Want a worry-free, weed-free, organic-matter-rich vegetable garden bed? Wow! That just sounds fabulous and a little too good to be true. Actually, it is doable and fall is the best time to put it in action. How? Mulch.
Mulch is an amazing thing. Think about how nature works on its own. Every fall, trees shed their leaves, blanketing the ground. The leaves break down over the winter, providing nutrients back into the soil in time for spring when the trees need to power back up again. And these trees grow to massive heights and widths!
Using mulch, wood chips, and fallen leaves for your vegetable garden beds provide the same benefits; returning nutrients back to the soil that your vegetable plants need to produce their tasty leaves and fruits during the growing season.
Mulch also keeps in moisture and absorbs water, significantly reducing your watering needs. It protects the soil from the winds blowing it away. To top it off, it keeps the weeds from sprouting and causing you to have to spend hours each week pulling the little suckers. What’s not to love about that!
A system where you don’t have to bring in outside resources to replenish your garden bed health is referred to as sustainable permaculture. In town, I think we need to look at this as utilizing the resources within our communities. Many communities have mulch free for the taking. In some areas, tree removers would be thrilled to give you wood chips for free to get it off of their hands.
When I started our garden bed at our house on the golf course, we were forced to get creative. I couldn’t plow up the backyard like my grandparents could on their farm; the landscape “police” frowned on that type of thing on the 15th green. It was my grandmother’s full time spring, summer and fall job to care for the garden. I already had a full time job.
The solution? Expand our mulched flower beds and plant veggies and fruiting plants among the flowers and use decorative containers on the patio.
To make the new vegetable/flower beds, we used a sod cutter to cut all the sod. We then turned the sod upside down, put newspaper over the top and then a three-inch thick layer of mulch on top. We have since learned through experience, the whole sod cutting thing wasn't necessary. There is a much easier way.
Fall is the best time to start your new beds. It gives the entire winter for the grass and mulch to break down into the nutrients your veggie and fruit plants will need for the growing season.
Our soil was a nice orange color when we first dug the new beds, indicative of the clay soils in the Midwest. Five years later, it is a beautiful black color full of earthworms and organic matter.
I can’t say enough good things about mulch! We don’t have to water nearly as often. There are very few weeds to pull, and those that do sprout are easier to pull. And it is a great way to add organic matter and nutrients at the same time.
What have I learned from experience that I would do differently to accelerate the process for a new fall garden bed?
First, make sure you get a soil test to see what nutrients you are deficient in. The typical that are tested are nitrogen (for green leafy growth), phosphorous (for flowers and fruits), and potassium (for overall plant vigor). Apply an organic source of the nutrients needed before applying the mulch.
Second, you don’t really need to use the sod cutter.
Third, I try to use cardboard instead of newspaper. Make sure it isn’t shiny with chemical ink. Earthworms love cardboard. You’ll attract more to your garden bed.
Fourth, I would add a three-inch layer of compost on top of the cardboard and an organic all around fertilizer before the mulch. I found out that nitrogen will leach into the air if not covered. You lose about 50 percent of it if you just lay it on top of the ground so you need twice as much for the same benefit.
Fifth, I would have done more like a six-inch layer of mulch in the fall. I would also recommend mulch that is from the whole tree (not just bark mulch) and is finer. Big chunks just take longer to break down and you want that nutrition in your soil as soon as you can get it!
This year, we are going to suck up all the leaves and grass in the mower bagger and apply a six-to-eight-inch layer over all the beds at the lake house. Then top with a layer of mulch either later this fall or early in the spring. For a house with homeowner covenants, you may have to do a half-and-half approach. Four inches of leaves and grass covered with four inches of nice black organic mulch this fall. Over the winter, it should decompose down to a nice thick four-inch layer of protection.
Let’s talk about the basics of what plants need. In general, plants need the same things we do: oxygen, food and water. Their food includes the standard nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium we all hear about, but they need much more than that. It is kind of like saying all we need are vitamins and minerals so a multivitamin is all we need to eat each day.
Like us, fruits and vegetables need a wide range of nutrients to be the healthiest and strongest. It is so true that you are what you eat. Same principle applies to what your plants “eat.” And if your fruits and veggies are getting a wide range of nutrients, this means that they will provide you with food chock full of nutrients as well!
That thick layer of mulch, wood chips and leaves every fall gives the organic material a chance to break down over the winter into nutrients that supporting microbes and earthworms need to multiply to give the best support to the plants growth in the spring.
A strong population of earthworms does two key things you need in a garden-they are nature’s rototiller, loosening the soil for veggie roots to easily expand and grow in to, and nature’s fertilizer, making lots of vermicompost right in your garden bed. The other key thing a layer of organic matter does is prevent the weed seeds that are laying on top of the ground from sprouting, eliminating the need for weeding or chemical herbicides. What can be better than that?!
Microbes thrive where there is an abundance of organic matter. These microbes nourish plant roots which feed the plant. You do not want to disturb this flourishing web of life-supporting microbes by tilling up the ground after you have done such a nice job of developing them into a strong support system for your spring plants. Tilling destroys your microbes. With a healthy population of earthworms, nature will take care of producing the light, crumbly soil your plants will thrive in.
Worms avoid areas that have pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. It is common sense that anything that has been designed to kill living things is not beneficial to other living things. I have seen when round up has been used, earthworms will not get onto the area that has been sprayed.
I recently listened to an interview with Paul Gautschi, who gets 14 inches of rain a year on his farm in Oregon. He hasn’t fertilized or watered his fruit orchard for over 30 years or his vegetable garden in more than 15 years. His secret: he looked at his surroundings with new eyes and replicated what nature does. He started using wood chips, which is basically what mulch is. The wood chips he uses include all the leaves and limbs chopped up. You need more than just the tree bark in your mulch. Paul likes to quote the Bible and George Washington Carver for his inspiration on gardening. As George Washington Carver said, “If it is simple, it must be right.”
He also applies a layer of dirt he gets from his chicken pen which he feeds only organic and as much fresh vegetable scraps as possible. We can get the same effect by the application of compost and an all-around organic fertilizer (the one we buy is based on composted chicken manure, Re-Vita).
A recent soil test in Paul’s garden revealed these results:
“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines – the desired level that you want, and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is I didn’t do anything!”
When you plant seeds in the spring, be sure to move the mulch out of the way. The mulch’s hard top crust is impossible for seedlings to break through. Once they have sprouted, you can pull the mulch back around the plant.
The other thing about healthy plants is that they are not bothered by insects. If you have a plant that is being attacked, the plant itself is likely not healthy. Nature is telling us that we have a “sick” plant or a bio system that is not in balance. If you are just moving to an organic approach with no pesticides, it may take a season or two for the “good” and “bad” bugs to come into balance.
Think very hard before you start spraying the “bad” bugs; those pesticides/insecticides don’t know the difference between a beneficial insect (like bees) and a “bad” bug (like grasshoppers). I put on gloves and go bug hunting for the “bad” bugs. I pick them off and squish them. If that is too harsh for you, you can pick them off and throw them in a bowl with soapy water.
Having trees and bushes near by also encourages birds to look for bug snacks in your garden. Birds don’t usually eat vegetables. They do love berries, though! You can put a light net over your berries to protect them. Fall is a great time to plant trees and bushes. Gives them the entire winter to establish a robust root system.
This fall, I am planning on accelerating the process in the new garden beds we put in this summer by doing a layer of leaves and wood chips at least eight inches thick. This should give our garden a significantly thicker layer of black soil, rich in organic matter by next spring. I hope to cut the time in half to get to black soil as deep as I can dig.
For more tips on organic small space and container gardening, see Melodie's blog at www.victorygardenonthegolfcourse.com.