The Incredible Benefits of Mulch

When we began our incremental move back in December, we had a few days each visit to accomplish what we could. My number-one priority was gathering leaves from beneath the maple trees to mulch an area for the garden. My husband and I raked 10 heaping trailer loads and spread an 8-inch layer over 1,800 square-feet of ungrazed pasture.

The soil beneath was red clay– intimidating to tame for a first-year garden. Plus it had long been growing grass with no manure return. I worried about being able to add enough organic material to sustain our vegetables.

Several weeks later I spread several barrels of compost and re-covered the earth with leaf mulch. Then in March, we dug our first potato trench, and I was amazed at the improvement, already. The soil had darkened and become more granular. The smell was lovely and the shovel sliced in easily. The grass and weeds beneath the mulch had died off and broken down into the earth.

In April, we mowed the field and spent a day raking grass clippings to add another layer of mulch, as the leaves had broken down perfectly.

Now, in only six months of mulching and doing little else, we’ve converted inert clay to rich garden soil. The areas that lack mulch are rather like concrete, since exposed clay essentially bakes into bricks.

We’ve seen mulch in action. Here’s why it works so well:

Mulch protects the worms and microorganisms and allows them to do their work of breaking down organic material. Soon the bottom layer is converted to rich humus.

It prevents evaporation, allowing water to nourish the plants rather than vanish into the air. This makes mulch an essential element of water conservation in this time of drought on the West Coast.

Mulch also retains heat in the winter months, protecting roots from frost, and cools the soil in summer. Especially important for plants like tomatoes, which are susceptible to fungal problems, mulch prevents splash-back when watering (don’t water the leaves!).

Finally, mulch is the best possible way to suppress weeds. With no chemical sprays– even organic sprays can do damage to the soil and surrounding plants– nutrient-hungry weeds are simply smothered and turned into compost.

While we used leaves and grass clippings, there are a multitude of options for how to mulch.

Wood chips are a huge reservoir of nitrogen, an asset to the soil as it breaks down. The process takes longer than other mulches, which can be a positive or a negative.

Bark dust and straw are great options, but keep in mind that hay– as opposed to straw– can contain grass and weed seeds that may add to your troubles.

Pine needles, as well as some leaves, have a high acid content, so check your pH before applying, or use them only on acid-happy plants like blueberries. Lime can be applied to raise the pH if necessary.

Plain brown cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper– the ink is soy-based– topped with bark or other mulch is especially effective against weeds. Simply cut holes where vegetables or flowers will be planted.

At the end of the season, mulch can simply be tilled in to decompose and return its nutrients to the soil, or new layers of compost and mulch can be added on top for “lasagna gardening,” a popular no-till method.

For more information on lasagna gardening, read:

Building Soil with Lasagna Gardening at Homestead Honey

Lasagna Gardening at Learning and Yearning

3 Great No-Till Gardening Methods at Northern Homestead

Lasagna Gardening at New England Permaculture Homestead

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The Garden: Winter Surprises

A rather magical part of our new home is that it was clearly once a well kept, well loved place with nurtured gardens. The overgrown brambles and fallen trees add some to the mystique as spring bulbs nod through. Grape hyacinth lines a path along the creek, and new clusters of its thin leaves promise more to come.

I had seen a small patch of this bulb above emerging in January and wondered if it might be irises or lilies. On this trip, more than 100 square feet of the angular green leaves lined the top edge of the creek bank, and a neighbor gave me the exciting news that they are all tiger lilies– thousands of them!

Daffodils opened on both sides of the driveway at the end of the bridge, one cluster beside a budding rhododendron and another shrouded in weeds and brambles. I spent an hour cutting out the latter group, pushing the blackberries back to the slope toward the creek. In their wake, I discovered many more lilies, more daffodils, lamb’s ear, and other plants just appearing.

In addition to the delightful surprise of long-forgotten bulbs, I was thrilled to see my own small garden taking shape as the garlic and shallots continued to push through the mulch.

While the spring will be a time of transition and continued trips up as the move stretches out over months of packing and hauling, and as the weeks in which I’d like to be starting seed and planting peas pass,  I’m satisfied to know that already a garden is thriving at our new home.

Planting Purple Potatoes

Every Saturday during the summer, since we did not grow potatoes for the first time in years, we bought spuds from a fellow at the farmer’s market who we affectionately referred to as Santa Claus Guy. He sold organic Yukon Golds, Russets and a lovely purple variety.

Since colorful potatoes contain the most nutrients, we ate a lot of periwinkle mash. When his supply dwindled at the end of the season, we bought out his stand.

One bag sat hidden in the pantry, forgotten for several weeks until the spuds shriveled and began to sprout. Several months later, the paper bag left undisturbed and consciously stepped-over, purple tentacles began to emerge.

Since we’re currently mid-move, I won’t be able to plant a full crop of early potatoes, but this bag-full will be just about the right amount for a bin or garbage can that we can haul up with us. If for no other reason, I’d like to preserve the variety for a proper planting later.

The first time we planted a large crop of potatoes, my husband was dubious about whether the effort was worthwhile. For a food that’s cheap and we eat a ton of, wouldn’t it be better to just buy them and dedicate the garden space– and time and energy– to a more delectable vegetable?

After our harvest, he dramatically changed his tune. The waxy yellow tubers we pulled from the earth tasted buttery and delicious, unlike anything we’d ever bought. Since then potatoes are one of our primary garden plants. When I was enormously pregnant and the summer was scorching, our garden waned to a few vegetables, yet I went out daily to water and hill up my precious potatoes.

We grow them in circles of wire lined with newspaper. I place the seed potato on the ground, cover it with straw and soil, and position the fencing wire around it. As the leaves rise up through the dirt, I add layers of mulch and soil to cover most of them until the wire “bin” is mostly full and the greens begin to die back. Then I pull the wire off, knock down the tower of earth, and pull out the potatoes.

I’ll do the same basic thing in a trash can with these purple sprouters and the bin will be our mobile start to a garden for the new property. It will be nice to know that the garden is already underway before we arrive permanently!