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Vegetable garden mulch experiments

Straw mulchOne of our goals for 2010 was constant mulch cover in the vegetable garden.  We didn't get there, mostly because I got so caught up in weeding in the middle of the summer that I forgot I could have been spending half that time mulching and getting the same results.  But we did try out a lot of different mulching materials, discovering in the process which ones work well for our garden.

The easiest and best-suited mulch (in terms of C:N ratio and water infiltration) for the vegetable garden is straw, but straw costs an arm and a leg in our non-grain-growing region.  I have high hopes that we will eventually be growing our own straw as part of our grain experiments, but in the meantime, I wanted to see which free mulches would work in its place.

Cardboard mulchCardboard showed a lot of promise early in the season, but ended up keeping the soil too dry.  In the early summer, soil was wetter under the cardboard mulch than in unmulched areas, but I suspect that was due to the cardboard preventing evaporation of water that was already in the soil.  Even though I punched holes in the cardboard to promote infiltration of rainwater, the cardboard-mulched beds started drying out by mid-summer.  In the fall, it was clear that the cardboard-mulched beds were bone dry, and even our dry-soil-loving peppers started to wilt near the end of the year.  Cardboard seems to be more useful as part of sheet mulches to delete weeds from new garden areas or from around woody perennials, and I don't think I'll be using it in the vegetable garden again.

Paper mulchPaper was even less promising.  If we subscribed to the newspaper, we probably would have had better luck, but the junk mail I mulched with had too high of a percentage of colored dyes and glossiness, and the plants around the paper mulch mostly died.  I'd be curious to see if running the paper through a shredder first would make it a slightly better mulch by adding fluffiness and air pockets, but we'll probably use up our junk mail in the worm bin and perhaps with mushrooms in the future.

We used tree leaves as a winter mulch on most of the garden last year, but they were a bit too high in carbon to be optimal for the vegetable garden.  This winter, we're using tree Elderberry leaves as mulchleaves as bedding in the chicken coop, where they mix with manure and (I hope) will turn into a perfect mulch by spring.

Green leaves --- like grass clippings, elderberry leaves, and comfrey leaves --- are well suited to being used directly on the vegetable garden as mulch, but each has flaws as well.  Elderberry and comfrey leaves work great, but it feels like the juice isn't worth the squeeze unless I can find a quicker way of harvesting them, and grass clippings are really only suitable in the spring before the plants start to go to seed.  I think that this year, I'm only going to have Mark bag grass clippings for the first month or two, then let the grass grow up in out of the way parts of the yard in late summer to use as hay for the chickens.

Wood chip mulchThe final mulch possibility is wood chips.  Well aged wood chips make the best mulch for our woody plants, full of beneficial fungi and other soil microorganisms.  I suspect that wood chip mulch that has been well worked over by the chickens and looks like it's halfway on its path to becoming stump dirt would also make a perfect mulch for the vegetable garden since chicken manure would keep this mulch from locking up nitrogen in the soil.  Unfortunately, I rarely have enough really good (aka homemade) wood chip mulch for the trees and berries, let alone for the vegetable garden.

In 2011, we'll probably continue to buy quite a bit of straw for the garden, but we'll supplement it in the spring with grass clippings and with the deep bedding from the chicken coop.  In the long run, someday I'd like to be making enough compost (from cafeteria food scraps?) and wood chip mulch to keep the garden happy with entirely homemade mulches.

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This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Are you far enough south to grow sugar cane or rice? Some of the permaculture sites I visit swear by cane mulch and rice straw.

Some years back Hershey was giving away cocoa bean husks for mulch. Now, it's at a dear price.

With your wet area have you considered saw grass? It grows fairly fast and tall, and you can use it as fuel(with a still of course). There are several "crops" you could run through a still and use the mash as bio-mass and as I understand it, it tends to be good for keeping away unwanted pests from the next crop. As a benefit you get fuel for engines or heat too.

Just what you need, more food for thought. Thought, thought he thought a lot, but then he thought about it, and thought he ought to continue with his current train of thought.

vester

Comment by vester Tue Jan 4 16:49:06 2011
Growing up our neighbor always had a chipper, which he sent leaves and branches through, combined with all the compost he dumped in the leaves degraded to wonderful dirt really fast. It might be worth your while to get a chipper at some point to grind up leaves and branches, if you want more mulch. I wonder if you sent cardboard through if it would fix the problems you currently have with cardboard.
Comment by Rebecca Tue Jan 4 18:23:24 2011

Vester --- nope. Here in zone 6, we can't grow either of those, although we could grow sorghum for molasses. Unfortunately, the main cash crops in our area (corn, cows, tobacco) don't make useful byproducts

We have considered putting the wet, low part of the powerline cut to use growing some sort of mulch for us (although I was considering comfrey), but we get bogged down in the fact that doing that would require a tractor, bushhog, etc., and for that price, we could just buy straw every year for the rest of our lives. :-)

Rebecca --- Last year at this time, I was positive a chipper was going to be the golden bullet that solved the mulch problem. Then we rented a medium-sized industrial strength one with a friend and discovered just how little chipping happens per unit work and time. Since we wouldn't be able to afford anything nearly as big as the one we rented, I was forced to conclude that chipping our own wood wasn't going to be the solution.

On the other hand, we're working on becoming better buddies with the electric company tree chippers --- we already got two big piles of fresh chips and hope that more will be on the way...

Comment by anna Tue Jan 4 19:16:32 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime