Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mulch ado about something

Day by sunny, mild day, I gain on the weeds...things get planted...little improvements get made. It often does not seem like much. But it shows.

The farm is looking like a farm again, after a couple months of wild abandon to foxtail far above my head, crabgrass waist-high, extravagant smartweed sprawling sprays of white and pink through the neglected beds. Lettuce gleams jewel-like in tidy beds of chartreuse and burgundy; green onions march in happy rows; the experimental assorted hot peppers look like they've found their niche, forming a veritable hedge through one of the blocks; the seven varieties of radishes are promising to meet or exceed their labeled "days to harvest"; the lanes are velvet mown lawn (where they haven't been smothered out...reseeding is high on the to-do list).

But not enough mulching happened this spring, and we've paid the price. This time off from the full-time job had been mainly rescue work, work that should have been prevented. But I'm learning a lot from it.

In several areas, I've gone in with the BCS sicklebar mower and mowed everything down as best I could. It doesn't maneuver well in small places. That resulted in a thick mound of dry grass. Over time a few green bits have bravely pushed through, but overall I've been impressed with the effectiveness of this mulch grown in situ. Beats hauling mulch around the farm.

One area that seemed pretty hopeless was a block (50' x 50') that had been intended as alternate beds of tomatoes and potatoes. It had been partly fallow for several years, with lots of fescue and brome growing in it...essentially becoming pasture. As time wore on in the spring, and I kept not getting the area mulched, I finally in desparation mowed it very short and laid a band of waste hay mulch along the beds for the tomatoes, and stuck the tomatoes in. It was pretty dry and some of them didn't make it...also we have an annoying plant hopper that targets the "bark" of baby tomato plants at soil level, girdling them and usually killing them. Probably our most economically significant plant pest.

A gardener friend who's helped me in the past showed up a bit later and offered to mulch for the potatoes. He did, all right--except he left the "paths" between potato and tomato beds unmulched. Did I mention we never did get the tomatoes caged? We didn't get the potatoes planted, either.

By last week, it looked like a solid field of crab grass, some of it above my waist. I was in a pleasantly destructive mood with the BCS chugging under my hands and another hour of pleasant evening, and it caught my eye. The rows were marked with re-bar stakes wearing cheerful little orange hard hats, easily visible through the feathery froth of crabgrass seed heads. I could see a leaf or two of tomato plant here and there. Maybe if I tried just mowing where the unmulched lanes would be? What was there, under the jungle?

So that's what I did. And I found that the mulch had actually worked very well. Most of the weeds were growing in those unmulched "path" areas; the field looked solid because the grass was forming "tents" over the mulched areas. The surviving tomato plants were actually doing pretty well under there, some even beginning to ripen fruit.

Once things had dried for a few days, it was clear that only a little more handweeding was needed to be able to plant into the forlorn potato-less rows. So we are planting potatoes there. It's pretty late in the season...but we can put a heavy rowcover over them when the weather gets nippy, and maybe get at least some late new potatoes. Or, tubers too small to harvest may overwinter, and be pre-planted for next spring. We've harvested several nice batches of potatoes from "volunteers" like that this year.

If nothing else, we seem to have succeeded in ridding the area of the perennial grasses, and it should be in prime condition next spring.

I also seem to be haying the backyard, but it's the stuff the sheep don't even care for fresh and green. It, too, seems to make good mulch. The BCS lays it down in neat rows, and in a couple days they can be pulled together into piles with a hay fork and tossed into the cart.

Up until now, I've been importing most of my mulch materials in the form of brome hay and autumn leaves. I'll still use these sources, esp. the leaves which last a long time and bring a lot of deep nutrients into my soil. But I'll keep exploring techniques for grow-and-mow mulches. This will help to "detach" the garden operation from the sheep operation: my garden size won't be as limited by how much waste hay I have for mulching.

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