Mulching is so much more satisfying than weeding. It’s not that I don’t like to weed. Creating dark, weed-free soil between rows of thriving vegetables has its appeal. But the downsides of weeding are that I need to do it again and again and in the meantime the soil dries out. Mulching, on the other hand, is something I need to do only once and the thick carpet of mulch suppresses weeds, looks just as pretty as freshly tilled soil and conserves moisture. And most satisfying to me, mulched beds signal that the kitchen garden is on its way for another season. I’ve prepared the soil and planted the seeds and now whatever sturdy young plant I’ve just tucked in with mulch can begin its serious growing. Squash can spread, onions and tubers swell, roots dig deep, peas and beans climb, cornstalks stretch up, all surrounded by a weed-free carpet of mulch. Except for regular irrigation, there’s nothing more to do until harvest time.
I mulched for most of an afternoon this week, happy to be covering soil that was still moist from our recent rains. In the past I’ve mulched with wheat or oat straw or lawn clippings that I’d gather while mowing, spread out on a tarp and dry for a day before using. But here on Lopez it’s possible to get a bale of old haylage, one of those big round bales still wrapped in white plastic but no longer good for feed. It’s my favorite mulch, “gardener’s gold” my friend Carol calls it.
The best thing about haylage is that the tight plastic wrapping causes the hay to ferment, killing weed seeds. It does smell pretty strongly of rotting silage at first but the odor’s gone in a few days. And a single bale is huge, often lasting me for two years. I just peel off what I need as I need it. I even reuse it, moving it from a spring bed to a summer bed and on to winter beds where I double up layers for cold protection. It breaks down a little but not enough to affect its performance. Eventually, it becomes compost.
Over the years, different farmers in my neighborhood have delivered bales to my kitchen garden. One asked only for a batch of chocolate chip cookies in return. Another, with the precision of the heart surgeon he was before taking up sheep farming, deftly placed the bale exactly where we wanted it and, driving away on his tractor, said he was just glad to get rid of this three-year-old rotting bale. Most recently another kind neighbor has delivered old bales for a small charge. His supply is limited so I’m always happy to get one. It’s an amazing resource.
Even if you can’t get your hands on a bale of rotting haylage, give mulching a try. Spreading out straw or grass clippings or old rotten haylage is much more fun than weeding, and think of all the extra time you’ll have this summer! But if you’re really committed to weeding, check out my favorite garden writer Barbara Damrosch’s Thursday column from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/how-to-rid-a-garden-of-weeds/2012/06/12/gJQAlPeAaV_story.html She says, “weed early, weed often.” I say mulch once.
Thanks for the tip about the plastic-wrapped hay bales! Q: What do you do about slugs? I used to mulch much more than I do now. I backed off on it largely because the mulch was a haven for slugs & also because I have heard that straw/hay mulch cools the soil. Do you have a warmish site there on Lopez? My site north of Eastsound needs all the heat it can find, most years.
Sorry to be so long in responding. Lots going on!
I haven’t had much trouble with slugs, perhaps because my site here on Lopez is really pretty dry. I think mulch does cool the soil a little but for me it’s a tradeoff between moist, cool soil under mulch and dried out soil without mulch. My soil is clayey loam and it’s great when it’s moist but despite all my efforts at compost and cover crops it’s pretty hard when it dries out. We get sun nearly all day but also drying winds from the south and west, another reason mulch helps here.
Good luck finding heat, especially this summer!