Our farm is small, and we need to make the most of the space we have. Over the years that we’ve been growing food, we’ve found that raised beds are the best way to go. So when we moved to this little old farm last summer, we got to work making some raised beds (stay tuned for a how-to post!).
Our bed system is no-till, so we rely on mulch. Mulching is so wonderful and beneficial! I knew this before, but didn’t think it was a big deal to skip the mulch. In the Autumn last year, when our beds were put to rest, I covered five of the beds with a several-inches thick layer of waste straw and manure from the barn (you can also use leaves, lawn clippings, old hay, etc.). A sixth bed was left un-mulched, mostly because I just didn’t get to it in time, before the snow set in.
Last Summer, the soil quality in all six beds was about the same – decent enough to garden in, but nothing more than so-so. This Spring, as I’m out working in the beds, I’m seeing first-hand how important that mulch is.
Those beds that were heavily mulched last Autumn? The mulch almost entirely composted over the Winter, leaving behind a thin, fine layer of half-rotted straw on the top of the bed. Under that thin layer of half-rot, there lies the most glorious soil I have ever seen! My hand trowel sinks into it effortlessly. It is moist, black, super rich, amazing soil. Each bed has remained almost entirely weed-free, with maybe one or two easily removed weeds in each. The beds require no work from me whatsoever in terms of preparation. All I have to do is go out and plant.
That last bed, however, the one that I didn’t get around to mulching, well that’s a different story. The soil is in worse shape than it was last year. The bed is full of weeds that are difficult to remove because the soil compacted under the weight of Winter’s snow. The soil itself, aside from being so heavily compacted, is in rough shape. It is a dull, slate grey. It is very difficult to work with a hand trowel (with no-till, using a hand trowel to make a little hole for the seedling is the most we do in terms of digging). Much compost has had to be added to this bed to make it usable, where nothing has been added to the other beds.
If I thought in the past that mulch was good but not crucial, I was a fool. The difference between a mulched bed and an unmulched bed is striking. The beds were twins in every other way, built the same and treated the same until that final and most important step.
If I may impart any wisdom to you, my dear readers, it is this: mulch, mulch, mulch!