Wood Mulch VS. Living Mulch

Last season I planted perennials in my zone 1 annual garden in an effort to transition away from annual gardening. I'll always have an annual garden, but I am limiting the size, given the amount of energy required for their upkeep. I much prefer to mix in my annuals among my young food forestry.

Transitioning Living Mulch to Wood Chips

So, one half of my annual garden is in transition to a zone 1 food forest with fruit, berries, perennial vegetables, vines, with annuals plugged in wherever I have space.  

Plants Burning Under Tarp

I'm transitioning the other half of my annual garden from a living mulch, back to a garden mulched with wood chips. The living mulch does work, but my yields suffered because of crowding. To help with the transition, I'm using a heavy black tarp to kill the vegetation. It takes about a month to work it's magic. In a strict annual garden, I prefer heavy "dead" mulches to a living mulch.  

Zone 1 Food Forest Early Spring

In my young zone 1 food forest I prefer a living mulch. The trees and shrubs grow well with the living mulch. Here I am still using a living mulch of clover, dandelion, purple dead nettle, chickweed, chives, garlic, comfrey, and a mix of other beneficial herbs. I still weed occasionally, pulling plants that compete with my trees and shrubs. This would be mostly grass. As time goes on and I allow beneficial plants to take up niches in the system, my weeding chores are less and less.

Zone 1 Food Forest

To recap, for a strict annual garden, I like heavy mulching to improve the soil and stop weeds. Wood chips, shredded hardwood, and straw are nice choices. For food forests, I prefer living mulches. Don't be afraid to use a lot of diversity here. You will save yourself a ton of work if you can identify the helpful "weeds" from the unhelpful. Don't be afraid to let "weeds" find a home in the food forest. For example, I'm lucky to have a few large patches of chickweed. It is a nice ground cover and makes a great salad. Denise and I eat chickweed almost everyday from March until June. I highly recommend learning about wild plants and their uses. You may find those plants you thought you should pull are actually very useful.

~ Phil Williams

Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com.  He is also the author of numerous books, most recently, Fire the Landscaper and Farmer Phil's Permaculture. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/wood-mulch-vs-living-mulch/

Hey Phil,
I have started using Ramial wood chips this year myself. I have been using ground up leave matter the past couple seasons with good success, but we have a lot of wind at my location and keeping the leaves on the ground or in the beds is a challenge. The wood chips stay in place much better.

I am in the process of cleaning up around the trees in my young orchard and laying leaves and wood chips around them as well. I am following some of your recommendations in an earlier post on plant guilds to put around the trees. Its a slow process but I'm sure it will pay off in the long run.

This past weekend I made a large batch of compost tea and began spraying trees and garden veggies. I made a lot so I poured it around several of the trees soaking the wood chips. I had a good amount of fungi showing in the microscope so that along with the wood chips should make the trees happy. I also added in quite a bit of Red Crimson Clover in the seed mix. I had several of my Comfrey starters at the trees disappear, I assume by rabbits. Between the rabbits, deer and armadillos, its a challenge to keep everything alive. Lost 3 trees this spring to deer scraping the bark off with their antlers. I have had to fence every single tree to prevent future damage.

I am experimenting with something different in my strawberry bed this spring. I have had horrible luck with strawberries in the past. I know now that my soil is nearly bacteria dominant, no fungi. I tried a different variety of plant and added a couple inches of wood chips. I bought some Mychorrihzae liquid and made a fungal brownie as I call it. I took potting soil, bio char, worm castings and mixed it up and laid a 1/2" thick later in the bottom of a planting tray. I stirred in oat meal flakes and then moistened the mix with the fungal spray I made up. I covered it with another tray and let it sit for a week.

The results 7 days later was a thick layer of Mycorrihzae covering and woven throughout the potting soil mix. It is dense enough that we cut it with a putty knife into 2" squares and then carefully dig a hole next to the strawberry plant and drop in one of the Mycorr brownies. I sprinkled a teaspoon of oat flower in the hole first to give the fungi some additional food to thrive on until the strawberry root find the fungi. I will make another batch and add those to my Tomato plants.

I am searching for ideas on short perennial ground cover to try using in the garden beds to create a living mulch. I have found info on Prof Ingham's web site on short perennial plants, but they are all in the NW and NE part of the country. I am in the mid south so finding plants that will tolerate the 100+ degree temps, hot sun and winds we have might be a challenge. If you have anything you can recommend, please do so.

Thanks, and keep on showing us your Permaculture ideas and practices.

Mike in OK

For anyone who doesn't know I'll point out that Purple dead nettle is also edible, so it's not only a cover crop but also a potential harvestable crop.  The leaves, tender stems, and flower spikes are all edible raw or cooked.  I don't have huge quantities of it on my homestead but I have harvested a bit here and there to use mixed in with other greens for salads.
Recently I was wandering around my local nursery looking for things that could be edible perennials and I noticed Spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum).  That got me curious so I did a little digging on the internet and confirmed that it too is edible, but this dead nettle is a perennial.  What's also nice for those of us aiming for a food forest is that it does fine in shady locations.  I got several of two different varieties from the nursery and have them planted in a shaded understory bed.  Hopefully they go well.  I haven't sampled them more than just a tiny leaf yet because I don't know what the greenhouse sprays on them.  I'd rather wait until I have new growth to try.  They are in the mint family so hopefully that means they will spread well.


I would stick with wood chips as the ground cover in an annual garden. If you want to try a living mulch that is short, my favorite is Dutch white clover. It will struggle in 100 degrees, but what doesn't? Another option is creeping thyme. There are annual ground covers that might do better in the heat like sweet potatoes and nasturtiums. 

Good luck!



I have a partial bag of Dutch White, I'll give that a try in the garden beds. I am considering trying some red crimson in the fall in the beds that the tomato's will go into next spring. Its supposed to have a symbiotic relationship with the Mychorrihzae and since the tomato's like a higher level of fungi, I though that might be a good relationship.




I have good luck with clover and tomatoes. You can transplant them in rather easy, and the tomatoes grow much taller than the clover.