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

Grassy vs. mulched garden aisles

Clover garden aisleThere are three main choices for aisles between permanent garden beds --- tilling up the soil, planting grass (or another low groundcover), or mulching.  Tilling got deleted from my decision-making nearly immediately because of the potential for erosion and mud.  And since we didn't have a vehicle that could haul large quantities of mulch to the farm at the beginning of our operation, grass chose itself for our aisles.

This year, I started wondering if mulch would be a better option.  Mulched aisles have certain advantages over grassy aisles including:

  • Mulching would save a lot of time on weeding.  Now that we're getting our beds mulched, I spend most of my weeding time ripping out clover and grasses that try to sneak up the bed sides from the aisles and invade the growing zone.
  • The time spent mulching can be a winter project, when we're not so pressed for spare moments.
  • Mulch would build the organic matter of the soil faster than grass does, which might give the vegetables more root room.  (On the other hand, I don't know if vegetable roots would want to grow into the compacted soil of permanent aisles.)
  • Vining plants like sweet potatoes and cucurbits would be easier to handle since they could be allowed to roam across the aisles without being moved for mowing.

On the other hand, grassy aisles have advantages too, like:

  • We can keep our aisles in shape even if the floodplain is sodden and impassable.
  • Mowing and weeding along the aisles is a bit-at-a-time project, so it doesn't feel as overwhelming as picking up eight plus truckloads of mulch.
  • Our "grassy" aisles are actually a diverse blend of grasses, clover, dandelions, plantain, and other weeds, and our bees enjoy the blooms.
  • I suspect grassy aisles have a more moderate summer temperature than dark mulches.  Perhaps also nicer to sit on when I'm weeding?

So far, each permanent aisle technique is neck and neck, so let's look at some data on how much mulched and grassy aisles cost us in time and money.  I decided to consider the mule garden (since it's easiest to measure), which is about a third of our vegetable growing area.  In the table below, I compare our current management system with the alternative of buying enough composted leaf mulch to keep the 1,440 square feet of aisles plant-free.

Grassy Aisles
Mulched Aisles
$15 (gas for lawn mower)
$613 ($460 mulch, $153 gas for truck)
50 hours (42 hours weeding encroachers, 8 hours mowing)
44.5 hours (27.7 hours picking up mulch, 16.8 hours applying mulch)

I was shocked to see that mulched aisles would only save us 5.5 hours of labor over the course of the year!  True, we might be able to cut that time a bit by getting more serious about talking tree crews into delivering wood chips, but we'd spend even more time shoveling those chips into the pickup truck (and add a lot of back-breaking labor) in order to haul them to the garden.

Stump in gardenThe mulch option would also be considerably worse for the earth.  We all knee-jerk and think that mowing is bad, but our darling lawn mower probably uses 2.5 to 3.75 gallons of gas annually to mow the mule garden, which looks like a bargain compared to the 38 gallons we'd use to haul mulch home.

I guess I need to drop the dream of mulched aisles and instead start thinking of ways to make weeds less likely to encroach on the growing area.  Mark's new weed eater might be the solution since it seems to do a great job of slipping under the edges of the mulch and cutting off runners before they gain a foothold, and I could also consider some sort of permanent weed barrier.  And mowing will become quicker and quicker as I merge beds into long, wide rows, removing stumps that disturb fast passes of the mower.

Do you have tips for making grassy garden aisles as easy as possible?

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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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Have you considered making your own mulch? We invested in a chipper shredder years ago and it has more than paid for itself. We pile up branches, leaves, debris, etc from around the farm and when the pile is big enough we run it through the chipper. (We take care to NOT add things to the pile that have seeds for obvious reasons) The result is fantastic mulch that we use in our gardens and around trees/bushes that we need to protect. The added benefits are that not only are you clearing out debris from your farm, but by turning your own farm debris into mulch you are not introducing foreign materials to your gardens.

Early on we did grass instead of mulch but by early summer it was very difficult if not impossible to mow without disturbing our plants. It ended up taking us more time to carefully move and protect plants from mowing than it ever has taken us to chip & mulch.

Comment by Krisann / Want Less Thu Nov 17 08:11:48 2011

We've played around with the idea of chipper-shredders, but they never quite seem to make sense. We rented an industrial version, and were surprised by how much time and work it took to make a small pile of wood chips --- made me think that debris would be better suited to go directly in the ground as hugelkultur fodder. Since we wouldn't be able to afford a chipper half as good as the one we rented, we figured it would be even more work for less return if we bought our own.

If we lived in town and had to rake leaves off a lawn, a shredder would definitely make sense, but raking leaves isn't one of our chores. We've pondered buying some sort of small, portable chipper/shredder to chop up all of the wingstem and ragweed stalks that die at this time of year and look like good quality biomass, but I'm on the fence about whether the effort would be worth it. Still pondering....

What I'd like to get into more is learning about scythes and growing hay or grains in small amounts to make relatively high carbon bedding for the chicken coops. That would turn into quality compost or mulch. But I always seem to have too many projects to make that happen!

Comment by anna Thu Nov 17 08:43:41 2011

I currently have grass between my beds. It is the biggest pain in the garden. Keeping it mowed is a chore that I hate doing.

I want to go to mulch between the beds, but my wife is against it. She is afraid of attracting termites. But the garden is about 200' from our brick house. I find it hard to imagine the termites leaving a nice big pile of mulch to get into my house. It just doesn't make sense to me. Add to that the fact that we've found termites in a stump that is not 20 feet from the house, the argument just doesn't add up.

My area has mulch available at the landfill. It is $10 for "yard" of it, but they just put a BIG bucket full on our trailer.

Comment by Fritz Thu Nov 17 09:31:42 2011

I wouldn't worry about termites --- that does sound like a long way for them to travel.

With mulch, it's really all about proximity. It would take us a bunch of truck loads, and since we have to drive over an hour each way to pick it up, that eats up our time like crazy. If we had a place within a ten or fifteen minute drive, mulch would make a lot more sense.

I've found that mowing aisles really isn't tough, though, if you simplify them as much as possible --- straight lines, one or two mower widths, no obstructions, etc. Or maybe I just say that because Mark does most of the mowing... :-)

Comment by anna Thu Nov 17 09:46:38 2011

I did ask the electric company to dump their wood chips and got 5 loads from their subcontractor. Then we got the rains that flooded our section of Arkansas and they sat for at least 6 weeks before our clay garden was dry enough to get into. I carried them to the garden a canning kettle at a time every evening after 6 this summer - during the heat wave too. Because we go from too much water to not enough the goal was to get the extremely late planted plants mulched so the drought would not kill them. I also mulched part of the walkways with the intent to keep weeds out. Two years ago my garden was an excellent pasture and grass an extreme problem. Because time was short & 5 loads is not as much as it seems I put down cardboard in the aisles. The cardboard worked excellent!! There were just a few weeds where the cardboard shifted away from the mulch but were easily pulled. I pulled the last of the tomatoes & peppers this past weekend and the roots of the tomatoes grew under the cardboard which was a surprise because I had figured the walking path would be too hard but apparently not. The difference between cardboard mulched aisles and no is amazing - going from no weeds back to pasture! The cardboard has finally dried out enough or perhaps decomposed enough that it is starting to blow in the wind so we have had to do some pick-up and replacing. Next year I plan to have every aisle covered in cardboard and then mulched with woodchips as they are available. This spring will be the first time we will be able to plant spring vegetables, one bed has fresh chicken compost and more mulch and the aisle is freshly card covered. All those hot evenings trudging back and forth had one long term goal - to be able to plant the garden on time! Now with walkable aisles that will be possible.

Oh we live in the Ozark Mountains on a flat section of land.

Comment by Stephanie in AR Thu Nov 17 09:49:16 2011

We get some free wood chips too, but it's never enough! I save them for the fruit trees and other perennials, which really need that high quality mulch. (Mark would tell you how my endless refrain is "never enough mulch!"

There's something almost magical about corrugated cardboard in the garden. I think the magic is that worms adore the glues, and wherever worms go, they poop out their high quality castings. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what your tomatoes were sucking up --- forget the compacted soil lower down and just eat up the castings!! :-)

Sadly, I never have enough cardboard either....

Comment by anna Thu Nov 17 10:42:06 2011
I bought some of that black plastic and covered my aisles to kill the weeds. It has been down for 2 years now. This spring I plan to sow dutch white clover in the aisles between the beds. I plan on using my battery powered weedeater to mow it as needed. Not sure how it would work for you or me for that matter, but that's my plan. I would rather have some clover creeping into my beds than my quackgrass.
Comment by Kevin Thu Nov 17 10:52:04 2011
I am also trying clover. I am planning (hoping) to not mow it, or only mow once or twice. We'll see what happens.
Comment by Alison Thu Nov 17 13:00:57 2011
I once saw, but didn't save, plans for a homemade chipper made from an old lawn mower and a metal trash can. Other than the obvious safety issue, it was reported to have worked really well. I have an old but powerful electric mower than I could use, but I cannot get my mind around the design. Any one familiar with the concept?
Comment by Robert Blackburn, Jr. Thu Nov 17 13:45:49 2011
Kevin and Alison --- I didn't plan it that way, but I have pure clover in the aisles of one of my garden areas. I actually hate it. It's very pretty and it doesn't grow tall enough to spread many seeds into the garden bed if I don't mow it often, but the runners creep up into the beds like crazy and I spend a lot of time ripping them out. I have a feeling some sort of really simple weed barrier would be the solution, but I haven't quite figured out what yet.
Comment by anna Thu Nov 17 13:55:47 2011

Aesthetically, I like wood chip mulch because it is tidy and neat and makes a defined border for garden beds, but it's probably better suited to a small garden than a rambling farm like yours. I have, however, noticed improved soil in an area where I previously had wood chips and later removed them because I want to plant some sort of rye grass there (the area was pretty small, so I just shoveled them up and used them elsewhere).

Sarah in Boulder Creek CA

Comment by Sarah Thu Nov 17 14:45:11 2011

I'll echo the opinion of talking to the tree cutting companies more to see if you can get more free wood chips.

We've been lucky enough to fill our small amount of aisles with wood chips from stump grindings as well as wood chips from a tree cutting service.

We have a small electric chipper and it is VERY time consuming and not worth the time and effort in my opinion. We now use larger limbs to line our rows of grapes to give it some visual structure and to hold in the mulch and moisture. Smaller branches we sometimes burn and then limit the oxygen to try and create as much charcoal (bio-char) as possible so we can bury it in the garden.

Do you think the leaves you scavenge could be used in the rows or would they blow away?

I know you like to experiment, maybe you can try a small 10 foot section of each and report on which will produce the best results for the money in practice and see if it supports the numbers you ran? But I think it's important to find the mulch for as cheaply as possible.

Comment by Brian Thu Nov 17 15:52:32 2011

Sarah --- The aesthetics are probably the reason I'd just assumed that one of these days I'd mulch my aisles. On the other hand, grassy aisles can be very pretty too if you treat them like a lawn, especially at this time of year when the clover is still green and everything else is brown.

Robert --- I haven't seen those plans, but can imagine the results. It seems to me that it wouldn't be any less work or any more effective than a manufactured chipper, and even those seem clunky and slow to me.

Brian --- We have a hard time getting more wood chips --- it's very hit or miss because our neighbors are smart and want them too, so you have to flag down the chipper trucks. It's also quite a bit of work since they can only dump the chips where we park the cars, so it requires two rounds of shoveling to get the chips to our garden --- once up into the truck and then again out of the truck. That's why it's actually just as fast in terms of people-time to go pick up mulch in town.

Our scavenged leaves would probably work in the aisles (although they'd be a bit slippery once wet), but I never have nearly enough of those, so I save them for where they work best --- deep bedding in the chicken coop.

Comment by anna Thu Nov 17 18:34:10 2011

Robert, might these be the instructions you're thinking of?

I actually got all the parts to make this a long time ago but never finished it. I even got a free electric lawn mower off craigslist and removed the motor. One of these days!

Sarah in Boulder Creek CA

Comment by Sarah Thu Nov 17 19:08:59 2011

This may be impractical, but I had the thought of using a chicken or rabbit tractor to mow the grass. Have the aisles the same width as the tractor. Brush the manure onto the vegies, and move tractor one length a day. For my circumstances I like mulched aisles, but only if I get free woodchips. It is so much work loading the chips though.

Comment by John Fri Nov 18 04:37:18 2011
John --- I had actually considered a system something like that, but we'd already changed over to pastures. I've considered having a small tractor to rotate the flock through --- ask them to put in a week or two at hard garden labor before going back to the healthy pasture diet --- but can't quite decide whether the increased feed costs would be worth it. It's amazing how much less I can feed the flock when they're hunting for food over a wide area.
Comment by anna Fri Nov 18 08:20:01 2011

Just wondering if you would view mulch more favorably, if you had some sort of loader machine (to get the mulch in a truck/trailer/barrow without effort). I suppose the problem is those machines are just too expensive. But I guess some type of tractor would make life easier for you on the farm.

Comment by John Fri Nov 18 18:14:11 2011

I'm sure mulch would look much better for the aisles if I had a lot more of it and motorized equipment to move it around. (Although then the tractor would use gas, so I suspect it wouldn't save as much money as you might think.)

We thought we would get a tractor at first, but I've since decided that tractors aren't really a good homesteading tool. They make it so easy to sledehammer through tough problems rather than finding a gentler, more permaculture solution. For example, if we had a tractor, I might never have decided go go no-till --- it would just be so easy to rip up the soil every year and start afresh. My feeling is that two people growing the food for themselves should be able to do it mostly with hand tools, and that if they can, the farm will be easier on the earth.

Comment by anna Fri Nov 18 19:57:55 2011
To separate one of my veg gardens (1200 sq ft or more) from seldom-mown pasture, I bordered it with 3' wide woven polypropylene, uv resistant and good for 20+ years. I had thought I would improve the aesthetics by covering it with burlap, but once you get used to it, and it gets covered with a light coating of dust/soil, it's not too bad, and what a joy to not have to do all that weeding/mowing. For the isles between the beds (about 12" to 16" wide) I use the stirrup hoe (the kind that oscillates). These solutions wouldn't work if mud is a problem tho. If slugs aren't a problem, how about laying down plywood or mini corduroy roads?
Comment by Jackie Fri Nov 18 20:39:34 2011
Sarah, you found it! Thank you! Maybe I will build it over the winter.
Comment by Robert Fri Nov 18 21:24:59 2011

Jackie --- I've seen that high quality plastic in use and it seems pretty handy. I have to admit that I just knee-jerk against it because I hate the low quality black plastic so much, wondering what it does to the soil food web. But I suspect the stuff you used might be a lot better. I think it lets water through, right?

Plywood would probably be pretty slippery since our garden stays awfully damp. Mini corduroy roads would work better, but would be a lot of work to install...

Comment by anna Sat Nov 19 16:57:41 2011
It's very permeable to both water and air. I hope I've called it by it's correct name. Comes in 1,2,3,4,6,8,10,12' and up widths. I started using it because, like you, I despaired of ever having enough cardboard. Beware of the stuff deWitt makes with the fuzz which bonds to soil -- not very reusable. I also use it to kill sod and replant to clover or whatever, to cover seedy compost piles, and as temporary frost protection for carrots. To prevent the raw edges created when cutting to size from fraying, first use a heat gun to make a 4" or so semi-melted fused strip and cut through the middle of that. It ain't permaculture, but in lieu of at least one extra pair of hands...
Comment by Jackie Sat Nov 19 17:36:38 2011
That does sound significantly better than the awful black plastic! Of course, it won't actively build the soil like a mulch or lawn would, but I can see how in certain areas, just not having to deal with weeds would be a major plus.
Comment by anna Sat Nov 19 20:36:14 2011

Have you considered using a type of grass that doesn't spread?? White clover is notorious for runners. What about using orchard grass which doesn't spread. There are many other ground-covers that do not spread which would reduce the time of your labor drastically by reducing the need to weed much.

Also consider where you sourced your data about mulch adding more organic matter to the soil. It may, but the organic matter added by the grass roots should not be underestimated!

Comment by Cami Mon Jan 20 22:08:11 2020

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