Grow a mulch garden –
the one-step way that takes the prize!
A mulch garden is
amazing – you can get
so much with so little
And it’s the closest thing to “no-work gardening” that I’ve come across. Pioneered by Ruth Stout in the ’50s, it really is the easiest way to garden organically!
“Mulch” is just cut vegetation -- wood chips, shredded bark, sawdust, grass clippings, hay, straw, leaves, etc. When you use it to cover the ground around the plants, the soil stays cool and moist, and weed competition is smothered. A mulch garden also attracts earthworms, who speed up decomposition and increase microbiological activity.
Which mulch you use depends on what you can get free or at low cost, and on the individual crop in question. Wood chips, bark and the like are normally used on perennials, such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and fruit trees. But where I live, it’s the easiest mulch to get, and I have successfully used them on vegetables, too.
You just have to be aware that chips can take too much nitrogen out of the soil, if they wander into the soil itself. But studies have shown that any type of wood mulch on top of the ground is no problem, because the nitrogen comes from the air, not the soil.
EVEN MORE BENEFITS
With mulch gardening, produce is almost clean when picked, and rarely needs more than one washing. After rain, in a traditional garden, cleaning greens can take up to four washes, so this is major! And did I mention that, with a mulch garden, you can
go out when it’s wet to pick something for dinner,
without getting muddy feet? I know I’ve found the
way for me, for good!
In the 1950’s, Ruth Stout’s book, How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, was published, and the idea of a year-round mulch garden burst on the wider scene. Her second book, The No-Work Gardening Book, celebrated the method in the ’70s, followed more recently by Patricia Lanza, who took it to further extremes in Lasagna Gardening.
Ruth Stout had gardened conventionally for many years, and had her garden plowed every spring by neighbors. One year, she got tired of waiting around for the plow to come, and took note of her asparagus, which traditionally is never plowed at all. So she began to wonder, why not peas, or other vegetables? And her experiments began, leading to a mulch garden method that has become widely known.
I like her homespun Yankee wisdom and relaxed style, especially since so few are relaxed anymore… a real country woman, whose mulch garden made her famous and enabled her to garden into her 80s. And that’s another selling point: most people couldn’t keep up with the heavy work conventional gardens require, like digging, and hoeing. But with her way, you can!
GETTING THE SITE READY
If you’re starting a garden from scratch, you can just mark off a space, and start covering it with mulch. (This is what I did, with my rocky ground – there was no choice!)
However, if you have a more-or-less level site that a tractor and plow can reach, it’s a big advantage to have it spread with manure, plowed and disked once, before starting your mulch garden. It gives you a leg up.
Either way, cover the ground completely with about 8 inches of mulch. (Of course, if you’re short of mulch or money, even 3 inches can make a huge difference. Your yields may not be as good, and the ground won’t improve as quickly, but I’ve scraped by that way, especially on crops that aren’t heavy feeders.)
THE DOUBLE-ROW PLAN
When sowing seeds or transplanting, you pull back the mulch to plant directly in the soil. When the seeds sprout, and are large enough, you squeeze the mulch gently back around them. Because mulch is bulky, it can be hard to make it stay back from narrow rows, if they’re not a good distance apart. But if they are that far apart, you’re wasting good planting ground.
The double-row plan helps to solve this. Double rows are simply two rows planted almost back-to-back. You can leave the space between the rows uncovered until the plants are larger, but the mulch can still come close on the outsides. (This is important, because uncovered soil dries out and heats up. You want to keep it to a minimum.) Since plants will grow outwards, away from each other, this maximizes the growing space. At the same time, it’s easy to reach all the plants for tending and harvest.
So, when planting your mulch garden, mark out double rows for the plants (or seeds). The spacing can vary:
With traditional gardening you might space sweet corn in rows two feet apart. But for double-rows, leave the two feet on each side of the double row, and only six inches between the rows themselves. The two-foot strips are your walkways. With other vegetables, size the path space to the crop you’re growing.
Keep adding more mulch on top every year -- and save that kitchen garbage in a covered pail. To us, it’s just waste, but it’s gold to the ground! Take it out to the garden, and just tuck it under the mulch. The worms go wild eating the mix, composting it beautifully, and enriching the soil for your crops!
WHAT IF YOU HAVE A REALLY TOUGH GARDEN SITE?
I hear you, brother! Over the years, I’ve gardened several different ways, in many places: twice in Ohio, twice in Maine, three times in Kentucky, and once in Utah. Of course, I was always looking for the perfect method, but finally came to realize it’s not about that. It really has to do with adapting to your conditions.
Like Ruth, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown a bit wild: Now, I don’t even try to plow or disc my raw, rocky land! Firstly, my land is not friendly to any type of equipment, AND, secondly, my arthritis has set its seal of disapproval on digging, period! This has forced me out on the extremist fringe, but my garden is doing fine.
Come take a look at the hybrid method I’m using
in Hart County, Kentucky,
a mix of French Intensive, mulch and raised beds!
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