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GREG PRYOR: Mulch gardening yields good harvests

August 19, 2018
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The soil is rich and moist under the mulch.

As the summer of 2018 comes to an end, I have decided to change the way I garden. Yep, you heard that right.

This might surprise you, but there actually many ways to garden. From raised beds to cultivated bare soil gardens, and from hydroponics to hay bale gardens, the approaches are almost endless.

Simply put, what I am doing is called “mulch gardening.” It is similar to the popular “Back to Eden” gardening that has recently gained a lot of media attention. Both of these styles reply upon heavy layers of mulch, through which the vegetable plants grow and thrive.

Let’s begin with the basics.

Heavy mulching reduces weeds, maintains soil moisture, and provides nutrients to the soil as the mulch decomposes. The underlying soil is healthier because a natural community of microbes, bugs, and earthworms work together, as they would in a natural ecosystem.

The idea is to work smarter, not harder.

The reason I’m trying this out is because I’m unhappy with the soil in my main garden. I have always used the traditional, cultivated soil technique in which I till the soil several times a year and use a hoe to help keep weeds at bay. But during the hot summer, the soil turns into concrete, and my daily watering regime is barely enough to keep the plants alive.

Sure, my harvests are good…very good. But then I started looking into the so-called Back to Eden approach.

The original film and YouTube series showing the Back to Eden style of gardening have been viewed over 50 million times in more than 200 countries worldwide. In the film, Paul Gautschi demonstrates how he uses (literally) tons of wood chips to cover his garden plots, and his spectacular results.

He also explains how the decomposition of the wood chips ties into the nutrient and water cycles, with special emphasis on how nitrogen is slowly released from the wood chip layer. Caution is warranted, however, because the top layer of soil will initially be low in nitrogen, as the microbes “tie up” the nutrients.

I was impressed with the Back to Eden film, and then I visited a friend in Florence who has used that technique for a few years. His garden was very lush and productive, even in July. Seeing the results firsthand, I got motivated.

One problem I encountered with the Back to Eden approach is the difficulty in getting a steady supply of wood chips. Florence has a recycling center where you can take a trailer, and they will load up wood chips from roadside tree-cutting operations. However, when I visited, the wood chips were in various stages of decomposition, and there was a significant amount of plastic (litter) pieces chopped up along with the wood. No bueno.

Then it struck me. Out here on the homestead, I have a steady supply of “spent” goat hay. That is, hay that the goats pull out from the manger, drop on the ground, and don’t eat. The spent hay is packed down under hoof, along with their urine and feces.

For years, I have forked the spent hay, transported it, and used it as mulch around the homestead. I used it around trees, grapevines, blueberry bushes, and the like.

But what if I used it in the vegetable garden?

Then I discovered the literary works of Ruth Stout. From the 1950s to the 1970s, she wrote a series of very popular gardening books and magazine articles on mulch gardening. She described how she used a heavy layer of hay mulch in her gardening, and how successful it was. Voila!

Inspired, my wife and I then proceeded to pitchfork a LOT of spent goat hay from the goat barn to a trailer, from the trailer to a wheelbarrow, and into the garden. The trailer was mounded up high with several loads of hay, with over a thousand pounds in each load. It was no small feat in the summer heat and humidity, and it took a couple of days.

The hay was broadcast directly on the soil. In some places, it was over a foot deep. As the weeks went by, I added raked-up leaves, lawn clippings, and more spent hay.

I haven’t watered, weeded, or fertilized since.

The remaining plants in the garden have gone gangbusters! The peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, beans, winter squash, and herbs have responded in a spectacular fashion. I’ve never had such great yields. I am flabbergasted.

The soil beneath the mulch is dark, moist, and teeming with worms and bugs. Although it is still early in this experimental approach, I am already sold.

For those interested in trying this out, here is some advice. I would start in the fall, before planting your winter (or spring or summer) crops. If you start now, the layer of mulch nearest the soil will break down, and it won’t “lock up” the nutrients in the soil.

When it comes to planting transplants, part the mulch and plant the seedling in the soil, not in the hay or wood chips. When planting seeds, part the mulch down to the soil and plant as usual. After germination, as the seedlings grow, pull the mulch up close to the young plants.

Keep applying mulch, wood chips, yard waste, dead plants, compost, and any other plant-based organic matter on top of the mulch. Any weeds that poke up are easily pulled by hand.

Mulch gardening also works great in raised beds and flower gardens.

I’m excited about the heavy mulching approach to gardening, but admittedly, there is still a lot to learn. I do know, however, that as I keep adding mulch, the plot thickens.

Greg Pryor, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Francis Marion University and enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle on his 100-acre homestead. Email him at gpryor@fmarion.edu.

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