Mulch Much? The Benefits of Gardening with Mulch


Gardening with Mulch - Moisture Retention and Yield
Written by


Originally published at Fix.com
One of the easiest ways to ensure success in your garden, especially a vegetable garden, is to incorporate mulching into your garden preparations. This doesn’t have to break the bank, but it will provide you dividends in the abundance of vegetables you will harvest from your garden. Whether you live in the city, country, or suburbia, and whether you have a huge garden, raised beds, or even if you are using pots and containers, mulches are the unsung hero in the garden. 

So Why Mulch?

The most basic benefit of mulch is moisture retention. Yields are directly affected by the amount of water in the soil. And, in dryer climates where rainfall is scarce, gardeners will want their soil to retain as much water as possible. Simply by covering the top of the soil in a thin layer of organic material, you will drastically reduce the level of moisture evaporated from the soil. The graphic below shows just how dramatically mulching can reduce evaporation. Mulching can retain up to 80% of added moisture in your soil. When you keep the top of the soil protected from direct heat, it will lose less water, and thus be a better environment for your plants. Great mulch also has the ability to breathe, and not become a place where mold issues arise, which would be unhealthy for plant life.
Compost is technically not mulch, but rather a soil amendment, an additive used to increase soil nutrition. Compost can also be used as a top dressing. It is a very significant component of a great garden, so it is good to keep it in mind as part of your gardening efforts.

Different Types of Mulches

There are many different types of mulch, and some of these cost little to nothing. Some common mulches are pine straw, grass clippings, leaves, newspapers, and wood chips.

Pine straw makes for fabulous mulch, but you have to make sure you place pine straw near acid-loving plants. In some parts of the country pine straw is an abundant free resource, and is very convenient to collect. Many acid-loving fruits and vegetables benefit from pine straw mulch, including blueberries, strawberries, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes. A drawback to pine straw mulch is that it can be messy, the color fades very quickly, and it’s very flammable.

Grass clippings also make fabulous mulch; the best part being that they are free and accessible. Furthermore, you are re-distributing garden and lawn matter to other areas of your garden, which carries the added benefit of providing a place to dispose of that matter. The grass clippings will add nitrogen and much needed nutrients for beneficial microbes that inhabit the soil, which your plants will love.
A word of caution about removing grass clippings from the side of the road: you must be sure that the grass is not chemically laden with fertilizers and pesticides. The only other issue that could crop up is that if the clippings come from a weedy area you may be transferring weeds or undesirable plants unknowingly.

Leaves are a favorite mulch of many gardeners. There are few to no drawbacks when mulching with leaves, and they can be spread to protect your soil during winter months. Oak and maple leaves in particular are popular mulch material because they are plentiful. Mowing over the leaves turns them into shredded mulch, which helps release some moisture, and also makes them easier to spread. Many times, leaves are free for the taking since most folks won’t mind you raking their lawns for them, and that will happily load you up with your fill of mulch!

Next up is newspaper. Your first thought might be “ugh!” but there is a place in the garden for non-colored and non-magazine-type newsprint. It’s inexpensive, available, and can often be found at your local recycling bin. Newspaper is a very easy and efficient way to keep weeds at bay as well as assisting to keep the soil moist. It is particularly helpful when you have not been able to amend your soil as well as you would like too, or if your garden plot is in an extremely dry location with lots of drainage. You will want to wet your newspaper down when you use it and you will need to place another type of mulch on top, possibly mixed with some amended soil and compost, to help hold the newspaper down.

Composting is basically decomposing your kitchen trash from fresh foods such as vegetable scraps, egg shells, whole grains, any green growing material, chicken, horse, cow, or rabbit manure (but not household pet waste), and any dried matter in the garden. Often, local horse farms will gladly let you come collect their manure right out of the barns or pastures and in many cases you can barter with friends, neighbors, or your local farmer for chicken or rabbit manure. Rabbit manure can be put straight into the garden and is often referred to as “Gardeners Gold.”

Another mulch option is wood chips, shredded wood, or saw dust; however it is important to note that you should not use treated wood as it is loaded with chemicals and not good for you or your garden. There is debate over whether you should place fresh wood chips in your garden, and popular opinion is on both sides of the fence. Some folks say the fresh wood chips rob the soil of much-needed nitrogen and other folks argue that the fresh wood chips may decrease nitrogen initially but then it cycles back to the soil by naturally breaking down and amending the soil. Whatever you decide in the end, wood is nice and heavy and it will keep the soil moist and cool along with keeping weeds away from your beautiful plants.

Reducing the Cost

You may find mulching to be expensive, and it could be, if your garden is large and you don’t have any of the six mulches above at your disposal. But many communities have options for free mulch: some communities have yard debris recycling programs that turn debris into mulch, allowing citizens to gather it for free or a very small cost. Sometimes tree companies give away shredded branches as mulch. Landfills may have some free mulch options as well. Check online forums and hardware store bulletin boards for options in your local area. Mulching is probably not out of your reach.

Storing Mulch

When gathering mulch in the fall or winter when it is more readily available, you need to address storing the mulch for spring and summer use. The most important issue when storing mulch is to keep it dry. If the mulch is completely dry then you could store it in plastic bins, trash bags, or trash cans. If the mulch is not dry then your next best option would be to pile it up in the yard in an out-of-the-way location and turn it frequently until it dries out, then store in bins or bags.

Placing Mulch in the Garden

Placing mulch in the garden should be done very strategically. For example, wait until most of your seedlings sprout through the top soil: this allows time for any volunteers to poke through the ground, for transplanting elsewhere in the garden. It is also a good idea to add more mulch halfway through the gardening season and to spot-check your gardening areas from time to time so you can ensure the soil for your plants is staying moist.
Mulch is an often-free, valuable resource for the success of a garden. It keeps your roots moist, adds beneficial nutrients to the soil, and can really make the difference to an abundant garden. Take the time to experiment with different mulches, keeping note of which mulches work best with your plants. Also, to have your garden soil tested, contact your local agricultural extension office or check out our soil testing article, to make sure you are using the ideal mulch for your garden.
To sum up, it pays to consider the best mulch option for your garden situation and conditions. Consider your soil requirements, your space requirements and your wallet. Your payoff is in abundant plant production. I wish you much success as you add beneficial nutrients and just the right amount of ongoing moisture by using mulch.
Have you mulched much lately?

Karen Lynn is a gardener and beekeeper, who writes for Lil’ Suburban Homestead. She previously wrote for Frugal Families.com, and has been featured on several popular blogs. She is a Homestead Bloggers Network Contributor, as well been featured by Scratch Magazine.
Comment

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.

How Mulching Will Save Your Garden (and Sanity!)


Image from Oregon Live.
For all of you starting in with the back-breaking work of tilling, weeding, fertilizing, and otherwise prepping your garden beds for the impending season, this is a Public Service Announcement from Better Farm.

STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING!

Turn off that roto-tiller. Back away from that hoe. Return that bag of fertilizer. Pronto.

We've got a mulch simpler solution that benefits you, your sanity,  the environment, and, of course, that gorgeous garden of yours.

What is Mulch Gardening?
Lasagna garden illustration by Kim Carpenter
Mulch gardening is a layering method that mimics a forest floor and combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop. Also called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching, this process can turn hard-to-love soil rich and healthy by improving nutrient and water retention in the dirt, encouraging favorable soil microbial activity and worms, suppressing weed growth, and improving the well-being of plants (all while reducing maintenance!).

How is Mulch Gardening Achieved?
This is the easy part. All the stuff most people throw out—food scraps. cardboard, junk mail, dead leaves, sticks, twigs, and newspaper—is exactly the stuff you want to get mulch gardening going in your yard. Trust us, it works:
Better Farm gardens, 2013.
Starting in the Spring
If you're starting this process in the spring, you'll want to make layers like this in your garden rows:
  • Layer One: cardboard/newspaper/junk mail (we also use the discarded bedding from chicken coops)
  • Layer Two: fresh compost (coffee grounds, banana peels, etc.)
  • Layer Three: Dead leaves, hay, other mulch items
  • Layer Four: Top Soil
The only reason for adding soil in your first year is to ensure your seedlings will have something to grab onto. After this year, however, you won't have to add dirt; you will have already made your own! For you gardeners who are concerned about appearances, top soil and mulch as a top layer around your seedlings will also give you a manicured look. During the season, continue adding all these mulch-gardening layers to a compost bin. In the fall, pull any plants that won't be returning on their own next spring, mix them into your compost, then dump compost over each row, topped with more cardboard, paper, and hay. Here's a photo illustration of these instructions:


First layer: cardboard, newspaper, junk mail

Second layer: fresh compost from our food.
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!

Next spring, you'll just have to poke a hole into your rows and plant away. The natural weed barriers, composted food, other layers will add every nutrient your plants need, retain moisture, and ensure a plentiful crop.


Starting in the Fall
Each Fall at Better Farm, we add piles of hay and compost to each row.
In the fall, you will pull dead plants from your rows, mix those in with your other compost, then spread all your compost, more cardboard/newspaper, and hay (preferable to straw, click here to find out why) to your rows. In raised beds, do the same exact thing. During the winter, these piles will reduce dramatically in size (at least by half, if not more). Come spring, you'll rake out the top layer from your beds to allow perennials to return; in your rows, you can plant directly into the layers.
 Want to see just how much of a difference mulch gardening makes? Click here to see our four-year reflection photos!

For more information about mulch gardening, click here. We also now offer private garden consultations! Click here to learn more.
Comment

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.

Winterizing Your Strawberry Plants

Image from Scenic Reflections.
Strawberry plants will come back annually to provide you with beautiful, yummy fruit for years. But if you live in a northern climate, it's imperative that you protect these plants from the elements. If a strawberry plant's root system freezes solid, the plant you nurtured will die and you'll have to replant the following year. Thankfully, prepping your strawberries for the winter months couldn't be easier.

In-Ground Strawberries
If your strawberries live in garden beds, simply cover them up with a few inches of straw or leaves for the winter. Wait until the ground is fully cooled off and your plants are done growing for the year. Then give them a nice, thick layer of mulch. This does double duty; protecting the fruits from frigid winters, and providing great compost material for your soil. Be sure to check on the plants a few times over the winter to make sure freezing and thawing hasn't forced them up. If so, tamp them back down, water, and add more straw or leaves.

Container Strawberries
Strawberries that are growing in pots should be placed somewhere cold but not frozen. An unheated garage is a great place to store the fruits for the winter, but you'll need some sort of insulation to ensure your strawberry plants don't freeze solid. Don't worry about the lack of light, as the strawberry plants will be dormant and won't need any light. Just be sure to add water every few weeks to ensure the roots don't dry out. You can also plant your strawberries in the ground for the winter, utilizing the straw-as-insulation approach outlined above.

One of the best ways is to over-winter container strawberries is to put the pot in a larger container and insulate the space between with leaves or straw. Or, place the container on the ground next to a heated wall and ideally out of the winter wind. Insulate the exposed sides of the container with mulch, leaves or straw. Or just bury the container. The surrounding soil will insulate the roots over winter. Then dig up and hose down the container next spring.

Please don't try taking your strawberries inside to continue growing as houseplants! Strawberries need a dormant season in order to trigger a new round of growth in the spring for fruiting.
1 Comment

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.

Spring Gardening Update

It finally feels like spring! So this morning I went outside to clean out chicken coops, rake our mulched rows in the main garden, peel away some layers of mulch in the raised beds, and commune with 30 very special chickens. I can't even describe how good it feels to get outside and get my hands dirty.

I got half of our peas in the garden on Monday (a bit later than last year's St. Patty's Day planting) and will get the rest in next Monday. In other news, the main garden is twice as big (again), the seedlings are starting to pop inside the main house (they'll move into the greenhouse on Monday, along with a bunch more flats), our chives and garlic are up (!), and the chickens are beyond elated to be worm-hunting and roto-tilling to their hearts' content. Here's a pictorial tour:

(Disclaimer: This is the start of Spring, so please don't expect some designer landscape! The images you see here are of extremely healthy compost and hay working their hardest to bring us the healthiest soil possible. If you'd like more information on how mulch gardening works, please click here. And if you're a skeptic about using hay, cardboard, compost, and all things rotting to have the lushest garden imaginable, check out our 2012 gardens album here.)

I got the new garden rows (established last fall) raked up and ready for planting. The chickens were excited to discover what was underneath all that hay!
 

Here's Big Mama vying for the handsomest rooster award: 

Rapunzels hanging out:

I went around to our raised beds and lined the insides with cardboard as a weed barrier (avert your eyes from the snow that is STILL hanging around):

Meanwhile, over in the raised beds, we have garlic!

...and we have chives!

Photos will be coming soon of our greenhouse layout, and more updates on the mandala garden started last fall. Anyone who would like to join us in getting the grounds ready for summer can e-mail info@betterfarm.org or call (315) 482-2536.
Comment

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.

Mulch Gardening in Full Swing at Better Farm

Jaci Collins, intern director, works on a row of cauliflower.
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 to leave plants with higher sensitivities to temperature, moisture, and weak immunities to topical bacterial infections. You would also be forced to apply excessive moisture and take antibiotics to combat illnesses.


Enter mulch gardening: a layering method that mimics a forest floor and combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop. Also called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching, this process can turn hard-to-love soil rich and healthy by improving nutrient and water retention in the dirt, encouraging favorable soil microbial activity and worms, suppressing weed growth, and improving the well-being of plants (all while reducing maintenance!).

We're in our third year of mulch gardening at Better Farm, which means we're really in our first year of having extremely developed, thick rows of biologically strong dirt and compost for our plants. Here's some information on how you can get started mulch gardening.

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 (our personal favorite). 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). We made two-foot piles last fall, and by spring those had settled and cooked down to about one foot. We sometimes add a fresh layer of cardboard over the top of the rows 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.
To say our experience at Better Farm has been a crash-course in everything organic is an understatement. We've been working uphill since Day One, when we "broke ground" (and several shovels) in the clay-rich, hard earth that had homed hay only for at least half a century.

Since that time, we've experimented with several planting, growing, weeding, fertilizing, and pest-control tactics. And what began as a small vermicompost bin in the kitchen has turned into a huge garden full of layered mulch rotting beautifully into dark, rich soil that feeds hundreds of plants every spring, summer, and fall.

Want to learn more? Here's a snippet from an old interview with the Queen of Mulch herself, talking about how you too can have a green thumb without an aching back.

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.

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.

 How Often Do You Put on Mulch?


Whenever you see a spot that needs it. If weeds begin to peep through anywhere, just toss an armful of hay on them. What time of year do you start to mulch? The answer is now, whatever the date may be, or at least begin to gather your material. At the very least give the matter constructive thought at one; make plans. If you are intending to use leaves, you will unfortunately have to wait until they fall, but you can be prepared to make use of them the moment they drop. Should you spread manure and plow it under before you mulch? Yes, if your soil isn't very rich; otherwise, mulch alone will answer the purpose.

How Far Apart Are the Rows?
Exactly the same distance as if you weren't mulching — that is, when you begin to use my method. However, after you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening.

How Long Does the Mulch Last?
That depends on the kind you use. Try always to have some in reserve, so that it can replenished as needed.

Now for the Million Dollar Question: Where Do You Get Mulch?
That's difficult to answer but I can say this: If enough people in any community demand it, I believe that someone will be eager to supply it. At least that's what happened within a distance of 100 miles or so of us in Connecticut, and within a year after my book came out, anyone in that radius could get all the spoiled hay they wanted at 65 cents a bale.
If you belong to a garden club, why can't you all get together and create a demand for spoiled hay? If you don't belong to a group, you probably at least know quite a few people who garden and who would be pleased to join the project.
Use all the leaves you can find. Clip your cornstalks into footlength pieces and use them. Utilize your garbage, tops of perennials, any and all vegetable matter that rots. In many localities, the utility companies grind up the branches they cut off when they clear the wires; and often they are glad to dump them near your garden, with no charge. But hurry up before they find out that there is a big demand for them and they decide to make a fast buck. These wood chips make a splendid mulch; I suggest you just ignore anyone who tells you they are too acidic.

Recently, a man reproached me for making spoiled hay so popular that he can no longer get it for nothing. The important fact, however, is that it has become available and is relatively cheap. The other day a neighbor said to me, "Doesn't it make you feel good to see the piles of hay in so many yards when you drive around?" It does make me feel fine.

Now and then I am asked (usually by an irritated expert) why I think I invented mulching. Well, naturally, I don't think so; God invented it simply by deciding to have the leaves fall off the trees once a year. I don't even think that I'm the first, or only person, who thought up my particular variety of year-round mulching, but apparently I'm the first to make a big noise about it — writing, talking, demonstrating.

And since in the process of spreading this great news, I have run across many thousands who never heard of the method, and a few hundred who think it is insane and can't possibly work, and only two people who had already tried it, is it surprising that I have carelessly fallen into the bad habit of sounding as though I thought I originated it?

But why should we care who invented it? Dick Clemence works hard trying to get people to call it the "Stout System," which is good because it should have some sort of a short name for people to use when they refer to it, instead of having to tell the whole story each time. I suppose it does more or less give me a feeling of importance when I come across an article mentioning the Stout System, yet I am cheated out of the full value of that sensation because I've never been able really to identify the whole thing with that little girl who was certainly going to be great and famous some day. What a disgusted look she would have given anyone who would have offered her the title of Renowned Mulcher!

And it borders on the unenthralling to have the conversation at social gatherings turn to slugs and cabbageworms the minute I show up. And if some professor of psychology, giving an association-of-ideas test to a bunch of gardeners, should say "moldy hay" or "garbage," I'm afraid that some of them would come out with "Ruth Stout." Would anyone like that?

If you want to learn more about the Stout System, you can locate copies of Ruth Stout's books through a used bookseller. You also can order the VHS or DVD video Ruth Stout's Garden from Gardenworks.
Comment

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.

Mulching with Hay (and other Biodegradables)

Better Farm's garden rows get ready for winter. We piled about 1.5 feet of hay over each row this morning.
After reading Ruth Stout's How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, I was convinced of the benefits of mulch gardening; a layering method that mimics a forest floor and combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop. Also called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching, this process can turn hard-to-love soil rich and healthy by improving nutrient and water retention in the dirt, encouraging favorable soil microbial activity and worms, suppressing weed growth, and improving the well-being of plants (all while reducing maintenance!).

This is the close of our second gardening season at Better Farm, and to say it's been a crash-course in everything organic is an understatement. We've been working uphill since Day One, when we "broke ground" (and several shovels) in the clay-rich, hard earth that had only homed hay for at least half a century.

Since that time, we've experimented with several planting, growing, weeding, fertilizing, and pest-control tactics. And what began as a small vermicompost bin in the kitchen has turned into a huge garden full of layered mulch rotting beautifully into dark, rich soil that feeds hundreds of plants every spring, summer, and fall.

We were fortunate enough this year to be visited by Guy Hunneyman, who dropped off several bales of hay for us to use as we ready the garden for winter. Mike and I hit the garden this morning and spread the hay out into nice, thick layers.



So, how do you get to this point? 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). 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.


Want to learn more? Here's a snippet from an old interview with the Queen of Mulch herself, talking about how you too can have a green thumb without an aching back.

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.

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.

 How Often Do You Put on Mulch?

Whenever you see a spot that needs it. If weeds begin to peep through anywhere, just toss an armful of hay on them. What time of year do you start to mulch? The answer is now, whatever the date may be, or at least begin to gather your material. At the very least give the matter constructive thought at one; make plans. If you are intending to use leaves, you will unfortunately have to wait until they fall, but you can be prepared to make use of them the moment they drop. Should you spread manure and plow it under before you mulch? Yes, if your soil isn't very rich; otherwise, mulch alone will answer the purpose.

How Far Apart Are the Rows?
Exactly the same distance as if you weren't mulching — that is, when you begin to use my method. However, after you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening.

How Long Does the Mulch Last?
That depends on the kind you use. Try always to have some in reserve, so that it can replenished as needed.

Now for the Million Dollar Question: Where Do You Get Mulch?
That's difficult to answer but I can say this: If enough people in any community demand it, I believe that someone will be eager to supply it. At least that's what happened within a distance of 100 miles or so of us in Connecticut, and within a year after my book came out, anyone in that radius could get all the spoiled hay they wanted at 65 cents a bale.
If you belong to a garden club, why can't you all get together and create a demand for spoiled hay? If you don't belong to a group, you probably at least know quite a few people who garden and who would be pleased to join the project.
Use all the leaves you can find. Clip your cornstalks into footlength pieces and use them. Utilize your garbage, tops of perennials, any and all vegetable matter that rots. In many localities, the utility companies grind up the branches they cut off when they clear the wires; and often they are glad to dump them near your garden, with no charge. But hurry up before they find out that there is a big demand for them and they decide to make a fast buck. These wood chips make a splendid mulch; I suggest you just ignore anyone who tells you they are too acidic.

Recently, a man reproached me for making spoiled hay so popular that he can no longer get it for nothing. The important fact, however, is that it has become available and is relatively cheap. The other day a neighbor said to me, "Doesn't it make you feel good to see the piles of hay in so many yards when you drive around?" It does make me feel fine.

Now and then I am asked (usually by an irritated expert) why I think I invented mulching. Well, naturally, I don't think so; God invented it simply by deciding to have the leaves fall off the trees once a year. I don't even think that I'm the first, or only person, who thought up my particular variety of year-round mulching, but apparently I'm the first to make a big noise about it — writing, talking, demonstrating.

And since in the process of spreading this great news, I have run across many thousands who never heard of the method, and a few hundred who think it is insane and can't possibly work, and only two people who had already tried it, is it surprising that I have carelessly fallen into the bad habit of sounding as though I thought I originated it?

But why should we care who invented it? Dick Clemence works hard trying to get people to call it the "Stout System," which is good because it should have some sort of a short name for people to use when they refer to it, instead of having to tell the whole story each time. I suppose it does more or less give me a feeling of importance when I come across an article mentioning the Stout System, yet I am cheated out of the full value of that sensation because I've never been able really to identify the whole thing with that little girl who was certainly going to be great and famous some day. What a disgusted look she would have given anyone who would have offered her the title of Renowned Mulcher!

And it borders on the unenthralling to have the conversation at social gatherings turn to slugs and cabbageworms the minute I show up. And if some professor of psychology, giving an association-of-ideas test to a bunch of gardeners, should say "moldy hay" or "garbage," I'm afraid that some of them would come out with "Ruth Stout." Would anyone like that?

If you want to learn more about the Stout System, you can locate copies of Ruth Stout's books through a used bookseller. You also can order the VHS or DVD video Ruth Stout's Garden from Gardenworks.