Saturday, June 22, 2013

Deep Mulch, No-Till Gardening: The Family Garden at Prairie Road Organic Seed

Deep Mulch, No-Till Gardening

The Family Garden at


Our gardens utilize a thick layer of mulch between the rows; the mulch covers the soil in a 4-6 inch thick mat.  This mulch system has many advantages in terms of soil quality. It creates a perfect environment for feeding the soil microbes and earthworms, leaving them undisturbed to do their soil building work.  Mulch also dramatically increases the amount of rainwater that enters the soil, reducing runoff and erosion.  The mulch protects the soil in the event of a hard driving rain.  AND mulch systems offer the user-friendly benefit of helping to control weeds!

A "No-Till" Approach
The advantage of a deep mulch garden system is the reduced need for tillage to control weeds, prepare the seedbed, or incorporate organic matter and soil amendments.   Tillage encourages the sprouting of weeds and works oxygen into the soil.  This results in the breakdown of organic matter and the release of nutrients, reducing soil fertility.  Tillage also dries out the soil, can result in compaction, and breaks up the soil aggregates, encouraging erosion.  

The only tillage needed in a deep mulch garden system is a hoe to loosen the soil in the row to be planted. After the garden is planted the hoe is no longer needed.  Hand weeding between the plants and next to the mulch is all the maintenance required.  Weeding tip:  get 'em while they are tiny; it is a lot easier!  Timing is everything in the garden! Being timely will save you A LOT of time and effort!
The Mulch  
What you mulch with MATTERS!  You want to make sure you are reducing your work load and suppressing weeds, not adding them!  What do I mean by that?  If you use hay or straw from a field that has been allowed to "go to seed," you will likely add to your weed issues.  You do not want to use grass that was hayed after the seed heads were formed.  Straw from a harvested field can also carry with it any weeds that may have matured and gone to seed as the grain crop ripened and was harvested.  Using hay or straw from such sources will only inoculate your newly mulched garden with new weed seeds.

To avoid this hazard, we hay a small hayfield just north of the garden about mid-June.  The grass is lush and green but no seed heads have formed.  We cut, dry, rake, and bale the hay in small square bales that are easily handled in the garden.

Mulching the garden about mid-June provides a window of opportunity when all the plants in the garden are quite young and the rows are easily mulched in between.  We carry in the square bale and carefully place them between the rows.  We set the bales with the twine knots face-up; we cut the two strings of twine near the knots, grab the knots and pull the twine out from under the bale, leaving it largely intact and still neatly positioned between the rows.  The bale naturally wants to fan out and separate into sections from the baling process.  We take 4-6 inch thick sections and lay the squares of hay between the plant rows with each square stacked end to end right next to each other.  The hay strands are generally parallel to the plant row.  To spread the hay, take a hold of each side of the square and gently pull and shake the hay apart, positioning it between the two rows in a thick mat, making sure not to cover or traumatize any young and tender plants.  Crawl forward and kneel on the new mulch section and work the next square, progressing down the row. 

The Soil
The mulch is replaced every year and "feeds" the soil.  It is the raw material for soil building, composting in place right in the garden using a systems approach.  The soils being built are rich, dark, moist, soft and very fertile.  Our gardens have not seen any more tillage than that of a hoe since 1974.  The earthworms are abundant and the soil is rich in organic matter.  Recent soil tests results found soil organic matter at 8.7%!

One Caveat
The only drawback of this deep mulch system that we have noted:  In the fall the lack of black dirt exposed to the sun and capturing heat during cool fall days predisposes the garden to frost on cold fall nights. Pay special attention to your tomatoes, peppers, and other cold-sensitive plants!  Placing dark colored rocks or bricks next to these heat loving plants will provide a heat sink on a clear sunny fall day.  When you cover your plants in the evening, the heat will radiate throughout the night, much like black dirt, providing a margin of warmth that can make all the difference on a cold night.    

To Plant
Pea row planted & trellised.
The mulch is separated with a pitchfork exposing 6-9" of black soil in the row that is to be planted.   Opening the rows a day or two before planting will help to warm the soil and speed germination. Once the soil has warmed and you are ready to plant, tilt the blade of your hoe to a vertical position (perpendicular to the soil) or 45 degree angle (whichever you prefer); dig the row 3-6" deep (depending on what is to be planted).  Smooth the seed bed after digging with a hay fork or the backside of a garden rake (turned tine side up) to gently break up larger aggregates and level the soil.  Plant as directed on your seed packets.  

Happy Mulching!

You can view our companion video on our deep mulch, no-till system on YouTube at: 

Our best to you this growing season,
Theresa & Dan

Dan & Theresa Podoll
Prairie Road Organic Seed
9824 79th ST SE
Fullerton, ND 58441

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