What Is Deep Mulch Gardening – How To Use Deep Mulch In Your Garden
By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
What if I told you that you could have a bountiful vegetable garden without the hassle of tilling, weeding, fertilizing or daily watering? You may think this sounds pretty farfetched, but many gardeners are turning to a method known as deep mulch gardening to enjoy the harvest of the garden without all the headache (and backaches, knee pain, blisters, etc.). What is deep mulch gardening? Read on to learn how to garden with deep mulch.
What is Deep Mulch Gardening?
Gardener and author Ruth Stout first laid out the concept of deep mulch gardening in her 1950s book “Gardening without the Work: for the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent.” In short, Ruth’s method used layers of mulch to choke out weeds, retain soil moisture, and add organic matter and nutrients to the garden bed.
She described a method of growing garden plants right in deep layers of straw, hay, wood chips, compost, manure, leaves or other organic materials rather than growing plants in the conventional finely tilled soil garden beds. These organic materials are layered on top of each other to create beds 8-24 inches (20-60 cm.) deep.
One of the benefits of deep mulch gardening is that there is no tilling involved. Whether you have clay, sandy, rocky, chalky or compacted soil, you can still create a deep mulch bed. Just pile the deep mulch where you want the garden, and the soil beneath will eventually benefit from it. These deep mulch garden beds can be planted immediately, but experts recommend prepping the bed then planting it the following year. This allows time for the materials you use to start breaking down, and microorganisms and worms to move in.
How to Use Deep Mulch in Your Garden
To create a deep mulch bed, first select the site; remember, you don’t have to worry about the soil conditions in the area. Mark out the site for your deep mulch garden, cut any weeds back and water the site thoroughly. Next, lay down a layer of cardboard or a few layers of newspaper. Water this down as well. Then simply pile on the organic materials of your choosing, watering it down as you go. Ruth Stout’s preferred mulch was straw and wood chips, but every deep mulch gardener needs to discover his or her own preference.
Deep mulch gardening, of course, is not completely hassle free. It does require work to heap on all the mulch. If the beds are not deep enough, weeds may still pop up. This can easily be remedied by heaping on more mulch. It’s also important to not use straw, hay or yard clipping that have been sprayed with any type of herbicide, as this can damage or kill your plants.
Snails and slugs may also be attracted to the moist heap of decomposing organic matter. It may also be hard to acquire enough organic material for large garden plots. Start out with a small deep mulch bed, then upsize if you like it.
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Mulch is a key to no-till gardens
CORVALLIS, Ore. – Now is the time to plan your no-till garden for next year.
"The crux of no-till gardening is to pile on enough mulch so that weeds don't germinate and grow up through it," said Barb Fick, a horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, who has kept her large vegetable garden viable with the no-dig method for years.
To establish a new no-till garden in the fall or winter find a sunny spot and outline where the new beds will be. Use a garden hose or rope if the borders are curved. Because you won't be tilling, you won't need to confine your garden design to straight lines.
Be sure to lay out the vegetable beds so that you can easily reach any part of the bed from a path while kneeling. It's important not to step into the bed and compact the soil. If you put your new no-till garden into an existing lawn and want the paths to remain as grass, don't forget to make them wide enough for your mower.
After that, start heaping on the mulch. Fick prefers to pile on aged mint straw in the fall.
"Whatever you use, don't skimp on mulch," she said. "A heavy layer not only keeps weeds from growing, it also keeps the underlying soil moist, greatly reducing the amount of watering you need in the summer."
If you use leaves, grass clippings or straw, you might need as much as eight to 10 inches of them, Fick said. If you use cardboard or newspaper as mulch, you'll need less of it, she said. You'll want to add a couple of inches of organic matter over it though.
Over time, the mulch layers you keep adding will help loosen up the clay soil. The soil formed by the addition of so much organic matter will likely be loose, full of earthworms and teeming with healthy microbes that make nutrients available to your plants.
When you're ready to plant in the spring, push aside the mulch layer where you want to put your seeds or transplants. For the first year or so, you may need to dig out old roots and add topsoil or compost in the hole where you want to plant. An advantage to no-till is that you turn over a small amount of soil only where you'll plant seeds or starts. This keeps old weed seeds down in the soil, making it harder for them to germinate.
If you're growing large transplants like melons, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, in the spring you can lay down heavy black or red plastic to warm up the soil faster, conserve moisture and reduce weeds. One caution though: depending on its weight, plastic sheeting eventually breaks up into tiny pieces as it deteriorates from exposure to the sun. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation – the best ways to water a no-till garden – should be placed under the plastic.
As your crops come to an end, incorporate the dead vegetation into the mulch.
"Adding organic matter or mulch is the best way to insure a healthy garden," Fick said. "If the prospect of a vegetable garden blanketed under huge mounds of organic matter or mulch doesn't fit your vision of a perfectly tended garden, remember that when soils bake in the sun, weeds grow and plants become dehydrated and die."
Our Deep Mulch Garden: Final Wrap-Up
I’ve fallen in love with gardening all over again.
Considering it’s October, I figured it was time to take final inventory of my experience and type out my thoughts and revelations (mostly because I know I’ll forget come next year…)
Deep mulch gardening is the best thing that’s ever happened to my garden.
I LOVE IT. I will NEVER go back to bare dirt gardening. Never, ever, ever.
To read a little background on this my crazy mulching adventure and to learn more of the specifics of this whole deep mulch thang, check out this post where I talk about mulching for the first time, and then this post where I give a mid-summer mulching update.
For those of you who are curious about my final yields and such, here are all the nitty-gritty details—>
**IMPORTANT: If you are planning on using deep mulch, please make sure you are ONLY using hay or straw that has NOT been sprayed with herbicides of any kind! Read my sad story about herbicide contamination here.**
2014 Yields from My Deep Mulch Garden
Keep in mind, I have a rather small garden plot. We have plans to expand, but have to build a literal fortress around anything we try to grow (because of wild critters and our barnyard critters), so while putting in a second plot is on the “list,” it hasn’t happened quite yet! However, I had impressive yields, even from my small plot!
By far, this was the best onion year I’ve ever had. I planted two long rows of purple onion sets and one row of sweet yellow onions. The were SO happy and grew like crazy. My yellow onions were HUGE and just as pretty as the ones you can find at the store.
Now comes the sad part of the story… Our lovely turkey apparently has an affinity for onions, and wiped out nearly the entire harvest before I realized what had happened. So, I ended up with just one measly onion braid. However, that wasn’t the deep mulch’s fault, and next year I know to be extra-careful to leave the garden gate SHUT!
Peas & Beans
These were one of the few things I actually struggled a bit with this year. However, I don’t think the deep mulch is to blame. The early part of summer was very cool, and the pea & bean seeds really struggled to germinate. I replanted several times, but never ended up with a great yield. However, I still was able to harvest 3-4 gallon baggies of yellow beans to store in the freezer, so that’ll keep us in beans for a while, at least.
Beets and Kohlrabi
The beets were out of control this year! I ended up canning several batches and still have a bag in the fridge to eat! I mostly planted the white albino beets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, but also did half a row of regular red beets. This was my first year of growing kohlrabi, so I just planted one row. However, it thrived in the deep mulch and we had more kohlrabi than we could eat.
This was an interesting experiment, since I decided to plant my pumpkin seeds in my failed hugulkultur bed from last year. I didn’t have high hopes, but poked a handful of seeds into the bed anyway and covered them in deep hay mulch as the plants popped through the compost. Much to my surprise, the pumpkins flourished and we ended up with 10-12 gorgeous Winter Luxury pumpkins from just a handful of seeds. I even had enough pumpkins to preserve for later, and I was able to enjoy my first pumpkin canning experience!
As I mentioned in my mid-summer mulching update post, my potatoes had a bit of a rocky start. Apparently, I covered them with too much mulch, and the shoots had a hard time poking through the thick layer of hay. Once I realized my mistake and removed a bit of the bulk, the green plants happily popped up and grew wildly. (Thankfully, potatoes are very forgiving, even after you try to smother them…)
In the past I’ve planted potatoes the traditional way: digging a deep trench, laying the seed potatoes in the trench, and then mounding more and more dirt as the potatoes sprouted. However, I decided to be a bit rebellious this year… I laid the seed potatoes on the dirt, but rather than mounding them up, I simply covered them with hay. I was holding my breath when I harvested them last month, half-expecting to be completely potato-less. But, the mulch came through for me again! I ended up with heaping boxes of gorgeous Yukon gold potatoes from just 3 rows. And the best part? I didn’t have to mess with mounding them this summer, and harvest was super easy– just pull back the hay and grab the spuds!
In the past, tomatoes have been my nemesis… I’ve had a few years where the plants seemed happy, but ended up producing dismal yields. I planted 8-10 tomato plants this year (mostly romas and Amish Paste tomatoes for making sauce) and surrounded the seedlings with hay mulch. Those few plants gave us boxes and boxes of tomatoes! Our crazy-early freeze forced me to harvest many of them green and ripen them in boxes, but regardless, I had enough homegrown tomatoes to make a full batch of sauce. This is a first for me!
Cabbage, Carrots, and Squash
I planted a few cabbage seedlings this year and they were downright picturesque growing happily in their mulch.
The carrots grew happily, although I did have some deformed ones. I’ve since been informed (by smarter gardeners than me) to amend the bed next year with kelp meal or wood ash to prevent the, er, unique formations. I think I also need to work the soil in my carrot rows a bit deeper.
As usual, I planted my squash too close together, so my zucchini and spaghetti squash had babies… Regardless, we enjoyed ample amounts of chocolate zucchini bread, and have several spaghetti squashes stored away for winter.
Wyoming can be desperately dry in the summers. In previous years, I would often water every single day, and my garden would still wilt and dry out. It was… annoying. And frustrating.
With my deep mulch, this year I only watered about twice per week. The hay kept the underlying soil moist and soft, even when everything else outside was blazing hot. This saved me a lot of time dragging hoses around AND seriously cut down on our water usage.
I know everyone has weeds, but in year’s past, we had weeds in epic proportions. My poor baby seedlings usually didn’t even get a chance to germinate before they were already getting choked out. It was vicious.
I would spend hours and hours each week weeding like crazy, but could NEVER get ahead of them. As a mom, a homesteader with lots of other projects, and a business owner, I couldn’t afford to spend that much time in the garden, and was seriously considering giving up gardening entirely. (Ask my husband–I’m not kidding!) I wasn’t enjoying it, and had a pit in my stomach every time I’d go out to check on the veggies.
Deep mulch made me fall in love with gardening all over again.
This year? I spent about 10-15 minutes every other day checking on the rows and pulling a few weeds here and there. Sometimes I’d add an extra handful of hay if a spot was becoming bare, or pull a bit of hay back if it had scooted too close to the seedlings. But that’s it. For real.
And as payment for my minimal time spent in the garden? I was rewarded with the most bountiful harvest I’ve ever experienced.
Our gardening season is complete and everything has been harvested. I left many of plant remnants in place and covered the entire garden plot with a generous blanket of hay for the winter. The plan is for the plant matter and hay to begin decomposing to create a whole new layer of nutritious-goodness for next year.
Come spring, I’ll pull the hay back from where I plan to place my rows to allow the soil to warm up, and we’ll start the process all over again. And for the first time ever? I’m actually looking forward to gardening season.
Where I Got My Crazy Ideas
This book by Ruth Stout (affiliate link) was the #1 driving force in my decision to use deep hay mulch this year. She was quite revolutionary in her time, and I followed many of her sassy suggestions to the letter. As crazy as many of her suggestions sounded at first, they haven’t failed me yet!
Other Gardening Goodies You Might Enjoy:
What types of mulch have you used in your garden? Any stories to share?
Why Is This Method a Godsend?
The great thing about the sheet mulch gardening method is what it does for your soil. As an example: I once had a few red oak trees removed from my yard. When the men from the tree company took them down, they chopped up the trunks and larger branches and started raking great big piles of smaller sticks and leaves together. That gave me an idea. Why not pile those in a corner of my yard and let them compost?
The tree crew happily obliged and we stacked them up.
The next spring, the debris had settled. Curious to see what the ground was like beneath, I started digging. What had formerly been dead, gray sand was now a rich, black loam, filled with earthworms and soil life. That patch of ground was one of the best spots in my yard for years. No tilling, no fertilizing or adding of amendments. Just a big stack of organic matter left to rot in place, and I was looking at grade-A soil.
Imagine doing the same in your garden plot. I’ve done it multiple times now, and I can assure you that the results are impressive. If you’ve got bad soil, sandy soil or even clay, a deep layer of mulch will fix it.
Another benefit of the sheet mulch method is that it’s easier than traditional composting. Just chuck your leaves, kitchen scraps, cardboard, etc., into the garden and bury them as needed. An impressive amount of soil life emerges in short order.
When I lived in Tennessee, sheet mulching transformed a patch of hard clay and Bermuda grass into a rich patch of garden. Over time, the clay darkened and loosened beneath my beds. I was amazed by the transformation. Tilling would have been a nightmare, but deep mulching gave me something amazing to work with.
One final benefit of this method: water conservation. Over time, the ground becomes so rich with humus that it acts as a sponge. Even during long dry spells, the layers beneath the surface are cool and moist. You can see in the Back to Eden film, as well—the comparison to the dry, baked dirt elsewhere on Gautschi’s property is astounding.