Cut Down on the Weeding with Mulch

No one likes to spend time weeding.  I first learned about mulch from Ruth Stout’s book, “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.”  The so-called Mistress of Mulch converted me nearly 40 years ago and I have followed her example ever since.  Mulch is an important way to cut down on the weeds, preserve moisture and eventually add natural material to the soil.  A thick layer of mulch will shade the soil, preventing weed seeds from germinating.

Yesterday my husband weeded the row of rhubarb we have outside the garden fence.  (Deer don’t like rhubarb, in fact the leafy part contains poisonous oxalic acid, so it’s safe not to fence it.)  Rhubarb likes a lot of food and a lot of water, so before mulching each plant, I dig in a couple of shovelfuls of composted cow manure and water it thoroughly.  Next I thread a soaker hose along the row so that I can continue to water under the mulch in dry weather.  Finally I spread the mulch.  I like to use salt hay.  It grows areas with brackish water, so the few weed seeds it has don’t germinate well in the environment of my garden.  The problem is that it’s hard to find.  The marshes and salt meadows have been filled in for development and it has to be harvested in the winter when the earth can support the weight of the machines.  We rake it up in the fall and store it under a tarp for the winter as it can be reused for several seasons.

Rhubarb plant all mulched with soaker hose in place

Rhubarb plant all mulched with soaker hose in place

I spread the mulch thickly around the rhubarb as the plants are established.  When I plant a seed bed such as chard, carrots, parsnips and lettuce, I spread it over the top very thinly so the seedlings can work their way through to the sunlight.  Even a thin layer like this can keep the weeds down until the plants grow larger.  When I set out plants I have raised under lights, I first spread the mulch fairly thickly and then dig through it to plant my seedlings.

A thin cover protects a seedbed

A thin cover protects a seedbed

A broccoli seedling snugged in with mulch

A broccoli seedling snugged in with mulch

I have used other commercially available mulches with varying success.  Landscaper’s hay is loaded with weed seeds and is best used where they use it, on lawns.  There are hay and straw mulches that have been heated to destroy the viability of the weed seeds but even those have some seeds.  Leaves are great for the fall where they can break down over winter and then be tilled into the soil in the spring, but not so good for a growing garden as they mat down and can smother plants.  Newspaper at least ten sheets thick is great for paths or places where you won’t be planting.  You can cover them with wood chips so they don’t blow around.  I don’t like black plastic as it kills everything, including all the underground creatures we need, like worms.  In very wet seasons mulch can encourage slugs but that is the only shortcoming I have found and the benefits far outweigh that fault.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Denise Hughes said,

    Interesting information about mulch. Where do you find salt hay?


    • 2

      I honestly don’t know if it is available in Idaho, Denise. I get it at Agway here in Connecticut. Some of the processed mulches might be your best bet like Mainely Mulch Salt Hay Substitute, if that is available in the West. The thing that makes salt hay really good is that it doesn’t contain weed seeds that germinate (defeating the purpose of mulch in the first place.)


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