like woodchip mulch would.

How to choose the best living mulch for your vegetable patch

1. Space your plants close together to create their own living mulch.

You can use intensive spacing to crowd out weeds in your veggie garden. I show you how to do this in my course, Small Space, Big Harvest.

In that course, we go step-by-step through planning and planting a square foot garden.

square foot garden with no weeds
Densely plant your vegetable garden to prevent weeds.

What I love about this type of intensive spacing is that you can:

  1. grow and harvest a lot in a small space
  2. use less water
  3. spend far less time weeding

But spacing your crops closely together isn’t the only way to use living mulch in your edible garden.

2. You can also use cover crops as a living mulch in your edible garden.

Popular cover crops include:

  • Clovers: white clover, Kura clover, and red clover.
  • Other legumes: alfalfa, fava beans, cowpeas, vetch.
  • Grasses and grains: annual ryegrass, barley, Buckwheat, oats, rye, and sorghum.

This is Buckwheat growing in my home garden.

buckwheat growing in a vegetable garden as a weed-suppressing cover crop
Crowd out weeds with buckwheat, a fast-growing warm-season cover crop.

It’s a warm-season cover crop, so it’s perfect to use as a living mulch in the hot summer months.

You can see how dense it grows and how well it shades out any weeds that might sprout.

And some cover crops are allelopathic. They produce biochemicals that prevent seeds from sprouting, which means fewer weeds to compete with your vegetables.

3. Sow a green mulch in your paths or spaces between rows

If you have paths between your beds or garden rows, sow a low-growing live mulch such as annual ryegrass or a perennial clover to keep your weeds down.

What’s the best living mulch for your vegetable garden?

The best choice for your garden depends on what you want to accomplish.

  • To suppress weeds, use square foot spacing to crowd out weeds.
  • To prevent weeds and improve your soil, grow a cover crop.
  • Or, do a combination of the two.

Surprise! The living mulch you might already be growing is your lawn

Healthy turf is its own living mulch.

A thick, dense lawn keeps itself weed-free by crowding weeds out.

a thick healthy, weed-free lawn
A thick healthy turf naturally repels weeds and is its own living mulch.

So, how can you help your lawn crowd out the weeds?

  1. Mow your lawn at the proper height. Mowing too short or “scalping” stresses your turf.  Weakened grass blades take longer to recover and can’t grow thick enough to shade out weeds. How high to set your mower depends on the type of turf you have and where you live.
  2. Remove no more than 1/3 of the leaf tissue when you mow. So, to maintain a 3-inch high lawn cut before the grass reaches 4.5 inches tall.
  3. Fertilize your lawn correctly.  Inadequate fertilization leads to thinner lawns that can’t shade out the weeds. How much to fertilize and when depends on the type of turf you have and where you live.
  4. Core-aerate your lawn. Aeration reduces compaction. So, if you have lawn weeds that thrive in compacted soil, add core aeration to your lawn management plan. Most lawns benefit from annual aeration. If your lawn is growing well and is relatively weed-free or you have thin, sandy soil wait up to every 2-3 years to aerate.

Frequently asked questions about living mulch

Can you garden without using mulch?

Yes, you can garden without using mulch. When you grow living mulches, you get many of the same benefits of an organic mulch (weed suppression, erosion control, and moisture retention) without having to spread mulch and reapply it every year.

What plants can be used as living mulch?

Many different plants can be used as living mulch. Living mulches are closely spaced plants that prevent weeds from growing by shading them out. They can be perennials or annuals.

What is a better alternative to mulch?

Living mulches are an excellent alternative to mulch in garden beds because they’re effective at retaining soil moisture and minimizing weed growth. Almost any groundcover plant can be used as a living mulch in flower beds. Or, space your plants close together to create a living mulch.

How do you plant a living mulch?

Living mulches can be started from seeds or transplants. Living mulches should be spaced closely to crowd out weeds and protect the soil from evaporation and erosion.

What are some of the best living mulch plants?

Where you live will determine what living mulch plants are best for your garden. Perennial groundcovers such as ajuga, hostas, or thyme are great to use as living mulch in perennial borders. And cover crops such as Buckwheat, annual ryegrass, and cowpeas are helpful as living mulches in edible gardens.

Can living mulch crowd out the main crop?

Yes, aggressive living mulches can crowd out the main crop. There’s a fine line between being able to crowd out weeds and not crowding out your other plants. Be cautious about selecting living mulches labeled “fast-spreading” or “fast-growing.”

What’s a good living mulch for tomatoes?

Alyssum is a good living mulch for tomatoes because it attracts predatory insects like lacewings, ladybugs, and hoverflies. These insects eat pests like aphids and can kill caterpillar pests. Alyssum is an annual and also has a shallow root system. So it won’t compete with your tomato plants. Plant alyssum seeds around your tomato plants, and they’ll grow in the space between and suppress weeds.

What is green mulch?

Green mulch (also known as living mulch or live mulch) is where you use living plants as mulch in your garden bed. There are many green mulch plants you can incorporate into your garden, depending on your location and needs. Annual cover crops such as buckwheat and soybeans work well in the vegetable garden, although you have to replant them each year. You can also use perennial ground covers to cover the ground between your plants and create a green carpet. Live mulch not only helps to retain soil moisture but also reduces weed growth.

Your Turn: Will you grow a living mulch?

By using living mulch in your garden, you can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend weeding each year!

Where are you planning to grow a living mulch? Share in a comment below!

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