Mulch, mulch, and then mulch some more. Knowing how to lay mulch is one of the greatest skills any gardener can have. Using organic mulch is how we keep the soil covered and nourished.
When using high-carbon materials in large quantities, such as straw or leaves, it’s important to take care, especially if you plan on letting them get worked down into the soil. Soil microbes take available nitrogen from the soil to break down the large amounts of carbon. If you use a lot of carbon-rich mulch and work it into the soil, you need to make sure you plant a nitrogen fixing cover crop there to keep the soil in a healthy balance.
Mulch retains moisture in the soil and is especially important in seasons of drought or extreme heat. As your soil becomes more healthy, microbes and earthworms will eat the mulch at a faster rate transforming it into topsoil. High-carbon mulches are preferable for weed control to materials that decompose faster. This is another reason knowing how to lay mulch is important. We usually try to keep a mulch cover of 6 inches from season to season. Every other year we have to add extra cover to an already mulched area. With a thick, high-carbon mulch you retain moisture so the process of degrading is slowed and you don’t have to recover as much or as often.
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We don’t use newspapers or cardboard for mulch. We’re concerned about the inks and sprays used in production. However, with some “plain” cardboard we feel safe in adding it to our worm beds. The worms compost the cardboard in a fast and efficient way. We then add that to our garden in various ways. As with everything we talk about, you have to make the best decision you can and do what you feel is right for your garden and family.
Composting for Nutrient-Dense Soil
Composting is something we’ve done for years in many different ways. We found using vermiposting (using worms for composting) is a fast and easy way to build up our own brown gold all year. It supplies us with humus to add a to our new plants as we put them in the ground. We also add to the areas of the garden we are building up.
We simply dig the hole 2 to 3 inches deeper than the plant needs and add a cup or two (depending on the plant) of our organic soil humus. Our favorite way of vermiposting is in an old tub and boat. They are easy to turn and add compost material and they drain very well. We’ve had success with large 30 gallon size buckets with holes drilled in the bottom.
We get a lot of horse manure (don’t use horse manure in your garden without proper composting) from a friend who uses organic farming practices. We use this to feed the worms. To this we add leaves, kitchen scraps, anything which can be added to your compost pile. We also try to make sure to keep the bins moist to better serve the worms in their efforts.
Some people say that sheet composting is an easy and fast way to produce humus. This is where you build tall piles in bins alternating layers of fresh, high-nitrogen greens (like grass clippings) with difficult to break down browns which are high in carbon (like dry leaves). The moist, high-nitrogen greens are used as the bottom layer in direct contact with the soil and the microbials feed on them. The browns are used as cover to keep the first layer from drying out.
Composting has many benefits and will dramatically improve your soil’s water retention and help suppress disease. Our goal, now that we live so far north is to convert the center of our greenhouse to a series of bins 19 inches deep. These will serve as vermiposting bins. Worm castings also feed plant roots, they bring a huge load of beneficial microbes that boost the soil and do a great job in soil aeration.
Symbiotic Animal Relationships
In years past, we’ve pulled our chicken tractor into the garden over winter. The chickens scratch at what gardens scraps are left. This aerates the soil and leaves manure behind to breakdown over winter. They also eat any bugs and bug eggs left in the soil. It’s a win-win for us all.
Because of their “tilling” nature and manure deposits, many people put their pigs in the garden in late fall. This accomplishes the same as the chickens, just quicker. In some ways, I suppose they are more efficient at it too.
Mining Your Soil
Some plants can function as dynamic accumulators. They do this by growing their roots deep into the layers of the subsoil. This is their way of mining the mineral reserves from deep below the surface. The roots of comfrey, buckwheat, and stinging nettle are great dynamic accumulators because they grow several inches into the subsoil. With proper crop rotation of these, you can ensure the soil has what it needs when the plants need it.
Two is better than one, but only if the two have a great relationship. There are many books available describing proper crop rotation and companion planting. I remember while growing up on my grandparents’ small farm my grandfather practiced crop rotation with a balance of companion planting. I doubt he knew the science of what he was accomplishing. I think he did it because it was knowledge passed down from farming generation to farming generation. Things his parents taught him to do in order to have a good harvest every year.
I remember him planting corn and when it was knee high he would plant beans between the corn and close to these he would plant pumpkins, which he would call the three sisters. These three sisters have a great symbiotic relationship and help each other with growth in many ways. There are many different plants that have such symbiotic relationships. It’s knowledge lost today, I wish I had paid better attention. Most of us in this generation are having to learn this necessary skill to help us be self-sufficient and live a simple and rewarding lifestyle.
Cover Crops and No Bare Soil
Growing cover crops is one of the most valuable ways to build up your soil’s fertility. Knowing how to check soil pH levels will help you have an idea of what amendments you need to make to the soil. Cover crops also prevent run off which causes a great loss in soil integrity and minerals. Peanuts are one of the favorite fall cover crops of my grandfather’s generation. They used them to feed the soil and keep the ground covered after the fall harvest.
Buckwheat is probably our favorite cover crop. Many times we cut it down before it reseeded and used these as a green manure. Green manure is simply plants which are mown or cut down and allowed to decompose in the place you want to improve. As they decompose, they provide readily available nutrients for soil microbe friends so keeping your soil ready for next year’s plants.
Cover crops also open up pathways when the decaying roots die. This permits oxygen and water to penetrate deeper into the soil. Your microbes will love it and you will be working with even healthier soil the following year!
Clovers, alfalfa, beans, peanuts, and peas such as Austrian winter peas are especially valuable cover crops, they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into readily available form for plants. You’ll find mixing different cover crops is fun and beneficial. I like to use a mix of buckwheat and clovers. The buckwheat adds a large amount of biomass and improves soil structure as the clover adds nitrogen to help break down the relatively carbon-rich buckwheat roots in a fast and efficient manner.
What southern gardener doesn’t plant at least some fall pea crop for repairing soil where the corn or popcorn was planted? You get an extra crop of peas, granted it’s smaller than the spring crop, but a mesh of fresh peas is always welcome. The benefits are enjoyed by all.
Cover crops are helpful in keeping your garden from being bare after harvest. If you don’t remember anything else about cover crops, remember this, NO BARE SOIL! Always make sure you protect your soil with a cover crop or make sure you know how to lay mulch. As George Washington Carver said, “Always leave the soil in a better condition than when you found it.”
Do you have a tried and true method of enriching your garden soil or tips on how to lay mulch? Please share your experience with us in the comments.
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack