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

Disadvantages of mulch

At the moment, it looks like my eventual solution to the weeding problem will be to try to keep my beds under a near permanent mulch rather than spacing the plants far enough apart that they can be hoed.  But Solomon is very anti-mulch --- disturbing since he's been spot on about so many other things.  Maybe mulching isn't such a good idea after all?

Dead shrewSolomon lists half a dozen disadvantages of permanent mulching.  His biggest gripe is the "plague levels of small animals" that move into the mulch if you don't live in a cold enough climate.  I assume he's talking about moles and voles and shrews here, and I feel extraordinarily lucky that Lucy is a small animal killer and doesn't let any of these survive in our garden.

Solomon's other arguments against mulch don't carry as much weight with me.  He notes that if you use hay, you end up with a lot of weeds --- so don't use hay.  If your summers aren't hot enough or if your mulch is too woody, it won't rot into the bed before summer and will tangle with your hoe --- but you shouldn't need to hoe much if your bed is well mulched.  Mulched garden soil is slower to warm up in the spring than bare earth --- so rake the mulch off a few weeks before you need to plant your earliest crops.  He thinks that adding too much compost or mulch to your soil will result in soil nutrients out of balance, which will make your food less nutritious --- so use dynamic accumulators to reachieve that balance.
Grass clipping mulch
Proponents of mulch argue that the practice conserves water, but Solomon makes the legitimate point that most water lost from the soil comes out of plant leaves, not from bare soil.  He points out that mulching only keeps the soil surface moist and doesn't reduce overall moisture loss.  On the other hand, I would argue that mulching does prevent soil crusts from forming (something that Solomon considers a big problem in his garden) and allows more water to soak in rather than running off in clay soil.  I suspect that overall, mulch results in a net gain of moisture for the plants in our garden.

So far, our experiments with mulch over the last year have been highly successful, but I'll keep all of Solomon's arguments in mind and will be willing to give up on mulching if I start to see major disadvantages.

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This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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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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So far mulch has done quite well for me. I haven't seen any disadvantages to it in my experience.
Comment by Coupon Codes Wed May 5 21:34:47 2010
I'm a proponent of mulching the garden. I mulch after the plants are big enough. Especially when working with a large garden, mulching is a labor-saving method. There are less weeds, less cultivation needed (which is better for the soil), moisture retention (compare mulched to unmulched), provides food for the worms and microbes as it breaks down, and it makes it easier to get down on your hands and knees to pick the produce (you don't get as dirty). I just brought home two dump truck loads of wet hay from the local sale barn (big square bales) which I'm going to use for mulch in the garden this year (several other bales have been incorporated into a compost pile). When using hay, if it was cut before the grasses (and weeds) went to seed (when the hay is better), there shouldn't be a problem with weeds germinating from seeds. If it was cut after the grasses grew seeds, there will be lots of stems and potential for weeds to sprout. However, weeds generally pull out easily from mulched ground. I have a friend who mulches the paths in his garden with wood chips. It keeps people out of mud and provides food for the worms as it breaks down, adding to soil fertility for the next year.
Comment by dp Thu May 6 07:58:27 2010

Coupon Codes --- I tend to agree.

dp --- The time savings gets me every time too. It seems like every hour I spend mulching saves me at least two or three hours over the growing season in weeding time. Of course, the soil health is also key --- I agree that mulch makes good soil critters very happy!

I'm jealous of your wet hay! I always read about people who find that, and I never do!

Comment by anna Thu May 6 12:37:14 2010

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