On more waste management (or, Mulch 101)

Here you see Tom’s Friday deposit to the compost pile:  I was at my office on Friday so I couldn’t spread all this grass.  The bed in front of it is 3’x8′, if you’re curious about scale.

Most days, I consider myself more of a Mulcher than a Gardener.  I should give you a little background, though, to explain this.

Mother’s Day, 2005:  my second mother’s day, frankly.  And what did I ask for?

What do all new farm-owning new-ish mothers ask for?  A gas-powered, rear-tine tiller*, of course.  Silly question!  So I spent that day busting up the sod.  Then I built raised beds and filled them up with the resident clay soil.

It took me no time at all here as a small-g gardener that this clay here is baaaddd, but also surprisingly fertile.  Fertile, and that fertility does not discriminate:  those weeds were so happy that I had made lovely compost-filled raised beds for them.  (Did you ever truly wonder how I came up with the name of this blog?)  If I wanted ANY time to enjoy my new gardens and my toddler, I needed to figure out how to get ahead of those weeds.

And my answer was quite literally under my feet.  Grass!  Sears (and its Craftsman products in particular) sure came to our rescue those first two years as country dwellers.  To help me battle the weeds, we bought mulching blades and a badass rear bagger for Tom’s lawn tractor.  We could now capture and use all those grass clippings.  Well, not *all* those grass clippings, as 4 acres of grass clippings is, uh, quite a lot.  Half the acreage is wooded and seeded quite readily with poison ivy, so…I gladly ask for and receive about two acres’ worth of mulched grass (and fall leaves) from the non-poison ivy portion of lawn every time Tom mows.  It’s a bountiful resource.

First, though, the worry.  As a new mom, my worry was likewise indiscriminate.  I worried that our soil would become too waterlogged if I had mulch on it 24/7, but that worry was silly because the raised beds drain quite well.  I worried too about weed seeds:  cutting those dandelion heads and then spreading them on the gardens, what, was I crazy?  No crazier than letting them simply be wind-blown onto it…weeds just ARE, if you ask me.  I likewise worried about the bugs it would harbor, but 99% of them are more beneficial than harmful.  If I lived in someplace damp and forested where slugs or snails were a problem, I might reconsider my love of mulch…but I don’t.

I am so glad I don’t have a grass allergy.  Spreading those bags around is a dusty, pollen-filled business.  But spread I do.  Excepting the seeding beds (where I direct seed, let the babies grow big, then move them around) every bed has at least 3″ of clippings on them all year long.  Nature abhors a vacuum, of course, so any open patch of soil is sure to sprout a weed or six.  It’s best to keep it all covered up.

Mulch isn’t just great at suppressing weed growth.  Our clay soil turns rock-hard if exposed.  Keeping a blanket of mulch on it helps its friability…and helps the worms and millions of other soil dwellers use the soil all the way to the surface.  I really don’t water the garden at all once the seedlings have taken off.  Planting into that soil is likewise a dream:  I part the mulch, dig, and plant.

The green, green grass directly out of the bags is easily spread if it’s not allowed to mat up, so I try to spread it as soon as it’s cut.  Its bright color is handy:  because it turns brown after a week, I can readily tell where new mulch needs to be applied.  If I can’t spread it immediately, this isn’t a problem.  It mats up but those mats are quite usable, jigsaw-puzzle wise.  It becomes a stinking slimy mess though if it’s wet…and so if allowed to sit, it needs to rest, often for weeks, before it’s usable as mulch.  But all excess bags get thrown on the compost pile to help speed it along.

Anything that grows can be mulch, of course:  wood chips, straw, leaves, pine needles.  Cardboard, newspaper.  I wanted a renewable, constant, homegrown source free of industrial chemicals, so compost and mower clippings work well for me.   Mulching takes so much less time than weeding.

So, if you want to water less, weed less, have happier plants and build a more fertile environment for your soil’s biome, find yourself some mulch.  It works with clay, it works with sand, it works with all soils in between.

(*And incidentally I am very anti-tilling as a general practice.  For large new gardens and the impatient gardener, though, they’re great.  I only till now if I need to make a lot of new beds…which isn’t that often.)

One should always try to avoid injury, too.  Should I blame the 1.5 pre-prandial glasses of wine for me slicing part of my finger off, or general farm tiredness?  Either way, it’s a drag weeding in a latex glove, and even harder milking 2 goats with one hand!

13 responses to “On more waste management (or, Mulch 101)

  1. It’s general farm tiredness. It’s always tiredness. That’s why I hang up a project for the day when I feel myself getting tired. If I don’t, I’ll screw something up royally or hurt myself.

    It doesn’t help when you start out the day tired, though.

  2. Yup, a week or so ago I stuck my right ring finger into a fan. Weeded and planted anyway. Didn’t even think of a plastic glove. Soaked it in epson salts afterward.
    I use chopped maple leaves on my gardens. I have five of them, and just a corner lot. The only problem is finding an ungardened space where I can mow them.

  3. Ouch! Be careful there!

    And thanks for the ode to grass clippings. I have been seeing a lot of recommendations for hay/straw (which is great if you’ve got it!) and the lowly but free and plentiful grass clippings are much maligned. I mean sheesh, if you have to be a slave to lawn mowing, at least do something useful with it! Plus—FREE is a really good motivator for me!

  4. I love grass clippings as mulch; they mat down so oppressively. Sorry to hear about your finger. I had a pretty bad multi-booboo period a while back and it made everything a pain in the ass.

  5. As I was weeding and weeding this spring, I noticed especially in my strawberry bed that where I had mulched with grass clippings, the weed seeds, especially grasses, had just sprouted everywhere! I had mostly used the clippings between the rows and shredded leaves (which we mow over and bag) on the plants themselves. The only good thing was that the layer of grass clippings with their millions of grass seedlings was very easy to pull up. Where I had mulched with the leaves, there were very few weeds. So I am going to put the grass clippings in the compost pile and stick with leaves for the flower beds and straw for mulching in the vegetable gardens. I also get shredded shrubs etc from the City of Ann Arbor for cheap. They load it into our pickup.

  6. This is good to know. I just read something decrying mulch and was thinking, “Have I been doing it all wrong, and just making a home for slugs?” But, like you, I have clay that bakes hard as a rock when it’s bare, so I’m thinking mulch is the right course after all. I use grass clippings too, and it works fine for me.

  7. I live in the pacific northwest and find slugs and mulch to be a real problem – at least on certain beds and/or with certain plants. This has been a really wet spring, and straw mulch with beans and squashes created such a slug problem that my bean/squash sprouts were decimated. But the tomatoes have been thriving. Lots of trial and error!
    I love the blog and find it such an inspiration!

  8. I am also of the opinion that mulch is magic–retains moisture, deters weeds, provides nutrients as it decomposes, keeps the lettuce clean when the heavy rains would otherwise splash up dirt (as in the monsoon downpours we’ve been experiencing the last few days). Half-finished compost is my favorite mulch and pretty much my only fertilizer. Applied heavily midsummer, it’s just part of the soil by the following spring.

    I’ve also experienced the fertile wonder that is clay soil at our Wisconsin place. Just lighten it a bit, and man, does stuff grow.


  9. Nice post.

    I dry and fluff the grass clippings a little before I use them as mulch- never turns into a layer of slime and remarkably I re-used the clippings from around sunflowers a second year. I have one of those 55 drum sized pop up garden totes that holds a cutting about right. Left on its side for a week or so with a roll here or there preps the clipping just right in the hot GA sun.
    My clippings are from a zoysia lawn that has choked out 99% of the competition. I only bag and save every third or so mowing and use the chopping/mulching attachment for the other cuttings so I don’t have to use much in the way of fertilizers. No commercial weed and feed here, just corn gluten meal or composted dairy cow manure (once).

    (I’ll spare everyone pictures of my garden self mutilations. <<<yes, plural)

  10. How uncool is it to envy your grass amounts? I have to buy my mulch except for fall leaves. . .

  11. You should absolutely blame it on tiredness. Hopefully, it will mend quickly. I fling my weeds down as I pull them. My dad and I have discussed this a hundred times with him crediting it to lazy gardening, but then, hurray, I found multiple articles praising lasagna gardening.
    I’m not lazy…I’m trendy.
    Take care of your hand.

  12. Thanks for the well wishes, everyone. I am walking around now with my index finger in the air: it’s like I have some misguided affectation, or I always am trying to get in the last word, or…am trying to catch a cab.

    Paula I hear you! That is why I thank the coffee gods every morning: all hail Hue Hue Tenango. But your counsel is most wise. If only we’d listen.

    Sharon, for jobs like that, there’s a really great electric mulcher by DeWalt I think (I remember it as being yellow) that can chop up your leaves and other small debris tout-suite. Granted you need to store it for the other 363 days a year you’re not using it. Anyway it will help you claim more lawn.

    Sara, yeah, excepting the bags themselves (and the gas and labor to do it) the grass is the best thing going here too…free-ish, which counts! Glad you like them too.

    Peter, I can only imagine what a screwup like this would have done to you. Me, it’s an inconvenience, especially because it’s on the left hand…either way it’s a complete drag.

    Susan, sorry to hear of your seedling woes. Strawberries are no fun to weed (thus their name I guess) but yeah, the only time that I notice the grass sprouting is if the mulch was thin-ish…I tend to be overmothering and smothering as far as mulch goes. And I am glad you can avail AA of its free “waste”.

    Heather, sorry to hear your spring has sucked too! I have been having problems with my squash this year…it has been just too wet…and I can’t blame the mulch for screwing things up because they’re planted in tall hills. With enough trial, though, we can get pretty decent gardens…!

    Brett, well, stand back once you start planting stuff out in Wisco for real. Great stuff, clay, despite my complaints. Like a cranky relative, you just need to know its tics in advance…and make sure you do what it wants.

    Cohutt, hah, yeah. Multiple boo-boos. We all have our share, battle scars. Zoysia grass: that’s that tough barely walkable stuff right or am I confusing it with St Augustine grass? I’ll take my KY blue thanks. But yeah your method certainly looks like it works well for you…! and leaving the clippings on the lawn should help it along too.

    Stef yeah but you want my winters to go with my grass amounts? I didn’t think so. Glad to hear about your newest colony…! Rescues are Tom’s next route.

    Thanks, Pamela. You’re right and pops is wrong…how often does that happen? I am sure he just thinks it’s untidy. I do too but I can’t fight the results. Have a good weeding session for both of us.

  13. I don’t understand people who throw their garden waste away. You GREW that! It might just be a weed, but it is valuable product from your own garden. Well, I have been putting the kikuyu grass and three cornered jacks in the green bin to be taken away by my council. Those are also the only weeds that I tear up. Unless they are reclaiming a garden bed (and mulch usually stops that) the weeds taking over my garden can stay. SOMETHING may as well grow there.

    My soil is fine clay, too. When I moved in it was harder than the concrete. I mulched it – and within 24 hours things were growing and the worms had come back. It was amazing how fast that was. Ok, so the things growing were weeds. But I let them, because the soil needs aerating and their roots are useful for that. All I have to do is make sure the soil doesn’t dry out, and it’s amazingly fertile. I’m battling slugs for my lettuces at the moment, though, that’s disenheartening!

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