By Nicole Caldwell for Martha Stewart
Want a healthier garden ... with little effort? Start by returning it to a natural state. Mulch gardening is a soil-layering method that mimics a forest floor. It creates nutrient-dense soil that nourishes plants, controls weeds, and offers long-term results. In this article, I’ll get you started on creating a lush mulch garden of your very own.
In the natural world, soil is layered top-down with mulch, compost, untouched soil, and subsoil. Insects travel through these layers, aerating and feeding the soil while they do. When we till our gardens or add chemical fertilizers, we disrupt this fragile, symbiotic dance. Unprotected dirt can easily be washed away by rain or fried by the sun. It can take more than 500 years to create about one inch of topsoil; it takes far fewer to destroy it. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) projects that the world by 2050 will have only one quarter of the topsoil it had in 1960, and we could run out of the stuff 20 years after that. But you can do something about it!
You can create a lush, healthy mulch garden that also reduces the need to weed, fertilize, or irrigate. You'll save money on store-bought mulch, potting mix, and topsoil. And if you're dealing with hard-to-love soil like I was, you'll be absolutely thrilled with the results. So, here’s how to get started.
All the stuff most people throw out -- food scraps, cardboard, junk mail, dead leaves, sticks, twigs, and newspaper -- is exactly the stuff you need to get your mulch garden going in your yard. Whether you have raised beds or traditional garden rows, you can easily incorporate mulching into your gardening style. All you have to do is start at ground level, then create the following layers in your raised bed or garden rows:
- Bottom layer: cardboard/newspaper/junk mail (shredded or not)
- Middle layer: fresh compost (coffee grounds, banana peels, egg shells, etc.)
- Top layer: dead leaves, hay, grass clippings or other mulch items. TIP: If you want your garden to look more traditional, add a layer of topsoil over the top of the layers. Only you will know what lies beneath!
Mulch-gardening guru Ruth Stout recommends making mounded rows up to three feet high, because as the layers break down and turn to dirt, they will reduce in size significantly. As the layers shrink, you can continue adding more. Every potted plant, raised bed and mulched edge on my farm utilizes mulch gardening. The layers retain so much moisture, we never have to water the plants. They cool the roots on hot summer days. And they act as the best weed barrier I've ever seen, all while feeding fresh veggies and flowers an ongoing blend of nutrients. Throughout the season and especially in the fall, I load the layers on my rows and raised beds, and each spring I have the most beautiful black soil to plant into.
Have you tried mulch gardening? Share your stories in the comments section!