Many gardeners consider tomatoes must-have plants. I mean, who doesn’t picture that juicy BLT or a pot of homemade spaghetti sauce when they think of summer? But here’s the scoop: getting those tomatoes to thrive isn’t as simple as sticking them in the ground and crossing your fingers.
These plants are a bit high-maintenance. If you want to keep them healthy, you’ll need to provide them with the proper amount of water and nutrients, manage weeds, and keep disease away. Fortunately, mulching your tomato plants can help with all of those items.
With that in mind, I’m going to cover all you need to know about mulching tomato plants. I’m talking about the best types of mulch for tomatoes, as well as how and when to mulch your plants.
Tomato plants take a couple of months from when you plant them to when they begin producing the juicy fruits you dream of. And they’ll remain in the ground for weeks to months after you harvest your ripe tomato.
That waiting period can test your patience and make caring for your tomato plants time-consuming. However, mulch can make keeping your tomato plants healthy a bit easier.
Applying mulch around your tomato plants or vegetable gardens can help conserve moisture, limit weed growth, prevent the spread of disease, and limit erosion. That’s a win-win-win, if you ask me!
Tomatoes are warm-weather crops that thrive in the heat of summer. However, the hot summer sun also causes moisture to evaporate from the ground. That means that you’ll need to water your tomatoes regularly to provide them with the water they need to cool themselves, grow, and produce fruits.
Since a lot of water is lost from the soil via evaporation, covering the soil with mulch can help keep moisture in the ground. That means you’ll have to water less often, saving you both water and time.
Any type of mulch can help conserve moisture, but a thicker layer of mulch will help prevent evaporation more than a thinner layer.
Since tomato plants are in the ground for multiple months, they can become overwhelmed by weeds during this time. Weeds can compete for water and sunlight. And they can limit airflow, and that can lead to fungal and bacterial diseases.
One option to manage weeds is to manually remove the weeds with a hoe, rake, or your hands. However, this can be time-consuming and physically difficult (and, just a real pain).
Applying mulch around your tomato plants will help prevent weed seeds from germinating and smother small weeds. That means you’ll have to spend far less time removing weeds from around your plants.
Tomatoes are susceptible to a wide variety of fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases. Some of these diseases are soil-borne, which means they originate in the soil.
When rain splashes soil on tomato leaves, the plants can become infected. Therefore, protecting the soil surface with a layer of mulch can help keep your tomatoes disease-free.
Summer is synonymous with thunderstorms and heavy rainfalls in many areas. And while these storms can provide a welcome dose of rain and cool off the air, they can also lead to soil erosion.
Covering the soil with mulch will protect it from the impact of rain and, therefore, limit erosion. This can help tomato plants remain well-rooted and also keep nutrients in place.
Many types of mulch are organic materials that break down over time. These include wood chips, hay, straw, and grass clippings.
When these materials break down, they add organic material to the soil. High soil organic matter is associated with benefits including improved soil texture, increased moisture retention, and a better environment for beneficial soil microbes.
Once you decide you want to mulch your tomato plants, you’ll have to decide what type of mulch you want to use. And there are lots of options to choose from!
I’ll cover some of the best types of mulch for tomato plants and highlight some of the features of each material.
Straw is one of the best mulches for tomato plants. It’s easy to find and apply, relatively inexpensive, and breaks down in a moderate amount of time.
So, what is straw? Well, it’s the stalks of grain crops like wheat, rye, and oats. After farmers harvest the grains at the top of the plants, they cut the stalks for straw.
Straw is carbon-rich and low in nitrogen. That means it breaks down relatively slowly but doesn’t give your plants much nitrogen.
You can typically find straw in bales or bags at garden centers, big box stores, or local farms. Any type of straw will work well as mulch as long as it doesn’t contain many weeds.
I like to apply a two to three-inch layer of straw around my tomato plants. Since straw can be quite poky and itchy, you’ll probably want to wear long sleeves and gloves when mulching.
As long as you apply multiple layers of straw, this mulch should last for a few months. If you see the straw has broken down and the soil is visible, just apply another layer of straw.
A similar mulching material is hay. Hay is made from materials that are more rich in nitrogen, such as alfalfa, ryegrass, and orchardgrass. That means that it can provide more nutrients to the soil, but it also breaks down more quickly than straw.
If you choose to use hay as mulch, make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any persistent herbicides. These materials can exist for months, and I’ve personally seen them wreak havoc on gardens and farms.
When you apply hay that has been sprayed with these herbicides to your garden, the chemicals can leach into the soil and kill broadleaf plants like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and more. That means you should only purchase hay mulch from sources you trust.
Wood chips can be a great mulching material for tomatoes. They are slow to break down, easy to obtain, and provide a great habitat for beneficial soil microbes.
Since wood chips are so high in carbon, make sure to apply the chips to the soil surface and avoid mixing them into the soil. If you incorporate them into the soil, they can tie up nitrogen and, therefore, stunt your tomato plants.
I like to apply about two inches of wood chips to the soil around my tomato plants.
While you can buy bagged wood chips from home improvement stores or have a load of wood mulch delivered from a garden design center, you may be able to get this material for free. Yes, I said free!
Arborists and tree companies regularly chip the trees and branches they cut down. And they have to find somewhere to put all these wood chips!
Sometimes, companies have to dump the chips off at their local green waste facility, which often charges a fee. Therefore, they’d love to connect with local individuals who would take their wood chips for free.
One important note: tree companies typically deliver large loads of wood chips. So if you only want a few bucket loads of chips, your best bet is to pick up a few bags of chips from a store.
But if you can handle a lot of wood chips, you can try calling local arborists or connecting with some via ChipDrop.
If you’d like to use a reusable mulching material rather than an organic material that breaks down over time, consider landscape fabric. This material is made from a long-lasting plastic, which means you can use it for multiple seasons.
While you should apply most types of mulch after you plant your tomatoes, you should lay landscape fabric first and then plant your tomato plants.
Since landscape fabric comes in a solid sheet, you’ll need to add holes to the fabric so you can plant your tomatoes. I like to use a propane torch to burn clean holes in the fabric. You can also use a knife or pair of scissors, but you’ll likely end up with frayed edges.
Space the holes about two feet apart. If you’re working with a three or four-foot wide piece of fabric, put one row of holes down the center of the fabric.
Once your holes are ready, secure the fabric to the ground with landscape staples. You can also weigh down the fabric with cement blocks or other heavy materials.
When it’s time to remove your tomatoes from the garden, cut them at the base of the soil and drag them off the fabric. You can then roll up the fabric and store it for future use.
You should apply most types of mulch after you plant your tomatoes. I like to plant my tomatoes in the ground and then mulch them sometime in the next two weeks.
Since I plant tomatoes in the late spring or early summer, that means I apply mulch during this time as well.
However, if you’re using landscape fabric or plastic mulch, you’ll need to apply the material and then plant your tomatoes. You can apply the plastic mulch at any time, but I typically add it to my garden the week before I plan to plant my tomatoes.
Mulching tomato plants is fairly simple. While the exact details of the process will vary depending on the material you use, it’s relatively similar across the board.
Here are my step-by-step instructions for mulching tomato plants using straw.
First, plant your tomato plants. If you’re planting them in the ground, space the plants about two feet apart. And if you’re growing your tomatoes in containers, plant only one tomato plant per pot.
Once your tomato plants are in the ground, give them a day or two to recover and acclimate to their new home. Make sure to keep the soil moist during this time.
Now, it’s time to mulch!
Grab your mulching material, whether that’s wood chips, straw, or grass clippings. Use your hands, a bucket, or a pitchfork to apply a few inches of mulch around your tomato plants.
I like to keep the mulch a few inches away from each tomato plant stem. This helps limit issues with airflow that can lead to disease and rot.
Apply the mulch about two to three feet away from the center of the plant.
This diameter will limit problems with soil splashing onto the leaves, prevent weeds, and keep moisture in the ground.
Straw and wood chips are great options for mulching tomatoes in containers. Apply a few inches of the material on the soil surface to help conserve moisture and limit weeds.
You can use grass clippings to mulch around tomato plants, but this nitrogen-rich material will break down quickly over time. That means you will need to regularly reapply the grass clippings.
Since newspaper is just a type of paper, you can use it to mulch tomato plants. However, the newspaper will break down rather quickly unless you apply multiple inches of the material. Therefore, materials like straw and wood chips are better options.
Applying mulch around your tomato plants can help conserve moisture, limit weed growth, and prevent the spread of disease. That means mulching your tomato plants is often a worthwhile task!
There’s not one best type of mulch for tomato plants; multiple materials can work well. Thinking about what materials are locally available, material cost, and ease of application can help you decide on a mulch that’s right for you.