5. Ruth Stout`s method in the UK- observations through summer 2021
It`s been a year now since I have started Ruth Stout`s deep mulching method in the UK, and I can say, based on this short experience, that I am very happy with the results. If you have read my previous posts, then you remember that I struggled with weeds control, due to my busy life and have decided to start mulching again. I have done this method before but in a different and dry climate. Before starting here in the UK, I asked a lot of people their opinions, but all of them told me not to do it because of slugs. Without any disrespect, no one of them tried the method, so I simply couldn`t take the advice. I thought if each slug can lay let`s say 20 eggs, why should be able to lay more because of the presence of mulch? Annoyed and anxious about my untidy allotment, I ordered 20 bales of straw, and clearly stated that I am ready to fail with this attempt.
In November 2020, I applied some manure on top of the soil and covered the plot with a thick layer of loose straw (approx. 14 inches). Over the winter, the mulch got compact and ready for the new season.
Observations about weeds
The next year, the mulch has reduced at least 80% of the weeds. There are a few species that will protrude through the mulch, but they can simply be pulled out and left on top of the mulch to dry out. Those are Couch grass, Bindweed, Silverweed, Dock, Blackberries, Horsetail. These weeds are easy to pull out, as the soil below the mulch is always humid. It never cracks, as it never dries out. The rest of the plot was weeds-free, as the layer was thick enough. I have seen a few weeds growing around the main cultures (courgettes), as that small local area is not under the mulch. But, based on the fact that at least 80% of the weeds were successfully managed, those few didn`t bother me at all.
I was obviously very anxious about the slugs, as everyone was against this method. But, experience in the first year, shows different and encouraging results. We had slugs in the first year of mulching, but not more than without mulch. In my opinion, the mulch works well with slugs because, during warm weather, the mulch is dry and sharp, which makes the surface inadequate for them to travel. Also, as they have a good shelter to hide during the day, it is possible to simply lift the mulch at any time, and collect them. Without mulch, they dig into the soil, and collecting them before the night is not possible. Also, I have noticed that certain species are grouping under the mulch, are they social beings? You can also easily install the beer traps, but don`t forget to put a wooden stick in so the insects can get out.
Unfortunately, this method is not suitable for using nematodes, which I found very helpful in slug management. If we take the nematodes out of the equation (the simplest method that I have tried, but can be pricy), overall slugs management throughout the year should consist of simply picking them up whenever you are in the garden. Eggs are easy to find below the mulch as well, and they shouldn`t be mistaken with earthworms’ eggs. I have also noticed that slugs adore dogs’ dry food, which is an excellent attractant. Simply put a few heaps of dry biscuits around the plot, and collect the slugs before you go home.
Mulch provides a great shelter for the small wildlife, so I have seen beetles, centipedes, crustaceans, spiders, and a lot of earthworms breaking down the mulch. All those small animals were attracted by the humidity, shelter, and continuous food supply- prey. People say this method might attract mice and rats, but I haven`t seen any on my plot.
Planting in mulch
The most common question is how vegetables can grow if weeds can`t? Well, we ensure good conditions for the vegetables and remove the mulch locally. I usually use manure locally, putting it below the roots when planting. This way, I need less manure than if I was spreading it over the plot, and each plant gets more, by simply growing its roots in the well-rotted manure. So, when planting young plants, simply remove the mulch locally and plant the seedlings. Then, put the mulch back, but leave a few inches of air between the mulch and stems. This is to prevent direct contact with humidity, slugs, and potential pathogens. If you are planting very small plants, I`d recommend you remove mulch from that area, and put it back then plants grow bigger.
If you have high cultures such as raspberries or runner beans, simply add more mulch and forget weeding and watering through the year. If the soil is not wet enough before you apply thick mulch, add some water beforehand.
Planting seeds in rows- simply remove the mulch from the row, ensure extra space between the planting area and mulch, as the wind can scatter the mulch back into the trenches. A classical example is French beans which I always plant in rows. Move the mulch, and bring it back closer to plants when they are big and strong enough.
Materials used for mulch
I use any materials that will decompose, except cardboard (it contains glue and printing paint) and materials contaminated with chemicals (this is difficult to control, as for some materials I don`t know what they have been through). Predominantly, I use straw bales, and I tend to find bales that local farmers can`t use (anything moldy, wet, dirty, or old will be great as mulch). Also, I add leaves, woodturning shavings (your local turners will be happy to get rid of shavings), branches, woodchip, any green waste from the allotment. I am looking to buy a second-hand garden shredder, so I can take the green waste from my neighbors and use it as a free mulch too.
You can use plastic sheets as well, but then you lack all the benefits mentioned above, and the black plastic doesn`t look as nice.
Problems I faced in 2020
The first one that pops into my mind is that I didn`t have enough mulch. 20 bales on 5 perches were just enough, but another 7, 8 would do a job perfectly fine. I have noticed that mulch was getting thin through the season, and some weeds were protruding quicker than they should have.
Another problem is mulch supply. This is the time of the year when I am looking for another 30 old bales, and I think that continuous supply throughout the year would take this stress away. I can simply buy new bales, but that`s expensive and they should rather be used as food for animals.
I haven`t noticed any problems with slugs, rats, weeds, the plot being over wet, or soil too cold. The mulch did a really good job, and I think the photos can evident that.