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

Homegrown Potatoes: A Worthy Vegetable

A few years ago, as my husband and I prepared to plant our first large garden, we poured over the colorful photos in seed catalogues and discussed what we wanted to plant. The gist of it: everything!

But we narrowed it down to a reasonable selection, based on the pursuit of superior flavor and nutritional value than what we could buy. (We did, however, fail to plant a reasonable quantity of each: notably three 30-foot rows of spinach for the two of us and something like 100 tomato plants.) We placed our order. In addition, I heaped several paper sacks with various potatoes at the local feed store.

He didn’t protest the potatoes until he had fulfilled his job of mounding the rows a few times. While we now layer in straw mulch, at the time he was heaving shovelful after shovelful of dry valley clay soil– backbreaking work. And he began to wonder aloud, why waste the time and effort with potatoes when they’re so cheap from the grocery store? They’re just a bland starch.

Then we harvested our first Yukon Golds. They were like butter– totally unlike supermarket spuds. They hardly needed anything but a pot of boiling water. Divine in every preparation.

Now we grow lots of potatoes: fingerlings, purples and blues, waxy and white. We’ve grown them in buckets, in trenches, and in circles of wire. We layer mulch and soil for easy mounding and digging. And they’re my very favorite harvest– have been since childhood. It’s like digging for treasure.

We planted purple potatoes in bins before the move with the intention of simply moving them with us. I didn’t want to miss potato season and the purples were sprouting. We also threw in some golds and reds. The plants shot up in the early warm California weather. Then before one of our weeklong trips with a load to the new place, I forgot to tell the student caring for our animals to water the plants. Many survived. The potatoes did not.

Disappointed, I shrugged them off with the intention to plant more in the new garden, which I did in March. Then as we prepared for the final move and I dumped the demised spud bins, out poured dozens of colorful marbles: young potatoes from pea-sized to ping pong balls. Delighted, I tossed them in a bag and brought them along.

Now at the new place, I prepared them to our toddler’s delight, simply boiled and tossed in a bit of butter and fresh parsley, served over a bed of peas. It was a hit that highlighted the finest of spring vegetables, even the ones some might not deem worthy of growing at home.

This weekend we’ll be digging fingerlings, and we’re as eager as we will be when harvesting the first tomatoes or berries.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

The May Garden

As May concludes, here finally is an update on the garden. We’ve been here two weeks, and it’s finally starting to feel real. The garden project is one of my most gratifying, although much of it seems to be two steps forward; one step back.

I’m continuing to plant, in the interest of a passing season, yet the fence has yet to be completed. (I won’t mention the oversight of the deer or roaming cows, lest I jinx myself, but…) The chickens have been persistently destructive, just as they were at our last place, so I will be attempting to wrangle and coop them. Meanwhile, for as long as the hose and grass occupy my toddler, I’ve been hanging wire one post at a time.

What have been spared so far by the villainous poultry are a row of peas; a pell-mell patch of radishes and leaf lettuce; a dozen heirloom tomatoes; and small plots of beets, kale, basil, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Until the fence is up and the chicken issue is resolved, I’m trying not to get too attached as I continue planting.

Two rows of fingerling, gold, and purple potatoes are thriving. The first row we planted in a trench months ago has been mounded with layers of mulch and soil to about a foot over ground-level; the other has spud leaves just emerging from the trench.

Beside the potatoes surrounded by nasturtium is the compost heap, onto which I layer kitchen waste, manure, and grass clippings with immense satisfaction.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors shared runners from their bountiful raspberry patch, most of which have taken to their new plot perfectly. The raspberries neighbor the two blueberry plants, which are too straggly to be called bushes. Evidently I should have pinched off this year’s berries to encourage plant growth, but now they are so close to ripeness, I can’t bear to do so, nor am I sure it would help at this point.

Two of the four apple trees we planted last month have apples; the other two do not. I’m not terribly surprised given the time of their planting, and I have plenty of hope for future years. Also, the old apple tree I cut from a tomb of blackberry brambles and ivy earlier in the year is thriving. Someone said it was a crabapple, but I was pretty sure its fruit were previously hindered by the tree’s neglect. That appears to be true, and I look forward to finding out what type of apples it yields.

The concord grape arbor I pruned for its first time in what must have been decades has likewise come to glorious life. Soon we’ll have the Adirondack chairs or a new bench beneath to enjoy on these warm, breezy spring afternoons. The beauty here is boundless and, thankfully, energizing.

Planting Fruit Trees

We’re back from a longer-than-planned trip to the new place– the last visit, perhaps, that is merely a visit. The anxiety for change is mounting, as is the excitement, as is the stress, as is the sense of accomplishment for all that we managed to do in the past two weeks.

While we finally had the Internet connected after Week One, I couldn’t find more than a single moment to devote to any writing whatsoever, which does leave a vacant place in my heart that I’ll be working to fill in the next few weeks and in the new routine I will be developing.

Albeit a tad late, we planted four apple trees: a Gravenstein (deeply endeared to me in my upbringing in Sonoma County), a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a semi-dwarf Yellow Delicious, and an heirloom English variety of which I cannot recall the name (but I have tagged). We also planted a hardy Chicago fig, two blueberry bushes, rhubarb, and a long row of Russian Fingerling potatoes.

Getting the fruit trees was critical if we were to have any in this year. The soil is wonderfully soft and fairly loose, so digging is a piece of cake compared to the arid, compacted clay of the Valley. We amended the holes with lots of compost and mulched around the slight trunks with plenty of dried field grass. Our toddler enjoyed helping– and “helping.”

Two major threats to our garden and orchard frequent the land: deer, of course, and a notorious neighbor’s herd of ever-roaming cattle. The only solution, it seems, is to fence our entire acreage. In the mean time, though, particularly while we are away, each plant needs its own stronghold. We planned simple circles of field wire around the trees, upheld with a few posts. The wire was too flimsy un-stretched, however, so the construction took far longer than planned. They didn’t come out perfect, but more than satisfactory to me.

Best of all, we have met several neighbors who are more than a wealth of information: they are avid homesteaders and gardeners, active in the community, and as welcoming and generous as I could imagine asking for in new neighbors. For all of this I am boundlessly grateful.

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.

Starting the Garden

DSC00135

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.

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!