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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Starting the Garden

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Since we won’t be on the property full-time until spring, it’s critical that we time the garden prep right on our visits in order to have a productive summer. To that end, we have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that we already have a triumphant patch of garlic and shallots. My goal for our trip up near the first of the year was to prepare, plant, and mulch garlic to overwinter. This trip up I was thrilled to pull back the leaf mulch and discover two-inch green sprouts!

The bad news is that the soil– particularly in the sunny pasture area where our vegetable garden will be located– is solid red clay, full of rocks, and heavy grass that hasn’t had livestock on it in what I would guess is decades. Fortunately the land is slightly sloped, so I hope this encourages decent drainage. This photo is from up the mountain, but it’s basically what we’re working with:

So we will be importing as much organic matter as we can lay our hands on. The first order of business was cleaning up the leaves from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees, which greatly improved the neatness of the yard. With our toddler on my back or playing in the leaves, my husband and I raked and hauled a dozen or so trailer-loads of leaf litter to the garden site between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

We spread the mulch across the grass, eight or so inches thick. In several weeks, we’ll till them into the soil along with as much compost as possible, then mulch again. In the future, my intention is to avoid tilling at all, but I think the clay would remain a solid, impermeable barrier this year without significant amendment.

In the mean time, I’ll get some lettuce seed and other greens started here to transplant in the early spring. I hope that with enough coordination, effort and soil improvement, we’ll manage to yield a respectable harvest this first year.