From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
Sometimes I think that Ruth Stout, the Queen of Mulch in the early days of organic gardening, did more to hurt the practice than to help it. She made it sound so easy and carefree. That’s okay because I daresay she persuaded more people to start gardening than any other single writer at that time. We all rushed out to gather up leaves and grass clippings from the four winds to pile on our gardens and then, tra la la, fell back in our hammocks and waited for harvest. Ruth put gardening on Easy Street.
As the old song puts in, “it ain’t necessarily so,” as we all found out. Mulching is one of the very best gardening practices, but like everything else, you have to master the details if you are hoping for quality time in the hammock.
The rule of timing: The sin that mulching so often covers, in addition to weeds, is cold wet soil from applying the stuff too early. Do not start mulching until the soil has warmed up completely. I suppose on pure sand or in the deep South, this rule is not as critical, but whatever, especially on clay and loam soils, you will experience much grief if you layer on the mulch early in spring or worse, put it on late in fall or through the winter under the mistaken notion that you are protecting the soil from winter’s cold. The soil benefits from winter’s cold.
Mulching too early means you can’t work up a nice seedbed until late in the spring. Transplants set into cold, mulched soil will sit there, blue and shivering, until July. I am talking now about organic mulches— hay, leaves, straw, grass clippings etc. Black plastic “mulch” can be put on early, and it will help warm the soil up. But that’s a subject for another time.
Here in northern Ohio, (you can make your own determinations accordingly), we do not put on organic mulches until June and then aren’t in a hurry. Right after a good rain is the best time, so as to prevent that moisture from evaporating into the air. Mulching in a normal year can take the place of watering. In a dry year, it can cut watering by half.
First we mulch early vegetables, perhaps even a little before June, especially leafy vegetables so that rain doesn’t bounce mud on them. Then comes the twin pole bean rows where the vines are climbing wooden poles anchored to a center wire overhead. That means a sort of tunnel underneath, impossible to get to with the tiller and hard even to hoe. Then we do potatoes before the plants fall and flounce all over. After that we do the viney melons, squashes, sweet potatoes, etc. before the plants crawl out all over the place and make mulching difficult. Last comes tomatoes, eggplants and peppers which especially need to be growing vigorously in warm soil before mulching. Do not mulch onions up close. The bulbs need air and sunlight to grow properly. I usually do not mulch the sweet corn either since it is easy to cultivate weeds between the rows with the tiller.