Boost Vegetable Garden Harvests by Mulching With Hay

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEW STAFF

“They laughed last spring when I spread 60 bales of spoiled
hay on my small (600 square feet) Connecticut garden,” says
Harold J. Ettelt, “but they’re not laughing now!”

Our house was built on the site of an old rock and gavel
quarry and, three years ago when we moved in, its backyard
was a sloping and crabgrass-infested semi-desert. I leveled
out the slope as best I could when I enlarged the
building’s basement but, needless to say, the cobbley fill
that I spread on the yard didn’t improve its fertility a
great deal. (Or at all!)

“What this backyard needs,” I told myself, “is anything
organic that we can put our hands on.” And–over the
next two years, by using the town dump as a leaf, grass
clipping, etc., supply depot and our Opel sedan for a
pickup–we man aged to turn a few inches of the
near-sterile dirt into a fairly good layer of topsoil. Good
enough, at any rate, to grow a reasonably respectable
garden.

Unfortunately for that garden, however, my wife soon talked
me into building her some raised flowerbeds (beautiful,
stone-lined beds made with all the rocks and boulders I’d
dug out of the cellar and the backyard). And once those
beds were finished, they had to be filled with
something. And that “something” turned out to be
my vegetable patch’s precious topsoil . . . all of it,
right down to the rocky clay underneath.

Well, I certainly didn’t begrudge my better half that
fertile dirt because I knew that her flowers needed good
soil and that, once she’d planted her perennials, she
wouldn’t be able to dig them up every year to add humus.
Besides, she likes flowers better than I like vegetables.
Still, there was no denying that her passion for blossoms
had moved my gardening right back to where I’d started. And
I was in no mood to spend two more years regaining the
ground (literally!) that I’d just lost.

I had almost given up hope of exercising my green thumb
when a listing in the Pennysaver– a local
advertising throwaway–saved the day. My postman, it
seemed, had just what I needed: 60 bales of old hay that he
wanted to sell at a reasonable price. I bought it all and
he delivered the “spoiled hay” (“organic mulching material”
to me) to my door.

Although I appreciated the delivery, I began to think it
had been a mistake when the mailman looked over my 70 X
100-foot lot. “You mean you’re going to spread all
60 bales on this little place?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I replied. “Actually I’m only going to mulch
about 600 square feet of garden space out back.”

The postman, to say the least, was skeptical of my plans.
And when some of my neighbors saw all that organic material
stacked up in my drive and learned that I intended to put a
whole big bale of the hay on each 10 square feet of
vegetable patch, they were even more skeptical. A few, in
fact, busted right out laughing!

I took some of the edge off at least the fellow-next-door’s
merriment by letting him pile my hay around his
chicken house. (The bales kept his flock cozy at the same
time that I regained the use of my driveway, so we both
came out ahead.) And I kinda stayed out of everyone else’s
sight until winter blew itself away and I could get out
into the garden again.

And that’s exactly where I was bright and early the
following spring. First I removed a two-inch layer of
rather lifeless soil from the 600-square-foot vegetable
patch. (This was very heavy work which was made no lighter
by the fact that I separated out the larger stones and
rocks–which were later used in a dry well–as I
went along.) I then divided each of the bales of hay into
quarters and laid the squares of compressed mulch side by
side over the whole garden. And finally, I respread the two
inches of dirt (that I had removed earlier) right over the
top of the thick mats of organic matter. This meant that my
vegetable plot’s profile consisted of heavy, rocky, mineral
subsoil . . . covered by a dense eight-inch layer of hay .
. . and topped with two inches of heavy, not-so-rocky,
mineral subsoil. Some garden!

By May, when I had become quite anxious to push some seeds
into the ground, I was somewhat dismayed to find that the
plugs of hay–after a month and a half in the
earth–hadn’t even begun to rot down. (Walking across
the treated area was like stepping on a mattress.) But I
pushed on regardless.

As supports for my anticipated tomato crop, I sunk several
eight-foot-long 2 X 4’s, spaced only two feet apart, into
the ground. More 2 X 4’s–these about three feet long
and 18 inches apart–were driven in as stakes for my
peppers. (I tend to crowd things a little since I have such
a small garden.)

Once again, I found myself running head-on into skepticism. “No one around here stakes tomatoes with 2 X
4’s,” I was told. And peppers don’t grow large enough to
need staking at all!”

I allowed that, “It doesn’t take any more effort to install
a large stake than it takes to put in a small one . . . yet
the big stake’ll do the little one’s job, but not vice
versa
.” My reasoning stifled the critics . .
. although I noticed that they continued to smile a little
around the edges.

Uncomposted hay or no, when May 15 rolled around I felt
that I just had to put something in the ground. So I set
out my tomato plants (Rutgers, Fantastic, Beefmaster) and
my peppers (Midway, Early Canada Bell) and some Red Rock
cabbage. I dug right through the two inches of soil and
partly set the plants in the hay underneath. (What else
could I do?)

So much for my started plants (I figured they’d simply have
to take their chances). But what about the seeds I
wanted to get into the ground? I was actually ashamed to
cover them with the pulverized rock that passes for soil in
my neighborhood . . . so I bought a bag of topsoil at the
five-and-ten and sprinkled its contents over my rows of
pea, spinach, lettuce, squash, and bean seeds. Then I got
what mulch I could find at the dump, spread it around over
my purchased topsoil . . . and waited to see what the
summer would bring.

Well, it’s mid-August as I write this . . . and I’m not
waiting any longer. I’m eating!

Those tomato plants that I staked with 2 X 4’s have grown
well past the six-foot mark (I’m now lacing them from stake
to stake to keep them off the ground). And their yield has
been fantastic! We’re overrun with so many tomatoes that
we’ve been forced to can the juicy red fruit just to save
freezer space.

It’s the same story with squash. In fact I finally ripped
out half the zucchinis after we’d frozen our
sixtieth quart (and I was beginning to think we’d
turn green if we ate any more of the vegetable fresh). And
the peppers! They’ve developed into full fledged
bushes. (I actually had to restake them when they
outgrew their original “unnecessary” 2 X 4 supports), and
we’re giving away a lot of peppers.

Most of the rest of the garden did just as well. We’re
presently eating our second crop of beans and the third is
about to blossom where I pulled out the zucchini. Our peas
(Lincoln) grew into a miniature jungle in late spring and
I’ve just put in the fall crop. The red cabbage is
pleasingly compact, with heads weighing in at about five
pounds. Our lettuce (black seeded Simpson) inundated us in
the spring, the second planting is still feeding us
adequately (even though we’ve had a heat wave), and the
third sowing is just coming up. And talk about horseradish!
The roots I planted for my father-in-law are already over
three feet tall.

Our beets, carrots, and onions also did well but–to
tell the truth–we’ve had a few clunkers too. The
cauliflower, for instance, got big but did not head (the
story of my life).

And the spinach was tasty, but small (the other story of my
life). All in all, however, I certainly can’t complain. The
harvest from our garden has been so bountiful that [1]
we’ve been forced to buy a brand-new vegetable cookbook,
[2] we’re now making noticeably fewer trips to the
supermarket, and [3] we’ve been asked by friends and
neighbors–who, by the way, aren’t laughing
anymore–to write down the “secrets” of our success.

Well maybe we were just lucky, but the only “secret” we
have is hay. Lots and lots of hay. It may never work again
the way that eight-inch-thick layer of hay worked this year
. . . but it certainly has worked this time around. For
sheer results from a first-year garden in “totally
worthless” soil, you’ll have to go some–I
believe–to beat our “hay miracle

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