Better the Gardeners Naked Than The Soil!


Unmulched ground does look naked and unhealthy, yet many of my neighbors fail to put a stitch on their perennials and then wonder why they don’t do well.  Like Ruth, I’ve got a trickle-down theory of the soil.  That everything good comes from the top in nature.  So, the best way to enrich a garden bed, too, is from the top. 

The Royal Horticultural Society may recommend double-digging instead (is this information for people with servants?), but I barely stuck my first shovel into the rocky ground of Washington County, NY in 1992 before concluding that no double-digging would occur on my watch.  And I really like to dig, but sheesh, life is short and the art is long! And besides, you’re messing with the soil structure and Amy Stewart’s beloved worms that way.  Can double-digging possibly be as good as a more laissez-faire approach?  My gardener’s gut says it can’t, though the science of no-till versus excavate-the-place-to-bits really seems to depend on where you’re gardening and when.

I’ve always used straw to mulch my vegetable garden, but that practice has come to an abrupt end.  Last year, I made a new garden at a weekend place in the country with particularly rich, wet clay soil, and the straw yielded scary fountains of grass.  This year, I’m trying mowed-up leaves.

I do my ornamental gardening in the city, where I’ve been trying to alternate years of pine bark mulch with years of nice city-produced compost in order to improve the fertility of the sandy ground.  My problem here is getting mass quantities delivered and deposited in an urban neighborhood.

For the past two seasons, I’ve argued my husband into giving up his parking space on the alley, on the theory that it’s so much cheaper and more convenient and more ecologically sound to buy a truckload of locally-produced mulch than dozens of bags shipped from forests far away. 


You wouldn’t want to be married to me, either…

Of course, once he parks on the street, we inevitably forget to move his car to the alternate side at 7:59 every morning, and it winds up taking me all season to wheelbarrow away 7 yards of mulch.  So I generally harvest $200 worth of parking tickets for the $100 I save by buying in bulk.

I don’t even want to take up the argument this year, my performance was so miserable last year.  Instead, this week I made my first trip of the season to Wal-Mart. 

Now I don’t go to Wal-Mart for anything, having read approximately 150 completely indecent news stories over the last few years about the company as an employer: locking employees in at night to prevent pilfering and who cares if they can’t get out in an emergency, sex discrimination, attempts to drive away more expensive long-time employees by taking set schedules away from them, attempts to drive away the less healthy employees by forcing them to do laborious tasks, spying on employees, telling the world your employees were having an affair, need I go on?

But I’m this much of a hypocrite: I will buy pine bark mulch there, since they charge at least a dollar less a bag than anybody else.  And I need loads of it.  I’m not sure 50 bags even will do the job.


  1. As a Rodale Groupie in the 70’s I was into Ruth Stout’s scheme. To defend mulch I point out that for 10 million years, before man came along, trees dropped their leaves or needles every autumn. Further the grasses in the prairies died every autumn.

    So for 10 million years the soil on earth got a layer of organic matter. Then man came along and invented lawns.

  2. When my mother came to visit my first garden she said to me, “You need to mulch!”. And then she gave me Ruth Stout’s book.

  3. Where else but in a garden blog could naked women, mulch, and walmart bashing/succombing be combined so successfully.You are fearless and a great read.

    I use a fine pine bark mulch around shrubbery and as the walking area in the hobbit garden. Makes a nice woodland looking floor.
    Elsewhere dried leaves and partially decomposed compost make up much of the mulch.
    When cutting back tall plants in spring the brittle stems make excellent mulch for walkways in the wild garden.

    I agree a bare exposed soil soon looks dry and cracked and lifeless.

  4. I’ve just fetched it from my gardening shelves (if you guys keep reminding us of all the fabbo books out there, we’ll all be burdened with more than one shelf!) and am smiling out loud over the back cover photo of Ruth, lounging in a pile of hay under the caption, “Mulcher at Work.”

    Husband subscribes to the no-work part but invariably forgets about the mulch. Rescuing his 2004 tomato crop from neglect (okay, in the end I pretty much destroyed the tomato crop, but at least i was trying) is what got me hooked on gardening in the first place.

    Fabulous post, Michele.

  5. Kathy, I enjoyed your hay/straw post–but I used the same stuff the Agway’s been selling me for years as straw. It’s coarser and blonder than hay. Clearly, though, it included seed heads that it shouldn’t. Some friends have advised me to look for “first-cut” hay–which is taken early in the season before the grasses go to seed. But I’ve had zero luck finding it.

  6. Ah, the pile of mulch that never dies problem. In recent years I’ve taken to hiring some hard-working immigrants – cash only – to get it all moved in half a day. Costs me about $100 to have 7 cubic yards moved – well worth it IMO.

    In my town the mulch talk is often about what exactly is it and which jurisdictions’ “mulch” really is mulch. Confusion is widespread because a neighboring town sells compost that they call mulch, and people use it as such, with no mulch on top. Trouble is, as readers here know, compost is a great growing medium for weeds, so the weed suppression benefits of mulch just aren’t there. Just the opposite.

    More in a future post.

  7. To mulch or not to mulch…not even a question. Mulch has its uses but primarily as a cover to retain moisture and prevent weeds until the ground cover (in a perennial or shrub border) fills in! Here we have a love affair with mulch that goes beyond addiction! There is no bare earth in nature unless you are at the beach or in the desert but it is naturally filled in with plants (weeds)! A ‘proper’ landscape will have layered plantings consisting of trees, shrubs, perennials and then groundcovers. Not volcano like mounds around the trees or shrub borders with four feet of mulch between the shrub and the lawn. Please, let’s modify our use of mulch! That being said, the vegetable garden is a different story although I did just read in Organic Gardening that tomato plants benefit from a groundcover planting of red clover once they reach two feet in height. That sounds good! Oh, I will be using some mulch for those areas that have not yet filled in as, I am sure, the rest of you are! Sorry to vent but mulch is overused.

  8. Organic mulch has more than one purpose. Wood mulch encourages an acidic ph and benefits (by encouraging fungal micro-organisms) woody perennials including trees and shrubs.
    Herbacious material in a partially decompsed state has a more neutral ph and encourages the bacterial dominance prefered by many herbacious perennials and grass, AND can help supress weed growth but must be replaced more often.

    Humus (the end resutl of compost) is not going to work to supress weeds but is a great soil amendment.

    Donuts around trees not over a couple of inches thick helps establish newly planted trees and helps protect the trees cambium layer from abuse by mower.

    Local fire started by new mulch around garage not withstanding.

  9. Padding the comment quotient here…LOL

    Fungi and actinomycetes play an important role in the decomposition of cellulose, lignin, and other more resistant materials, despite being confined primarily to the outer layers and becoming active only during the latter part of the composting period. These tough materials are attacked after more readily decomposed materials have been utilized. There are many bacteria that attack cellulose. However, in the parts of compost stacks populated chiefly by bacteria, paper hardly breaks down, whereas in the layers or areas inhabited by actinomycetes and fungi it becomes almost unrecognizable. Considerable cellulose and lignin decomposition by actinomycetes and fungi can occur near the end of the composting period or “curing” when the temperatures have begun to drop and the environment in a larger part of the pile is satisfactory for their growth. Hence, in the interest of their activity, turning should not be more frequent during curing than is necessary for providing aerobic conditions and controlling flies. Among the actinomycetes, streptomyces and micromonospora common in compost, micromonospora are the most prevalent. Compost fungi include termonmyces sp., Penicillium dupontii, and Aspergilus fumigatus.

  10. This kind of reminds me of the old debates about mulch/double digging/lasagna gardening on Gardenweb.

    It seemed like the mulch people were having the most fun. Especially the mulch couple who proposed via a gardenweb soil/composting forum.

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