Mulch works miracles in the summer garden. Mulch for vegetable gardens is simply organic matter spread on top of the soil around plants. It works best in a layer about 2 inches thick. At that depth, it will act as an insulating layer to keep the root zone of plants ideal for growth.
Mulched soil won't swell and shrink, crack or create a water-repelling surface crust. It remains evenly moist under this mulch. Water you apply remains in the soil to be used by plants. Water trapped in the mulch itself further enhances this benefit. You won't need to water so often, which means reduced maintenance.
Mulched soil never receives direct sun because it's always shaded by that thick layer of organic matter. Roots in mulched soil rarely overheat, making plants more resilient in high heat or wind.
Every weed seed in your garden is waiting for you to give it enough water to grow. If that seed is buried under 2 inches of mulch, it may sprout in darkness but won't grow because mulch cuts off light. This is why decorative mulches are used in ornamental gardens as weed control. Mulches in food gardens do the same thing so you won't have to weed.
It's never too late to mulch. Start with the aisles, then move into your started seedlings. Keep mulch 1 inch clear of the plant stem.
Vegetable-garden mulch is cheap because it isn't decorative, so don't buy ground bark or other bagged materials. Try a bale of straw, generally $3 to $6 at feed stores. A single bale should be more than enough to cover a large garden, and it fits in the trunk of most midsized cars. Once the bale is open, break apart the flakes and spread the straw into an even layer, then water it down.
Hay for livestock feed is unusable if it gets wet and moldy. You can pick up cheap or free spoiled bales of straw, hay or alfalfa from farms, ranches and feed stores. You might even find free bales at the end of agricultural fairs and picnics.
Baled alfalfa is a superior mulch. Alfalfa is a legume and rich in nitrogen. In fact, farmers grow legumes in their winter fields so they can till the nitrogen-rich plants back into the soil before spring. The process is called green manure. If you till alfalfa mulch into the soil at season's end, you reap the very same benefit. Alfalfa can cost from $15 to $20 a bale, but spoiled bales may be cheaper.
Other mulches you might find in bulk include pine needles, but do not till these in because they are highly acidic. Wood ground up in a community chipping program or carpenter's wood shavings are also usable, but they offer no nutrients and take a long time to decompose. In some regions agricultural byproducts such as rice hulls can be obtained from processing plants.
Providing plenty of mulch will save water, labor and money.