Saturday, February 14, 2015

Don’t till; mulch and plant in it

 Late spring, tomato planted in leaves with rocks for warmth; pepper foreground, planted in leaves, compost and 4 x 8 top mulch with rocks for more warmth and predator shelter; 4 x 8 path between 

This is the season when people start thinking about tilling their vegetable garden areas, but it is too wet to work the soil.  It’s a good time to start building mulch beds that you can immediately plant seeds and starts in.  You can do this anywhere you grow other plants as well; vegetables don’t need to grow in their own mini-farm in your yard; they just need good sun.  They can be worked into your landscape.
          Another good reason to mulch rather than tilling in compost is that tilling brings weed seeds to the surface where they can grow; kills many earthworms and soil predators; and mixes air into the soil that decomposes organic matter faster, causing nutrient loss from leaching and evaporation.  Letting worms work in nutritious mulch captures its nutrients in worm castings that release nutrients slowly and have lighter, better texture than uneaten soil, while coarse top mulch provides a home for predators like ground beetles, centipedes, and soldier beetles while protecting soil.

Fall: a compost pile of layered leaves and garden plants, about 2 feet high, built for growing watermelons, a small yellow Red Hot Poker on one side, a large growing area behind, about 8" deep in leaves.

 February: the pile has settled about 6 inches.

February: compost is added to speed decomposition.  The compost will be covered with 4 x 8 sand before planting the watermelons, with large rocks in the center to plant the seeds around.  Naked leaves will keep weed seeds from landing and sprouting around the watermelons.

        You can build beds with leaves, mainly available in the fall, a foot of which will grow huge vegetables.  For winter vegetables and small seeds, you can put an inch of compost on top, covered with an inch of coarse mulch like pine needles or shredded or nugget.  Scatter small seeds on the surface and plant starts and large seeds into the leaves.  Compost keeps the leaves wet and provides nutrients to help them rot faster; coarse mulch keeps it from drying out.  You can plant summer starts and large seeds into leaves alone for best weed control, as dry surface leaves make a poor seed bed for weeds.  This is just one reason why leaves make the best mulch for maintenance.

A potato popping up in February

          Leaves being not so available in spring, you can build beds with straight compost.  Six inches is equivalent to a foot of leaves and is ready to grow plants right away.  Two inches is good for ornamental shrubs and flowers.  This compost also needs to be protected from sun by coarse mulch, which is also needed for shelter by predators that keep pests under control.
          Paths also have to be mulched, to keep weeds from growing.  Like the beds, weeds have to be pulled when they grow anyways.  2 inches of coarse mulch like wood chips, chipped trimmings, or coarse bark can keep weeds down for a year and has to be renewed yearly.  An inch of 4 x 8 sand, river sand sifted to 1/4-1/8 inch, can be weeded with a hula hoe (AKA stirrup  hoe or scuffle hoe) when the weeds are small, and the weeds raked up, saving bending for each weed.  It is cleaner than organic mulch paths, easily blowing clean, while raking sifts dirt to below the sand.  It's also good for mulching over compost, heating the soil for fast growth.
          Beds made of leaves or mulch will spread into the paths from feet and birds and squirrels seeking food unless they are edged with something solid.  Cobble rock about 6 inches high, can be laid in curving lines for beauty and smooth lines of travel, end to end.  Brick can be used, but is more exacting to lay.  Wood lends itself only to straight lines and eventually falls apart.

February 2015 issue, online at and at the Mail Center, 305 NE 6th
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Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener          541-955-9040