I always get a little sheepish when I write posts about gardening.
As I’ve admitted before, gardening just doesn’t seem to be my special talent, and I’ve really struggled growing much of anything the last few years…
Last year I excitedly announced my foray into the hugelkultur method. I was oh-so hopeful, but it turned out to be a disaster. Not a single thing grew on my hugelkultur bed. Not even weeds. (And that, my friends, is an accomplishment since I am incredibly talented at growing weeds.)
I assume as the wood in the base of the bed decomposed, it tied up the nutrients in the soil, which resulted in a no-grow zone. (All the tutorials I read said that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t know how else to explain it…)
So, I was back to square one.
stubborn determined homesteader that I am, I wasn’t going to give up that easily, so I burrowed back into my research to figure out which avenue to take next.
My latest idea came from a pile of old gardening books that I inherited from my grandfather’s estate. To be honest, I didn’t really expect to find any gems in the pile of musty smelling volumes, but boy, was I wrong!
The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence (affiliate link) was originally written in 1971, yet her methods are still widely respected to this day. I was immediately drawn to her sassy style of writing– I think she and I would have gotten along just fine. 😉
I had been leaning towards the idea of mulching for a while, but this book was just the push that I needed to start the deep mulch method on my own garden. I started dreaming about mulch… And lots of it.
How to Use the Deep Mulch Method in Your Garden
First off, let me start by saying there are LOTS of schools of thought on this–and many, many different mulching techniques. I don’t think there is any one “right” way– I believe it greatly depends on your soil and your climate. This particular deep mulch method is the one I decided would be best for my situation at the present time, but I plan to tweak/adjust as needed.
I am hoping to move towards a no-till concept for our garden. Up until now, we’ll tilled it every year (out of necessity).
First off, we covered the garden spot with a layer of compost, and then tilled it (maybe for the last time?)
After the tilling, I spread a very thick layer of hay all over the garden (it was around 8-10 inches tall at first, but has already settled considerably)
**IMPORTANT: If you are planning on using the deep mulch method, please make sure you are ONLY using hay or straw that has NOT been sprayed with herbicides of any kind! Read my sad story about herbicide contamination here.**
I chose hay because it is readily available to us (we had a big bale of low-quality hay that the animals didn’t want to eat), but you can also use straw, leaves, grass clippings, etc.
I’m not a fan of plastic or fabric barriers since they don’t decompose. One of the main benefits of using organic materials is that they feed the soil as they break down.
Different mulches provide different benefits, so there is plenty of room to experiment. Just keep in mind that you need a LOT of whatever mulch you decide to use.
After spreading the hay thickly over the entire garden, (which felt totally bizarre at first, by the way), I decided where I wanted to put my rows, and parted the hay in those areas, leaving an exposed strip of dirt.
I planted the seeds directly in the dirt, just like normal. As the seedlings pop up, I’ll pull the mulch around them to block weeds and conserve water.
Initial Observations on the Deep Mulch Method
Even though it felt strange to cover my garden with hay at first, I’m really happy with the finished product (so far). The idea of a bare-dirt garden has always felt a little funny to me, since bare patches of dirt aren’t common in nature (and if they are present, then it usually means something is wrong…)
We’ve had one rain so far, and the mulch is already keeping the soil moist and happy. I’m hoping that I will spend much less time watering this year. Wyoming frequently suffers from drought conditions, so the less water I have to use, the better.
I plan to apply more mulch as needed, which will take a little bit of work, but still sounds much easier that all the weeding I was doing in years past…
I expect the heavy layer of mulch to greatly reduce our weed problem, and when the weeds do pop up, I plan to cover them with more mulch.
We’ve already had a couple of windy/stormy days since I spread the mulch, and I was happy to see that the hay stayed securely in place. So far, so good!
Why Not the Back to Eden Method?
Every time I talk about garden on the blog or Facebook page, I get half a dozen folks sending me links to the Back to Eden garden method.
I’ve watched the video several times, and am completely enthralled by the concept. I was actually going to use that method this year, but after further research, decided to use hay mulch instead.
This post by my friend Quinn at Reformation Acres is what initially caused me to rethink my Back to Eden plans. I think she has very valid points, and since our gardening season is so delicate here, I decided I needed to do more investigation before dumping a huge load of wood chips on my garden.
(Honestly, the thought of having to remove all the chips if the plan didn’t work made me totally chicken out…)
Will I try the Back to Eden method later on? Maybe! I love the concept, and I still want to try a test-plot somewhere in my yard. But I figured hay-mulching method was slightly less risky for my first-round of experimentation, so we’ll see what happens with that.
More Gardening Tips:
- Homemade Potting Soil Recipe
- Building Raised Beds
- How to Improve Your Garden Soil
- Seed Starting Guide
- A Simple DIY Seed Starting System
Get my Deep Mulch Method eBook for FREE!
One thing to keep in mind when using hay mulch – you might also be spreading weed seeds in the garden. My parents did that one year, and introduced some kind of a tangle grass that was very difficult to get rid of.
David Remkes says
There are millions of weed seeds in the ground just waiting for a soil disturbance. A mulch covering will prevent many of them from germinating.
David is very correct. I’ve used no mulch down in Houston area, deep hay and wood chips in an Texas panhandle. I completely prefer hay. So much easier, breaks down better, builds better soil here in this clay. Wish farmers would get with the clean hay program up here. We have to travel 6 hrs one way for unsprayed hay.
Gregory Dent says
If you have the mulch deep enough, 18-24 inches any hay seed that sprouts will sprout in the mulch making it easy to get rid of because the weed roots grow in the hay. Just slip the old pitch fork under the affected area and flip it like a pancake. Easy breezy. I started gardening this year after a long hiatus, and would never think of gardening any other way. Deep mulching also draws earthworms as the soil is always moist, and the rotting hay/straw provides food for the worms. Many folks raise composting worms in bins and sort the castings out for their dirt gardens. Why go through that fuss? Make your garden your compost pile, and the worms will come and make the best organic fertilizer you’ll ever see.
Brandi Isbell says
I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been doing that for years and it’s worked wonderfully.
Luci Kidd says
So, does one add more hay and heavy mulch again the next year and so on?
Using really good alfalfa hay which is a legume is better than grass hay – provides much better nutrients for a organic garden, doesn’t have grass in it unless the stand has been taken over.
Where can you get alfalfa hay?
Karen Herrmann says
We mulch with old carpet strips in the isles and straw around the plants. We munched with hay mixed with manure one time and it must have been sprayed because we went from years Having a nice garden to having everything look like it had a failure to thrive. Roma series looked the worse. Did not really look diseased, but more like they were stunted. We have since moved and now our enemy is the Johnson grass that is everywhere. We have been cutting it close to the ground, laying thick cardboard over it and then straw. Where it comes up in t g e garden, we try to fork out the rhyzomes but you have to get every little piece. So far we are staying mostly ahead of it
Heather @ My Overflowing Cup says
Well, what do you know? I, also, am incredibly talented at growing weeds, as well. Thanks for all the information in this great post! I will pray for your garden while I am praying for mine. May this be a banner year for each of us!
Jill Winger says
Weed growers unite! 🙂
Betty P says
Any update? How did your garden do? Are you pleased with the results?
Don in Arkansas says
My Mother used to say that if you are going to pray for your garden, it works better if you pray while you hoe. 🙂
I love your mom! 🙂
Chris Pyle says
I am an old timer. Ruth Stouts books was one of my first gardening book. Still have it and it is well worn and read. Her NO WORK statement always cracked me up. There is nothing NO WORK about it. 40+ years later I am still growing by her methods. It works. It takes a couple, maybe three, years to really get to working well but the mulch is always a good thing. One place I lived there for 8 years and I ended up not planting a garden for 4 of those years. Just let all the volunteers come up. Was wonderful. No tilling just piling leaves gathered from neighbors.
i also just toss my kitchen non meat scraps out the side door where my veggie garden lives. No composting. Do not need to. worms are amazing. Let them be your rototillers.
Do not give up. You can do it.
Jill Winger says
Thanks for the words of encouragement Chris! 🙂 And yes, I agree– the mulching method is still work, but hopefully not as much!
Petra Hinterschied says
I too had heard that you don’t want to use hay because it has seeds in it . . . I’ve heard that straw is better for that reason. I read a book called the One Straw Revolution about this very method. I have yet to try it because we’re getting ready to move to our homestead . . . hopefully next year I’ll get to start a nice garden. So I am curious to hear how your method works, so I can learn for my own future garden.
Straw has seed in it, too. We get oats or wheat or barley growing wherever we use it depending on what kind of straw we get.
I put straw down and now I am weeding all the grass that is growing 🙁
You have to use pine straw.
Margie D says
We have an abundance of pine needles (pine straw?) and used them to cover my raised beds for the winter last year. I am a beginning gardener and it seemed to work. My new asparagus plants survived so I was happy. Any suggestions on the pine needle use…something I should Include with the needles? We live in a mixed zone 4/5
Jill….I tried hay two years ago from a farm store. I asked and they said it had not been sprayed with herbicide but guess what….very little grew and what did grow was stunted. The beds are raised and I wanted to ask….do I need to dig and replace all the soil in the beds? Thanks for any answers. Kathie
Tracy @ Our Simple Life says
We have also struggled with our garden for years! We live in a very sandy soil, hot climate in South Carolina so getting things to grow was a battle for us. We started to use the grass clippings from mowing as mulch and have seen a big difference this year. The grass clippings keep the weeds down, add nutrients to the sandy soil and keep the moisture in. I think your hay will do the same thing. I think you are on track and can’t wait to see you post your results.
I am a big Ruth Stout Fan. I have uswd her methids on 3 properties now, all owith very different soil challenges, and it has worked everywhere. Things to remember are 1- Hay is grown for animal forage and will have a LOT of seeds in it. Straw is what is leftover from a grain crop, where as much seed as possi le has been removed, and the crop is seldom a perennial, so the seeds that do get left in are usually easy to deal with. If you use spoiled hay with manure in it, it should be applied only in the Fall so the manure has time to become less “hot”. If the manure is too fresh, it can burn your plants. Your mulch layer WILL settle more than you think. If too thin, weed seeda will sprout and grow through it.
Joseph Nieboer says
Keeping the mulch deep is one of the secrets to making this work. Weeds need to reach soil and light to grow. Ones that germinate in the mulch are easy to pull and just leave on top to add more mulch. Might what to add compost just where you plant for added start and then replace the mulch. Deep mulch does keep soil cool in the spring but when it gets hot out the roots will still stay cool. This garden should get better each year as the mulch breaks down and the worms do their thing below the mulch..
Your German style raised beds also take a few years to really work. I built a big one this past year and but took a few months in doing it. After the wood layer I cover it with 6 inches of grass clipping. It was open so the chickens could daily scratch and turn the exposed layers. All our household scraps were added along with egg shells. Chickens spread the layers all out and we would just shovel it and the dirt back on top. We finally planted Kalabasa squash on the four corners and the vines just took over thirty feet of our yard and the fruit about 15 lbs each. Just started to harvest these and looks like at least 30 and the vines are still putting out blossoms. Not bad from the 9 seeds that germinated. Best part of this is all the different things that get added into the make up of the soil. More nutrition in the fruit and all organic.
Happy gardening and keep everyone posted as you try the different methods. All do require some work but that part of providing for your family. God bless.
Jill Winger says
Great advice Joseph– thank you for sharing your wisdom!
City grower here. I go to the back of electronic/furniture rental centers on Sunday and haul away the cardboard they throw out. Last year’s plants are covered with cardboard then I cover that with soil to winter over. All weeds are smothered and cardboard decomposed in time for spring planting.
Yanic A. says
Quick question : When you tried your hugelkulture bed, what wood did you use?
The reason I ask is because I’ve read that certain species of wood (like conifers, walnut and oaks) because they are allelopathic. I haven’t dug into it very profoundly, but from what I understand, these trees, when decomposing, can become toxic to other plants. So automatically, using some of these in hugelkulture beds would render all growing impossible… that may explain why even weeds didn’t grow.
I hope this year is better for you!
Jill Winger says
I used siberian elm and cottonwood limbs. I don’t *think* they are toxic, but you never know!
Yanic A. says
I don’t remember those on the list… I don’t think they cause issues, but who knows. We were all ready to try hugelkulture this year and had to back out because 70% of the wood we had was not the right kind…
I wonder if it was all the wood ash you put on that caused your issues? That can make soil pretty alkaline and make it hard for plants to grow. I love reading your posts, btw!
Ted Elliott says
Jill I hope you are still out there. I built a Hoogle culture Garden this year. My question is do I need to add material to the top of it next year? Thank you
Jill, I am confident Ruth Stout’s ideas will work for you, because they work for me down here in Colorado, and our climates and soil are very similar. I have two friends who tried the back to Eden Method a few years ago here, and their gardens were dismal failures. Our soil and climate is simply too dry and too alkaline, for one thing. I mulch with old hay, and yes, it does introduce grass seeds, but I both throw more on and pull up the grass and give it to my cow. (Poor man’s fodder system, haha!). I have switched to raised beds (no borders, just hand dug mounds) for ease of reaching down to weed and harvest and went ahead and put wood chips in my “aisle-ways” between to keep down mud and weeds. It’s very true that nothing grows with wood chips, so they are perfect for walkways in the garden! (And they were free, which is good, too- I have a thing about not spending extra money on garden amendments). Excited for you, good luck!
Jill Winger says
I sure hope so Miss Cathy! You were definitely part of my inspiration for this endeavor. 🙂
Glad to know I am inspiring someone. Sometimes I feel like all I do is horrify and offend people, haha! :). Keep us all updated on your progress……
So this is the method that I used this year not bc i was trying a specific method, its just what i had on hand- lots of horse poo, lots of amazing chicken liter and some rejected peed on hay. So far it had been amazing, the texture of the soil is almost spongey and the plants are loving it. the best part is that it was easy- throughout the winter i just tossed the horse poo and chicken litter into my garden to break down and after a couple months it was perfect. The tomato plants are happier then ever and im not needing to water as much. the other commenter is right- i can easily pull out the weeds. the texture of the garden is amazing and kinda bounces when i walk on it and is not compacted like most of the blackland prarie on my land. the best part is that i had everything in my barnyard i needed!
Jill Winger says
This is very encouraging Rachele!
I do a no till garden. To help control weeds, I use cardboard, newspaper, and grass clippings. Hubby mows the yard with the bagger on and I dump the grass clippings in the garden and spread them out. Even when weeds make their way thru, they are very easy to pull. When we get moved to our homestead, I’m going to do keyhole gardening http://worldofweeks.com/2014/05/23/keyhole-gardening/.
I try as many different methods as I affordably can… I’ve got an awesome keyhole going (best dirt in my yard is in that bed). I go by Ruth Stout in my back yard veggie beds and have gotten a friend who mows lawns to bring me the grass so I can use it to mulch my veggies. I’ve gotten 5 large tree trimming trucks of wood chips delivered over the past 3 years… I’ve learned to use these in my path ways and around my shrubs and perennial beds. No weeds, and the plants I want to keep aren’t as fragile as annual vegetables and I don’t barely ever water these areas unless its super hot for days and days in mid July.
I have a couple of hugulkulture beds – one in the sunniest spot – and it does reduce watering. I have perennials and, a rugosa rose, herbs like rosemary, oregano, fennel, russian sage, mint, lemon balm – I tuck in a couple of annuals and there’s a nanking cherry bush and a beachplum growing there. It’s doing well… the annuals never go crazy, but the rest come back and thrive during the season with no trouble. When I plant, I’m still hitting logs, though they are becoming spongier and chipping away each season. I don’t stress about adding much nitrogen except adding a layer of grass clippings now and then when I have to much for the veggie beds.
I like your blog! I hope the mulching works for you. It improves every area of my sandy yard – grass or wood chips – and my garden mantra has become “Mulch the planet!” Have a great summer!
I have used the Back to Eden method for the last 2 years with great results. Almost no watering except in the very beginning and hardly any weeds. I started my beds a year before I planted. The first year I didn’t get the seeds in the soil and they grew rapidly at first and then quit growing. I replanted many of my plants that first year and had a pretty good crop. The next year I made sure to plant in the soil and had a wonderful crop. I think the success lies in the bed having time to decompose and make the soil soft. I pray that you have an abundance of crops in your garden this year.
Jill Winger says
I’m happy to hear the Back to Eden method is working for you Charlotte! 🙂
If you keep the hay thick enough, it shouldn’t sprout weeds. The whole concept behind using it as mulch is to keep it super thick, (8 inches and let it settle) in order to keep ANY weed from germinating, including the hay. If the mulch is sparse enough for hay to germinate, it would certainly allow weeds to germinate too and this would defeat the purpose of the mulch in the first place.
Just make sure you have your hay thick enough in all spots and everything will be just fine. You will see if it begins to sprout easy enough. Pull the seedlings from the ground and give that spot some more mulch. When using this method, the few weeds that pop up are actually the indicator of the bare spots!
I use this method and love it. Good luck!
I’m so excited you are using hay! We use hay too, and have for the past 3 years. Everybody STILL thinks we are crazy, but our soil started as hard dry clay, and now we have rich, spongy like soil. We have a VERY LARGE garden and some “smaller” gardens and we grow most of our own food on our farm.
We just posted this last week on our FB page with a couple pictures of our garden 2 years ago. It was our first year of trying this method. I didn’t post pics this year yet because the plants are still small (or not planted yet).
The only issues we’ve had is the hay does harbor more bugs and squash bugs are hard to beat in hay. We are planning on building a pen around our squash area (16’x40′) and sinking a small pool and keeping a few of our ducks there to help combat squash bugs this year. Last year, the ducks free ranged in and out of the gardens as they pleased, but we need them to zero in this year on the squash bugs.
Second, weeds haven’t been a big issue because what does grow, is super easy to pull out. (but very little actually germinate and grow because of the large amounts of hay) However, we have a weed we call “choke weed” that here when we moved to the farm. It’s a vine that grows from seed, from cuttings, deep roots, and everything in between, and hay doesn’t seem to phase it, but even that isn’t too hard to pull out.
We always refer people to the “Back to Eden” film, simply because that’s where we were introduced to garden this way. The difference is we use hay instead of wood chips, but other than that, it’s all the same. It’s like a cross between “back to eden” and Ruth Stout’s method.
One HUGE HELPER is making sure you mimic nature and cover your garden in the fall with lots of hay. We use hay all throughout the growing season to fill spots and just to get more down, but in the fall, we cover the entire garden again.
IT REALLY WORKS! Don’t give up. We don’t think you’re crazy!! And, you shouldn’t have to till anymore. And, just forget the hundreds of millions of grass seeds you are putting on your garden. They don’t ALL germinate! 😉
You can get a hold of me through my FB page or I’m on your team too, if you have any questions. Let us know. We love to help people get started!
Okay, sorry, messed up the hyperlink for our FB post about our garden, and don’t know if I can edit my comment.
Jill Winger says
This is totally helpful AND encouraging Casey!! So you do another hay layer in the fall? That’s what I was thinking of, but wasn’t totally sure. And then the following spring, you part the hay again and plant in the soil?
Yes, you cover the garden each fall with a fresh layer of hay after you pull out all the old vegetation. We just follow nature, and when the leaves start dropping leaves, we cover our garden as well.
The following spring, you have nice soil that has been breaking down hay all winter. Pull back the hay to make your rows, plant and then replace hay as needed. The bulk of your hay should be laid in the fall though.
One other benefit is you don’t have to wait for your ground to dry up in the spring to till it or whatever. With the hay, even after a heavy rain, you can walk out and pick veggies without getting mud on your shoes. It’s pretty awesome! We will never garden any other way.
Reading this thread reminded me that I did have a problem with a pill bug infestation last year. I think it was tied to the mulch. I am experimenting with hay mulch in some areas, and plain compost in others this year. I am not sure if the pill bugs were a fluke thing or a product of the heavy mulch. Those little stinkers ate my tomatoes, peppers, and beans.
We haven’t tried mulch, just started with hay. We do have pill bugs in our garden, but, we haven’t noticed much destruction from them. Like I mentioned before, we run ducks in our garden, so I’m sure they help more than we realize with eating the pill bugs, as well as squash bugs, etc…
I was interested in the back to eden concept but couldnt talk my husband into it. An ugly set of circumstances led to about 100(square) bales worth of hay being rained on…then flipped and dried and rained on some more…then some more. I appeared to have lost my mind as I dumped most of the piles on our “resting” garden. There are two other gardens in use that now have freshly covered rows and my husband cant decide if hes mad at me or not. I left room between the rows for his tiller in those rows but the resting garden…oh its covered. I declared it mine and never to be tilled again and feverishly was searching for another crazy person who maybe has more of a plan so I can pretend I knew what I was doing….thanks! I’m totally gonna play it off like I saw your site before I dumped 160,000 grass seeds on our gardens!
Hugelkulture is a long term project!! I have 3 beds and build them slowly. Only one bed is planted and it grows stuff really well. The others will too …. eventually. It takes time for the “ingredients” to settle and decompose. Bed 2 will be finished and planted with some perennials by the end of this summer. Bed 3 probably by the end of next year. I also use straw and hay as mulch. And all my potatoes and garlic plants are grown totally in beds of straw or hay (depending on what is available). I have heard all the drama about seeds from the hay – it truly is not an issue. There are several organic garlic farmers uphere in the frozen north (Canadian end of VT) all of whom plant in hay. Fabulous crops.
Jill Winger says
Good to know! I started to wonder about that… I kept my hugelkulture bed and just added some more layers–maybe it’ll do better down the road.
Pam, any info you could give on growing potatoes & garlic in straw would be greatly appreciated! Thx!
I also own Ruth Stout’s wonderful book and embraced her gardening methods some years ago. In my current yard I was able to start from scratch and incorporate Ruth’s no till, Permaculture swales, hugelkultur growing berms and laying down 125 yards of thick wood chips for walkways & soil protection in orchard & perennial areas. My Uncle Jim got his PHD in Forestry back in the early 70’s and has always advocated the use of mulches. Prepare your soils for deep & long lasting life. Soil is a “skin”. Make it thick so it holds water, minerals & nutrients. Beneficial nematodes need moist conditions to thrive and they can dry out and die. In areas of dryness or drought they are usually followed by infestations of insects. This is why the wood chips are so important. The top may become dry but underneath is moist and thriving with life. This close to the surface moisture keeps your worms active. The deep chips make it easier for you to “side compost” your garden rows thus accelerating the composting of the chips.
Jill Winger says
Wish you lived closer Sheri– I would love to pick your brain! 😉
Sorry to post this here but I posted a question under an older subject, cheese making (fromage blanc) looking for some help from the cheese makers out there 🙂 thank you!
Also we use hay as well have for years, works great as stated before lay it on thick!
Hi, read your article regarding deep mulching. My garden is slow going-we live in east central WI-but I have always mulched with marsh hay. Though I never thought to mulch first then plant as I have always done it the other way around. Like your idea. I learned this from my great Aunt who gardened up into her late 70’s. I don’t till anymore as this disrups all the good organisms and the earthworms and brings up more weed seeds. Yes, I still get weeds but they are so much easier to pull out now.
I am making a new bed so that will take some doing. But we have a friend who trims and cuts trees and he gives me the wood mulch. I let that decompose for a year, though that has to be turned occasionally but the results are wonderful rich compost. I will lay that down on top of wet newspapers then more hay layering as I go so that next season I have a bed ready to plant.
Thank you for your articles. I really enjoy reading them.
I like mulch and have learned 2 to 4 inches is plenty. Hay mulch will plant grass seed which will become a nuisance after you till or add other mulch etc. Keep the mulch pulled back from the plants when they come up about 1″ or you will literally burn the stalk where it comes near the degrading mulch. I like Straw, because of fewer seed issues. Also, if and when you use sawdust, use Kiln Dried as from a wood or cabinet shop. It is not as acid and deteriorates quicker. Kiln dried pine is OK also and it all works well when mulching. In your walkways put down gunny-sacks to stay out of the mud or just mulch. The best watering is at the roots. In other words not sprinkling, soak and let it run under or through the mulch not into it. Sprinkling keeps your mulch real wet! and it loves to soak up the water you use. If you can water the high side of your mounds in the walkways or with a soaker type hose to run through the mulch to the dirt below. I really don’t like wood chips. There are lots of problems associated with them.
Jill Winger says
Patricia Miller says
I live alone and like to do a relatively large garden on my own. In order to be able to stay on top of things (without having to constantly be weeding!), I started putting my grass clippings on the garden a couple of years ago. I love it! It doesn’t keep weeds 100% away (but pretty darn near) – but the weeds that do manage to make it through have weak roots and pull out quite easily. I don’t do quite a thick a layer as you showed but I do it pretty thick. I’d say a good 6+ inches. It also conserves water and keeps the dirt moist. And it also makes a nice soft bed for kneeling on (for when I do have to pick weeds or when harvesting my plants).
Gloria Jones says
Do you let your grass clippings dry before you use them in your garden?
Patricia Miller says
No, I just put them on directly. But you need to be careful that the grass doesn’t touch the plants directly – it can ‘burn’ the plant. I usually leave a couple of inches around each plant that’s not covered. And then as the clippings start to deteriorate, I add more.
We put hay down between the rows of our last spring garden, but only after it had been growing a couple months. Then I ended up with too much sciatic pain from pregnancy, so the last half of the season was a bit of a bust for the garden in general! This year, we did weed barrier fabric over the rows and hay between when we first planted. The weed barrier has been a complete disaster! Weeds are just growing up under it and lifting it off the dirt! But the hay between the rows has been great! So I think our next planting, we’ll do this and cover the whole garden with hay, then make our rows the plant and keep the hay up close around the plants. I bet that will get us the most weed free garden yet!
Jill Winger says
Good to know! And yes, gardening while preggo is TOUGH!
My dad actually likes to use shredded paper between his rows. He’s been shredding decades old files for the past couple years and has gotten bags and bags full of shredded paper. He’s used that the past couple years so is now running low on things to shred! And we took his last bale of hay for our own garden! Lol!
As many have pointed out already, the hay/straw, no matter how good it is, will give you a multitude of seeds that mainly turn into some kind of grass-type plant. I know. I have done it and am paying for using it. I really needed to get more roughage into the soil, so I added layers of well rotted manure along with layers of straw/hay. The result? Every seed in there is turning into a major problem.
However, I think I have a solution! I have given the hay/straw to the chickens. They love it! They have a grand time sifting through it, breaking it down, eating the seeds, pooping like crazy, mixing it all around and eventually I will have a vast majority of the nicest stuff for my garden beds. It is a wonderful mixture of composting hay that is well fertilized with chicken manure and soil from the yard. I will let it sit there for the remainder of the summer. In the fall, I will remove part of it and add it to the fall garden. Then the girls get more hay and we start all over again. They love it. I love it. The garden loves it! Win, win, win. The stuff left over in the chicken yard from this last year will mix with the new and will be the starter for my new stuff for the following year.
I am greatly interested in the hugleculture bed. If you kept it, it should do much better–they are long term projects as stated earlier. In a dry climate like Wyoming, I don’t think they really work to just create one and plant. It might work fine in a more humid climate, but in dry places it takes more time to decompose. If you ever want to try one again–build it in the fall, let it rot over the winter, and then try planting in the spring. (I have yet to try one, but that’s the system I would use in my similarly not humid Utah garden.)
Jill Winger says
That’s what I’m hoping! I kept it and added a few more layers. I’ll keep experimenting and see what happens.
More like 2 -3 years!! Then it is ready to plant and stuff grows really well
Hi Jill, I just came across your blog, great info. I’m always searching for more tips from people that have tried different techniques. I’m a fan of the Foxfire books and of course, Carla Emery. They’re all proponents of mulching. Here in Yakima Wa, we have alot of hay and even forest loam from the mountains, so I used that, so far its doing great. Plants are healthy and coming in nicely. I also have a compost bin. Coffee grounds are a staple I use in it and its free. I’m working on getting one of the breweries to give me some spent grains as I understand thats a great compost addition. Thanks for the great site!
Amy Hoyt says
I use Ruth Stout’s method too. Last year I did not water anything in the vegey garden after the seedlings were up, and we had a drought for the best part of July/Aug and into September. I use hay/straw mix, and there are weedseeds as well has timothy seeds, but I found that if I let the timothy hay grow til I have a clump, I can dig it out and give it to my goats as a treat that they adore! Weeds just pop out (I can’t stand the thought of leaving them in), and our very heavy clay is just beautiful under that mulch. Best of luck to you!
This post and the following comments have been incredibly informative. I will be reading this book before gardden season next year! I mulch with straw every year. I still get weeds, but not nearly as many. Thanks for your blog!
I had Ruth’s Stout’s book years ago but we didn’t have a garden then so I sold it in a yard sale *sigh*. Someone told me that the hay will heat your soil up too much in the summer and is a big attraction for squash bugs, they were horrible last year. Is this true.
Also I have never heard about it but wondered about buying worms and putting them in the garden. Wouldn’t this help? 1st year I have done a garden alone.
Pam Thomas says
I am just starting Ruth’s method this year also. I had previously been studying Permaculture and Food Forests. A friend gave me Ruth’s book and I decided that it was for me. So, I just planted the garden today and now I am going to purchase hay or straw and put that around the plants after they get a start. Has anyone used pine needles? Ruth suggested it was ok. We have plenty of pine trees, but getting hay or straw will add to the cost. I am looking forward to your experiences. I hope this method will work wonders for perennial vegetables. Pam
No till gardens are the way to go! I had my garden tilled it’s first year but that was the only time. I made wide raised rows after that and have mulched with hay, grass clippings, leaves and now using the Back to Eden methad when I an able to get the chips. All methods work well but I have to admit that last year my garden went from good to amazing mid summer after I added the wood chips. I have sandy soil and it was always drying out so I have to mulch. I have been very impressed with how wonderful my soil is looking this spring. What few weeds come up ppull out so easily.
We use black plastic, and cut holes for plants, and then plant the seeds in the ground.
and not very many weeds 😉
Wendy W says
That method will keep the weeds at bay, but it also smothers all the good organisms that the soil needs to be healthy.
so the holes don’t help?
Wendy W says
The small holes that are made for plating don’t begin to make up for the large area that is under the plastic.
This article gives a good run-down of the negatives. She talking “landscape fabric” not plastic, but some of the points sound more like she’s referring to plastic, and all will still apply.
If you are the kind of gardener that uses chemical fertilizers and herbicides, the whole issue is moot. But if you prefer organic methods, your garden is much better off without the plastic.
I plan on using this method also. My husband’s grandfather used the deep mulch method with amazing results! He lived on a city lot where he turned his whole yard into a garden. His plants were enormous and he was always able to can a lot of produce every year with plenty left over to share with the neighbors!
I’m all for mulching. BUT the next year after I used hay, we had a hay field in the garden. My husband was not happy about all the work we had to do to get rid of large amounts of hay sod before we could plant the garden. Good luck!
I have no idea what the Back to Eden method is or who Ruth was. (absolutely no disrespect I just tend to learn things thoroughly and the hard way) I have learned how to turn my soil in to heavy producing black gold however. Our original plot years ago was rather pathetic looking and had never grown anything but sparse weeds. I despise pulling weeds so decided to smoother them with used paper plates and aged saw dust from a local sawmill (free) We call it our path work garden. Whenever a patch of weeds pops up we put a few used paper plates down then sufficient sawdust to make a thick barrier. Eventually the entire garden gets patched. I have not tilled but the combination of sawdust and paper has created a thick, dark soil that requires little moisture compared to our previous soil and remains very workable. We use the same plates/sawdust for the walkways.
Sheree Bovey says
The only thing I don’t like about this method is that it provided a home for M-I-C-E!
Sue Moore says
Just be careful about mold with the deep mulch, you don’t want so much piled up no air can circulate by the vegetables. Mold will kill plants along with the weeds.
I don’t have any tips. I’m just learning this all (at 62); and trying to find a way to keep grass (haha!) from growing in my garden. I knew the plastic weed block would have to come up, so I only used whole bags of chips and cardboard over a small section. The grass poked through the weed block the first day!
I have used thick hay on the watermelon hills for mulch; but hay is expensive on a retirement budget.
We do, however, have an abundance of grass, so I have started mulching with that. And even though the garden is already planted and growing, I think I will continue using that, thanks to this post. So thank you, and good luck!
I’ve read with interest your article, and all the comments. I to one year decided to try hay mulch on my huge garden with disasterous results! The hay seeds made my garden look like a beautiful hay field! After that i just figured I would hoe the garden every morning from 6-8 to keep the weeds down. Until a found a new way! Our local general store/gas station sells newspapers! One day the owner asked me if i wanted them to line my baby chick brooder with them, I said sure! Well what a great thing this turned out to be, he has to order a certain amount and when they do not sell, he gets credit for them but cannot return them! About every three weeks i take a pile of newspapers about 5 feet high,. For the brooder , wood furnace starting, and line garden with wet newspapers to block weeds and then put straw on top. What a godsend!! In the fall I till everything under, you would not believe the worm farm I have created in the garden!! I use only black and white print, no color print newspapers! I wish you luck and look forward to seeing how your hay mulch works!
Lori d says
Hi, new here. Learning a lot about mulch. I’ve tried black plastic and newspaper with varying results. Hay and straw are not readily avaiable but we practically live in a forest. We have an acre and half is maple trees so we have plenty of leaves. I’ve always covered my garden with mulched leaves for the winter but always remove when I plant in the spring. Would the mulched leaves work as mulch in the summer. I have 4 raised beds because our soil is full of rocks and tree roots. The beds work beautifully but dry out quickly in the summer. Thanks for any advice offered.
Jill Winger says
Yes– in Ruth’s book she mentions successfully using leaves too!
Crystal Evans says
I used to have a friend years ago who is a Master Gardener and she loved Ruth Stout. She had a video(vcr tape!) of Ruth that she would put on almost every time I would come over! I found it! Here’s the link
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNU8IJzRHZk gotta love the internet!!! I have also been troubled with gardening problems in the past. I am a city dweller so I don’t have the space you have to have a large scale garden. Last year I put in 2 raised plant beds with an attached trellis. They worked great! I did green beans on 1 trellis and cukes on the other. Tomatoes, zucchini, and baby eggplant. I also transplanted some flowers from a flower garden that’s up against the house and planted all herbs and leafy veg. That area doesn’t get a lot of sun so it’s perfect! This year we hung a long piece of chicken wire on a fence(after making sure neighbors don’t used chemicals on their side) and we are trellising snow peas and cukes up to it. Hoping my bright idea works!
Jill Winger says
I definitely like the trellis idea!
Taylor-Made Ranch Homestead says
I also use spent hay as garden mulch. We’ve certainly had our fair share of seeds sprout from the hay but I’ve started using rye grass for my mulch hay since rye grass: 1) is a cool-season grass and not likely to cause much problem during the heat of our Texas summers and 2) I like to overseed with rye in the winter to make a living mulch. Win/win! This year I got loads of leaves and I spread some thickly on a section of my raised-bed garden & I’m letting the rest decay in their black bags before I spread them. I’m anxious to see what the difference will be!
Wolfe City, Texas
Wendy W says
This is my first year mulching. I gardened for 4 years in a plot at our church, but had no control over the tilling that was done, and could not do crops like garlic that require 2 growing seasons in our MN climate. Last year we put in beds of mounded dirt in our yard, and this year we built raised beds, trellises, and added mulch.
I’m using wood mulch, Back to Eden style. It is readily available for free to city residents, as is composted dirt, both from the city compost site where the residents drop off their leaves, branches and other yard waste, as well as municipal tree trimmings. We got amazing results last year in the bare dirt, and I can’t wait to see what happens this year. I’ve also put mulch down in the aisles and am thrilled with how it has stabilized the surface.
The natural dirt in my neighborhood is clay, hard as rock when dry, and pure glue when wet. Rain on bare aisles made them impossible to walk in. I put in wood slats recycled from from hubby’s workplace, arranged like ladder rungs and pressed into the wet mud, landscaping fabric, then the mulch on top. We had a gully-washer of a storm yesterday, and the garden was fully walkable today. I just need to increase the mulch in a couple low spots.
I’ve never used hay as a mulch, though a good friend swears by it, partly because it’s not freely available like the wood mulch. I have, though, had various times when I’ve been exposed to old piles of hay or grass, and any disturbance of the pile causes clouds of dust and mold spores. I don’t think my allergies could handle working in that for planting. Have you had any problems with this?
We used to live in Cheyenne, Wy, and I know how thin the native soil is. Kudos to you for even trying to garden there! Good luck! Anything you add can only improve the situation.
Amanda W. says
I mulch with old hay too. It is wonderful stuff. If a few weeds pop up, they are easily pulled out. It will really help your soil next year. Just keep piling it on each year and any weeds in the hay will not get a foothold.
The Back to Eden thing works too. I’ve put natural bark mulch on my front flowerbeds and roses the past two years and it has worked miracles on my horrible, red clay soil. It all breaks down eventually…hay, wood chips, whatever…and feeds the soil while retaining moisture and supporting the beneficial soil organisms too. So important not to leave it bare. Whatever you choose to mulch with is better than nothing.
Can’t wait to see your nice garden this year. 🙂
I absolutely love the idea of this, and really wanted to try it this year. But my husband protested because he was worried about the mulch harboring bugs. Has anybody noticed a bigger pest problem when using this method?? I should say, we live in Florida, so pests are always a battle here…
Suzanne McMahon says
It has taken quite a few years of adjusting to the clay soil in NC. I have used everything from mulch to old weed seeded hay from the farm. Nothing ever helped the soil, it was still hard as a brick to break through. By accident I realized that the fine wood shavings from Tractor Supply has been such a life saver. It is kiln dried – so no sap to deal with. It takes 2 years to fully break down back to rich soil. It retains moisture long after regular mulch dries up or blows away. Just spread it about 4 inches deep and water well to keep in place in case the wind picks up. Yes it is a bit more expensive, but it goes a LONG way per bag. It along with finely crushed egg shell , and Epsom salt has really loosened my soil and the garden just keeps producing – even through the dog days of summer.
Jill Winger says
Great tips Suzanne! Thanks for sharing.
I wish I would have seen this post sooner! I just spent a lot of time and effort in my garden clearing out the many weed seedlings! It’s not fun! I have no access to yard clippings or leaves, the only thing we have on hand is hay but my husband has always frowned on the idea of using it. I’m so glad to see so many people using is with success! Even though my garden is already in, I’m heading out there with a bale or two of hay and mulching the isles! I feel like such a rebel!
What a great idea! I wish I had access to hay so I could try this! I would use our grass clippings but our yard is also overrun with weeds and after battling them since we moved here last month I’ve finally given in and we’re going to spray the yard *sigh* so no grass clippings in the garden for the next year or two… Any other suggestions for mulch?
I’m also noticing a seriously large ant colony taking over several rows of my garden (possibly the reason my carrot and tomato seeds haven’t come up?) Any suggestions that will kill the bugger ants without hurting my plants?
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Hi just found your website and am enjoying the content. I live in Australia and as you’d expect summers are hot and dry and our soil is sandy. I don’t think you can fertilise too much, I call it adding to the bank account, for when we can’t do it for some reason. I wind the patches down over summer due to the water shortages, just leave greens in for the chooks although I do have a permanent asparagus bed. I basically pile in the fertiliser (at least 3/4 of a 6×4 trailer per 9m bed) and mulch with hay and leave them be. In autumn I plant as much as I can right through to spring often putting handfuls of straw around the plants and add ing more fertiliser of different types, depending on the plants,as they grow and then as things finish i do the fertiliser straw thing again. Every year my patches are better than the last. Visibly better. I guess you have different climate issues so the timing of the mulch might change. I still think as important as the mulch is you need manure. The mulch can take nutrients to break down and you can end up with nitrogen deficiencies so I will often chuck on handfuls of pelletised chicken manure, blood n bone or compost, but I don’t often have enough of that. Weeds? Cover them or pull them. I use pea straw and the weeds are pretty easy to take out. Guess a lot depends on the soil you start with, but I couldn’t find a worm in our garden 6 years ago when we moved in. They are everywhere now. I’m sure you will find the right recipe for your area and have fun trying and we will enjoy reading about it.
I am mulching my raised beds with straw and am happy with the way it keeps down the weeds. This may sound silly, but can too much mulch prohibit the rain water from getting to the plants? I have to haul water by the five gallon bucket to one of my garden plots, so I pray for rain! With deep mulch, will only a heavy rain be effective?
Hannah Whitten says
I love the mulching idea as I hate weeding. I get the leave exposed dirt to plant the seed in then cover with straw/hay as they grow but were is the water trough or do you have to water each plant, which would take a lot of time as I am talking about 50 tomato plants and that doesn’t include the rest of the garden. Where I live you have to water as the last rain may be in April and none till October and we have 100 degree plus days the whole summer.
I also live in the forest and have been using leaves for mulch which I till in in the spring. One thing I do to help the leaves decompose a bit faster is to pile them up, stick the weedeater into them and grind them up. It only takes a few minutes to do this and it gives you a smaller pile that isn’t prone to be swept away with wind or water.
Thom Foote says
Thanks for this. I am going to have to try it this fall.
Great article! We are newly moved onto a South African homestead. I’ve been researching the best methods for growing veggies and the Back to Eden method really excites me. I really recommend watching the full 2hour “Back to Eden garden tour” with Paul on Youtube. It was recorded by a user named L2Survive. A lot more info there than on the first documentary. A few things I picked up, which a lot of people miss is: 1) The chipped wood is a combination of browns and greens. Some people make the mistake of only using bark/ dead wood which won’t feed the plants. It does still help with the “covering” though. 2) The composted materials from the chicken pen is key to Paul’s method. It’s a mistake to think wood chips alone will do the trick. 3) The chips must NOT be tilled into the soil. Here’s the science as I understand it: With soil you have aerobic bacteria (which is exposed to sun & oxygen) and anaerobic bacteria (which is below the surface). When you till the ground you destroy this balance and destroy a lot of the bacteria. This means you have to artificially provide supplements to make your crops grow. It also kills the soil and creates a hard crust/ layer. 3) As with other methods discussed, this will take three to four years before really taking hold.
Having said all that, we are looking at using the straw-mulch method to start off with, as I believe that will show quicker results. On another area we will begin establishing the Back to Eden method.
Link to Back to Eden Garden Tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM_gtZb8qyk
I should add, this is all theoretical at the moment. We are also adding a lot of prayer to our efforts 🙂
I am the grounds keeper at OLF church in Casper WY. Our weather is very dry and windy, low humidity. I mulch very heavily. Four years ago we began a project of landscaping with native species. We must mulch heavily just to get healthy plants. Last fall we had a horrific snow storm when the leaves were still on the trees. Everything got chopped into bits and there were piles everywhere. I am astounded that now as temps rise, the mulch piles are wet to the ground. Insulation it is! I am working on a project now as this topic arises and plan to lay on the mulch pretty heavy for the rest of the season. Summer heat is piling on but mulch is truly a friend in this climate.
Thom Foote says
here in Eastern Washington our dry, hot spell goes from July through August. Hot, no rain. Mulching has been a necessary tool for us even on huglkultur beds. Unfortunately all hay and straw here has been sprayed at least once with 2,4-d or glyphosate during the year. So, I cannot use it for mulch as we have an organic herb farm. I do have access to maple leaves, oak leaves and pine needles in the fall and I usually get about 200-300 bags that I use for mulch. Our cooperative extension service has proven through testing that the pine needles DO NOT appreciatively decrease the ph of the soil and are superior mulch because they retain their loft much longer than leaves. Before using straw or hay you MUST ask when, or if, it was sprayed.
Jill Winger says
Good reminder Thom–thank you!
Erin Blegen says
What a great post- I love the way you write :)!!
I’ve always been a huge fan of deep mulching. I just don’t have the time or energy to pick weeds, so I’ve learned to pile it on!!
Sorry to hear of your hugel fail :(. I’ve constructed three beds this year and, not really planning on much happening, didn’t have high hopes for them in their first year. But they’re growing like crazy! I do know that with a pile of decomposing wood in the first year, you will have that nitrogen draw-down. I counter-acted that by piling a good 6″ of manure on top of my logs/sticks. Then came a thick layer of soil and finally straw. I live in NE Minnesota where not only is it cold, but we have an endless supply of wood/brush etc. and I needed a way to use it up. So far, so good.
I enjoy following your gardening adventures! Keep on sharing them!
Jenelle Abram says
I’m having to use whatever hay I can get a hold of for my garden. So far I’ve only been able to get very moldy weedy hay. I figure that’s better than nothing though. One thing I’d like to point out. What you are doing is a back to eden garden method. People keep assuming that the back to eden video is all about using woodchips. Paul never says that. He says you can use anything; woodchips just happen to be his favorite, so it’s more pronounced in his video. The whole idea about the back to eden garden is a covering for the ground that can decompose, it doesn’t have to be woodchips to be a back to eden garden. Just thought I’d clear that up. So if anyone tells you you should try back to eden garden method, tell them you are.
Jill Winger says
Wow– I never realized that! I always assumed BTE had to be with wood chips. Thanks for clearing that up!
Use straw or leaves. I use leaves (mainly maple). What I found is that after MANY years of no additional amendments (bone and blood meal with a dash of hardwood ashes), that my garden was depleted of nutrients. Slowly over a few years, my garden just wasn’t producing. I decided to test soil with a simple HD kit only to discover that using leaves is really not enough in the way of amendments. It works to keep my garden almost weed free except when I add “composted” manure that someone really didn’t compost well…then I get some nasty weeds. I now use blood/bone/ash on a yearly basis and my plants are happy.
I have not tilled my garden in like 30 years and won’t…too much work and as a young woman I learned a lot from Ruth.
If I could only get rid of the voles….
Jennifer Whiting says
4 years later – are you still using this method or did you find something you prefer? I’m new to gardening and my CO plains climate is very similar to yours so I’m wondering if this is a good way to start.
John McKay says
Here is a good trick I read that works for me. I buy my hay or straw ahead of time, spring time, and leave them out in the rain and sun so the seeds can sprout on the outside of the bales and the seeds inside will rot. I found that in my area in Northern Michigan the straw from the feed store has seeds and the hay does not. Also, many grain crops are desiccated with chemicals in the field prior to cutting. Hay is cut green so no additional chemicals used. I’ve used straw in the past but was thinking I would switch now to hay and happy I found this article online. I am hoping the switch to hay will also cut down on the amount of fertilizer I use. I mulched the garlic I planted last fall with hay and so far everything looks good.
Someone mentioned slugs. Seems that slugs don’t like nitrogen so try spreading compose around the plants. I’ve had this work and will last for a couple of weeks. I’ve also sprayed plants with a lite mixture of diluted fish emulsion, 1/8 to 1/4 tsp to 32 oz water, every couple of days. Both methods have worked and help the plants grow past the damage. Good luck to you!
John McKay says
Also, my favorite time to pull weeds is after a rain. I can’t do anything else in the garden and the soil is soft and the weeds are usually easy to pull out root and all.
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Mulch Supply says
Great piece Jill, Thanks for sharing! I have always been a deep mulching advocate.
Prenten Frazier says
I have been mulch gardening for a decade. The Ruth Stout mulch method is a more recent discovery for me but hits the nail right on the head. There’s some misinformation though. According to my experience you can apply both woodchips and and top mulch (grass, leaves, hay etc). The concerns you mentioned from Quinns webpage is an outdated false narrative on top of correct principles none of which I outright disagree with.
I grow in wood chips 4 ft deep and it makes no difference so long as you continue to deep mulch with fresh green waste or whatever you have. It all retains moisture, builds bacterial microaggregates and fertilizes the soil supporting both fungal and bacterial balances. THEY BALANCE THEMSELVES! Keeping weeds down is just a bonus. Weeds struggle because of dis-favorable conditions in the soil. Now that’s saying something! Ultimately it’s the critical balance of bacteria, miccohrizal fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods that go way beyond fear base apprehensions over types of mulch. There is no such thing as needing to remove wood chips or regret any such mistakes. It will all eventually decay.
Thank you and Happy 2023 gardening.