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MAGIC IN THE GARDEN: CONTINUOUS MULCHING ON A SMALL SCALE

by Rod McRae

Magic is the word that best describes what happens in the continuous mulching process in our Eastern Ontario garden. When I uncover a patch of soil that has been under a cover of mulch, I am fascinated with all that is going on. Often I end up with earth on the end of my nose because there’s so much to see, smell, touch and perceive. Even under very dry conditions the soil is soft, friable and sweet-smelling.

My wife Moira and I began using the continuous mulching process about seven years ago (four of them in our present location) to reduce the amount of time spent watering and weeding. We immediately saw a wonderful natural alchemy occurring between the soil and mulch that felt so right. The process is brilliant in its simplicity. While there is an initial investment of time and labor to have the system working to its optimum, the end result is the creation of a garden requiring minimum maintenance while bringing great pleasure. Most of all we love the increased sense of partnership with Nature and her gentle, effective ways of caring for the soil.

We haven’t mulched large areas of garden so I can only write of our experience on mulching small-scale gardens. Our two garden areas roughly total two thirds of an acre. While they’re not exactly postage stamps, they’re not what I consider large from a commercial standpoint. It’s about what we can handle, considering that the general recommendation is to spread the mulch six to eight inches (15-20 cm) thick. This has to be done at least once each year. Weeds and grass seem to want to make sure you’re serious about this approach because they keep coming back for the first few years. The thick cover must be maintained so that they retire gracefully and you are left with a covering of mulch on top of dark, moist soil. Ruth Stout, the pioneer of continuous mulching, said this: "The first few years were a struggle and a mess.... but I must reassure all prospective mulchers; those first few years needn’t have been difficult. Once you get it into your head that you have to put on enough mulch, 6" to 8" deep, you do it, relax and enjoy your leisure." Michael J. Roads, in The Natural Magic of Mulch (Greenhouse Publications, 1989), points out that weeds are evidence of a soil lacking in organic matter. It may be that the continuous application of mulch eventually feeds and enriches the soil so well that eventually weeds don’t manifest themselves any longer.

Our soil is Grenville loam with lots of glacial till. It dries out quickly, much more so than soils with a higher clay content. We’ve had several dry spells over the past few years and the moisture level was fine under the mulch. We didn’t have to water any plants. Weeds are definitely suppressed but I noticed that when I got to an area too late and weeds had already emerged to a height of two to four inches (5-10 cm), a thick cover of mulch prevented them from growing further. When I peeked under the mulch about ten days later, concerned that I’d see a putrefied green mess, I was happy to see the weed matter was being worked into the soil, composted and transformed. What remained was simply the dark moist soil, the layer of mulch and the fascinating area of activity where the two meet. Michael J. Roads writes: "Mulching the soil provides a cover which is in a continual process of decay. This natural organic breakdown feeds the soil of life, dramatically increasing its population and follows all the natural rules of Nature...Mulching encourages the macro and micro soil life to do your digging for you and they work far more than a forty hour week. A soil which teems with life is in a constant state of revitalization. All we have to do is apply the correct mulch and make sure that water and air can easily penetrate. That is important. Do not bury mulch, don’t dig it in. Keep it on the surface. The micro-organic life will take nitrogen from the atmosphere and the earthworms will bury it in exactly the way that Nature has devised and perfected."

Putting mulch on top of weeds works well up to a certain point, but if the weeds are too high, the system can’t absorb them. In this situation, I found I had to clip them, pull them or rototill them and then mulch. So, the old rule of working within your means definitely applies here! Your mulch must be thick enough (6-8 inches), or you’ll lose your moisture and the weeds will come up. If you only have the time and materials to cover a portion of your garden, then do that portion and expand gradually. I tried covering too much the first year when we opened up a new area of garden. We had ploughed and disked it and I just didn’t get enough mulch on so I played catch-up with the weeds all summer. In retrospect, I should have properly mulched a portion and sown the rest to buckwheat, then rye. Machaelle Small Wright, author of The Perelandra Garden Workbook (Perelandra Ltd., 1993), recommends that if you want to start a new area of garden, begin a year ahead by determining the size and location, then pile on at least a foot of mulch and let everything simmer for a year. The following spring the plot is ready for planting. I’ve tried that and it works. Just start small!

We’ve found there’s lots of old hay in the local community. Many farmers are happy to have it trucked away for free or they’ll sell it for a very reasonable price. Check the local newspaper or visit some farms. When using old hay or straw mulch, shake the hay out with a fork to make sure all the seeds fall through to the soil. That way, they get properly buried by the mulch rather than lying near the surface. I like using a three-pronged hay fork rather than a short-handled manure fork because of the added leverage. One cautionary note: a friend who grows a lot of tomatoes found that his plants contracted alfalfa blight from old alfalfa hay during a moist summer, so we now use straw to mulch our tomatoes.

The continuous mulching process complements the use of hand tools. We’ve always enjoyed using well-crafted hand tools in the garden. They are a pleasure to use in any area of endeavor – we know our experience of enjoyment and pleasure is transferred directly to the garden – and we love the quietness of turning soil without the use of machines. Before I go any further, let me say that I fully respect the need for machines in organic agriculture and I know from experience that the use of machinery is indispensable in many gardening operations, especially commercial ones. In our small scale operation, however, we enjoy being able to hear each other speak or hear the birds sing while using our broadfork to prepare the soil. For me, there’s something about working in quietness that adds to a sense of reverence and that feeling of being in partnership with Nature.

When uncovering a patch of soil to prepare it for seeding, I find it’s so soft and friable I can easily stick my hand in to a depth of four to six inches (10-15 cm). Understandably, the soil under the mulch is cool, so the area to be planted should be uncovered with a fork and be given time to warm up. I’m still discovering the length of time required because weather conditions vary from week to week and year to year. For now, I’m starting a week to ten days ahead. I uncover the soil to a width of approximately one foot (30 cm) for the required length of row. If the soil is wet, I leave it for a day or two to dry out until it’s moist and crumbly. Only then do I use our broadfork (I like the Smith and Hawkens model because of its excellent leverage capability) to gently lift and crumble the soil. This implement can penetrate to a depth of ten inches (25 cm), and this lifting and crumbling action helps to break up any compaction and warm up the soil. Depending on whether we’re transplanting or direct seeding, we use a combination of the broadfork and garden fork for that lifting, crumbling action. If the area to be seeded needs fertilizer, we work it into the soil around this time. The garden rake is then used to break up any small clods and to level the soil. If we’re transplanting, we just pull back a small patch of mulch rather than a wide strip and tuck the plant in that small area after any required amounts of fertilizer and rock dust are deposited in the hole. In this case, the broadfork is too wide for the individual transplant areas so we use the narrower fork to turn the soil.

A soil thermometer is helpful to check the soil temperature if you’re not sure whether the soil is warm enough. We’ve had good yields but when there has been poor germination, I suspect I didn’t leave enough warm-up time. When the plants have grown high enough, we tuck the mulch back around them.

We selected our garden site knowing we’d be using the permanent mulch system, so we chose a sunny, south-facing slope of land. I know the extra heat units gained in using that south slope make a big difference in soil temperature. Also this fall we built a stone semicircle about one foot (30 cm) high with its inner curve facing south, to capture the warmth of the sun for some of our early table vegetables. We’ll see how it works this year.

I have heard rumors that the continuous mulching system won’t work in our region because it’s just too cold for too long. All I can say is that we’re having success in our situation but I’d love to hear of other people’s experiences. That’s how we all learn. I couldn’t possibly describe all the facets of our continuous mulching approach in this article but perhaps the list of advantages/disadvantages of permanent mulch systems (see end) will help.

We’re by no means experts in the area of continuous mulching but we love it and it is working for us. An atmosphere of peacefulness pervades the garden. There is the feeling that in many ways everything is being looked after. Our soil is being cared for all year long by the genius of Nature. At the beginning of the article I used the word 'magic'. Well, I consider myself the magician’s apprentice rather than the magician!

 

Advantages of Permanent Mulch System

  • • creates new soil

    • conserves moisture

    • keeps weeds down

    • protects soil from wind & water erosion

    • reduces maintenance time

    • allows greater opportunity to use hand tools

    • makes good use of old or "ruined" hay and straw

    • gives an excellent example of the genius of Nature at work

    Disadvantages;

    • mulch materials often need to be trucked in

    • soil stays cool under mulch and needs enough lead time to warm up

  • • possible slug infestations (we’ve had little trouble with them)

     

    Rod and Moira McRae use a permanent mulch system on their garden near Cornwall, Ontario. They are gearing up to offer slide shows, workshops and consultations on the theme of "Gardening For The Body and Soul." To share your permanent mulching experiences, or to find out more about theirs, contact them at Box 6, R.R.#1, North Lancaster, ON K0C 1Z0.

    Copyright 1997. Rod McRae.

    Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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