When I first started to garden professionally, many many years ago, 🙂 I became obsessed with the perfectly clean, weed free, garden bed, edged in neatly trimmed boxwood hedges or framed with lovely planks of raw wood. All arranged in a very neat geometric pattern, with connecting pathways made out of traditional materials and all very formal.
Wow! Absolutely gorgeous to behold for that one moment when everything is done and there’s not a weed in sight.
But… what a lot of work!
When I look back on what I was able to accomplish given this penchant for achieving perfection, I have amazed many but none as much as myself. However, as the toll of all that labour over the years has taken its effect on my poor, ageing and abused body. I have found myself not visualizing the perfectly formed, symmetrical garden anymore, but rather thinking on how much bounty can I achieve without breaking my back and being bed ridden for weeks in recovery from too many hours spent bent in the same position while performing that never ending chore of weeding. As a result, I have taken more and more interest in the various forms of mulching, that perfect garden cover that provides heat and frost protection, significantly reduces or eliminates the need to weed, minimizes watering and conditions the soil, all at the same time!
Ruth Stout is renowned for gardening into her 90’s, due to her ability to develop a garden with such rich, loose soil that she no longer tilled or weeded or did anything much other than shuffle over a bit of mulch, throw in a few seeds and let nature take it’s course. Ruth used a permanent mulch on the surface of the garden to maintain an on going composting process and in this way fed her garden soil while minimizing the weeds. Any weeds that did occasionally dare to show themselves, would get pulled and added to the decaying matter before it could set seeds. In this way, Ruth was getting an abundant harvest from minimal work. I would say she was definitely using her brains instead of her back. And since my back isn’t so great anymore, I have joined Ruth in her philosophy of less work with more results through the use of mulching.
However, I still plant my crops in loose rows and have a semblance of order in the garden. For example, my potatoes … first I clear the soil of any sizable weed remnants that may have occurred in the off season, then I lay a strip of 4 ft. wide black landscape fabric down over the soil, weighing the edges of the fabric down with some rocks that are laying around the pathways. The fabric, with holes cross cut about a foot apart down the center of it’s length, is porous, allowing water to go through to the soil but preventing light to penetrate. Also I can use it repeatedly for many seasons, so a worthwhile investment in my opinion. Then I place a seed potatoe in each of the holes and walk away. If I use 2 or more strips of fabric side by side I can plant along the edges where the two pieces meet as well.
Once the potatoe sprouts have started to poke through the holes, I mulch the surface of the fabric with hay or some other loose organic material, such as; straw, leaves, or canary grass. I do this so the black fabric doesn’t cook the potatoes if there is a really hot, sunny spell and because the combination of both mulches, fabric and hay, almost eliminates the need to water. I rarely use actual compost on the fabric surface, as I find the potatoes will grow too many leaves and only produce small potatoes due to the overabundance of nutrition from too much good compost.
When the potatoes start to die back I just lift the fabric, mulch and all, off the garden bed and pick the potatoes up that are laying on the ground underneath. I generally get about 200lbs of potatoes from 20 lbs of seed that way and never use a shovel or water or weed. Once I’m done picking up all those lovely potatoes, I flip the fabric, mulch and all right back onto the bed and leave it there until I’m ready to plant something again. Every time I do this, I have less and less weeds to contend with. If it is nearing winter time or the bed is expected to rest for an extended period of time without being planted , then I will pull the fabric out from under all that mulch, leaving the organic materials behind, in order to put the fabric away from the prolonged exposure to harsher weather elements and in this way prolong it’s life span. I’ve used the same fabric for 10 years so far.
This same method works really well for tomatoes, all the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, etc.), pumpkins and any of the summer or winter squashes. I usually just use a hay mulch around my beets, carrots and beans, after they have sprouted, although the timing is important because if I wait too long then the weeds will sprout too and I’ll be back to weeding again before I can mulch.
I haven’t become quite as smart as Ruth, in that I still have not achieved a completely permanent mulch system but I’m working toward that.
Hmm… to get started you need about 8 inches of organic material such as old hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, seedless weeds or any vegetable matter that rots, covering the existing soil surface. An equal amount of those same materials should be readily available to add to the garden regularly to keep the process going. Scatter a bit of green sand, now and then, along with maybe some other organic amendments, like crushed egg or oyster shells, kelp, or some compost made from kitchen scraps and if you can get it, composted animal manure and you’re on the way to a rich, loose soil base for your entire garden.
By the way, there are lots of references to Ruth Stout’s method of No Work Gardening techniques online. Well worth a Google.