Deep thoughts on deep mulch?

Deep thoughts on deep mulch?

Ok so nothing too deep here thought wise, but I was slinging some hay and straw today… mulching big time!  We’re still about a month and a half out from being able to plant annuals in the garden, but grass is starting to come up in the garden paths and that just won’t do.  I’ve committed myself to never mowing down there again.  I enjoy hard work, but I despise creating extra work for myself.  It just seems like there is so much more productive things I could be doing rather than pushing a loud, stinky lawnmower around.  Anyway I recently read Ruth Stout’s book “Gardening Without Work” and was inspired!

For those of you who haven’t heard of Ruth she is the “Mulch Queen of Connecticut” who made popular a deep mulching technique of gardening in the ’50’s and ’60’s.  She obviously didn’t invent the idea keeping the soil covered with a deep layer of mulch, but she sure did a lot to make it popular.  The idea of creating a heavy layer of mulch to shade the soil, retain moisture, and build fertility has been around since the beginning of time.  Nature has been doing this for eons.

Fresh hay mulch on new garden beds.
Fresh hay mulch on new garden beds.

So the technique in a nut shell is spread a deep layer, at least eight inches thick preferably more, of mulch over the entirety of your garden area.  That’s basically it!  Just spread it on nice a thick, if anything that you don’t want rears it’s ugly head dump some more mulch on it.  I use a combination of spoiled hay and old straw for my garden.  I spread a thin-ish layer ( 6-8 in.)of hay over my garden area last fall when I created some new growing beds, and the ravages of the Idaho winter had worn that layer thin.  There was still a nice layer of mulch of around two inches thick over most of the area, but with the spring warm up grass was starting to push through.  Like I said this just won’t do!  I’m not going to be mowing down there… I mean it!  So out comes the pitchfork and the straw was flying.  I laid it down thick.  I’m talking 8-12 inches over everything.  I covered the walkways, mulched around trees, gave the raspberries some love, and even spread a little around the daffodils.

All of this mulch is likely to push back the start of growing season by keeping the soil cool longer, but I should make up for that on the back-end in the fall by keeping the soil warm longer.  Some people would be concerned about spreading weed and grass seeds from using hay, but not I.  If you pile the mulch on nice and deep, and don’t work the soil (no till) there should be very little germination of the seeds.  Any seeds that do manage to get going will be easily knocked out with another judicious layer of mulch in that area.  To plant you just pull back the mulch in the area you are working on and either set in transplants then re-mulch, or plant your seeds and keep the mulch pulled back until they get going good.  Another question arises on just exactly how does one come into enough hay and straw to be laying on mulch this thick… Craigslist baby!

Tons of cheep mulch!
Tons of cheep mulch!

I live in a rural area where spoiled hay and nasty straw abounds.  You just need to go look for it and ask.  Most of the ranchers around here will just pile it up and burn it after it goes south on them.  They were more than happy to not have to move it into the back 40 and sit around while a giant pile of hay smolders for hours.  I paid on average $10 per ton for the materials I collected.  Some was free, some folks asked for a little fuel money to put in their tractors.  I was happy to oblige.  In the end I paid $70 for about 7 tons of hay and straw!  With the size of my garden and future expansion this should last me at least until next spring.

One of the biggest factors in my deciding to goto this deep mulch, no till technique of gardening is the amount of labor involved (considerably less… hopefully).  I am setting up systems that should require less weeding, less watering, and less time over the long term.  Taking these factors into account I should be able to plant and harvest a considerably larger garden.  My initial goal is to replace 30% of our grocery bill moving to something along the lines of 90% overtime.  A penny saved is a penny earned, and in our single income household those pennies go a long way.  Add into the mix that I already have a full time job offsite of the homestead and you see why I obsess over the amount of time I spend on these ongoing projects.  This is going to be my first season growing in many of these beds, and I have high hopes.  I’ll keep you posted on the results!

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