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!