If you’ve had rain just about every other day as we’ve this year and you’re new to TMG and/or have not yet read my book Organic Gardening, Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening – you might be thinking that mulching (covering the soil) isn’t necessary in rainy conditions.
But covering your soil is one of the 3 keys to successful gardening in any conditions. The benefits of mulching go far beyond holding moisture and keeping the soil from drying out.
Keeps Organic Matter in the Soil from Oxidizing
It prevents the organic matter in your soil from oxidizing (disappearing). In the process of decay it also adds more organic matter to the soil. And soil life loves that organic matter because it enables them to have a place to live, thrive, and help you to garden. They do that by supplying your plants with what they need to be healthy and produce bountifully.
Best Time to Mulch
If you’ve gardened any length of time you know that getting mulch on your flower borders and garden beds in the fall is THE best time to do it and will give you the best results the following spring. Not to mention the time it saves you in the spring by cutting down on those little spring weeds that pop up everywhere, especially in a flower border.
We all have difficulties from time to time that prevent us from doing what needs to be done in a timely matter. With Bill being sick, that was and is the case with me this season.
In spite of the fact that I never finished getting straw on the flower borders and over the leaves that I had spread on the garden beds, I’ve managed to keep the soil covered.
Weeds, Annuals, and Crop Residue to the Rescue
Using Weeds to My Advantage
#1 – I had sown some alfalfa along the edges of the beds on each side of of the entrance path to my garden to keep them from washing. It poured down rain after that and I haven’t seen the alfalfa since. I didn’t need to worry. A little shamrock like weed came up all along the edges of the two beds and the soil hasn’t washed at all.
Where the shamrock came up in other beds, I just let it grow until I needed the space. When I did pull it, I left it on the bed to serve as part of the soil covering.
#2 -Clumps of grass came up in various places – especially the paths. I figured their roots would be a great place for soil life so I left them until they got too big or got in the way. Once I pulled them up, I knocked the soil off and turned them upside down on the bed or in the path.
#3 – Nuisance weeds that get quickly out of hand (like morning glories and poke weed) and have no immediate value to me, I pull up and leave where they fall. That’s more covering for my soil, as well as good organic material not wasted.
Various annuals are allowed to reseed in my garden. When they come up in the spring I let them grow for while. Then I thin out the weak and leave the strongest ones to remain in places where they’ll be of benefit.
Opal basil and summer poinsettia make good biomass that I can cut and use as mulch. Sometimes I grow them as a free cover crop in a bed not being used.
Magentaspreen is another plant that reseeds in my garden. It can take up a lot of room if left to mature, so I usually keep only one per season. The others I pull when they’re about a foot tall. Their biomass makes more organic material to use as mulch in beds or paths. (By the way, Magentaspreen is a good back up for greens in the summer when nothing else is available.)
Even the autumn clematis (a perennial) the vine of which grows like crazy until it blooms in the fall, I continually cut back and toss the cuttings in a path or on a bed. It too eventually protects (covers) and feeds the soil like all the other organic material I cut and drop.
Using Crop Residue
Last fall/winter Crop of Mache
I had a bumper crop of mache (one of the most delicious salad greens you’ll ever grow) in my garden this winter. I tried to allow almost every plant to reseed, so hopefully I’ll have another bumper crop of mache to get me through the coming winter. (I have much better luck at allowing mache to reseed than when I sow seed purposefully in the fall or spring.)
It reseeded, growing enough during the process to cover the soil of one of the beds I used this winter and have still not covered with straw. Although the plants themselves have long since seeded and died, they left just enough biomass on the soil to keep soil life active and prevent oxidizing of the soil’s organic matter.
When peas and other cool weather crops finish up, I usually cut them off at ground level and leave the biomass on the soil. When I have time, I cover it with straw. If I’m really short on time, like this year, I don’t even cut the pea vines. I just cover them with straw and let the soil life do the rest.
When I go out to pick an onion, radish, and/or beet for dinner, I cut the roots off and the top and leave it where it drops or toss it in a path. The soil reclaims it quickly.
(And by the way, I’ve always read that you’re not suppose to return any onion residue to the garden because of various disease concerns. But my garden is healthy and I’ve been doing that for almost 40 years. If your garden is not healthy, then don’t leave the onion residue in the garden.)
Plants that Are Finished
The best of the lettuce plants from last fall are going to seed. The ones I don’t want for seed, I just cut off at ground level and leave the plant in the path. (As I mentioned previously, nature reclaims it very quickly. But if you prefer not to have it not show for a few days, just cover it with straw.)
Keep the principle of covering the soil in mind, because it’s an important key to your success. But feel free to think outside the box, remembering that there is always more than one way to accomplish a goal.
Mulch – To Use it or Not – Points to Consider
Want to Garden Succesfully? Look to Nature
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This is a great post! It reinforces my habit of leaving weeds on the ground as I pull them. I have also heard this message preached recently in some youtube videos of Paul Gautschi (Back to Eden). Whenever he is asked why such and such is doing so well in his garden, his answer is “it’s the covering, it’s the covering”! He is best known for encouraging the use of chipped trees, but he actually states that any covering is better than no covering at all. And as you have told us, Theresa, if we don’t cover the soil, nature will – and often the covering is weeds. You are fortunate that you have desired volunteers doing the covering in some sectors of your garden. That attests to the fact that you have faithfully covered and NOT TILLED for many years.
I have to share a sad little story. My husband decided he had the time and energy to till the garden this year. I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I let him run with it. OF COURSE, we ended up with grass coming up everywhere. I had to very quickly decide what cover crop to put down after he tilled the weeds in. Thank goodness, I had a decent supply of buckwheat and clovers. Now my mission is to work diligently to establish permanent beds all through the garden before he decides he wants to till again. And in the meantime, I will now and then remind him (again) of the damage done by tilling. Maybe he will “get” it – hopefully this year!
Thank you, Theresa, for shining the light!
Thanks for the reminder & your solution to a less than perfect situation. I used pine needles to cover the corn, beans & flowers I planted today.
I picked almost a pint of raspberries, but none made it to the house. I ate them as fast as I picked them!
I have a new problem I discovered while picking the raspberries. Two Japanese Beetles were happily munching on my raspberry leaves! I managed to kill one, but the other flew away before I could get him.
I found damage on other raspberry plants, also. I’m trying to figure out the best way to get rid of this problem.
They were planted in the very first bed that I made after finding your Blog & learning how. The plants were so beautiful & really putting out the raspberries.
Betty, the Japanese Beetles are on EVERY THING this year. Roses, asparagus, blueberries, raspberries, and everything else.
I have no solution other than to kill the ones I can and wait for a better year. (I’ve never seen them this bad and it probably has to do with the rain this year.)
They make stuff look awful and ruin some of the fruit, but that’s about it.
Sorry I don’t have any new suggestions that would get rid of them.
I guess I’ll just knock them off of the plants into a bucket of soapy water when I can find them, & wait for them to leave.
Good plan, Betty.
Theresa, I wonder if the shamrock-like weed you mentioned that came up where your alfalfa was is a plant called wood sorrel. That’s a wild edible with a nice lemony taste, and it makes its way into our garden beds every year. I usually grab a couple of leaves to taste but pull up the rest (pulls cleanly out of loose soil very easily) and leave it to decomposed around the base of the plants I’m cultivating, but I suppose it could make a useful ground cover, since it does not seem to rob too much of the nutrients from other plants.
Gabe, I think the little yellow shamrock weed is also called yellow oxalis. I found a picture here: http://forums.gardenweb.com/discussions/1952207/shamrock-or-weed (Scroll to the 4th comment to see the picture.)
I also found that Wood Sorrel can go by the name of Wild Shamrock and Oxalis violate.
So yes, perhaps it is the same.
Thanks for bringing this up Gabe. Interesting.
Gabe, I tasted it when I was in the garden tonight and it’s lemony just like sorrel. So I guess it’s one and the same.
After waiting for 4 years, I finally got an allotment. My own garden!. I am beyond thrilled.
But the person who had the garden before me also had the adjoining three plots. I don’t think the garden has been used for about 2-3 years. The weed growth was CRAZY. Unfortunately it went to seed.
I have weeded the area, 200 sq. feet. I don’t know if I should have it tilled, or just turn the soil myself, and then what to add. There are earthworms which I saw when weeding. The garden association has manure and compost for free.
Is there a calculation or anything to give an idea of how much to add of each?
Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
Susan, I sent you a few emails with questions. Once you reply to those, I can better help you.
So exciting that you finally got your garden!