Year-Round Organic Mulch: An Almost Labor-Free Garden

A year-round blanket of organic mulch material makes for an almost labor-free garden, the article includes information on planting, bed preparation, creating organic mulch and when to mulch.

| May/June 1987

A year-round blanket of organic mulch material makes for an almost labor-free garden. 

Year-Round Organic Mulch

My affair with organic mulch began nearly 15 years ago, when I picked up an intriguing (and now classic) gardening guide called The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Talk about love at first sight! Ever since I was a boy, I'd enjoyed gardening—but I'd hated hoeing and weeding. So when I opened the book to the first chapter and read the title, "Throw Away Your Spade and Hoe," I knew I'd found something worth trying.

For the next several years, I followed my new mentor's advice, covering the garden with a deep blanket of organic mulch material to smother weeds, help the soil retain moisture and virtually eliminate the need to till, plow or hoe. Vegetables thrived amidst the nurturing mulch, protected from temperature extremes and fertilized by the decomposing straw or leaves.

But of course no good gardener stops searching for ways to improve. I became interested in biodynamic/French intensive (BFI) gardening, which involves growing plants in permanent raised beds that have been double-dug to a depth of two feet or more. Because of the deeply loosened, compost-enriched soil, plants can be spaced closer together, resulting in dramatically increased yields. I liked being able to raise more food in less space, but there was a lot of labor involved in double-digging. Furthermore, I found making and hauling compost—which BFI practitioners apply to their beds liberally and often—to be hard work. Finally, BFI gardeners tend to shun mulch, preferring instead the "living mulch" created by the overlapping foliage of closely spaced plants.

Experiment, Adopt, Adapt the Garden

If I'd learned anything from experience and from Ruth Stout's books, it was to experiment . . . to try different methods, to be open to the ideas of others, but always to temper those ideas with common sense. What works for another gardener may not suit your particular gardening conditions; sometimes it's necessary to adapt deep-mulch methods to your own situation.

"Gardening is like cooking: Read the recipe and then use your head," Stout wrote in her landmark book about low-labor growing, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. "A dash of skepticism can do no harm. Go lightly on caution, heavily on adventure, and see what comes out. If you make a mistake, what of it? That is one way to learn, and tomorrow is another day."

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