By Willene Overfelt – I got tired of having to wait for the ground to dry out to be worked in spring and decided to try deep mulch gardening. I would like to share my experiences with others who may be contemplating switching to deep mulch gardening.
I was vaguely familiar with Ruth Stout’s system so was delighted to find her book at an auction. After reading it, I decided that a 90-year-old woman couldn’t be wrong and that it was worth a try. If it didn’t work, the mulch could always be plowed under.
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Well, the first summer was really dismal! (The book said it would take several years for good results.) I was overly ambitious and tried deep mulch gardening my entire growing space, consequently not doing any of it very well. Six to eight inches of fluffed up hay looks like a lot until it settles and the weeds start popping through. Our summers have been unusually wet lately so I couldn’t keep ahead of the weeds. I finally abandoned the lower end as a wasteland and started concentrating on the upper section. That fall, I used what old hay I could find to go crazy with the deep mulch gardening approach. My garden looked a little better, but I was still too embarrassed to have anyone see my garden. In the meantime, my husband was convinced I was absolutely crazy and allowed me to “play” in my garden while giving me that old “I told you so” look out of the corner of his eye.
By the end of the last summer, however, some parts of the garden were starting to turn around. There is still a lot of fescue around the edges which is hard to mulch out. I find it easier to just spade up the clumps of grass.
Once the deep mulch gardening plan was conquered, there are many advantages to this system. First of all, there is no mud. You can go into the garden after a rain and walk on mulch without getting shoes muddy or leaving tracks. The mulch is dry on top and soft on the knees and bottom. I crawl and scoot a lot to save my back. It’s also a great place to rest. I just lie down and look at the sky and birdwatch when I get tired. The mulch is a wonderfully soft cushion.
Earthworms really love the mulch. This spring I have noticed a multitude of worms of all sizes under the mulch. Their tunnels are everywhere. I worried about moles and mice since before mulching my garden was blessed with both. But, for some reason, they haven’t been a problem. This could be due to my two cats who spend a lot of time in the garden.
What I am happiest about right now is that I can plant at any time. There’s no waiting for the ground to get ready. Here’s how I went about planting onion sets and planting peas was to take a stick about 12 inches long and ½ inch in diameter and poke a hole in the ground along my marking string with one end, plant in the hole with the other hand, then for the peas flip the stick to the other pointed end and loosely cover the pea. Planting potatoes was easy. I just placed in a shallow hole and then piled high with hay. I pulled the mulch back to make a row for spinach, sprinkled seeds along the string in a wide row, then using the tines of a garden rake, pricked the ground until the seeds were out of sight. I used these methods last year with very good results even with very muddy ground.
These are some pointers I could pass along. I found round bales extremely hard to work with for deep mulch gardening. Round balers tend to twist the hay and sometimes it’s just impossible to untangle a bale. I have used both large and small round bales and at times they will unroll but not for long. Then you have to start picking them apart with the pitchfork which is very hard work. Square bales are infinitely easier to use. The pads of hay may be very compressed but they will loosen up easier with the tines of the fork than round bales.
Also, it is a good idea to lay the hay so that the stems are parallel to your rows. That way when it comes time to rake back the mulch for a row, there isn’t a twisted, tangled clump to contend with. I learned this the hard way. It’s not always possible to do this, but if you keep this in mind while mulching it helps.
Another suggestion I have for deep mulch gardening: Don’t start with the whole garden! Start with one section, do it well and then expand. Once there is mulch down and the weeds get away from you, the tiller can’t be used and the lawn mower sinks into the soft mulch, making it impossible to mow the mess down.
Also, it would be most helpful to have a gate in the center of one of the short sections of garden fence. That way you could back the truck or pull the cart full of hay down the center of the garden and work out from there. My gate is now on a corner and after the garden is planted, I must use the cart to go much further around the rows than if I could go down the center.
As you can see, I am learning all the time from the process of deep mulch gardening. Vegetable gardens benefit for sure, but I hadn’t counted on it being so much work to get the initial mulching done so the system could take over. I do believe the 90-year-old woman was right; however, I now realize how her family came by the surname of Stout!
Originally published in Countryside 2003 and regularly vetted for accuracy.