The age-old tradition for vegetable gardens is to plow the soil deeply at the beginning of each season and then do like Santa and hoe, hoe, hoe all summer. The laidback gardener – as well as anyone who knows the slightest thing about permaculture! – knows that plowing, hoeing and other forms of soil cultivation are not good for the soil: they destroy its structure, eliminate most of the beneficial microorganisms that should live there and stimulate the growth of weeds. (If the latter remark seems surprising, think back to your own experiences: an honest gardener will admit that the more he hoes or cultivates, the more weeds grow back!) Also, repeated cultivation requires a lot of physical effort!
The experienced laidback gardener knows instead that it is far better to keep the soil covered with a good mulch (about 2 to 4 inches/5 to 10 cm thick) at all times, thus keeping the soil moist, friable, and essentially weed free without having to cultivate.
Now it is easy enough to insert vegetable transplants (tomatoes, peppers, leeks, etc.) into a mulched garden. Just push the mulch back a bit to reveal the soil beneath, dig a quick planting hole, drop the root ball in and add a pinch of mycorrhizae to the roots, then fill in with soil and replace the mulch. The final step with any planting, of course, is to water to settle the plant in.
But how do you sow vegetables in a bed that is constantly covered with mulch? After all, we all know that the seeds will not germinate in a soil that is covered with mulch. So you have to cheat a little.
Just before sowing, move the mulch off the area where you want to sow, be it a row, a patch or an individual hole. Sow the seeds at the depth indicated on the label or that you’ve found on-line or in a book. Water well. Do not put the mulch back in place right away! Remember, seeds can’t germinate through a mulch!
This will leave the soil exposed to the elements and therefore a few weed seeds will probably also sprout along with your veggies, but you don’t have a choice. When your vegetables sprouts are about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) high, therefore, you’ll have to eliminate the weeds manually (fortunately, since they’re simply young seedlings, they’ll be easy to yank out). When that’s done, push the mulch back into place among the new vegetables so no further weeds can germinate! (Ignore the urban legend that says you have to leave a mulch-free space around each plant: just mulch evenly, everywhere!)
And there you go: a working mulched vegetable bed. Admittedly, that’s a bit more work than you’re used to doing as a laidback gardener… but what wouldn’t you do to have the best vegetables in the neighborhood?
Your Veggie Patch is Still Unmulched?
Your garden is already up and growing and you didn’t put in any mulch? Well, it’s never too late to start!
First, eliminate all weeds that grow there, even if that means cultivating one last time. You really have to get them all out before adding mulch, because although mulches do an excellent job of preventing weed seeds from germinating, they will not stop a weed that is already growing, especially a weed with creeping rhizomes, such as quackgrass, bindweed or horsetail. It will simply sprout from any buried section of rhizome left behind and push its way through the mulch until it sees the light, then send out more rhizomes and set about taking over the entire garden.
So, you’ve finished weeding: there is not a single rhizome left. Congratulations! Now just spread a 2 to 4 inch (5 à 10 cm) layer of mulch all through the vegetable bed, right up to the base of the plant!
What mulch should you apply? I prefer shredded fall leaves (which have the advantage of being free), but RCW (rameal chipped wood), compost, buckwheat hulls and grass clippings (the latter mixed with some other material, otherwise they become too compact ) all make excellent mulches for vegetable gardens, as they are both light and enrich the soil.
Other mulches are perhaps less rich, but still accomplish the main jobs a mulch is supposed to do, like keeping the soil moist while preventing the germination of weed seeds. This group of products includes: forest mulch, straw (you need a thicker layer of straw, about 6 inches/15 cm, for it to be effective), shredded newspaper, hardwood sawdust, etc. However, avoid conifer mulches (especially cedar mulch), as they tend to repulse beneficial insects and microbes your plants need for healthy growth. Also, they decompose very slowly and in a vegetable garden, where you tend to work the soil often, end up mixing in with the soil then stay there for years and that can hinder the growth of young vegetable roots.
There you go: mulching gives you a vegetable patch that practically takes care of itself, the dream of any truly laidback gardener!
For more information on mulching, here’s a very complete article by Ryan Tollefsen of Unity Home Group: The Complete Guide to Mulch: Tips, Tricks, and Considerations for Beginners.