Mulching.

Eight months ago I spread the compost from my heaps onto my allotment and resolved not to make any more. I would simply shred everything that came my way and spread it back on the ground. I wrote a blog about it at the time. It seemed a slightly radical course to take and I have not encountered anything much since by way of support for the method.

Until now, and from an improbable source. Somebody lent us some back issues of The English Garden, including the January 2021 issue. On the last page is an article headed “Last Word”, presumably a regular feature. This one was by Katherine Swift and was about no-dig gardening. She is, she says, a recent convert to Charles Dowding’s no dig method, basically spreading 5cm of compost over the soil each year and planting or sowing through it.

She also mentions Ruth Stout, who wrote a book about her method of no-dig gardening way back in 1961. She was mainly using a deep mulch of hay but supplementing it with any other organic matter that became available.

At the end of the article she said that Ruth Stout’s books were still in print and “are vastly entertaining”. They are indeed available and I just bought the Kindle version of one of them from Amazon. You can read a couple of chapters as a sample and if you’ve ever flirted with no dig, you should take a look. Vastly entertaining isn’t the half of it, if there was a Ruth Stout fan club I’d be signing up. She would have taken Twitter by storm!

I have stuck with shredding and spreading through this growing season, initially spreading onto bare ground, later mulching around growing crops. My worries about a plague of slugs have not materialised. I don’t have as much material as I would like but if I’d composted it the volume available in the end would be much less, so I’ve still gained, both in volume and in the length of time it is on the soil surface. It must make more nutrients available to the crops as nothing is lost in the way it would be from an open compost heap. In short, I’m getting more bang for my buck by sticking it straight on the ground.

Appearance on the allotment is not a concern but in any case it looks just fine; I could worry even less about it and not bother putting tougher stuff through the shredder a couple of times. Coarser material might break down slower, which would be an advantage. I haven’t spread so much around the garden but I know that I can shred and spread things like potato haulms with blight in them as I don’t grow potatoes in the garden. Sometimes the shredded material is a little pungent but the smell disappears in a few days.

The thrust of Ruth Stout’s reasoning was to get good results with less work. There’s no doubt she was also convinced it was a much more environmentally positive way to garden as she was gardening organically before the word even came into wide usage. She seems to have decided that less work was an easier notion to sell books with. Part of her argument was that her thick hay mulch stopped virtually all weeds, something I certainly can’t claim for my approach. My soil is always very friable and weeds are easily pulled up; I see them as another source of organic matter to be spread.

All in all then, none of my concerns about doing it have materialised and I’m finding more positives. The “for” list is growing, the “against” list shrinking.

Block of leeks just mulched with fresh shredded material.
Thinking all the Dahlias here had died in the winter I planted cabbage and calabrese. Turns out the slugs were still browsing the dahlias in mid july, stopping them growing. Within a week they were popping up everywhere. It may be the mulch, it may just have been weed removal and disturbance, it may be the slugs prefer the cabbages. The problem is certainly no worse.

13 thoughts on “Mulching.

  1. Isn’t it great when something sorks, and especially if it goes against conventional wisdom.
    I’ll check out the Kindle version. I’m drawn to garden writing and even more so if there’s a bit of entertainment mixed in.

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  2. hmmm, . . . It is standard procedure for some of our landscape, but not where bedding plants go. Although I have done it to a minor degree in spots where tougher vegetable plants, such as zucchini and beans, got planted soon afterward, I would be hesitant to do it with that intention. (I mean, we mulched first, and then decided to add the vegetable plants later because we ran out of space somewhere else. It was not planned like that.) The vegetables did well by the way, and were not noticeably bothered. We use fresh chips only because we generate so much of them, and it is easier to use them in landscapes directly, or blast them out into the forest. For composting, we need to bring them back here, and . . . . well, compost them. That works well also, but is a bit more work.

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  3. I imagine a problem spreading the material around growing plants in the ornamental areas of the garden and less so around the likes of potatoes, beans, cabbages etc. The shred and compost method is still going strong here and I spread over the winter or by spring while the soil is still wet and before growth in herbaceous plants.

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    1. I’ve not spread much fresh shreddings around ornamentals but the little I’ve done has not been a problem, within a day or two it turns brown and looks like compost and I’ve spread it fairly thinly. It soon vanishes.

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  4. I’ve just read your post on mulching and am interested to hear how it has progressed. It looks as though you have quite happily converted to this method. I use my shredder for all the twigs and cuttings but when I tried to shred all the hollyhocks that I cut back, the “teeth” kept getting clogged up. I assume the stalks were too moist. It made me wonder how you use kitchen peelings, do you put these on the ground as they are or do you shred them too?

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    1. I just finished reading a book on regenerative agriculture by an American farmer from North Dakota called Gabe Brown. The book is called ‘Dirt to Soil’. His situation is very different from mine, which kind of adds weight to the fundamentals that we have in common. It’s all about looking after the soil and his methodology is built around cover crops, the residue from which is left on the soil surface to feed micro-organisms, add carbon and protect the soil surface. I feel somewhat vindicated in that composting is not any part of his methods. Shredders mostly seem to cope badly with soft material which clogs them, or stringy material that wraps up the blades. Kitchen waste is pretty bad, I do it a little at a time, mixed with dryer stuff if I’ve got any. I have to unblock mine quite a bit. If yours has teeth then it works on a different principle from mine, which is sold as dealing with soft and woody material, so it might be even more susceptible to jamming.
      I am converted to my method, but I’m also experimenting with more green manures, there will be a follow up blog at some point.

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