Using Hay as Mulch for Organic Gardening

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A guide to using mulch in your yard or garden

The method of mulching heavily with hay has enjoyed widespread if unpublicized use for many years.

Here is a list of some great ways to use hay as mulch in your own garden.

1. Planting — Sweet Corn can readily be sown by merely pushing the seed kernels into the ground through the hay mulch. A string to mark the rows make this kind of planting very quick and easy, and the yield is usually well above average.

2. Plant Residues — After trying many ways of disposing of corn stalks, ranging from composting to chopping and spreading, I have arrived at the nearly ideal scheme. As soon as the corn is harvested, I flatten the stalks to the ground by bending them over and stamping on them. Then I cover the flattened mess with hay. In the spring, any kind of plants can be set with a trowel through this cover. By spreading a little compost, loam or peatmoss on top, even small seeds can be started, and the roots will penetrate into the decaying mass below. The results are astonishing to anyone who has not tried the method, and the work is reduced to almost nothing. I should add that I am not troubled with corn borers at all, and of course use no sprays or dusts of any kind.

3. Fall Clean-Up — My annual fall “clean-up” consists of leaving everything in the garden exactly where it is, and covering all crop residues with hay. I prefer to keep this cover fairly thin. If it is only four or five inches deep, it will be reduced close to ground level by spring, and seeds can be planted on and through it without moving it around. This not only saves work, but it also makes it possible to put rows very close together and far more into the same space. Row spacing is mainly a question of the gardener’s convenience. For most crops, I place the rows the same distance apart as the plants are to stand in the rows. Sweet corn spaced six inches each way will do just as well as it will with the rows three feet apart, and you get six times as much corn from the same area. Three rows of onion plants occupy a space only a foot wide, and son on with all the rest. Narrow paths separating crops of different sorts give you ready access.

4. Weeding — Hay is a marvelous substitute for thinning and weeding. Instead of pulling unwanted plants out of the ground, and disturbing the roots of others, I bend the weeds flat and pull hay over them.

5. Tilling — On most new ground, a few inches of hay in the fall will make it possible to plant any kind of crop the following year without disturbing the sod. With the Stout System, spading, plowing and cultivating are all unnecessary, and do more harm than good. If a heavy hay cover is laid on even the toughest sod in the summer, plantings can be made through it the following spring. No other preparation of the soil is required.

6. Transplanting — Strawberries, tomatoes and other plants are incredibly easy to set through thin hay mulch. With a string to mark the row, and a box or basket for the plants, you can move easily along, stabbing a trowel into the ground to make a deep slit. Shove the plant into this slit, step on the raised surface, and move on to the next. I can set 100 strawberry plants in a half hour without hurrying much. And they grow admirably, too.

7. Growing Potatoes — Large crops of the highest quality potatoes can be grown laying the seed (preferably small whole potatoes) on top of the remains of last year’s mulch. I make mounds of last year’s mulch. I make double rows, fourteen inches apart, with the seed the same distance apart in the rows. The idea of this is not only to get a heavy yield, but to make it easy to inspect the vines from both sides occasionally, and take care of a rare potato bug or a bunch of eggs that the ladybugs have missed. Having laid the seed in straight rows with the aid of a string, I cover the rows with six or eight inches of hay, and do nothing more until several week later.

After the blossoms fall, I begin moving the hay carefully to see how things are progressing. Small potatoes an inch or two in diameter can be separated from their stems without disturbing the parent plants, and the hay then replaced. The yield in pounds is reduced, of course, but the returns in satisfaction are maximized. Irish Cobblers are the best to eat this way, I think, but any variety with plenty of butter and home-grown parsley is a treat that few people have ever had.

8. Acidity Alkalinity — If you use hay mulch continuously for a number of years, you can practically forget all about acid or alkaline soil problems—along with dusting and spraying and the use of chemical fertilizers and “soil conditioners.” I grow everything from beets to blueberries under this system, and pay no attention to acidity or alkalinity any more. My experience has been that ample organic matter acts as an effective buffer and helps to neutralize extreme of pH in any soil.

9. Soil Temperature — Piling a heavy hay mulch onto the cold wet ground early in the spring is not a good way to start. Unless the soil is very sandy, or unless it is well supplied with humus, hay will give poor immediate results. Hay applied for the first time does little more than insulate the soil for several months, and if a beginning is being made in the spring, seeds should usually be well started before the mulch is spread. To improve germination and prevent washing, there is nothing better than a very thin sprinkling of peat moss over each row of seed. This light cover also serves to mark the rows, so hay can be spread in just the right places. If peat moss is thus used, the mulch can be applied between the rows at any time after planting.

10. Garden Boundary — I like to keep several extra bales of hay along the side of the garden. In the course of a year or two they break down into moist black humus, filled with earthworms that enter from below. Meanwhile, they smother grass that would otherwise continually be creeping into the edge of the garden.

11. Rotations — A rotation of strawberries, corn and potatoes are very interesting. These three crops all present special problems, because they ordinarily require so much space. For the backyard gardener to manage all of them is usually out of the question, and I have experimented for many years in an effort to solve the problem. The answer I have arrived at works very well, but it may be subject to further improvement, and I hope that anyone with a better system will let me know about it.

Since this method is a rotation, we may begin at any stage of it, so let us start with the strawberries. I will try to show how some of the ideas I have already mentioned apply in this scheme. Let me say at this point that I have eaten strawberries prepared in every way I could think of, and that my notion of perfection is to pick the berries dead ripe after the sun has evaporated excess moisture, and eat them immediately when they are still warm, but swimming in heavy chilled cream. If you have not tired organically grown strawberries this way, you may still be wondering if they are worth the time and trouble they require.

Now for the rotation. I set a new bed every year, buying 100 virus-free plants, and spacing them in four rows one foot apart, with the plants also one foot apart in rows. The plants are set through a thin mulch left from the previous season, and more hay is added as growth occurs, and as weeds need to be smothered. Since I want results, not only on the strawberries, but on the corn to follow, I spread 100 pounds of Bovung and 50 pounds of bone meal over the bed as soon as the plants are well started. I remove all runners the first year, which sounds like a lot of work. Actually, however, it takes about ten minutes a week. A walk down each side of the bed, with a pair of grass shears in hand, will take care of the runners about as quickly as you would ordinarily inspect the plants anyway.

As early as possibly the following spring, before the strawberry plants are getting into full leaf, I seed sweet corn between the rows along each side of the bed. A string keeps the corn rows straight, and I push the kernels into the ground with my fingers, spacing them closely, and taking account of the way the strawberry plants are developing. When the berries are ready to pick in June, the corn should be four or five inches high, and easy to avoid in the harvesting. The corn should be an early and strong-growing variety. I count on the five 25-plant rows of corn to yield at least fifteen dozen fine ears, and have not been disappointed yet. While the corn is growing it needs no attention at all. The strawberry plants continue to live and to shade the corn roots, and the corn thrives on the extra Bovung and bone meal applied earlier.

After the corn has all been harvested, the stalks are simply flattened to the ground over the surviving strawberry plants and covered with several inches of hay. The following spring, potatoes are laid on top of whatever remains of al this, and mulched with a heavy hay blanket. Again, nothing remains to be done but to gather potatoes, as they are wanted. According to the chemical school, everything should be riddled by insects and diseases, but I have barely enough evidence of these to realize what is supposed to be destroying my crops. I harvest all my potatoes with my bare hands, because it is so satisfying to handle the living soil and to discover one handsome tuber after another growing in it. The potato harvest thus leaves the whole space in perfect condition for the next crop. I merely cover the ground with hay, and wait for my strawberry plants to arrive.

Learn more in this article about how much mulch to use.

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