1. What have I learned about deep hay mulching?
This is the very first post about mulching in the UK climate. I am sure that many have already tried this method here, but I haven’t met those to give me empiric advice, so I feel left without a choice but to start mulching again and see what happens. I took the allotment last year and 2021 was filled with plot anxiety as I had a lot of rubbish to get rid of and the weeds took control over. The plot did produce a nice amount of food and provided me a lot of nice moments, but it was far from what I dreamt it to be. But, as everything takes time in life, so does gardening…
I clearly remember that engineering subject held by the strict professor, which I appreciated a lot, as he knew how to make the best out of us. We were kids, probably around 15. At the time, I already had my organic garden, it was quite a big plot in Croatia, around 500m2 above the village. God, how many hours and days I have spent up there contemplating about life and Nature. I had a dream, to build a small wooden cabin and withdrawn myself, not to avoid society, but to dose it as when needed to me! The dreams melted like the snow, and the life took me miles away- to Cardiff. But the emotions are still here, the need to create a small and safe corner, to create, to support life and wildlife. And after all these years, I am still on the same path, just slightly smarter as I have learned how to – mulch!
One day, after the class, I asked the professor if he has any books about plants (he was a keen gardener) next time, he brought the book written by Ruth Stout “No dig garden”. I had to stand up when talking to him as a matter of respect, and he started “I don`t know if you will grow vegetables or flowers but this book…..” That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but today, 20 years (omg!!!) later, I`m like “do you even mulch”?
Hours of learning and contemplation thought me that mulching is copying what Nature already does. Great start to immerse yourself into permaculture- culture and live/think more sustainably. Deep mulching is nothing but allowing the universal laws to do what they do, can we imagine working closer with Nature? Take a look anywhere around you (natural areas) and you will notice that the soil is not bare and cracked, it`s mulched with a different local material.
That dream garden was too big for me, so one year, I ordered 100 bales of hay and covered part of the garden with a foot-thick layer of hay, by simply shaking the slices of the bale and spreading the biomaterial around. Next year, I reduced at least 80% of the weeds. The most consistent ones were hairy bittercress (edible) and common couch. If you want to get rid of the second one, the best is to mulch the area and keep digging it until the area is roots-free.
I have also noticed a big change in the soil humidity, my thirsty tomatoes asked for water maybe 2x per week, instead of labor-intensive daily watering.
The soil on the plot was heavy clay, which became nice humus after 4 years of mulching. The warm climate and heavy soil resulted in not having any slugs on the garden. But don`t worry, I paid my price with droughts, deers and wild boars…
In autumn 2021, I ordered 20 bales of hay and some cow manure which I have speeded across the plot. The beds where the courgettes were, was full of weeds, so to save time, I just flipped the soil over for 180 degrees, covered the bed with manure and a thick layer of mulch. This year, I have only a few weeds coming through, which are easy to pull out, as the soil is nice and moist.
This year, I do not have to worry about humidity, as the soil beneath the mulch is humid and absolutely full of wildlife. Yes, there are a few slugs, but nothing to worry about too much at the moment. We are having a dry period and I doubt that they like to crawl on the sharp and dry mulch.
This year, I hope is to be the year when I stopped digging, bringing manure, cultivating. This year is the year when I passed all the plastic sheets to my neighbors and got rid of pretty much everything from the plot, which almost looks like a moon surface if you employ your imagination and ignore the houses behind.
This year, I hope to get some experience with mulching in this climate, and this blog is my own personal online diary, which I am happy to share with you. I am not only presenting what I do, I am crying for encouragement and advice, as I must say, I am ready to fail, I this doesn`t work.
This year, I hope to meet more like-minded people and answer the questions that I might be able to answer.
This year, I expect to reduce the amount of work on the plot, and spend more time enjoying herbal teas (ok, homemade wine) and watch the drama called Life happen before my eyes.
This year, I embrace bio gardening, I haven1t got any plans for my garden, and am creating fito-mess by combining the veggies and flowers together.
This year, I am supporting wildlife and am providing more shelters to it.
This year, I will be begging my neighbors for their weeds- literally (unless treated with chemicals). Weeds with roots are absolutely fine, simply put them on top of the mulch and they will dry out.
The most common questions about the method are:
Why on earth did you order a truck of hay?
Because it represents my soul. The hay is sharp and dry like well-fermented wine. Yet gentle and it supports life.
What materials can I use to mulch?
If talking about bio gardening, then any that will decompose and enrich your soil. Straw, hay, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, cardboard ( I don`t use it because of the glue), neighbors weeds, grass offcuts, wood chip, kitchen waste, etc. All the “waste” materials from the plot in the autumn, simply lay them on the soil. You can eventually chop the long stems (sunflowers, corn…) to some shorter pieces and void composting- too much work for the same thing that the mulch will do for you anyway.
I would say, use as many diverse materials as possible- to enrich the soil with a different nutrient the best you can.
When can I expect the structure of the soil to change?
I noticed a huge difference after 3 or 4 years of mulching. Don`t forget that mulch is decomposing 365 days a year, 24/7. You will also see immediate results such as suppressing the weeds and reducing the number of things to be done.
If the weeds can`t grow, how plants can?
We introduce mulch to block the light so the seeds can`t grow. They will germinate, exhaust all the energy stored for germination, and die. They will penetrate through the mulch the layer is not thick enough though. When planting larger plants, move the mulch locally and plant the plant. If dealing with seeds or small seedlings, I recommend you to move the mulch from that area and bring it back when the plants are big enough.
Yes, the soil warms up slower. If you need warm soil for the particular culture, simply move the mulch x days before using the area.
What does the mulch do?
Suppresses the weeds, decomposes and enriches the soil, supports the wildlife, keeps the humidity, decreases the amount of work.
Do I have to add more mulch and when?
Yes, you will have to, as the existing mulch decomposes. Whenever you think the layer is not thick enough, you have protruding weeds, or the area below the mulch is dry.
When can I start mulching?
Yesterday. Or at least now. No need to wait for autumn at all.
Where do I get the mulch?
Ha! Can`t reveal all the secrets. Ask local farmers for any stray that they can`t use, or have used as bedding for animals. It doesn`t have to be new hay. Anything wet, molded, half-rotten is just ideal for your garden as it will decompose anyway. Try to avoid materials treated with chemicals if this concerns you. You can also simply buy the bales as I did last year. Or start collecting the materials around. You can also keep mulching locally around the particular plants and observe what happens.
Can I mulch with plastic sheets?
Technically yes, but you are lacking all the benefits mentioned above and it looks ugly (sorry but black sheets supported with old tires don`t look appealing at all to me).
Will I have to water?
Maybe, depends on the climate and the amount of sun/rain. Follow the feelings and experience that you already have, and remember, mulching is JUST copying what Nature already does.
What cultures can I mulch?
Most of them, I know that garlic doesn`t like mulch and some plants need to have space in between the stem and stray- to avoid fungal infections. Not sure which fruit, was it blackcurrant? I had raspberries, simply throw as much mulch as you can and pick them up when they are ready.
What about potatoes?
This one is amazing. Put the seeds in the mulch (they need to be in the humid environment), cover with more mulch, and watch the drama happen. Then the potatoes are ripe, just move the mulch and collect them. Seriously. I`ve done it and will do it again this year.
I hope that this post triggered some questions or thoughts. If it has, feel free to share those in the comments below.