Growing Tomatoes How To

Best Mulch for Tomatoes: When and How to Mulch Tomato Plants

Your tomatoes will be healthier, vigorous in color and fresh while you apply mulch for tomatoes. People get higher yield when they mulch their tomato plants.

Mulching is the most essential part, especially for tomatoes. Your tomato plants produce more branches and best utilize the mineral nutrients than plants not mulched.

So, keep continuing reading to know when and how to mulch tomato plants step by step.

Mulch for tomatoes
Credit: Eiler, Lyntha Scott (Photographer)

6 Benefits of Mulching Tomato Plants

  • Retains soil moisture: Mulching can keep soil moisture longer. It prevents water from evaporation quickly in dry weather conditions.
  • Regulates soil temperature: The thick layer of mulch on the soil surface helps to control soil temperature. In hot summer it keeps cool the soil under the mulching tomatoes. On the other side in cool weather conditions, it helps to keep the soil warm.
  • Save water: You need fewer water supplies when you apply mulch to your tomato plants.
  • Prevents diseases: Mulching covers the surface of the soil and keeps the tomato plants fresh and clean. It also prevents the soil-borne fungal diseases.
  • Stops growing weeds: Mulching makes a 2-3 inches layer on the topsoil and stops growing new weeds around the tomato plants.
  • Improves soil health: Organic mulching decomposes into the soil over the season and improves soil health. Besides tomato plants able to get more micronutrients and minerals from the soil due to organic mulching.

When to Mulch Tomatoes?

There is a time for everything. Early planting or mulching doesn’t confirm your early harvest or a good harvest.

Typically tomato plants should be transplanted when the night time temperature constantly above 55°F for better yield.

After transplanting tomatoes let the soil warm for some days. You should wait at least1-3 weeks or until the nighttime temperature reaches above 60°F to start mulching your tomato plants.

Mulching tomatoes before the soil warm can make delay flowering. And, ultimately you will get the harvest a few weeks later. 


Types of Mulching Tomatoes

There are commonly two types of mulching like-

  1. Organic mulch
  2. Inorganic mulch

Most of the home gardeners, small gardeners, and hobby gardeners prefer organic mulch for their tomato plants. Organic mulch includes:

  • Alfalfa hay
  • Leaf mold
  • Wood chips
  • Shredded leaves
  • Bark chips
  • Grass clippings
  • Straw
  • Hay
  • Old Carpet of natural fibers
  • Pine straw
  • Newspaper/Cardboard

On the other hand, commercial tomato growers prefer inorganic mulch due to the large scale of production. Inorganic mulch includes:

  • Black plastic
  • Red plastic
  • Landscape fabrics

Differences between organic and inorganic mulch

Organic Mulch

  • Best suits for home gardeners
  • Less expensive if the resources are free
  • Save water
  • Attract termites, bugs, the earth warms
  • Increase soil health
  • Materials come from living matters
  • Need to provide mulch every year

Inorganic Mulch

  • Best suits for commercial tomato growers
  • Comparatively expensive
  • Save less water
  • Don’t attract pests
  • Gradually decreases soil health
  • Collect materials from gardening stores
  • You can reuse inorganic mulch

Tomato Mulching Tips:

  • Mulch around the tomato plants. Start mulching 2-3 inches away from the tomato main stem to let the water get inside the soil.
  • Always keep mulches on top of the soil. Don’t dig them in.
  • Don’t use any inorganic substances like landscape cloth or plastic sheeting underneath the organic mulch.  
  • You need to fill up the mulch from time to time.
  • Don’t mulch everything.

When What and How to Mulch Tomatoes?

There are different types of mulching methods with various substances. But all the methods are not suitable for your tomatoes. Here I cover the most popular mulching methods and how to apply them properly.

Mulching Tomatoes with Newspaper for Blocking Weeds:

If your tomato field contains full of grass and wild plant during cultivation, the newspaper will best work for blocking them. Create a deep layer of paper around 2-3 inches to control weeds.

The paper layer inhibits the existing weeds plus stop germinating new seeds.

You can easily collect old newspapers or wastage paper from your home as well as your neighbors. Slice the newspapers using a paper shredder and make the pieces into a deep layer about 2-inch around your tomato plants.

Topping the paper layer with 3 inches of straw to prevent the shredded papers fly away.

The best benefits of newspaper mulching are it decomposes but doesn’t allow the weeds access to sunlight. Moreover, it allows the air and water to enter the soil around the plants. You will not get the same benefits if you use black plastic mulch.

Mulching Tomatoes with Straw Not Hay:

Straw is a great source of mulching tomatoes. Make a 4-6 inches layer surrounding the tomato plans that will bring you the best result.

A study of Michigan State University found that tomato plants will produce 27% or more fruits if you mulch them with straw and provide the required nutrients.

When you are going to mulch your tomatoes always keep in mind to avoid collecting wild straw from a field and hay. Rather you should collect weed-free bales (Straw) from your local nursery.

Straw and hay come from the same plants but their use is different. Straw is the bottom half of hay and hay is the upper part of the grain crop.

Straw contains carbon and less seed than hay. This is the woody part of the plant and mainly use for animal bedding.

On the other hand, hay is the upper part of the grass crop mainly used for feeding livestock. It contains nitrogen, protein and more seeds.

Mulching Tomatoes with Decomposed Hay:

Mulching tomatoes with hay create problems. It contains seeds and when you mulch them the seeds will sprout during the growing season as a weed.

But the good thing is hay contains minerals and other nutrients which develop the soil condition also work as mulch. So, hay is comparatively better mulch than straw if you decomposed them before use.

To do this at first collect in advance how many bales (hay) you need next year to mulch your tomato field. After purchasing the bales leave them outside to get rain and snow. A few weeks later all the seeds will sprout and the bales start decomposing.

A year later you will get the best mulch for your tomato plants. Lay down 3-4 inches layer of mulch around your tomato plants to get the best result.

Mulching Tomatoes with Alfalfa Hay:

Alfalfa hay is one of the best mulches for your tomatoes. It contains nitrogen and other sources of minerals. Moreover, it lasts longer than other hays. They are seedless because they usually cut before producing any seeds.

This is mainly used for horse fodder and you can easily collect them locally wherever the horses belong. On the other hand, this would be expensive if you want to purchase it from feed stores. Lay down at least 3-4 inches mulch to bring you the best result.

Mulching Tomatoes with Grass Clippings as Organic Fertilizer:

Grass clippings work like perfect organic mulch as biodegradable mulches do. It provides nitrogen and potassium to the tomato plants.

Besides it also retains soil moisture, block light to prevent growing weeds and develop soil conditions. The clippings decompose into the soil and provide important nutrition for soil microorganisms and food for earthworms.

Grass clippings perform better as side dressing of your tomato plants. For the best output from grass clippings, you should apply them one month later from the first fruit cluster to appear on tomato plants.

Mulching with grass clippings during fruiting time can inhibit regular fruit production of tomatoes rather than helping them due to containing high nitrogen. 

You can collect grass clippings from mowing your lawn or nearest neighbors. But make sure that the collected grasses are not chemically treated before using them. Lay the clippings a little away from the tomato stem so that water gets access to the plant roots.

Mulching Tomatoes with Wood Chips:

Mulching tomato plants with wood chips can perform very well. Wood chips prevent germinating new seed which eventually controls weeds. Besides, it decomposes slowly than grass clippings so that you can apply wood chips mulch about two weeks later after transplanting tomatoes. 

Wood chips provide nutrients for soil microorganisms and develop soil structure. Moreover, it increases the nitrogen level of the soil in the mulching area.

When mulching with wood chips always keeps in your mind that never mulches them too deeply. A layer of 2-3 inches mulch of wood chips over the topsoil around the tomato plants will bring you the best result. 

Sometimes woodchips (Pine, Oak Trees) mulch may increase your soil acidity and it would be a bless for you when you are determined to grow tomatoes, blueberries, rhododendrons, and other acid-loving plants in areas with alkaline soils. So, check your garden soil acidity before using woodchips mulch with a soil pH test kit.

Cautions:

  • Never use the woodchips before confirming their provenance.
  • Avoid using woodchips if they were dying from herbicide effects.
  • Woodchips attract slugs so avoid using them if your areas infested with slugs.
  • Some woodchips mulches pull nitrogen from the soil.
  • Sometimes woodchips create white rot or fungi which develop the soil structure to retain moisture but it may cause a problem for your tomatoes. 

So, my suggestion is when you are going to use wood chips for mulching tomato plants decompose them for two years before using them to avoid problems.  

Pine Straw Mulch for Tomatoes:

Pine straw is a great mulch for tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, and other acid-loving small fruit plants. It increases the soil acidity a little bit. So, check your garden soil pH level with a soil test kit before using pine straw.

Apply 2-3 inches of pine straw mulch around your tomato plants. Keep the mulch layer at least 3 inches away from the tomato stem.

Besides, try to use dry pine straw instead of green straw to control the soil acidity level.

Pine Bark Mulch for Tomatoes:

Pine bark mulch is good for acid-loving plants like tomatoes. This is lightweight, retain soil moisture and prevent soil-borne diseases. Besides, it controls the soil temperature in both hot and cold weather conditions. Check your soil pH level first and use at least 2-3 inches mulch around your tomato plants.

You can also use other available barks in your area.

Leaf Mold:

Leaf mold is a great source of mulch for your tomato plants. It provides nutrients and controls the soil moisture. A good quality leaf mold takes around 12 to 18 months to decompose depending on the leaves you use. But once you have it that would be a treasure for your tomato plants.

Use 3-4 inches layer of leaf mold around your tomato plants.

Shredded Leaves:

You can also use dry shredded leaves to mulch your tomato plants. And, avoid using green leaves as mulch due to it increases soil nitrogen during the flowing time.  

Gather leaves as much as you can before the season start. Then apply them around the tomato plans 4 to 6-inch layer. Sprinkle some dirt on top of the leaves to stop them from blowing away.

Black Plastic Mulch:

Black plastic mulch commonly uses a commercial tomato garden for a larger production. This type of mulch block weeds, prevent diseases and retain soil moisture. Besides, it increases the soil temperature which is good for heat-loving plants like tomato but decreases soil health.

Plastic mulch prevents rainwater to access soil so you can use a drip watering system for your tomatoes when using black plastic mulch. Purchase thicker plastic around 6mm to mulch your tomatoes.

Red Plastic Mulch:

Red plastic mulch is similar to black plastic mulch also known as Selective Reflecting Mulch (SRM). This is a kind of thinner red color plastic that reflects certain shades of red light. This red-light reflection focuses the plant energy to grow tomato plants above the ground rather than developing root. 

So, it increases fruit production by up to 20%. But keep in mind all the red plastic will not give you the same result if they are not proven reflective.  

However, it also keeps the soil warm and retains soil moisture. Moreover, it has a special benefit that it deters root-knot nematodes.


How to Select the Best Mulch for Tomatoes?

Most of the mulching methods have some basic benefits like retaining soil moisture, block weeds, prevent soil-borne diseases and develop soil structure. But what is the best mulch for tomatoes it may depend on various factors such as:

  • Budget
  • Personal preferences
  • Availability of the substances
  • Soil structure and condition
  • Garden location
  • Experimental

Budget:

If the budget is the first preference to choose the right mulching method for your tomatoes then confirm the budget at first. After that select the suitable mulching method.

Personal Preferences:

Your personal interest in any specific methods may drive you to apply that specific mulching method for your tomatoes. You may bias by reading any blog, watching YouTube videos, following your neighbors or any garden community.

Besides, your purpose of use also helps you to decide the right types of mulching for tomatoes. Commercial tomato growers prefer inorganic mulches on the other hand home gardeners prefer organic mulches.

Availability of The Substances:

You can use the available free resources surrounding you to apply mulch to your tomato plants as a savvy gardener.

Soil Structure and Condition:

If your garden soil contains poor soil structure you should choose the mulching method which has the basic benefits of mulch also develop the soil structure like woodchips, leaf mold, grass clippings or hay.

Garden Location:

Garden location plays a vital role to choose the right mulching method for your tomatoes. Mountain soil is comparatively acidic than plain land soil due to high rainfall. Besides, different regions of the United States follow different types of mulches due to the availability of the substances locally. 

Experimental:

If you are an innovative gardener then it is usual that you will try some different methods to find out the best suitable method for your tomatoes.


Best Mulch for Tomatoes in Pots:

Mulching for tomatoes in the container is not necessary but it will give some extra benefits if you apply a layer of mulch over the container soil. It retains the soil moisture inside the potting soil longer and provide some nutrients and stop growing weeds.

You can apply bark mulch, straw or black or red plastic mulch for container tomatoes.


Mulches You Should Avoid for Tomato Plants:

The following mulches you should avoid to grow tomato plants.

Cypress Mulch:

I often find a search query in google that “Is cypress mulch good for tomatoes?”

From my point of view, the answer is No. Cypress mulch is not a good choice for tomatoes. It has some inherent properties which don’t allow them to mulch for vegetable gardens.

Cypress mulch best suits for perennial gardens but bad for vegetable gardens because they are annual gardens.

Like other mulches, cypress woodchips mulch also blocks weeds and retain soil moisture. But once they dry out ultimately, they lose their water-holding capacity altogether and repel water. In this stage, they become useless for tomato plants. 

Besides, cypress mulch comparatively expensive than other organic mulches and the hardwood chips doesn’t decompose within a growing season. In that case, this will be a great challenge for you to cultivate vegetables in the same field next season.

Cypress mulch steals nitrogen from the soil like some other wood chips mulch. So, during the growing season, your tomatoes may fall in nitrogen deficiency.

Peat Moss Mulch:

Sphagnum peat moss is not a good mulch for tomatoes. However, they are great soil amendments often used in greenhouse plant production and potting mix. Besides, they decompose into the soil easily over the season. But they are not as good as mulch for tomatoes and expensive too.

They help to control soil pH levels and retain soil moisture for a certain period. But once they dry out rainwater or irrigation water doesn’t enter into the soil easily when you use them as mulch.

Sawdust:

Sawdust mulch may harm your tomato plants so keep avoiding to use sawdust in your garden. Water beads up on sawdust and runs away. Besides, it creates nitrogen deficiency in the soil. Moreover, chain sawdust may contain chain oil which is not acceptable for the organic garden.

Compost or Animal Manure:

Compost or manure produces too much nitrogen which would be a threat for your tomato plants during the fruiting time. Besides it also contains weed seeds. So, compost or manure is not good for any vegetable garden.


Mulching is not mandatory for growing tomatoes but an essential part. If you mulch properly your tomatoes then you definitely get a better result than the gardener who doesn’t mulch. So, find a suitable mulch for your tomato plants and apply them properly. 

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