How important is mulch? I'm trying to do things right this year, but I'm not sure if I want to go to the trouble of mulching or not. Is it worth it? I'm trying to be frugal with my gardening. I'm near Vancouver, BC, and it doesn't get very hot here, usually. If I should go for it, what sort of mulch is best?
Now a fertilizer question- I don't have much compost in my sunny garden (used it all on my shady garden, before I made the sunny one!). It has peat moss, soil, a small amount of compost, and a small amount of composted manure. I bought an organic fertilizer that says it's for tomatoes and other vegetables, and the numbers on it are 4-6-8. Can I use this as a general fertilizer? I have tomatoes, watermelon, kale, broccoli, cucumbers, yellow zucchini, carrots, peppers, and some various and sundry other veggies that are mainly there as companions.
Also, my container tomatoes have a good amount of Sea-Soil and a bagged mix containing compost. I also added a small amount of the fertilizer to the mix. Should I be ok? Or should I keep up on the fertilizer?
Don't over do the fertilizer as tomato's don't require much after they are off and running. You are ok to use that on all your garden just remember a little every two weeks is way better than a lot once. Safest is a band of fertilizer for row crops to use once their roots grow down into it. worked into the soil
Mulch will hold down the weeds some and help the soil from drying out. Additionally it stops the soil from being splashed up on things. I don't mulch much anymore I am old and lazy.
Grass clippings are effective but only use your own unless you know for sure they are free of weed killer. Don't pile them on to thick around your plants though as it can burn them. no saw dust either as it will deplete the nitrogen from your soil after it is tilled in . Oat straw is great but expensive. You have a lot of choices.
Oat straw mulching garlic and shallots 2nd to the left. The theory was to afford the plants some protection as they grew over the winter. It worked great for the garlic but was dead wrong for the shallots. Now I know shallots are not strong enough growers to come up through it so they just rot.
Good things about mulch:
Keeps the soil more evenly moist. (This can be a negative in a slow draining location, or a climate with frequent rains)
Slowly decomposes, becoming soil amendment when you till it in at the end of the season.
Makes the soil more friendly for the beneficial soil organisms from earthworms on down to the beneficial microorganisms.
Acidifies the soil, making fertilizers more available to the plants.
Improves irrigation by softening the fall of the water drops on the soil surface. The water hits the mulch, then seeps into the soil. This prevents the water from compacting the soil when it hits.
Moderates the temperature. Choose a mulch based on your climate: In a cool climate you want a dark mulch to absorb the heat, warm the soil. In a hot climate a lighter colored mulch can cool the soil.
Reduces soil compaction if you have to walk on the prepared soil. (I make it a policy NOT to walk on the prepared soil in the raised boxes)
Keeps weeds down.
It is a lot of work to install
Is not often free. You may find deals where you can go pick up something for free or low cost, but you are using your vehicle to do this.
The really free stuff is worth what you pay for it. The local tree pruning companies will deliver chips for free. These are not too bad for walkways, but are not good around small plants.
Some plants will not grow so well if the mulch is too thick. Even trees and shrubs appreciate the benefits, but must not have mulch applied too close to the trunk.
Some plant material can be toxic to the plants you are trying to grow. I would be cautious about using Walnut, Eucalyptus, Pine or a few others in any large quantity except in walkways.
You need to reapply it often as it decomposes. About once a year.
Mulch that is high in carbon (woody, brown plant matter) needs nitrogen to decompose. If there is not green matter mixed with it, the decomposing organisms will take nitrogen from the soil, so there is less nitrogen for the plants.
Mulch that is high in nitrogen (soft, green plant matter) can be so high in nitrogen that it can burn the plants.
A mix of brown and green stuff is the best. If you apply some nitrogen fertilizer with the mulch this can also offset the nitrogen loss. Apply a slow release fertilizer.
How I work with mulch:
Get a load from the tree companies. This is delivered free. I also get all the leaves that I rake up from certain properties. I can also get horse manure with stall cleanings (pine shavings and rice hulls are the most common bedding used locally, and these work just fine for me)
Get some local help to wheelbarrow the chips and manure into the back yard. (This is the part that costs money)
Spread the coarsest material in the walkways.
Spread the very finest material (manure) in the beds. Add fertilizer according to need.
Add a layer of finest chips over the surface of the beds. These will decompose over the season, and be rototilled or just raked in between crops.
Plant though the chips, tucking the chips back in around the plants, but not too deep.
Mulch is not strictly necessary. Its main advantages are keeping down the weeds (for this it *must* be thick enough) and adding organic matter that helps soil microbe life, etc, to thrive. But there are other methods people use. Simply leaving the earth bare is not ideal under most circumstances but it won't ruin your garden. As for me, I've noticed too how expensive mulch gets and I researched & am learning how to use the undersowing method. This may be too elaborate for a smaller garden--the reason I'm using it is largely about cheap soil care for a very large garden (large amounts of manure & compost cost a lot, & even when they're free you need a truck to haul them...) Basically, undersowing is where you plant a cover crop (often something like clover) between the rows, but late--six weeks after sowing the rows, or after transplants are well established--so it doesn't compete with your garden plants. You walk on the clover, it protects the soil, it adds fertility through nitrogen-fixing, and after you mow it like a lawn a couple times the other weeds stop coming up through it (b/c it grows back quickly after mowing & shades other things out). Then it goes on to benefit your soil over the winter, and you plow it under in the spring which is like adding compost. (That's why they also call these kinds of cover crops "green manures.")
Another option I'm only just learning about--there's this homesteading guy out West who's been working on how to use as much of the groundwater as possible so you don't have to irrigate, and he says it's actually a good idea to leave the soil bare and deliberately fluff it up with a hoe or cultivator till it dries into dust. He calls it "dust mulch." The reason is, there's a lot of water stored deep in the ground and it wicks upward, and at the surface the sun evaporates it, so you want it not to reach the surface. He claims mulch wicks moisture upward too (& lets it evaporate from the mulch surface) so it actually doesn't conserve water in the soil, it just looks like it b/c the soil under it stays damp. The dust mulch apparently forms a barrier to the wicking so the groundwater stays in the ground. I'm mostly telling you this b/c you live in Vancouver & his method is actually specific to your area (well, he is actually south of you, in the US, but from what I hear the climate is similar.) He talks about very rainy winters & dry summers, so that's why he thinks using moisture stored in the soil (from the winter) is such an advantage. It's a whole method though, it also involves things like spacing plants farther apart than usual. The book is Gardening Without Irrigation by Steve Solomon and you can actually get it for free in audiobook form (legally) at http://archive.org/details/gardening_without_irrigation_0911_librivox. I can't speak for his method never having used it but he's clearly experienced & this is an example of one of the options out there.
Sorry if this is all more technical than you were really looking for!
It seems like every time I till around my plants, be it tomato,okra,or onion, they seem to start growing. Am I stirring up the water from underneath or am I opening up the area around the roots for oxygen. Does anyone know about this .
I love using mulch, but I have lots of leaves and grass clippings from my own large yard and I pick up truck loads from my near by neighborhoods. I make tons of compost and putting a layer of mulch over the garden in spring and fall is an excellent way to build the soil quality and keep down the weeds. I had much rather mulch than pull weeds and spread store bought fertilizer. I had no earth worms and very nutrient poor soil when I started my garden and now parts of it are three years old and there is an amazing difference in the soil, each year I hope to make it better. I was almost in disbelief the other day when I used my trowel to plant a few small plants, the soil was so soft, I could have just used my hands.
What was the purpose of tilling around your plants? If anything I would think it would evaporate the water faster that was near the surface. It could be allowing oxygen to reach the roots. I know when I turn my compost piles it is amazing what a difference the oxygen reaching the newly exposed materials makes. My guess would be you are trying to combat the weeds and by killing of the weeds the plants have less competition for food and water and oxygen, just my guess. I would also be interested in hearing other peoples view. Maybe you should start a separate thread on that subject.
I could not pull up the book from that link, it gives me an error. I really don't see how dust mulch could work very well, but being I have not tried it I won't say it can't. I am not sure about regular mulch not conserving water either. It is true that it is normally moist under the mulch, that means it is holding moisture at the soil surface level, to me that indicates that it is conserving moisture in the needed area. I am just totally lost on conserving ground moisture by making the surface a dust bowl, but I can see some sense in it by breaking the wicking effect. I would love to read the book if you can correct the link. But then, by that same theory regular mulch should work, something like pine straw does not wick moisture very well and it blocks the hot sun from evaporating the moisture at soil level, I think the same is true for leaves etc. When you touch the surface of mulch it is normally dry, underneath is normally wet, I don't understand how that is not holding in the moisture. I do find such an idea as dust mulch very interesting and I have heard of it before, I just don't understand why regular mulch would not work better, plus it looks so mulch more attractive that just plain bare dusty soil. I will admit that dust is cheaper than pine straw or oat straw etc.
I keep a lot of compost on hand and work with it almost every day. If the pile is too wet I stir up the pile and the moisture evaporates and by the next day the pile is considerably direr. If I leave the pile alone and do not open it up to evaporation the pile will stay soggy for days. So it just seems to me stirring the surface would evaporate the upper layers of moisture in the soil, but might save the lower levels of moisture by breaking the wicking effect, but is that lower level close enough to the plant roots to do them much good? I am sure the man who wrote the book thinks so! I have always tried not to disturb the soil surface too much in order to conserve moisture.
SwallowFeather- the cover crop is a fantastic idea for me! I'm in the process of digging up a large area of bamboo in front of my back garden, and was wondering what I'd do to keep the weeds at bay. Can I buy clover seeds? Or other ground cover?
I'm interesting in the other stuff, and will read when I get some time (we have sun today, so I need to spend loads of time gardening!)
I have other stuff to reply to, and will do so later tonight.
>> Mulch that is high in carbon (woody, brown plant matter) needs nitrogen to decompose. If there is not green matter mixed with it, the decomposing organisms will take nitrogen from the soil, so there is less nitrogen for the plants.
The nitrogen deficeit is only a problem if you turn the mulch under and mix it with the soil. If you just top-dress with mulch, then do not till, hoe, rake or fork it under, it can't steal nitrogen away from plant roots.
Nitrogen defeceit occurs when soil microbes use the C-rich organic matter as food. They multiply, but they got very little N from your "brown" mulch that was turned under. They need N (and P and K and etc), so they scrou nge up every possible bit from the soil. They are better at this than roots are, so plants starve.
However, if you only put mulch on the surface, the soil microbes can't reach it.
I would urge you to use COARSE mulch, so that air, rain and other water will run right throu8gh it and get into the soil. Wood chips or bark chunks are fine. Apparently, pine needles and straw are also c oarse enoiguh.
Fine mulch like sawdust and bark FINES may absorb most rainfalls and spray or drip irrigation applications, keeping it away from the soil. They may also pack down tight and slow down oxygen and CO2 exchange with the soil. And they are likely to act as wicks for any water that DOES get through them , and help it to es cape from the sopil and evaporate away.
Plus, fine mulch will stay moist enough for weed seeds to sprout and take hold. Coarse mulch stays dry, so weed seeds don't sporut. Those that do sprout in the soil haved to fight their way to the surface before they get any sun. Since weed roots get little grip on coarse mulch, you can often pull the weed and its struggling root out with two fingers.
Typically, if you have a layer of nice coarse wood chips or bark nuggets, you would rake them aside before doing heavy-duty tilling in Fall or spring. Then spread them back over the soil. Over several years, they will eventually break down despite being dry and low-nitrogen . That's a good time to turn them under, or feed them to your compost heap and then turn under.
Put yourself in the place of the roots, the soil, and all the little soil ogranisms. Would you want to be staked out naked under the hot sun and pounding rain? Having to get chilly every night and baked hot and dry every day? Or would you rather have a shady umbrella over you all day, and a warm coverlet at night?
deva33freya - I'm glad you think it will work for you. It's a method I'm getting more and more enthusiastic about. Yes, hopefully you should be able to buy clover seed--my local seed & feed store sells various different kinds of clover seed by the pound. If you live in a rural area you may be able to find this kind of store, if you live in the city I'm not sure but I would try the local gardening store & go from there.
I'm not sure I understand what you mean about the bamboo--do you want groundcover around the bamboo? Cover-cropping gets a lot more dicey when you are talking about perennials, because clover is a lot like grass and if it's left in place a long time it will just kind of try to colonize & expand its borders, so that it *will* compete with your plants. One of the reasons I brought it up is that we are in the vegetables forum here and so I figured you were probably talking about an annual veggie garden. A lot of the idea of undersowing (around annual vegetables) is that you plant the clover late enough that it won't compete with the vegetables, and then you kill it and mix its remains into the soil before next year's crop. So for instance I've got raspberries and asparagus in my produce garden, both perennials, and I won't be undersowing around those because I wouldn't be able to kill the clover by tilling it in--it would be too close to the living roots of my raspberry plants & I might damage them. So, I would recommend to use this method only with annuals although I *think* there might be certain really shallow-rooted things that would make good groundcover around perennials without competing, but I am not sure enough of myself in this area to recommend anything. I just know I've seen ground-ivy (aka creeping-charlie) and blueberry plants coexist better than blueberry plants & grass (and the ground-ivy does keep down all other weeds).
Seedfork, I see you're right, the link didn't work, but I don't know why b/c I know it was correct. I'll try something different this time: go to http://archive.org/details/audio_bookspoetry and within the "search" box search for "gardening without irrigation". See if that works for you. Yes, the dust-mulch thing sure seems odd. All I can say to the mulch issue is that *he* certainly thinks that mulch does wick (I think he may be thinking of straw, it'd be interesting to know what he'd say about pinestraw) and that the surface is dry for the same reason the soil surface is dry on a hot day--it's constantly being dried. I don't quite know how I would go about verifying if he's right or not. I'm not sure I will ever use his method b/c it's so area-specific--he says that in the spring where he is the soil is completely saturated with moisture, which I'm not sure is the case here in the Midwest. I dunno, I may try a test plot with his method and just see. Anyway, it's an interesting book and I hope the link works for you this time.
SwallowFeather- That's something to think about, regarding cover crops and the annual garden vs. perennial plants. My original question WAS about an annual veggie garden, but then I got other ideas from your idea!
My secondary idea was this--- our bamboo is overtaking the yard, and I just dug up a bunch of roots from in front of one of my gardens. That area has been overtaken with weeds anyways, and the weeds are encroaching on my garden are are a pain to remove. So I was thinking that a cover crop could be used on the edge of the garden, and out into the now-muddy patch, to keep the weeds at bay.
Oh, I'm not trying to keep the bamboo at bay with a cover crop! I'm digging it up, roots and all. It's a LOT of work. I've seen bamboo come up through concrete- no way would a little plant keep it down.
I just have a big patch of dirt, now, right in front of my garden, where the bamboo roots used to be. I dislike walking in dirt, so I thought it might be a quick growing solution to 1) cover the dirt and 2) keep the other weeds from creeping into my garden. (I think the weed I'm dealing with is creeping buttercup? maybe. It's also a pain, but not even remotely as crazy making as the bamboo.)
Just to paint a better picture, the bamboo is growing above the ground in a corner of my yard that is about 10'x10' (I dug up a patch about that big last year, so what's left is about half of what we had a couple years ago.) I am ALSO digging up some of the roots that have shot across the yard, about 30+ feet from the "grove." We keep having bamboo trying to shoot up in the grass in the middle of the yard, and it drives me bonkers. Even though we've isolated the roots in the yard from any bamboo that is actually living above ground, it keeps coming up. I decided to go hardcore, and dig up patches of my yard where the bamboo is still coming up rather heavily.
Australian buckwheat- I will look for that. Our winters don't often get lower than 30F, so maybe it would still work to keep weeds out of the garden over the winter.
I am fairly certain I will be planting some cover crop in my garden between rows also, to keep the weeds down. I'm actually looking forward to doing it! It seems a lot more fun than buying/laying mulch. haha!
Deva - there is a systemic chemical made to kill bamboo. You cut it low on the stalk then pour it in the remaining stalk and it is carried through the roots to kill. Time consuming also to pour each one, but I have heard of some people digging up bamboo only to STILL have it come back. Yes, it grows through everything, as my Dad found out the hard way via his pool and foundation in TX.
I *may* have to try the chemical approach. I have kids that play in the yard, so I've tried to stay away from chemicals. It's been 2 or 3 years of working to get it under control, and it HAS helped a lot, but...I might need to give it an additional boost.
I totally believe that it can come back after digging it up. I think if you miss even a tiny bit of it, it can still go crazy.
We briefly discussed getting a pool, but quickly realized that the bamboo would tear it up as soon as the growing season started! That stuff is the bane of my existence at the moment. lol.
deva33freya - Glad you like the cover-cropping idea! I'll agree with eweed on there being some advantages to a cover crop that's easier to kill... It's a pros and cons thing, depends what you are going for. Partly I really wanted something that would keep my soil covered over the winter and fix nitrogen, so clover was an obvious choice, but I will say that it was been a HUGE pain tilling it back into the soil today... Partly that's because it's really darn wet here right now & going to rain again (so I had to till today, & darn the torpedoes), but basically the clover is kinda hard for the tiller to cut up and so the clover and the mud each make each other worse. I had to keep unclogging the tines. I think if the soil was dry enough it would be kind of OK though.
But yeah: if you don't have a rototiller, use buckwheat or something killable like that. You don't want to dig out clover by hand. If you doubt whether your rototiller is powerful enough, again, use something killable. (My rototiller has rear tines which can spin both forward and back; a front-tine tiller that spins only forward isn't powerful enough.) Traditionally it seems like clover is the cover crop you pick if you are going to leave it in the soil longer, and buckwheat is a shorter-term cover crop. It's shallow-rooted, grows very fast & flowers quickly (you do need to mow it off before it seeds! and then it'll flower again) so it's also nice if you happen to be wanting to feed the bees.
Sorry about your bamboo problem! Yeah, if you are just looking for something to fill the space after you dig the bamboo, you could definitely do worse than clover. I'd say clover specifically in this case b/c it has those good qualities of shading weeds out after you mow it, and also I'm guessing it might be OK to leave it there for awhile? Also, white Dutch clover is attractive & to my mind makes a perfectly good lawn, even better than grass in some ways (more drought-resilient, grows in poor soil, etc).
Oh yeah, I did mow it actually, or it would have been even worse. There were still the stems that run along the ground and the roots.
It's totally true that the more clayey it is, the worse it gets if tilled when wet. That stuff I tilled last week looked pretty good right after I tilled it (and planted my peppers out in it, yeah, that's why I was in a hurry, in a normal season those would have been out several weeks ago) but it doesn't look too great now. The one row I didn't get around to planting looks like it could probably use a light second tilling before it'll make a decent seed bed.
>> I did mow it actually, or it would have been even worse.
I think there is some kind of expoential or asymptotic degree of clayeyness. I usually feel that whatever soil I have access to at the moment is "the heaviest clay I've ever seen!"
Then it gets worse at the next yard. Right now my soil is so bad that a pic k only c hips it when dry. After digging a 6-8" wide trench, I elarned that a little slit trench the width of my mattock blade was all I needed. The walls are so solid that they are still clean and straight several years later, and that width is narrow enough that I don't expct to break an ankle any time soon.
If I leave a clay "curb" under a raised bed, I can park a 12x12x1" concrete paver on it, and the paver hasn 't sunk into the clay at all in three years of Seattle drizzle.
Admittedly my actual veggie garden, which has been fertilized for years by me & those who came before me, is not bad though on the clayey side, but I always gripe to myself about the clay in my lawn & flowerbeds & especially in this small cemetery I'm starting to care for, where the clay appears (to me) so pure that you could make pots out of it. But what you've got sounds unbelievable! Sounds like an area for a potter not a gardener... I suppose you must make really heavy use of soil amendments (compost, manure, leaves, bark, straw, etc) when you want a nice bed for veggies or flowers?
>> I suppose you must make really heavy use of soil amendments (compost, manure, leaves, bark, straw, etc) when you want a nice bed for veggies or flowers?
Oh, yes! At first I dug down, removed it, screened out rocks, amended, then wheelbarrowed 2-3 timesd as much soil back in as a raised + sunken bed. So the root zone is partly below grade and mostly above.
Now I scratch down just 2-4 inches, screen out some rocks, amend that junk a little, and bring back another 8-12" of amended clay. (I do sc ratch that in a little just so that the boundary between the loayers is gradual, so that water will wick up and down OK.
But I can never add enoguh compost! What I do add gets "eaten" very quickly and I always have to add more.
I live in a manufactured home park where the first thing they did was to bulldoze off ALL the topsoil and subsoil, until they had a hard layer remaining.
Oh, it's interesting to read that the clover was a pain to til under. I don't have a rototiller. I definitely need something that's easy to work with at the beginning of the planting season. It's rainy and cold here until after May (and I intensely dislike being out in the rain and cold), so any garden work would ideally be fairly quick and easy at that point. Looks like I need something winter killable, for sure.
I would probably use a shovel (that and a pair of loppers is all I used to dig up the bamboo. I'm kinda handy with a shovel. haha!)
Ok, so clover may be out for my annual garden, then. Which is a bummer, because I got my heart set on it. I may go ahead and get it for the former-bamboo areas that I need to keep weed free until I decide that I need another garden. And possibly for the edges of the garden, to keep the darn creeping buttercup out. At least if the clover sneaks onto the garden, it won't hurt it much. I also read that it's fairly easy to remove a few by hand?
Yeah, clover is as easy to weed out as your average weed, not something creeping or invasive like quackgrass, so it'll probably serve you well in the ex-bamboo area. And yes, sounds like you're making the right decision for your annual garden since you don't have a tiller. Buckwheat is probably a good choice for you, then.
I feel like I made clover sound like a sort of cure-all, and I still think it's great (the soil it's been in looks awfully good for one thing), but tilling it did give me a good reminder that nothing is perfect. Turns out it's still pretty tough going even when it's dry (although my tiller does get the job done.) As my husband says, "There's always somethin'." Maybe I need a 4-foot tiller like you, eweed. Though I'm only doing a quarter-acre.
RickCorey, WOW, your clay sounds bad and now I understand why. You basically don't even have soil! Darn builders, they always do something. (My parents bought a house and started to garden, and it turned out the builders had left all their junk lying in the yard--nails, beer cans, a chunk of old linoleum--and dumped topsoil on top of it.) I wonder why they scraped your place like that--whether it was for a hard foundation for the homes. And whether they then sold off the topsoil.
buckwheat is always my choice and I usually use the Australian type. It winter kills so you need to plant it in July or Aug so it can get some growth before it gets frosted on. I under sow it in my corn when it is knee high. The corn is to big for the buckwheat to bother.
Yup! If I had sandy subsoil, I could use that to help keep the clay friable. I don't call it soil until it's been mixed with at least an equal amount of amnedments. I WISH I could mix 1/3 each clay, compost, and then gritty stuff (crushed stone, screened bark).
>> nails, beer cans, a chunk of old linoleum
In my case, a few plops of concrete chunks.
>> whether it was for a hard foundation for the homes.
That's probably 80% of the reason. There's a lot of slope, and here's this clay stratum, hard as rock.
>> And whether they then sold off the topsoil.
I bet $20 bucks they did that, too!
Once I bought 3-4 yards of (fairly heavy clay) soil from a "dirt yard", and they came by the next day to collect. My SO knew what it was, but pretneded to be surprised while I worte tham a check. "You paid $120 for DIRT??!!!???" She did it to give them a chuckle as they drove back to work: "That poor guy, trying to defend buying soil!"