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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Much Mulch - Sheet Mulching

Even though it has been a cool and relatively moist spring in our otherwise arid territory, mulching is an activity high on my list. My big vegetable garden is one solid blanket of mulch. I learned to coerce the neighbors into bringing all of their fall leaves to my garden beds, plus all that free shredded wood available at our local recycling station is spread over all the pathways, and straw mulch is covering whatever is left exposed to the sun. There are remarkably few weeds, and soil is cool and moist - a definite plus for a climate where overexposure to heat and dry air is a concern.
Another garden (my husband points out - "this is not a garden, this is our front yard") - that place where we grow onions, kitchen herbs, cooking greens and lots of asparagus - yes in our front yard, so we can see the progress every day! - had not been mulched much. The problem has been in keeping our chickens under control. Despite a very high fence, they still manage to get in and dig up my garden beds like they are in heaven, searching for left-over seeds in straw, and bugs that love to hide under any mulch layer. So we have not been mulching much, until now. A raccoon got into the coop and reduced our chicken population to a desperate number of three (3!) birds. That is unheard of at our farm, but for a number of reasons we will be not getting more hens, therefore at least the mulching can begin.

Heavy use of mulch was popularized by Ruth Stout, a slightly eccentric Quaker gardener who wrote the “Ruth Stout No Work Garden Book”. Ruth described her method as the “no dig, no work” method. It was to simply place 18” of moldy hay or straw on top of the garden soil and then plant into that mulch. So much the better if you tucked your kitchen scrapes underneath the straw cover. Her articles written in the fifties and sixties for the Rodale magazine “Organic Gardening” were very popular and her techniques widely practiced. Permaculture took her methodology one step further and added a layer of weed-suppressing material – cardboard, newspaper or old fabric; this was laid directly on the ground and covered up with a mix of manure and organic mulches. This mix works well in majority of climates, with the possible exception of the high desert where biomass tends to fossilize at high temperatures and low humidity unless shaded or otherwise protected. Sheet mulching suppresses a majority of weeds, keeps the soils cool and moist, and creates a favorable growing environment for plants and soil biota. It also offers an elegant way of recycling carbon back into the soil, by using paper, cardboard, straw, brush or wood chips as part of your mulching techniques.

Read some of Ruth’s answers about mulching here:
http://www.organicgardening.com/feature/0,7518,s1-5-19-189,00.html and
www.homestead.org/Gardening/Ruth%20Stout%20-%20The%20No-Dig%20Duchess.htm