September 12, 2011 by wcobserver
Mulch seemed to be the magic element in all the books about gardening. If you just had enough mulch, the weeds couldn’t grow, the soil would remain soft and moist, and the plants would be so superbly healthy that bugs would just pass them by. The only threat would be the overload of bountiful yields.
Existing in a perpetually impoverished condition, our budget didn’t allow for trailer loads of decaying straw with which to mulch. For a while, thanks to a friendly neighbor, we mined his old barn loft with its stack of aging bales. With our husbands at work, and starting in the early cool of morning, a friend and I would load up our pale blue 1967 Ford F-100 with ourselves, four babies under four years of age, a pitchfork, and a tarp. We’d fly down the road, back into the barn, toss hay into the truck bed til the stomped down heap was falling over the sides, then cinch it down with the tarp and strain back up the mountain. It took more time to carry the hay down the rows, and yet in a disappointingly short time, the truck would be empty and countless rows of unmulched garden stared back at us. On a good day, we could get about three loads done before the heat and kid issues became overwhelming and we had hay bits stuck to every square inch of our sweaty skin.
We did a fairly thorough job of emptying that barn, and our shared gardening that year rewarded us with mostly beautiful crops. It wasn’t until the next spring when a lush sprouting of Johnson grass blanketed the newly tilled soil that I realized what we had done. Before, there had been the occasional outbreak of lambs quarter and fescue that challenged the blade of my hoe. Now it was a war we could never win, each long white root of Johnson grass diving deep and brittle in our efforts to pull it up. Each root became a hundred new seed pieces when cut up by the tiller. I never quite recovered from the Johnson grass debacle.
Then it seemed a no-brainer that a better choice for mulch would be the endless supply of fallen leaves that blanketed the hillsides between the house and the garden. Like an amphitheater, the slope of the land meant we merely had to lay down an old sheet anywhere in the woods, rake a suitably large pile of leaves on the sheet, pick up the corners, and drag it downhill. Then at the garden, we merely channeled the mulch out one end of the sheet into the space between the rows. We theorized that we might have problems with the leaves blowing around, so we spent some time considering ways we could pack them down. However, wind never got to be so much of an issue because sometime through the first morning of this project, we realized we had ticks all over us. They were the small size, black and moving fast, and it took about a half hour in the shower to get them all off. For weeks afterwards, gardening involved tick monitoring in addition to hoeing up weeds, sweating, and fighting bugs, all complicated by the lack of mulch.
(To be continued)