|Lasagna garden illustration by Kim Carpenter|
Manicured, conventional gardens are completely antithetical to how plants actually grow. Bare ground with nothing growing between plants may be deemed more aesthetically pleasing; but results of this "conventional" gardening method have created a booming business for chemical companies and garden supply businesses because zapped soil has high levels of sensitivity to temperature and moisture, and weak resistance to topical bacterial infections. Think of topsoil as a garden's skin; and imagine stripping away the top three layers. What you end up with are higher sensitivities to temperature,moisture, and weak immunities to topical bacterial infections. You would also beforced to apply excessive moisture and take antibiotics to combat illnesses.Mulch gardening increases microbialactivity, producing healthy soil structure, and vigorous, disease resistantplants.
How is Mulch Gardening Achieved?First, a weed barrier like cardboard is laid down to smother weeds. The cardboard decomposes after the weeds have all died and turned into compost. On top of the cardboard you can pile dead leaves, grass clippings, compost, several-years-old composted manure, and other biodegradables such as old hay. Mulch gardening can range from just a few inches thick to 2 feet or more, depending on how bad your soil is and how much raw material you have available (it will cook down and settle quite a bit). Our layers at Better Farm are about a foot thick, with a fresh layer of cardboard placed over the top as everything breaks down and we see evidence of emerging weeds. The cyclical process goes on year-round and works so well we don't have to put a single additive or chemical into the soil.
Here's a quick view of the layers created with rotting matter at the Farm:
|First layer: cardboard, newspaper, junk mail|
|Second layer: fresh compost from our food, compostables swept up on the floor of the farm|
|Third layer: hay, grass clippings, pulled (and dead) weeds|
|We put a second layer of cardboard over the top of some rows to make sure no weeds poke through.|
|As the layers of biodegradables break down, we're left with rich, dark soil.|
|Grow, baby, grow!|
Mulch gardening was made famous by Ruth Stout, whose 1950s-era books Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work changed the face of Better Homes & Gardens—esque methods for growing great crops. Though her books are both out of print, her methods live on. Below is an excerpt from Gardening Without Work, as reprinted on Mother Earth News' site:
Building Fertile Soil):
My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don't go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.
I beg everyone to start with a mulch 8 inches deep; otherwise, weeds may come through, and it would be a pity to be discouraged at the very start. But when I am asked how many bales (or tons) of hay are necessary to cover any given area, I can't answer from my own experience, for I gardened in this way for years before I had any idea of writing about it, and therefore didn't keep track of such details.
However, I now have some information on this from Dick Clemence, my A-Number-One adviser. He says, "I should think of 25 50-pound bales as about the minimum for 50 feet by 50 feet, or about a half-ton of loose hay. That should give a fair starting cover, but an equal quantity in reserve would be desirable." That is a better answer than the one I have been giving, which is: You need at least twice as much as you would think.
What Should I Use for Mulch?
Spoiled or regular hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, garbage — any vegetable matter that rots.
Don't Some Leaves Decay Too Slowly?
No, they just remain mulch longer, which cuts down on labor. Don't they mat down? If so, it doesn't matter because they are between the rows of growing things and not on top of them. Can one use leaves without hay? Yes, but a combination of the two is better, I think.
What is spoiled hay? It's hay that for some reason isn't good enough to feed livestock. It may have, for instance, become moldy — if it was moist when put in the haymow — but it is just as effective for mulching as good hay, and a great deal cheaper.
Shouldn't the hay be chopped?
Well, I don't have mine chopped and I don't have a terrible time — and I'm 76 and no stronger than the average person.
Can you use grass clippings?
Yes, but unless you have a huge lawn or neighbors who will collect them for you, they don't go very far.
How Do You Sow Seeds into the Mulch?
You plant exactly as you always have, in the Earth. You pull back the mulch and put the seeds in the ground and cover them just as you would if you had never heard of mulching.
Isn't It Bad to Mulch with Hay That May Be Full of Weed Seeds?
If the mulch is thick enough, the weeds can't come through it. One man in a group I addressed was determined not to let me get away with claiming that it was all right to throw a lot of hay full of grass seeds on one's garden, and the rest of the audience was with him. I was getting nowhere and was bordering on desperation, when, finally, I asked him: "If you were going to make a lawn, would you plant the grass seed and then cover it with several inches of hay?" Put that way, he at last realized that a lot of hay on top of tiny seeds would keep them from germinating.
However, it's true that you can lay chunks of baled hay between the rows of vegetables in your garden and, in a wet season, have a hearty growth of weeds right on top of the hay. To kill unwanted weeds all you need do is turn over the chunk of hay. Now, this isn't much of a job but some ardent disciples of my system are capable of getting indignant with me (in a nice way, of course) because they are put to that bother. I have relieved them of all plowing, hoeing, cultivating, weeding, watering, spraying and making compost piles; how is it that I haven't thought of some way to avoid this turning over of those chunks of hay?
How Can You Safely Plant Little Seeds Between 8-inch Walls of Mulch?
One can't, of course, but almost before one gets through spreading it, the mulch begins to settle and soon becomes a 2- or 3-inch compact mass rather than an 8-inch fluffy one. It will no doubt be walked on, and rain may come; in any case, it will settle. As a matter of fact you won't need 8 inches to start if you use solid chunks of baled hay.
Many People Want to Know Why I Don't Use Manure and What I Have Against It
I have nothing at all against it; in fact, I have a somewhat exaggerated respect for it. But I no longer need it; the ever-rotting mulch takes its place. I sort of complained, in my first book, that no one ever wrote an ode to manure, and through the years since then at least a half-dozen people have sent me poems they composed about manure piles.
I have been asked over and over if such things as sawdust and oak leaves should be avoided, the idea being that they make the soil too acidic. I use sawdust, primarily around raspberries, with excellent results. We have no oak trees, therefore I can't answer that question from experience, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to use them; then, if it turned out that they were making the soil acidic, I would add some wood ashes or lime. I've had reports from a great many gardeners who have used both sawdust and oak leaves over their entire garden and have found them satisfactory.
How Often Do You Put on Mulch?