Four-Year Reflection: What a Difference Mulching Makes

Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2009.
Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2013.
Mulch gardening is a great way to turn hard-to-love soil into rich black gold—and to prove the worthiness of this organic method, I'm going to walk you through my experiences with the clay-rich soil of the North Country—and how mulch gardening turned a hayed, nutritionally depleted field into a lush vegetable and fruit garden.

I moved to Better Farm in June of 2009; a period of time during which there were a few raised flower beds on the property, two acres of mowed lawn, dense forest all around, and roughly 8 acres of fields that were hayed twice yearly for consumption by a neighboring farm's cows.

In August of that year, I wandered out into the side yard of the farm and began staking out a 20' x 24' rectangle that would, I hoped, turn into a garden. Of course, I instantly broke a trowel and then a shovel trying to get into that clay-rich soil:
I'd spent that summer up here researching various organic gardening methods that utilized principles of permaculture and composting, and found that the style I was most intrigued by was Ruth Stout's mulch gardening technique. In her book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, Stout exhalts a direct-compost and haying method that minimizes weeding, removes the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides, promotes abundant growth, makes use of items many others would consider trash, and takes away the sometimes laborious task of keeping a compost pile or bin that needs to be turned, shoveled, and cared for.

I know, sounds too good to be true. But the thing is, that lady was right-on.

Once you've staked out your plot, it's time to start treating the soil. This can start instantly, and will continue even long after crops are planted. The idea here is to avoid the cost of buying fresh mulch, and the maintenance of a compost bin that needs regular attention, turning, and so on. What Stout recommends is essentially turning your plot of land into an ongoing compost/mulch pit. That means raked leaves, grass clippings, a little wood ash from a fire, and food scraps can all get dumped directly on the soil and left alone. So long as you don't throw stuff like meat scraps into this ongoing mulch situation, you can rest fairly assured that you won't have too many critters contending for these scraps. Starting with a barrier of cardboard will ensure you kill the weeds below.

As the summer of 2009 turned to autumn, I composted all I could and began saving cardboard for my new mulch garden. And when spring came in 2010, I worked with some friends to get wooden posts (donated by a neighbor in Plessis) into the ground for fencing.

With the garden (a much larger than originally planned, 85' x 100') staked out, I worked with the people at Better Farm to make some rows in accordance with Ruth Stout's directives. And lo and behold, it worked!
Now, in the first year of mulch gardening, chances are you're not going to have all that much compost, cardboard, and decomposing hay to work with. The truth is, it isn't until your third or fourth year that you'll really see how you're transforming the dirt you're working on top of. So let's fast-forward to see the transformation:




All of these images were taken at roughly the same time of the season, and you can really see the improvement as far as weed control, lushness, size of the produce, and the organization of our crops. Of course, a huge amount of this is due to the diligence of our Sustainability Education Students, our volunteers, and staff; in addition, having a solid, healthy template of fertile soil makes everybody's life a whole lot easier.

But really, about that dirt. Look at what hard, clay soil turns into with a little mulching:

To learn more about mulch gardening, click here. To schedule a one-on-one or group workshop on the subject, call (315) 482-2536 or email

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.