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Composting > Mulch Gardening

Mulch Gardening

Ruth Stout discovered, or at least popularized this new-to-her method. Mulching may owe some of its popularity to Ruth's possession of writing talent similar to her brother Rex's, who was a well-known mid-century mystery writer. Ruth's humorous book, Gardening Without Work is a fun-to-read classic that I highly recommend if for no other reason than it shows how an intelligent person can make remarkable discoveries simply by observing the obvious. However, like many other garden writers, Ruth Stout made the mistake of assuming that what worked in her own backyard would be universally applicable. Mulch gardening does not succeed everywhere.

This easy method mimics decomposition on the forest floor. Instead of making compost heaps or sheet composting, the garden is kept thickly covered with a permanent layer of decomposing vegetation. Year-round mulch produces a number of synergistic advantages. Decay on the soil's surface is slow but steady and maintains fertility. As on the forest floor, soil animals and worm populations are high. Their activities continuously loosen the earth, steadily transport humus and nutrients deeper into the soil, and eliminate all need for tillage. Protected from the sun, the surface layers of soil do not dry out so shallow-feeding species like lettuce and moisture-lovers like radishes make much better growth. During high summer, mulched ground does not become unhealthfully heated up either.

The advantages go on. The very top layer of soil directly under the mulch has a high organic matter content, retaining moisture, eliminating crusting, and consequently, enhancing the germination of seeds. Mulchers usually sow in well-separated rows. The gardener merely rakes back the mulch and exposes a few inches of bare soil, scratches a furrow, and covers the seed with humusy topsoil. As the seedlings grow taller and are thinned out, the mulch is gradually pushed back around them.

Weeds? No problem! Except where germinating seeds, the mulch layer is thick enough to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Should a weed begin showing through the mulch, this is taken as an indication that spot has become too thinly covered and a flake of spoiled hay or other vegetation is tossed on the unwanted plant, smothering it.

Oh, how easy it seems! Pick a garden site. If you have a year to wait before starting your garden do not even bother to till first. Cover it a foot deep with combinations of spoiled hay, leaves, grass clippings, and straw. Woody wastes are not suitable because they won't rot fast enough to feed the soil. Kitchen garbage and manures can also be tossed on the earth and, for a sense of tidiness, covered with hay. The mulch smothers the grass or weeds growing there and the site begins to soften. Next year it will be ready to grow vegetables.

If the plot is very infertile to begin with there won't be enough biological activity or nutrients in the soil to rapidly decompose the mulch. In that case, to accelerate the process, before first putting down mulch till in an initial manure layer or a heavy sprinkling of seed meal. Forever after, mulching materials alone will be sufficient. Never again till. Never again weed. Never again fertilize. No compost piles to make, turn, and haul. Just keep your eye open for spoiled hay and buy a few inexpensive tons of it each year.

Stout, who discovered mulch gardening in Connecticut where irregular summer rains were usually sufficient to water a widely-spaced garden, also mistakenly thought that mulched gardens lost less soil moisture because the earth was protected from the drying sun and thus did not need irrigation through occasional drought. I suspect that drought resistance under mulch has more to do with a plant's ability to feed vigorously, obtain nutrition, and continue growing because the surface inches where most of soil nutrients and biological activities are located, stayed moist. I also suspect that actual, measurable moisture loss from mulched soil may be greater than from bare earth. But that's another book I wrote, called Gardening Without Irrigation.

Yes, gardening under permanent year-round mulch seems easy, but it does have a few glitches. Ruth Stout did not discover them because she lived in Connecticut where the soil freezes solid every winter and stays frozen for long enough to set back population levels of certain soil animals. In the North, earwigs and sow bugs (pill bugs) are frequently found in mulched gardens but they do not become a serious pest. Slugs are infrequent and snails don't exist. All thanks to winter.

Try permanent mulch in the deep South, or California where I was first disappointed with mulching, or the Maritime northwest where I now live, and a catastrophe develops. During the first year these soil animals are present but cause no problem. But after the first mild winter with no population setback, they become a plague. Slugs (and in California, snails) will be found everywhere, devastating seedlings. Earwigs and sow bugs, that previously only were seen eating only decaying mulch, begin to attack plants. It soon becomes impossible to get a stand of seedlings established. The situation can be rapidly cured by raking up all the mulch, carting it away from the garden, and composting it. I know this to be the truth because I've had to do just that both in California where as a novice gardener I had my first mulch catastrophes, and then when I moved to Oregon, I gave mulching another trial with similar sad results.

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