6. Preparing the soil for deep mulching
Encouraged by so many questions that I have received about Ruth Stout`s straw deep mulching method that I am practicing here in the UK, I have decided to use this rainy day and to write about one of the most common questions that I keep hearing: how to prepare the soil before covering it with a thick layer of mulch?
If you have read my previous blog posts, you might remember that I was close to giving up from my allotment last year. I took the plot 2 years ago, and the first year was a battle against the weeds, some rubbish on the plot, and lockdowns. Having a busy life, I just couldn`t dedicate enough time to the plot, so the weeds took over. They grew wild, and have overgrown my vegetables and flowers. Being a perfectionist, I dreamt about a nice and maintained allotment, but I was so far away from it. Then, as the year progressed by, I started feeling anxious, as I was literally losing the battle. Before making any stupid decisions (terminating the tenant contract), I decided to try straw deep mulching in this climate, despite everyone telling me not to (because of slugs). Whoever I spoke to, advised me against the idea, but no one has tried it. So, filled with excitement and previous mulching experiences, I bought 20 bales of straw and covered the whole plot, being ready to fail with the attempt.
My allotment consists of 3 beds, with 2 main paths in between. The landscape is definitely something I want to change in the future, but I`m not sure how to design it yet. I know that I want a wavey path through the plot, leading you through a few different zones, and providing you a unique experience of a small journey or even a pilgrim through the garden. But this idea is still fermenting in my head, and I will write about it when the time is right.
One of those beds was particularly overgrown, not just that the weeds were everywhere, but the whole soil got covered in dense grass, and my courgettes just didn`t have a chance. This part of the plot became a meadow.
One of the biggest aims of this method is to REDUCE the amount of work. So, in order to avoid weeding, I flipped the whole bed with the forks, for 180 degrees and left the weeds/roots upside down. This can be considered as a green mulch dug into the soil.
The next step was to spread 2 heaps of manure that I had bought from the local farmer. Well-rotted horse, and semi-fresh cow manure. As this was happening in November, I scattered the manure across the plot, and haven`t worried about semi-fresh cow`s load at all. The winter ahead was long, so the manure had enough time to decompose. After spreading all the manure, my friend and I started covering the plot with straw. The layer of scattered mulch was 30-40 cm (over 1 foot) thick, knowing that the winter will compress it to a few inches only. We took the bale apart and simply scattered the straw around, making sure that all the soil is well covered. And this is the key of the method. The mulch must be thick, otherwise, the weeds will protrude and the method will not give its best.
The next big question that I am asked is whether the hay is better, as the straw contains seeds. If the layer is thick enough, I guarantee that the seeds will not germinate. The seeds in the lower part of the mulch have enough humidity to geminate, but not enough light. All the energy stored in the seed will be used before the young plant gets to the light and starts producing glucose through photosynthesis. If the layer is not thick enough, the seeds will grow through the mulch, and you’ll get disappointed with the method. The seed on top of mulch have light but not the humidity needed to activate the seeds, and these won’t germinate either. Also, the roots of these seeds on top can`t grow in airy mulch. The root needs soil (humidity and nutrients).
How can we grow vegetables then? Simply, by adjusting the factors for the plants to grow. If you are sowing the seeds, simply move the mulch from that area. If planting an established plant, move the mulch locally, add some manure below the root, and plant the seedling.
This is the term that I use for using/applying the manure after the garden is covered with mulch. In theory, once when you scatter the manure across the plot, before covering it with the biomaterials, that should be the last time for such an act. Once the garden is mulched, we switch to local fertilizing which means that we add manure locally, below the roots of each plant. Simply move the mulch 1 foot apart, dig a hole, put some manure (this one has to be well rotten), cover it with a thin layer of soil (so the young roots are not in direct contact with manure), and plant the plant. Then put the mulch back, but don`t compress the young plant with it, leave a few inches around the stem (to prevent fungal infections, etc). Local fertilizing has a few benefits: we need less manure, we save money, no hard labor by spreading it around, and each plant actually gets more nutrients having the food below the roots.
People also ask questions about nitrogen. Researching online, you`ll find different information about nitrogen in straw mulch. By adding the manure locally and feeding the plants with liquid comfrey fertilizer, we ensure enough nitrogen for healthy growth and pathogens resilience. I use Bocking 14, Russian comfrey, which doesn`t seed around and it`s richer with chemical elements. You can get it online, and now is a good time to plant the roots.
So, whatever the state of your soil is and if you are thinking about trying this method, I`d recommend finding the way to reduce the amount of work, not multiply it. If the area is overgrown, simply flip the soil over. Make sure that you take the invasive weeds species out. More about this can be found in my previous posts. If you have a big area and struggle to get the mulch, start on a small scale. It is important to use a thick layer of mulch, otherwise, the method will not work properly, you will waste all that time to get to this stage and in the end, you won`t be happy with it.
Let`s not forget that mulching is not a science, it is just copying what Nature is doing for the past 4 billion years. Every natural floral habitat is mulched, meadows, forest floors, etc.