For years we gardened the traditional way. We would wait until the ground dried out enough and then my husband would drag out the huge tiller to till under and work the ground. Then we would add a layer of compost, and my husband would work that into the ground as well. We would plant our plants and seeds, admire the powdery beautiful soil, and sit back to watch it all grow. The first several weeks would be great. All my little seedlings would emerge from the ground so quickly and weeds were easy to manage. By the second month, the weeds would be out of control, the ground compacted, and I would have to water every single day. The crazy thing is that after I watered, the ground would soon be dry like I hadn’t even watered at all. There was nothing “wrong” with this method. We always had decent harvests, but it took much of our time, and we had to water a LOT. Our water bill was outrageous.
Now many years later, we haven’t used our tiller in three years. Weeds are minimal, and the ones we do get are easily pulled out with roots intact. We spend fifteen minutes a week pulling weeds instead of an hour every two days.
We water our garden only 2-3 times a week when we haven’t had rain, and none when we do have rain. We water exclusively through the rain that they receive fresh, and what we collect from our rain barrels. It’s now a joy and minimal work. A lazy gardener’s dream.
What has made our gardening experience so different over the last three years?
I attribute it to two things: double high raised beds and mulching.
When we had single high raised beds, we still got quite a bit of crab grass that came through, but since we added the second layer in height, we get very few weeds.
The raised beds are aesthetically pleasing, easy to care for, drain well, and reduce certain pests. I also like not having to bend as far down to plant, tend, and harvest. Raised beds aren’t absolutely necessary for successful gardening, but we sure do like them.
Mulching though, along with quality soil are in my opinion, absolutes for great gardening. Every year instead of tilling, we add a layer of nitrogen rich compost to the ground and a thin layer of topsoil. We plant our seeds or plants, wait for them to get a couple of inches tall, and then we add a layer of mulch around them. The cost is very minimal. The work is minimal. The upkeep is minimal. Again, a lazy gardener’s dream.
The beauty of mulching is that it minimizes weeds and helps the soil retain moisture. There is a covering protecting your precious soil. When you think about how you bake bread or work with dough, you cover the dough so it doesn’t dry out. The same is true for the soil. With a covering, the soil underneath stays moist, which means less watering and softer ground for the roots to establish. Compaction is minimal, worms love it, and when you do get weeds, they pull out extremely easily. Below is a picture of my garden with mulch. This picture was taken at 2pm on a day in the upper 80s. The ground hasn’t been watered in 3 days. When I pull back the mulch, you can see the soil underneath is still moist.
Dry soil is desolate. Think about an old dirt road. Nothing is covering it and eventually it gets dried, cracked, and nothing will grow. Contrast that with the woods. The ground is covered with grasses, fallen leaves, fallen needles and branches, etc. The soil underneath is moist, rich, and requires no watering from an outside source, only the rain above. No one adds anything to ground, tills it, or anything. Vegetation just grows. This is a picture of a portion of my garden that doesn’t have mulch covering the soil. It was taken at the same time of day as above under the same conditions. You can see that the exposed ground is dry and crumbly. When I dig underneath, the ground is still dry and not moist like the areas where there is a covering.
What kind of mulch?
By now, I may have convinced you to consider mulching, but now maybe you are wondering what of mulch. Chopped up leaves, grass clippings, straw, or small wood chips all work. Currently we use wood chips in most of our beds, but we are experimenting with leaves.
We recently did a soil test, and everything tested over the top except for nitrogen, which was lacking. The problem with wood chips is that they can rob the ground of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, you will have short stunted plants that are pale in color. To get healthy plants, you will have to heavily fertilize with super high nitrogen rich organic matter like manure, compost, organic blood meal, etc.
While we do have great yields of produce that come from our garden each year, I suspect that next year we will scrape off all of our wood chips and move to all leaf mulch or straw. Time will tell.
For more information, watch the movie: Back to Eden