Do Mulches Make For Easier Gardening?

Twenty-one years ago, I began experimenting with mulches for flowers, root crops, above-ground crops, and fruits. I do not recall why I started working with various mulching materials.

Still, I recall discussing mulching, fertilizing, and soils with my next doer neighbor, a canny Scandinavian and topflight gardener. He once made a remark I have remembered over the years. “I mulch my vegetable garden for two reasons: I get bigger crops, and it cuts down the work.”

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I am not an organic gardener, meaning the words “organic gardener” have come to connote. My experiments indicate we can use more fertilizers than we do and get better results — provided we have ample humus in the soil. I have over an acre in experimental plots, including a perennial flower border 100 feet long by eight in width.

Feeding Is Important

Where gardeners feel 25 pounds of fertilizer per 1000 square feet is sufficient, I use 50; for crops like lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, and sweet corn, I use 100 pounds per 1000 square feet. After the soil is readied, I rake the fertilizer into the top inch or two of earth, a week or more ahead of planting.

And to answer your question, since this is the background for mulching, I pull the mulch aside to make a six-inch or foot-wide row for seeds or plants. I stir it to a depth of 3” or 4” inches and spread the fertilizer on this strip if a crop like lettuce, carrots, beets, or parsnips is going in.

For plants with roots extending laterally, the fertilizer is spread on the hoed strip and mulch on either side to cover the root width. The fertilized strip is about 2’ feet wide with tomatoes, cabbages, and broccoli. The rains will take the fertilizer down into the soil. I use 7-7-7 general fertilizers.

For sweet corn, the fertilizer is spread over the entire plot. I raise sweet corn in rows 30” inches apart, and the seed is planted 8” inches apart in the row. Vine crops, squashes, pumpkins, and melons have the entire area fertilized at 100 pounds per 1000 square feet. Hills for these crops are 4’ or 5’ feet apart from each way; three plants are grown on a mountain.

One of the interesting mulched areas is the bean pole patch where Kentucky Wonders and horticultural beans arc are raised yearly in the exact location. The poles are 2’ feet apart in the row; the rows are 5’ feet apart. Each stick has four plants; each hill has a cupful of 7-7-7 worked into the soil, and the entire area is mulched.

With these details for background, let’s consider three significant points concerned with successful mulches:

  • Soil preparation before the mulch goes on.
  • Types of mulches.
  • Depth of mulch to assure success.

As I observe gardens, one of the fundamental mistakes many gardeners make is inadequate soil preparation before mulch is applied. If essential practice is neglected, the weeds are just as grateful for mulling benefits as the crops or flowers.

The best time of year to start a mulching program is a hot, dry day in late June or July — latitude of Boston. Cultivate and hoc; get all the weeds out by the roots; rake them up and throw them on the compost heap. Four or five days later, go over the area again and remove any weeds you missed the first time. Only when the site is free of weeds should the mulch go on.

What is the Best Mulching Material? 

This is a matter of personal opinion, but my first choice is old hay from which the seeds have fallen, or grass cut just before blossoming when the roots have not matured. My second choice is baled straw; my third choice is sawdust, and my fourth choice is baled shavings.

Peatmoss is excellent material, and I especially recommend it for the perennial border. Another product I am having success with is the dried manures, hen, or cow. I like to mix dried manure half and half with sawdust. It has given excellent results, used around tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and flowers such as delphiniums, phlox, peonies, and chrysanthemums.

Nitrate of Soda with Sawdust

When I use sawdust for mulching (and one can use hardwood, softwood, or mixed sawdust with similar results), I use one pound of nitrate of soda per 100 square feet for a two-inch depth. One can use a half-pound of ammonium nitrate in place of nitrate of soda since the latter is 35 percent nitrogen and the former 16.

There is evidence that a four-inch depth of sawdust is better than 2” inches in controlling weeds and maintaining moisture in the soil. Hardwood sawdust decays more quickly than softwood, but all types of sawdust are usable; all types eventually add humus to the ground. No kind of sawdust “sours” the earth, simply folklore.

But one needs to add extra nitrogen because the bacteria that cause sawdust decomposition feed on nitrogen and deplete the supply in the soil.

The depth of a mulch has much to do with the program’s success. I put on a whole foot of tramped hay. If you have not been mulching, you may find it difficult to believe that this foot depth will settle to 4” inches in months.

I use 2” to 4” inches of sawdust and shavings, peat moss, and about 4” inches when using mixed dried manure and sawdust. Unless your mulch to a suitable depth, you will not get results.

The required depth of mulch depends upon the type of soil. The lighter the ground, the deeper the mulch should be. Each gardener should run experiments on fertilizers and mulches on their soil type.

Can You Mulch with Lawn Clipping?

I am often asked about lawn clippings. If you let them dry before spreading them as mulch, they are excellent mulching material. I let one section of my lawn grow high to 4” or 5” inches.

Then, after the power mower has cut the “hay,” I permit it to dry for two or three days. Dry lawn clippings, a five-inch depth, make excellent mulch for strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, and rhubarb.

If you have been skeptical about a mulched garden, it will be a pleasant revelation to experience the reduction in work of cultivating, hoeing, and weeding. Perhaps a mulched garden is not so attractive as soil freshly stirred, but if you are over forty, your doctor will tell you not to work so hard.

I am not lazy. I am careful with energy expenditure! A mulched garden means less work; it means more excellent soil, better moisture conditions, and better flowers and crops. If you can have these results and not work so hard, some of us learn that a mulched garden is our way of gardening.

44659 by Haydn S. Pearson