Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Frugal Gardening Tip #2 - Mulch

If "time is money" then any time saver is saving money - or that is the way I look at it.

And mulch saves time - lots of time.

We never mulched at my home growing up. Well, we did lay black plastic down in the melon patch but otherwise we relied on the tiller, hoes, and man (or child) power to beat back the weeds. It was a great project to keep children busy in the summer and I actually did not hate it. But by the end of summer, when the harvest was full swing, the weeds usually got the upper hand.

My husband's family were mulchers. And what a difference. By the time I met Ed's parents, they were retired and gardening was their hobby. My father-in-law mulched with newspaper between the garden rows and his garden was beautiful.

When we moved to our own home, we had a mower with a grass bagger. We use the grass clippings as mulch and enjoy a basically weed free garden. Our garden has continued to grow and we don't always have enough grass clippings but we mulch as much as possible.

Remember our new strawberry bed? Last week the plants were only a few straggly roots. A week later, there is new green growth and the row can be seen. The weeds haven't appeared yet but it is only a matter of time. Weeds in our old patch is one of the reasons we planted a new strawberry bed. We wanted to do what we could to eliminate the weed problem before it began.

Our strawberry rows are three feet apart. We needed to allow room for the strawberry plants to grow runners. We laid down one foot of card board between the rows. When we ran out of cardboard, we used newspaper.

We covered the paper with a generous layer of grass clippings. We pulled the grass clippings up around the plants. The runners should be able to root through the clippings.

We did the same to our new raspberry bed, using cardboard and grass clippings. (And you'll notice that I say "we". Ed does the work while I take pictures and say how wonderful it looks. And cook him a good supper. And take care of the children. And...well, I won't pretend I hold up my side of the team, but I try! I know I'm one blessed girl. And have I told you that he REALLY likes homemade bread?)

Some mulching tips -
  • Free is good. My husband has a basically unlimited supply of cardboard boxes from work. We have a huge lawn so grass clippings are abundant as long as we have rain and the grass is growing.
  • If you use newspaper or cardboard, you'll need to weight it down with rocks, dirt or something to keep it from blowing away. It also works well to soak the newspaper in a bucket of water first to make it easier to manage on a windy day.
  • Aim for thin layers. A thick layer of grass clippings will become slimy and yucky. A thin layer applied often is much preferred.
  • Keep in mind that the best mulch depends on what you are planting. Strawy manure is great if it won't come in contact with food. Maybe for a new strawberry bed that won't be harvested until the next year or around corn. Grass clippings can cling to things like green beans and make it more difficult to get clean. Choose something like newspaper for cleaner green beans.
  • I like to mulch after a rain. If dry soil is mulched, rain fall may run off without sinking into the soil. A good mulch will help to hold in the moisture. We use drip irrigation right in the garden rows to maximize our water.
  • This has not been a problem for us but if you have a lot of trouble with slugs, mulching may not be for you.
  • Our garden has very good soil but it also contains a lot of clay. The consistent use of mulch for the past seven years has increased the humus in our soil significantly. Though we use a generous layer of mulch, with our humid summers and freezing winters, all the mulch material has completely composted by spring. I think of it as the lazy man's compost system. In another climate, mulching may not work as well. I love to pull back some mulch, dig in, and watch all the earth worms squirm. A picture of happy soil!
  • We have found it best not to mulch late in the season. If the soil is covered with a heavy layer of mulch in the spring, it will take a long time to dry out and warm up. We usually add fall leaves and grass clippings to our compost pile or around shrubs, grapevines or other place that will not need tilled up for spring planting. That said, we are running an experiment this year with one sections of our garden. We covered it with shredded leaves this past fall. This spring we did no tilling but just chopped a hole and dropped in the broccoli and lettuce plants. We plan to plant corn in that garden as well with no tilling just pushing the seed into the ground. We'll see if it works!
One of the things we enjoy about gardening is trying new things. We've had successes and failures but we wouldn't have known the result if we had not tried.

If mulching your garden is a new idea to you, I'd encourage you to try it this year! I'm sure you could find a better use of your time then weeding!


  1. quick question - could I use shredded paper from the shredder at work. White paper with black ink? thanks!

  2. Blind3Monk3y-
    I think you could use shredded paper. We used shredded paper as mulch in our chicken coop and then add it to our compost pile. Give it a try!

  3. Be careful of colored inks on the newspapers and bright white office paper. Colored ink can contain heavy metals and bright white paper is bleached with chlorine. The heavy metals can build up in soil and be taken up by the plants you are growing. I am not an expert but I know organic standards will not allow wood ash to be used as a soil amendment if newspaper or cardboard with colored inks have been used to start your fires.

  4. I just set up my garden and have been struggling to find the right mulch. I posted a few pictures on my new blog, but the strawberry bed isn't here yet... I may do newpaper, but I don't have grass clippings... Any experience with wood bark mulch over newspaper??

  5. I know this is a very old post, but maybe you'll see this comment anyway! Have you ever come across http://backtoedenfilm.com/ ? check it out! What you were talking about here is exactly that method. It works. And I just realized that this completely looks like spam, so I'll clarify that this is a gardening method that uses mulching and he just plants straight through the mulch, as you were mentioning. He lives in the same state as I do and has unbelievable results. Hope you've already come to the conclusion that this method works, but you should check out the film anyway. There are a lot of interviews on youtube about him as well.


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