The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Cutting oat cover crops for mulch

Mulching with fresh oats

One of my long-term goals is to make our mulching campaign more sustainable.  Buying in straw has really helped build our soil and make my weeding work easier, but it has Blooming oatscaused problems too.  First, there's the unique-to-us problem --- we can only haul in heavy materials a few days a year due to the muddiness of our driveway, so getting the straw back to our garden during wet times is difficult.  Then there are the more general problems --- price and the introduction of weed seeds (notably curly dock last year and the grains themselves this year).  All of those problems make me wonder if we wouldn't be better off growing the straw ourselves.

As a very basic experiment, I decided to try to mulch a bit more than we usually do with cover crops.  In the past, I've let the tops of cover crops break down on the beds I planted them into as a way of building soil, but when the oats I planted on August 1 began to bloom in mid-September, I had Mark cut them with the weedeater and then Kayla and I gathered the tops to mulch our strawberries.

Spreading oats

It took about six beds of oats to mulch one bed of strawberries, and even though we spread the leaves and stems pretty heavily, I'm not sure if that will be enough to suppress weeds once the oats dry down.  I also suspect that the C:N ratio of the oats will be relatively low at bloom stage (as opposed to post-fruiting, which is when straw is collected), so this oat mulch might not last as long as I'm accustomed to.  But it's worth a shot, especially since it's an ultra-easy way to start growing a bit more of our own mulch.  I'll keep you posted as the experimental bed goes into the winter, and as we try out cutting other cover crops for mulch.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I have grass which I cut frequently. I find that putting about 4 inches of chopped up mulched grass on my beds does a wonderful job of cutting down grassy weeds and whatnot, but it needs to be at least 4 inches. I think Ms. Stout who pioneered the idea of mulching stated that it should be 6 inches. Anyhow, I've tried hay (Bad idea! Weed seeds galore!), and pine straw (eh... not so great), and regular wheat straw (better) but I find that packing down chopped grass really kills any weeds underneath them. Of course you have to be careful not to put them down too early or they'll smother veggie seeds like carrots etc. They do allow potato, onion and garlic sprouts to come up through them, and then, of course, the grass rots into the ground adding organic material to the soil.
Comment by Nayan Thu Oct 2 14:43:59 2014
Residues of Picloram, Clopyralid or Aminopyralid in minute concentrations (1 ppb) can really screw up your garden and have a long long half-life. So it's really important to do due diligence and to trust your supplier. An excellent summary can be found at (click "herbicide residues" under "composting materials"), including a home-made bioassay method, and trade names. I'm going to try locally available composted sawdust/pig manure as an alternative, along with my own scythe-mown pasture grass, which is often seedy because I can't cut it fast enough to meet demand. Sigh.
Comment by Jackie Fri Oct 3 00:42:36 2014

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