This past week, in a fit of frustrated gardening impulse, I read The No-Work Gardening Book by Ruth Stout. It lays out her no-till gardening method. Very simply, instead of plowing her garden every year (what? you're supposed to plow every year?) she started just throwing down a deep mulch of spoiled hay. Not only did she have a lot less work to do all of a sudden -- no plowing and hardly any weeding or watering -- her yields all stayed the same or got better.
I probably would have gotten more out of the book if I knew more about traditional gardening. I mean, I always thought you dug a bed once, and then you didn't have to dig it anymore! Only I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have worked very well, because every time I've dug a bed in our heavy clay soil, it's looked great only until the first rain. Then it flattens out like a pancake, bakes in the hot sun, and looks like a brick pavement within a week or two. The plus side is that very few weeds ever get through that. The minus side is that nothing else does, either, and that the soil erodes a lot. Since we only get rain on two settings -- "none" and "cats and dogs" -- the soil parches except when it's turning into soup. That always made my tomato plants topple over and the soil compact further with every rain.
Really, tilling once a year isn't enough. You kind of need continuous tilling. Of course you can't do that while you've got plants growing. So the secret is to enlist the earthworms to help you out. Putting a ton of organic matter -- mulch -- on your garden beds tempts them to come in droves and keep digging. They break down the organic matter and draw it into the soil. This builds a wonderful rich, loose soil. And since the mulch protects the soil from drying out and from heavy rain, you don't have the constant cycle of soup-bricks-soup again that compacts it.
The usual purpose of mulch is to keep weeds down, and a nice deep layer of organic matter will do the trick. Ruth Stout recommends a layer eight inches deep. (Of course, throughout the growing season it will flatten out quite a bit.) Plastic is often used for the same job, but plastic has many flaws. It's more expensive than an organic mulch (since most mulches you could choose are available for free or nearly free), it doesn't allow rain through (which is why many people who use it end up needing drip irrigation as well), and it doesn't enrich the soil at all.
Of all the possible options, though, it seems that bare soil is the worst. It doesn't protect the soil at all, so it's at the mercy of rain, sun, and erosion. And because weeds can easily take hold there, you've got to spend all summer weeding or hoeing. Remember, nature abhors a vacuum. You will never, ever find a bare patch of ground in nature. Either it is taken over by weeds, or it's covered with a blanket of fallen leaves or pine needles.
For adding organic matter to the soil, you could use compost. It does require keeping a compost pile going and digging it into your garden every year. But it will do the trick. Stout's question, though, is why would you go to all that effort when you could just put the organic matter on the soil and let it compost on the spot? (I'm not giving up my compost pile, by the way. But that's mainly so I still have a place to put my kitchen scraps.)
What makes a good mulch? This was my problem last year. I had no idea what to use, and nothing readily available. Stout used mostly spoiled hay, which isn't something readily available to me.
The obvious answer for most of us in the suburbs is leaves. The problem with that is that you have to plan ahead a bit. I didn't get nearly as many as I could have, because I was feeling all first-trimesterish and yucky during leaf season. All I have is our yard's leaves. But anyone who wants to spend half an hour getting free mulch can go along the edge of the street at the right time of year and shovel up bags of them. (I recommend a snow shovel and a big trash can for the job.) All they're doing is blocking the storm drains -- no one wants them. In many neighborhoods, a truck will come eventually and pick them up. In ours, they eventually all rotted or blew away.
My own leaves, though, are still in my yard where I left them. All the ones in the front yard got raked onto the beds first thing. No more trouble than raking them into a trash can. And the ones in the back yard just kind of lay there in heaps and decayed. I've been raking them up lately and throwing them onto the beds.
The best thing about leaves is that they are very rich in nutrients. Trees have deep roots and can draw minerals from much deeper in the soil than, say, grass can. The downside of leaves is their tendency to blow away. So I usually wet them down after I get them in place, if they're dry. If they're damp and half-rotted when you rake them up, they stay put much better.
Cut grass is another good mulch that's readily available, though you never do seem to have enough of it. Shredded newspaper is fine, if not that nutritious or attractive. (I do use it as a bottom layer when I'm killing grass.) Bark mulch is kind of expensive, so if you were going to buy something, I'd pick straw instead. Really, though, as long as it's organic, and you can get a lot of it, it should be fine. The wreckage of last year's garden can be included, too, if it's not diseased.
All you do is heap your mulch on your bed, as deep as you can manage -- 8 inches is good, but less is still better than nothing. Do it in the fall for best results, or in the spring if you didn't do it in the fall. Stout says that she was told to put down some cottonseed meal along with it (manure would be just as good) to provide nitrogen, to help the soil microorganisms break the mulch down, but that she hadn't noticed a difference between when she used it and when she didn't. If I can get some chicken manure (I think I have a source for it!), I'll put a little on, but if not, I won't worry too much.
When it's time to plant, just pull the mulch aside to expose the bare (loose, rich) soil. If you're direct-seeding, plant your seeds as you're accustomed to, and leave the mulch off until the seedlings are tall enough not to be lost in it. (I have heard the recommendation to lay some cardboard or wood over your seed row until the seedlings appear, to help keep the soil moist. I play to try that. But, of course, you have to check carefully every day and take it off when you see the first sprout, so they don't smother.) If you're setting in transplants, just dig your hole, pop in the seedling, and pull the mulch back around it.
Stout also gives some suggestions I found a little crazy. For instance, she suggests laying your potatoes right on the ground instead of digging them in, and putting the mulch over the top of them. She says it worked for her, but another author I read said that all her seed potatoes ended up getting eaten by mice. So I don't think I feel up to trying that just yet.
In her own garden, Stout had been tilling for years when she stopped, so she already had well-cultivated beds. She claims you can build a bed like that from the beginning -- which I do believe you can -- but it will take some time. A bit of digging at the outset shouldn't do you any harm, and should get you growing things sooner.
In fact, there's nothing in the book that dogmatically says "thou shalt not till." Instead, Stout just says you shouldn't have to till if you use a nice, thick mulch. If you found some compacted soil or another issue, you could pull the mulch back, dig a bit, and replace it without messing up her system. (Roto-tilling, however, would probably be a bad idea: I hear it chops up the earthworms, which would set you right back to square one.)
This year, I intend to really give this whole mulch thing a shot. It's going to mean replacing a lot of mulch, because in my experience a lot of it does blow away or wash away. But I have several leaf piles going, plus some straw I found in my shed, so we'll see if I can keep a mulch on all summer long. I'll be reporting as I go -- particularly looking for solutions to last year's problems: compacted soil and erosion.
Do you dig your garden up afresh every year? Do you mulch it?