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Vegetable garden mulch?

 
N Ever
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I've been trying to do a little research on mulching for a vegetable garden. Would straw be sufficient or should I just leave the plain old tilled soil exposed? Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
 
Chris Kott
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Leaving your soil bare encourages it to dry out, so mulching can be very important. As to what to use, it depends on what you have available to you. Personally, I've heard that wood chips from limbs that are less than 3" in diameter are mostly inner bark (lots of plant food including starches and such that are already in forms useable by your plants) with little of the lignin that is so much harder to break down (and apparently causes a nitrogen draw-down when it does). Unless it's plastic, any mulch you use will break down (people do use plastic mulch, but I don't consider it permaculture, or even slightly sustainable), so its good to choose one that will break down into good soil with little adverse effect.

Find out what people use in your area, and what their experience says works well, or what doesn't, and that will better inform your decision. But as to whether or not you should bother, if you do nothing else for your garden to reduce maintenance, I would suggest you mulch.

-CK
 
N Ever
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I forgot to mention that I'm in east central Ohio. Most people around me use either compost (which I have not started yet) or nothing. I would be okay with mulch but I usually till the ground a time or two in the middle of the summer. Would it be okay to till the mulch right into the ground? As far as mulches, would cedar be acceptable? And I also understand when using mulch you could potentially face nitrogen deficiency. Would a little blood meal work for bringing that back up?

As a side note, any recommendations on fertilizing a garden? Such as how often, how much, what kind(s)?

I appreciate the input and thanks for the quick reply CK.
 
Jen Shrock
pollinator
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Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
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Tilling the soil will open up more opportunity for nutrients to be leached away quicker and will break up the soil structure. Any natural mulch that you can use would help add some nutrients and biomass to the soil. As Chris mentioned, tilled soil will definitely dry out quicker, so the mulch will help with that. Straw works well and will add good biomass to the soil. If using wood chips, try to get some that have had time to age because there would be some nitrogen leaching as they initially start to decompose. See below to help offset that. They would also help to add organic matter to the soil eventually. One word of warning with wood chips is to know what you are getting so that you don't bring in chemicals unecessarily and so that you don't bring in species that might deter plant growth. Have you ever thought about layering plants somewhat densely to help naturally "cover" the soil or even plant a low growing ground cover that, if it gets too large, you could just chop and drop in place to not only keep it under control, but to also gain the orgainic matter?

One thing that you could consider as a natural way to add nitrogen to the soil is urine. Dilute it some before adding to the soil around your plants. As you are in Ohio, it will still be a couple of months before it gets to be more agreeable for planting out, so, if using straw, you could also dump the urine over the bale(s) until you are ready to plant then spread it around your plants.

 
Chris Kott
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My recommendation would be to look into a reduced or no-till alternative for all the reasons Jen mentioned. Even if you're still planting in rows in a normal garden patch, you can still select mixes of different plants whose growth characteristics are complementary. You may have seen stuff about companion planting. A lot of that has to do with growing plants that don't compete for resources even when closely spaced. Members of the squash family are sometimes referred to as "living mulch" due to the way the large leaves shade the ground, helping to both retain moisture and shade out competitive plants (most people call them weeds). There are whole lists of books on these fora that teach alternative garden planting methods, but the ones I would suggest would likely be "Square Foot Gardening," and "gaia's garden." I have forgotten the authors, but a google search will turn them up. If you use your garden space as efficiently as possible, your mature garden will shade out all of the ground, reducing need for mulch.

Let us know how it goes.

-CK
 
Leila Rich
steward
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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From my perspective, some form of mulch is vital to soil/plant health.
Bare soil doesn't exist in nature, and if I create it, nature will make a major effort to cover itself with plants (aka weeds)
I don't use compost as mulch. I cold compost and mine's full of seeds.
I'd feel mean denying the worms a compost feast underneath the mulch, as they need a nice cool layer between them and the surface.
Pea straw is a good 'gateway mulch'.
Benefits like weed reduction, water retention, beneficial biological relationships...
I avoid bark/woodchips where I'm likely to dig them in.
The nitrogen/carbon thing is fine if the high-carbon mulch isn't dug in, but the soil critters can use up a lot of nitrogen balancing out all that carbon if it's mixed up.
 
Chris Kott
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Leila, look up Rameal Wood Chips. I was operating under the same generalisation you present, but there is a difference between wood chips derived from large branches and trunks, and chips derived from branches less than 3" in diameter, apparently called Rameal. This is due to the significantly higher proportion of inner bark material over lignin possessed by the smaller diameter branches. Inner bark, what deer and goats go crazy for, is good for plants too because the plant resources are all still in plant form and ready to be used. The nitrogen draw-down Paul has gone on about is apparently caused by the high lignin content of thicker branches, which does cause nitrogen to be tied up in its decomposition.

Not just talking here, I've contrasted the effect in my garden patch. The rameal chips broke down where they contacted soil, but they did the job, and everything was lush, whereas the chips from thicker branches sat there, broke down slowly, caused my plants to wilt (until I, um, added nitrogen to them), and encouraged a rather interesting amorphous yellow fungus to grow along the ground.

Not all wood chips are created equal.

-CK
 
Jen Shrock
pollinator
Posts: 363
Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
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One other thing about tilling, it brings out the weed seeds and you will get more weed growth. Last year I tilled up a garden plot and planted veggies. Part of the way through the season, my dad started tilling up the one side between the veggies while I had weeded the other side. What a HUGE difference. The side hand weeded came back with a fraction of the weeds that the tilled side did. You could actually se the distinct line in the garden between the two. This year, I will be working on starting to convert my lot over with permaculture/food forest principles. Tilling will now become a has been for me. I look forward to the day when the gardens in my yard become more self sustaining and much, much healthier with the system being self contained.
 
wayne stephen
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If you are in or close to a rural area consider old hay. You can usually get a farmer to sell you last years hay for a fraction of the cost. We just got a neighbor to bring us four five-hundred pound round bales for $ 10.00 - just the gas cost . You have to pile it up since it contains seeds , so it is good for places where you need a heavier mulch.
 
Leila Rich
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Chris Kott wrote:Leila, look up Rameal Wood Chips.

There's no way I could guarantee the mulch I use is from ramial wood, as it comes from commercial guys.
Chris, where do you get yours from? I imagine I'd have to chip it myself...
As far as I know, the general advice not to dig in wood still stands.
 
Chris Kott
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Oh good! I've explained about ramial wood chips so often that my fingers cramp at the words. I have Manitoba Maples (I think they're also called Boxwood Elder) in my tiny yard, two of them, (in a 20'x35' urban backyard) and two Dutch Elm Disease-survivors 150+ and 200+ years old (estimating from diameter at breast of similar trees grown south of me with slightly warmer/longer growing seasons), the older of which shades the back 2/3rds of my backyard. So this year, the maples go (they nearly dissolve in soil), and while the tree guys are here, I'll have them prune some dead branches and lift the crowns (prune the lowest branches, they hang down and produce most of the dead branches) of the Elms a bit (way overdue, there will shortly be some branch/roof issues if we don't), and I'll have them leave everything on-site. Chances are, though, that if you're dealing with an arbourist that mainly handles tree maintenance as opposed to tree removal, most of their chips will be from ramial wood. But you do have to check them out, and I am always ready to fertilize at need. Those who don't like/can't do the whole LHF (liquid human fertilizer) route tend to use bloodmeal from what I gather.

-CK
 
Vladimir Horowitz
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Location: N. Idaho, zone 5
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Mulch has been on my mind lately since I've been trying to figure out the best material for my situation,so here are my thoughts..... First off, I have had great success with "living mulch" in the past. Mainly I've used this technique in my greens beds, just planting everything a bit closer. At first a bit more hand weeding is necessary as your plants come up, but once they shade out the soil nicely only a tiny bit of weed plucking is needed for the rest of the season. Of course not all garden plants are suited for this system.

STRAW......I love it and hate it as mulch. It gets big points for convenience, being fluffy and airy, and is fast and easy to apply/remove. The big downside is the seeds! Some straw is very seedy and has created more work for me weeding the mini hayfield I accidentally planted then if I was to not mulch at all. But I have also had not so seedy straw that worked well. Chickens can be used to eat the seeds out of it first, but that requires spreading it out for them which is an extra step and the fresh poop could be a concern in close quarters with salad greens and such. This last fall for the garlic beds I used a combo system of dead ferns(way more labor as I gathered them from the forest) as the bottom inch or so of mulch and then topped with a lot of straw. Basically just trying to insure that the straw seed didn't contact the soil and sprout, it's worked well so far....

TALL GREEN GRASS......my favorite mulch, but has only been available to me when living in the tropics and is labor intensive. Basically I would go into a grassy field with the machete and wack down as much as I needed and then mulch immediately. Had to be careful not to cut grasses with seed heads. Of course using a living green mulch like this has the added benefit of dripping nutrients into the soil as they decompose.

LEAVES.......have used em but don't like them, tendency to mat up and block oxygen.

So now I live in N idaho and am trying to find my mulch of choice in this forest environment. Anyone have any creative mulch suggestions that I haven't tried yet?
 
Chris Kott
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Ramial wood chips. See above.

-CK
 
Vladimir Horowitz
Posts: 23
Location: N. Idaho, zone 5
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Hey Chris, I did already read your post on ramial wood chips above and found it informative. However, it seems like it would be difficult for me to acquire them as I don't know any arborists up here and really couldn't be sure of what I was getting from any local arborists. They do seem like a good idea though and I would try them out if the opportunity presented itself...
 
Chris Kott
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You could find spots in the woods where there are several nurse logs in one place. Leave at least one and some duff, and harvest what you need. This would probably occur to you, but I'd be careful to not scour any area of duff and rotting vegetation. I think it takes something like 1000 years to produce two inches of soil in forest conditions without worms. But every barrowful of rotted, punky wood and forest floor duff will be teeming with the microbes needed to break it all down.

-CK
 
Cohan Fulford
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Location: West Central Alberta, Canada
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Chris- so this kind of half rotted wood stuff is okay as mulch nitrogen wise? I know its probably hard to say without seeing, but how rotten does it have to be? I have a nearly unlimited supply of rotten wood in the bush- from marginal stuff that we can still burn, to stuff that falls apart as you pick it up..
 
Chris Kott
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I think a good thing to remember is that if the stuff is already breaking down, it probably has less need for the actions of the microbes that tie up all the nitrogen.

-CK
 
Cohan Fulford
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Location: West Central Alberta, Canada
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That was my impression, and basic logic of course, just wondering how far along it has to be to make a difference.. guess I'll never know till I try
I went out into the bush today and hauled a couple of tobboggan loads of old rotty small logs/branches in to an area I want to develop something.. have to cut up some other stuff out there to make haulable chunks, and wait till the ground thaws somewhat for others ...
 
Vladimir Horowitz
Posts: 23
Location: N. Idaho, zone 5
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Hey Chris, good idea of harvesting nurse logs, I hadn't considered that possibility. While this isn't something that I would practice in the areas of my forest that I am keeping natural, I do have about an acre of forest land that is being converted to gardens/orchards/greenhouse. I think I will avoid the duff though, as I am working with already pretty acidic soil in a coniferous forest, I figure the duff wouldn't help that. Well now I have another project to work on, combing the forest for well rotted logs, seems like at the right stage it would make a great mulch.
 
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