Using the deep mulch method in your garden

Gardening can be a lot of hard physical work. You need to till the soil up in the spring, weed the beds weekly, fertilise often, and water daily. If you want to reduce the time commitment, it’s time you tried the deep mulch method.

Gardening can be a lot of hard physical work. You need to till the soil up in the spring, weed the beds weekly, fertilise often, and water daily. If you want to reduce the time commitment, it’s time you tried the deep mulch method.

Now, the deep mulch method as a technique won’t get rid of all of the garden tasks you need to complete. Gardening still involves a level of commitment, but you can reduce the work and makes things easier once you are in a rhythm and have things in place.

The deep mulch method helps you improve the health of your soil, coupled with keeping weeds down and the garden warm. So, what’s not to like?

What is the deep mulch method?

Back as early as 1920, Ruth Stout came up with the idea of deep mulch gardening. Her idea was that the multiple layers of mulch would block weeds, add organic matter to the soil, and kill the grass underneath the mulch. She realized that all traditional methods of working with the soil (digging, weeding, watering, plowing, hoeing), could be replaced by simply adding a layer of hay on the ground. Ruth chronicled her findings in a magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening from 1953 to 1971 and also wrote several books about her methods. She was eager to speak only from her personal experience despite the success and great results she achieved.

Quite simply, deep mulching is a method that consists of keeping a thick layer of hay mulch permanently on the soil. It creates a rich bed for plants to thrive in. while hay is most often used, there are other garden off cuts such as pine needles, straw, grass clippings, corn stalks or even seaweed that can do the same job. Once these layers are created, you put the plants right into the mulch.

Once established, your mulching medium continues to be added over the top, as the bit that’s closest to the ground/soil is what will start decomposing first.

Can you over till?

Traditionally, gardeners are told to till up garden soil each year before planting into the disturbed ground. But evidence shows us that tilling has some negative side effects. As more people turn away from tilling and want to grow a no-till garden, here are some of the reasons why you should ditch the old ways of working the soil.

  • Tilling loosens the soil, which makes it more vulnerable to erosion.
  • It exposes dormant weed seeds, which can encourage new weeds to grow in your beds.
  • While tilling increases the fertility of the soil, it only does so temporarily. Over time, it’ll make the soil devoid of life.
  • If you till too early in the early spring, it can cause your soil to dry out too fast, killing the microorganisms.

Tilling isn’t bad by any means – but there does need to be a balance in how often you till. In my garden bed, I’ve tilled it once or twice, as all the organic matter and goodness in the soil is compacted within it. Every time I’ve picked some up, it’s come full of worms and other good bugs.

The benefits of using the deep mulch method

So, what are the benefits of using the deep mulch method? There are several reasons why you would want to use this method. Let’s take a look!

1. No tilling

Aside from the fact that we know tilling has negative effects, it’s also just a lot of hard work that you more than likely don’t want to do. With the deep mulch method, you don’t even need to worry about covering any grass or tilling it up before laying down the mulch. Grass decomposes over time as well!

2. You can plant immediately

While some experts tell you that you should prep the garden beds the previous year with the deep mulch, you don’t have to do so. If you decide randomly that you want to garden, go ahead and put your plants right into the mulch.

3. Fewer weeds

The biggest pro for most people is that this method involves fewer weeds – it’s a noticeable difference. If pulling weeds is a garden task that makes you want to cry, you’ll want to try using deep mulch. Keeping the layers deep makes it nearly impossible for weeds to push upward. And, the benefit of deep mulching is that when weeds do pop up, you just add more hay and more mulch to the top to squish them down. Easy peasy!

4. Watering less

Not only do you have to weed less often, but you don’t need to water as often either. The mulch holds in the moisture, even if you live somewhere warm and dry, so you don’t need to water as frequently. Another side benefit is that consistently moist soil leads to more earthworm activity and more microorganisms working hard in the ground.

5. Nutrients seep into the soil

Over time, you add more materials to create the layers because everything decomposes. The decomposition process adds nutrients to the soil, and those nutrients help your plants grow in the mulch. If you’ve ever lost a bale of hay to a rain event, or just simply being in one place for a while, you’ll note the very bottom is nice and dark and decomposed and earthy. This is what you want it to do in your garden. The humus (that bottom decomposed earthy bit) is fantastic for the garden.

How to use the deep mulch method

If you’re convinced that this is a route you want to go, here are the steps to get started. It’s a lot easier than you might imagine.

1. Pick the right spot

The first task is to pick where you want to put your new deep mulch garden. Here are some tips.

Pick an area that receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight, which is typically the minimum amount needed by many plants for growth. If you’re only going to grow cool-weather crops, you could get away with six hours, but most plants want more. If you are in a sub tropical climate, then you need to check for best growing times for your region, and ensure that, in the same light as cooler areas have to deal with frost, you might have to deal with burn issues for seedlings and younger plants.

Make sure there isn’t any major morning or evening shade, such as by a tall tree. If you’re plotting in the spring when the trees aren’t in full bloom, make sure this is considered. Pick a spot that is easily accessible that you can harvest from whenever you want.

Use stakes and twine to rope off the size and shape of your garden. You can make more than one spot if you want. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

2. Cut the grass and water thoroughly

Once you have the spot picked, cut down the grass and any weeds in the area. Remember, you don’t need to till! Cut down everything as low as possible; the mulch will smother it and stop any growth. I try and aim for at least 30cm of mulch in the first pass, as much of it will start decomposing. Currently, I did lay down some mulch in my garden but am waiting to order a layer of top soil for planting, so will need to lift this up and add more hay when I do this. Currently as it is, it is simply keeping weeds down and the soil warm.

You also want to clear away any debris or rocks that are larger than a pebble. Rocks won’t decompose, and their presence can cause the roots to be stunted. Once you do this, water it thoroughly, but you don’t want any mud puddles.

3. Lay down cardboard or newspaper

Now, lay down a layer of cardboard or a few layers of newspaper. Something tricky about cardboard is that it’s easy to miss stray pieces of packing tape, but do your best to remove it all. Tape won’t decompose. Water this layer down well, especially if you use thicker or fresh cardboard. This is also a perfect way to reuse/recycle your Amazon delivery boxes!

This layer acts as a physical barrier against the grass and weeds, killing most of them off. It decomposes over time, but it helps you establish a clean base.

4. Install an irrigation system

One of the harder parts of using deep mulch is that getting the water down into tall he layers is tricky! You can remedy that by installing an irrigation system before you start piling everything on top. Another option is using a slow drip or even gravity fed sprinkler that will slowly and consistently water it down.

5. Start piling organic materials

Now, it’s time to start piling on all of the organic materials that you want. You can do this at one time, or you can do so slowly over a period of a few weeks. With mine, I do a layer of horse poo to back fill and lift the bed, then add any biochar and soot I have and any really manky hay.

So, what organic materials can you use for a deep mulch garden? A few suggestions include:

  • Straw
  • Wood Chips
  • Shredded Leaves
  • Manure
  • Compost

Everyone has their own preference, so it will take time to discover what works best for you. Make sure that you never use any materials that have been treated with herbicides or insecticides.

6. Add your plants or seeds

Once you have the proper depth of your mulch, it’s time to stay planting your seeds or plants. You can either make rows for your seeds or dig a hole in the mulch and put the plants where you want them. If you’re using seeds, it’s best to keep back the materials a bit so that you can see what you’re planting. Once you can tell that it’s a plant and not a rogue seedling, move the mulch back in place. Some seedlings can respond to rot from old, wet/damp hay, so its best to leave a good space between the mulch and the place of planting.

6. Maintain the proper depth of the mulch

Using deep mulch gardening isn’t free of maintenance. You’ll need to slowly add more materials because they rot and decompose over time. If you notice weeds popping through, it means your beds aren’t deep enough, so it’s time to heap on more mulching materials.

And that’s about it! It seems scarier than what it really is, but once you get your layers down pat and you’ve added your mulch, you’ll soon start seeing and reaping the benefits of a deep mulch method in your garden.

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