Heavy Mulch No Till Gardening

Back in October, I blogged about my plans to trade-in my lawn for garden beds and how I hoped to accomplish that with sheet mulching. There was an instructional video included in that post. I failed, however, to highlight the benefits of heavy mulch gardening over tilling. This article addresses why tilling is counterproductive and why heavy mulch is a better alternative.

Why Eliminate Tilling?
Ruth Stout, the mulch guru, who successfully employed this method for many years, made this no-till gardening method famous. Heavy Mulch Gardening is a term that refers to the practice of laying down a thick layer of mulch before planting. The thick layer serves several purposes. It saves the gardener work, conserves water and improves the soil. The biggest advantage to deep mulch is that it eliminates the need to till the garden. Besides being hard, heavy work, tilling is not particularly good for soil health. Tilling causes soil compaction, erosion and can create lifeless soil.

Eliminate Soil Compaction
Continuously tilling the garden soil to the same depth causes the soil particles to align in the same direction. This eliminates the spaces that serve as channels for air and water flow. The soil just below the tilled layer becomes hard and compressed causing drainage problems. Compacted soil stunts plant’s growth. Roots have difficulty penetrating the hard layer and taking up nutrients. Laying down a thick layer of mulch inhibits weed and grass growth thus making tilling unnecessary. This eliminates the soil compaction caused by excessive tilling. The mulch must be 8” – 12” thick to be an effective weed barrier.

Comfrey in heavy mulch

Prevent Soil Erosion 
Tilling breaks up the top layer of vegetation to prepare a seedbed. It is a fast way to get a garden ready for spring and fall planting. The downside is that rototilling bares the soil and leaves it vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain. The soil is never bare when gardening with heavy mulch. The thick layer protects the soil from the ravages of wind and rain. The top inches of soil are the most precious in the garden and the most easily lost to erosion if left unprotected.

Preserve and Promote Healthy Soil
Beneficial bacteria and the microorganisms that make soil a living substance occur in the top three inches. These microorganisms make the topsoil healthy and better able to sustain plant life. Tilling mixes this good soil with the substandard soil from below. Not only does that bring the poor quality soil to the top, it submerges the topsoil. The microorganisms then die due to lack of water, air and sunlight. Repeated tilling causes the soil to lose vitality and become lifeless. Heavy mulch gardening serves a dual purpose in protecting and encouraging healthy, living soil. The top soil remains where it belongs under a blanket of organic mulch. As the mulch breaks down, it further enriches the soil and improves its structure.

Common Mulch Materials
Many materials can be used as mulch. Organic material such as leaves, hay and straw will return nutrients to the soil as they rot. Leaves can be gathered free in the fall, making them a frugal choice. Spoiled hay can be purchased cheaply. Thick layers of cardboard and newspaper can also be used to squelch weed growth and retain moisture.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/2004-02-01/Ruth-Stouts-System.aspx http://www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Disadvantages_of_tilling_and_bare_soil/

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Heavy Mulch No Till Gardening — 5 Comments

  1. Hi I found your blog googling non-GMO chicken feeds. Then had to laugh when I also saw No till gardening and the Cattle panel green house.. I have a cattle panel Goat barn, chicken house and a green house.. Green house is not done yet. We have to frame in the front for the door!
    I started growing Comfrey from seeds… Took the seeds 2 years to germinate.. I had given up on it.. Then low and behold this year everywhere I tried to plant it I had plants pop up! I was tickled to pieces! This was after I had of course Bought a plant.. All well that just gave me more. I still till some but not a whole lot. When we moved here I had very little soil an after 2 years you can sink a shovel in it. I am working at growing more each year. Anyway I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  2. Sounds like cattle panels, tarps and bungie cords are your favorite building supplies, too:)
    What have you done to get such good results improving your soil in just two years?
    Nice to meet you Tonia.

  3. I tried heavy mulch one year. Problem is, some types of hay generate fresh grass. I now have bermuda grass where I didn’t want it. In my new site, I’m going to try a different hay, even though it’ll be a lot more expensive. Timothy, probably. Do you have any recommendations?

  4. Hi Laura,
    I know exactly what you mean. No more hay in the garden for us. We will only spread it on pastures. We will be using shredded paper that my daughter gets free from work, straw and leaves.
    I don’t like Timothy because the seed heads make a real mess in my sheep’s wool. Whether it would make better mulch than Bermuda, I really can’t say.
    Let us know what you use and how it works for you.