When you think of a vegetable garden, what do you think of? Beautiful long rows of vegetables with dark glossy soil in between? That is the classic vegetable garden:
However that style of garden–while it might be beautiful to look at (or at least I think it is) it does have some issues. See all that soil? That’s a lot of surface area being exposed to the air–which means that when you’ve got damp soil and dry air there is a huge surface for the air to suck the moisture out of. And it isn’t only your veggies that love that soil-the weeds love it too and will grow prolifically if you don’t keep right on top of them.
There have traditionally been some ways to deal with these issues:
1. Frequent watering will keep your plants happy and the moisture up in your soil. Most vegetable gardens should get about an inch a week–and since mother nature is rarely perfectly obliging and sometimes downright mean (over half the counties in the US are currently effected by drought) that usually means watering with a sprinkler. That is assuming that you are not under any water restrictions and that a faucet and hose are a resource you have close by-some community gardens or gardens in remote locations do not. Watering regularly can get expensive, and it can be time consuming. Of course it isn’t perfect either-if you water “shallowly” (just quickly wetting the surface of the soil) the water may evaporate before having a chance to soak down into the soil and reach the roots. The plant may compensate over time by sending out a lot of shallow roots to try to soak up that water-but then the roots will be in an area that is constantly being stressed by getting slightly wet and then drying out. Not the best for the plant. Oh, and the watering will also water any weeds that are popping up, making THEM grow as well.
2. You could increase the moisture available to each plant by spacing them farther apart. More space without a competing plant means more soil around to draw moisture from. Of course many of us are limited in gardening space and trying to fit as many productive plants as we can into the space we have available-so spacing things FURTHER apart really isn’t what we are looking for. And more space between plants would also mean more areas for weeds to grow in.
3. You could plant your vegetables in a shallow depression or hole-that way when it rains or you water the hole would catch the water and keep it from running away-giving it more time to soak in down around the roots. This is a great method that I use every year on my tomatoes, peppers and such–but still depends on adequate rain or additional watering (see number 1 above)
4. To deal with weeds you need to disturb them so that they do not grow. You can do this by pulling them by hand which is very time consuming and hard work. You can use a sharp hoe, dragging it just below the soil to cut weeds off from their roots–which really only works if the weeds are small (less than 2 inches) and truly sharp (and they don’t SELL sharp hoes-you need to figure out a way to sharpen it). You can space the rows far enough apart so that you can run a tiller between the rows-which uses gas, disturbs the nature soil layers, uses up a lot more room and will still require hand weeding near the plants themselves.
Never fear-the solution to all these problems can be to apply a nice thick mulch!
So what is mulch? According to Dictionary.com:
a covering, as of straw, compost, or plastic sheeting, spread on the ground around plants to prevent excessive evaporation or erosion, enrich the soil, inhibit weed growth, etc.
Since I mulched my gardens this year I have had very few weeds-just around the edges where the mulch tapers off and the plants begin. This has saved me TONS of time and effort. Applying the mulch of course was a bit of a chore, but it has made my vegetable gardens practically work free.
Mulching my garden keeps me from having to water much at all. When I pull back the mulch I can see that there is moisture in the soil-even if its been days since we had any rain.
I can also see worms squiggle away, lots of worm casings and even a toad with it’s eggs hiding underneath. That’s healthy, happy soil folks!
I must admit, as wonderful as mulch is, it does have some of it’s own issues and concerns:
1. Mulch can slow the soil from warming in the spring. This can be a big issue in the North where we have a sort growing season and are trying to get the soil to dry out and warm up so that we can even think about planting. I think that next year I’ll have to pull back the mulch in the rows where I am going to plant early and let the soil under it warm up for my “plant as soon as the ground can be worked” type plants.
2. Mulch is very expensive if purchased by the bag, and it can take a bit of work to find free mulch if you live in a more suburban or urban area. However it is available-you just have to get a little creative sometimes.
3. You need to have a pretty good idea of what is in your mulch to make sure you aren’t introducing weed seeds or unintended pesticides into your garden. Hay can have a lot of weed seeds (I’m taking my chances) but straw does not. Free wood chips could contain walnut-which actually has a chemical that prevents other plants from growing. It’s not insurmountable, you just need to be conscious of it.
4. Depending on the type of mulch you might have issues adding a “row” type planting after it has been laid down. It’s easy to move the hay aside and put a seedling in–pulling it apart to make a “row” took a little more effort because the hay is all intertwined with itself. The wood chips were easier-just push aside.
4. Some types of mulch can prevent water from entering the soil. Plastic of course is non permeable, but even things like leaves can mat down and keep water from getting through. (note-shredded leaves let water through-whole leaves sometimes do not).
Tune in on Tuesday for Mulching Your Garden Part 2-How to Mulch Your Garden where I will teach you about the different types of mulch materials and give you my tips and experiences with using some of them.
So. . . do any of you mulch your garden?
Linsey K says
Hi, Jenn! We have a drought here in Nebraska, and mulch is the ONLY way we would even have a garden right now. Thanks for telling how to do it right 🙂 People could more money from mulch than most anything else they do! Love this post.
Jenn @ Frugal Upstate says
Linsey-Glad to know that mulch has allowed your garden to survive! It took me several years to get around to mulching, but now I’m hooked. I think I’ve even got the hubster convinced that it looks nice 🙂 That was his big thing “I just don’t want it to look messy”.
susan L says
Question for y’all. We had a very wet spring and summer last year and it really adversely affected veggie gardens. This year is shaping up the same !!! We are getting 3-4 inches a week in North Georgia and my soil is wet. I have a nice thick layer of wheat straw over all my plants. The question: Since my soil meter says “wet” should I pull back the straw for a day or two while the sun shines and let the soil breathe a little and dry a little or is that no a good idea?????? Susan L
Jenn @ Frugal Upstate says
Sorry this is so late Susan–with end of school year and all your comment was buried. ONe of the things about mulch is it helps conserve water–if your problem is too much water then mulch can be contributing. I would say your suggestion of pulling back the mulch to dry out the soil (and let it warm in the spring) is good. If this is an ongoing problem you may want to consider using raised beds instead to let the areas you are planting in drain.