There are so many mulching systems out there and we've tried a whole lot of them at House in the Woods Farm in Maryland. We've hoed the bare ground, rolled out round hay bales, we've put down newspaper and we've applied disposable black plastic. We couldn't keep up with the hoeing by a long shot.
The huge round hay bales were too heavy for even Phil to keep unrolling for years to come. Laying down newspaper was funny; I wish I had a picture of Phil pulling stacks of newspaper from the recycling dumpster to bring home for mulch. It was no fun to spread out; the material would fly in the wind even if you watered it down and still required hay on top. I didn't enjoy planting into it.
Hay adds weed seed each year so straw is a better choice in that system, but pricey. Any of these would work fine on a small garden scale. On year five, we went big style and bought a Rain-Flo plastic mulch layer for our tractor. In one season we were done with black plastic, another system rejected. It doesn't breathe, and a living soil is important to us. It goes down beautifully, but takes another expensive implement to pull up, or sweat and tears to rip it from the ground by hand. Most of it goes to the landfill. The shreds of plastic left behind stay in the garden for eternity.
We sold the machine and bought rolls of durable woven landscape fabric, the kind that is used under trees. For seven years, Phil made raised beds with his plow and laid down the landscape fabric by hand, reusing the pieces each year. We were onto something. This stuff is reusable, permeable for rain water, breathable and tough as nails. Phil uses a flame weeder to burn holes to plant into. After the first year, the plant spacing is already set with the pre-burned holes. I would recommend this system to any home gardener. I have set up home gardeners in my community with landscape fabric systems with positive feedback. It can be hand-laid over a flat soil bed or a raised bed. This system worked for seven years, but these past couple years we expanded business just past what was reasonable for one man to set up. Phil was racing volunteer planters and me to set up rows for us, and he was exhausted. We were at a standstill. We needed a new system or we needed a smaller farm plot.
Stuck, Phil mulled over the problem for about a year, dreaming about the ease of the Rain-Flo mulch layer that we had years back. Phil is an engineer, and a creative one at that. It is handy to be an engineering farmer, because farming involves so much problem-solving that can benefit from engineering solutions. And Phil was pondering this problem for a solution. Suddenly, on a long drive to North Carolina, he figured out the missing links to his strategy and created a way to use the disposable plastic mulch layer with our re-usable landscape fabric. We talked about it the whole drive home, excited to test it out with a borrowed mulch layer. It worked! Phil designed an implement attachment to the mulch layer that re-rolls the used landscape fabric, so the cloth can be re-laid again for many years of use. We bought a Rain-Flo raised bed mulch layer and no rolls of disposable plastic.
Now we have arrived with our system. It has all the components we were looking for in a mulch system—a water-permeable, air-permeable reusable weed-barrier that is laid out in 15 minutes by a tractor. The mulch layer makes a raised bed, lays out the drip tape, lays out the reusable cloth, tucks the edges under soil and makes your dinner, all in one or two passes of the tractor. (You get a higher, better bed if you make the raised bed, then go back over with the tape and cloth— just two quick passes.)
Check out this video to see the mulching system in action.
We love our new system and we could leave it at that. But we have to wonder if it could be a solution for other farmers too. So many farmers are using disposable black plastic for lack of better alternatives. Here is a sustainable solution that does not fill the landfill or leave plastic shreds in your garden. Contact Phil if you want him to work on ways to duplicate the system for other farms. We’ll see what we can do.
Photos by Ilene White Freedman
Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Md. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at the House in the Woods blog, easy to follow from the farm's Facebook page. For more about House in the Woods, check out its official website. For more information about the MULCHINATOR, email Phil.