For most of the past 14 years, I have turned over the 6 squares in my
square foot vegetable garden. When I plant my vegetable starts, I do
not use black plastic or mulch, I simply dig up the weeds. However, I
am beginning to question the wisdom of turning over the soil, which
probably contains seeds from weeds and other injurious matter. Is it
better to turn over the soil, and if so, to what depth? Should
anything be added to the soil when it is turned over? When planting in
the spring, I plan to mulch around the starts. How close to the plants
should I mulch? And how deep should the mulch be? What type of mulch
is best? I plan to use red ochre. I live in Central New York where we
plant our vegetable starts around Memorial Day. I tear up my garden
Columbus Day weekend.
Thanks in advance to anyone who can offer advice.
On 8 Oct 2006 14:21:37 -0700, email@example.com wrote:
My garden is bit bigger than yours but I would do it the same. I
turn mine over six or seven times between harvesting and planting.
Twice already this fall. My theory is that if you keep their feet in
the air (they being weeds and insects) they are set back on their
Then I use a pre-emergent herbicide to kill the weed seeds. That
confession will bring out the organic disciples who will codemn me to
hell for using "poisons". So be it, but my spinach never killed
Yes here come the chemical trolls.
If I'd had my current garden as long as you have I might try no-till.
I've been chastised by the anti-chemical crowd for advocating any
tilling at all, even though I don't use chemicals. Tilling is supposed
to destroy soil structure and organisms. My soil is so lousy that the
only way I could avoid tilling would be to buy soil to put over my
clay. As it is I till in a little more organic matter every year.
Anyway, on good soil you might not have to till. The theory is that
most of the weed seeds stay buried. You do add manure, compost and
fertilizers (organic of course) on the surface.
I mulch many of my plants as closely as possible. Either with newpaper
or cardboard with clippings to hold it down or just with clippings.
One problem you may have with slug prone plants like spinach is that
you create a slugg home under the mulch so I'd leave those clear.
I never turn it over, always mulch. The mulch can be right against the
plants, in fact I mulch first and plant later (thru the mulch). Best
mulch depends on what you want to mulch. For mulch that gives you one
season protection, cardboard or leaves are fine. Leaves are best if you
want to condition the soil some. More than one season mulching, wood
chips are best, but they will lower the pH some. If you mulch after the
plants are planted, grass clippings are great because they won't hurt
or smother the plants but they disappear fast. Carrots, for example,
can only be mulched after, and they are delicate plants. Clippings are
the only mulch for them really.
If you pre-mulch, as I often do, your season will be delayed (maybe 15
days) because the soil will take much longer to warm. I don't care
because I have hoophouses over the beds until april, and they warm the
soil more than the mulch cools it. Also, I'd rather wait 15 extra days
than weed through the summer. Just the same, consider premulching
greens, which like cool soil, and mulching warm season plants (like
tomatoes) only in mid-june, after the soil has warmed thoroughly.
Some useful websites I have come across and used. Also a goodish article
which I copied off but can't now find reference to on the net so I have
reproduced the whole thing. Apologies for those who object.
A guide to using mulch for your garden
When it comes to getting top garden or farm results, mulch makes a
difference. Agreement on that score is just about unanimous, particularly
among followers of the organic method. The value of a layer of material
placed on the soil surface is pretty well recognized today by gardeners of
all shapes, sizes and sections of the country. Most of them, for example,
are keenly aware that mulching is a boon to the busy or part-time gardener;
that it eliminates weeding, hoeing and cultivating, or considerably cuts
these chores to a pleasant minimum; and that it holds vital moisture
effectively, making irrigation and extra watering necessary far less often.
Then, too, most of us know that a natural mulch benefits plants in other
ways - helping to maintain an even soil temperature in weather extremes,
simplifying the planting and harvesting steps, and contributing an important
enrichment of the soil as it decomposes and adds humus and minerals to the
The catch - if really there is one - lies in deciding on the amount of mulch
to use. Should a good mulch always be the same depth? Must it be measured to
slide-rule accuracy to function right? Do any other considerations influence
the proper quantity? In other words, how much mulch is enough?
Generally, gardeners mulch crops that are in -the garden for most of the
summer. How much? During the growing season, the thickness of the mulch
should be sufficient to prevent the growth of weeds. A thin layer of finely
shredded plant materials is more effective than unshredded loose material.
For example, a 4- to 6-inch layer of sawdust will hold down weeds as well as
8 or more inches of hay, straw or a similar loose, "open" material. So will
one or two inches of buckwheat or cocoa bean hulls, or a two- to 4-inch
depth of pine needles.
Leaves and corn stalks should W shredded or mixed with a light material like
straw to prevent packing into a soggy mass. In a mixture, unshredded leaves
can be spread 8 to 12 inches deep for the winter. To offset the nitrogen
shortage in sawdust and other low-nitrogen materials, add some compost,
soybean or cottonseed meal.
Ground corncobs are a highly recommended mulch. Light and bulky, they help
to "fluff up" the soil, thus preventing crust formation. A ground cob mulch
helps to prevent blank spot on roses. Peat moss, although it doesn't contain
amy nutrients, improves soil, aeration and drainage, ultimately helping
plants absorb nutrients from other materials. An old stand-by, it can be
spread an inch or more in vegetable gardens and flower beds, used as a
half-inch top-dressing twice a year on establishes lawns. Other good mulches
not already mentioned include cotton gin wastes, shredded cotton burs, oat,
rice and cottonseed shells, sphagnum moss, a variety of weeds, crop
residues, grasses and different types of hay.
Mulching Method Using Hay
Speaking of hay leads us to the nation's foremost advocate of year-round
mulching. She relies almost exclusively on spoiled hay, which is peeled off
in convenient layers, or "books," from bales standing ready for use; or
tossed on by the armful to smother a solitary weed or two that may poke
through the existing cover.
How much mulch do you need? The answer to that is: more than you would
think. You should start with a good 8 inches of it. How can tiny plants
survive between 8-inch walls? And the answer to that is: the mulch is
trampled on, rained on, and packed down by the time you are ready to plant.
It doesn't stay 8 inches high.
What about specific crops? Such acid-loving plants as strawberries,
blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, peanuts, radishes, sweet potatoes,
watermelons, azaleas, camellias, mums, rhododendrons, etc., do well with an
acid-material mulch -most leaves, pine needles, sawdust, wood shavings, salt
hay. A 1 1/2 to two-inch layer of salt hay makes the best mulch for
strawberries. Pine needles are another excellent topping for this plant, and
have been found effective at a two to 4-inch depth. Tests showed that
mulched blueberries yielded more fruit than cultivated plantings, and that
sawdust at a rate of 6 to 8 inches gave the most consistent results.
Actually, a mulch program maintained for several years will let you
practically forget about acid or alkaline soil problems. Ample organic
matter acts as an effective buffer and helps to neutralize extremes of pH in
Mulch Timing Is Often Important
Some vegetables, like tomatoes and corn, need a thoroughly warmed soil to
encourage ideal growth. A mulch applied too early in the spring, before
ground temperatures have had a chance to climb a little in frost-zone areas,
may slow up such crops. Once plants are well started, though, and the
weather levels off, mulch is definitely in order to conserve needed water,
stimulate topsoil microorganisms, and generally condition the soil.
Early ripe tomatoes cannot be expected if the spring-thawing ground is
cloaked too soon. I have learned this lesson: That if mulch is applied
before the earth is thoroughly warmed, it will delay the ripening of
tomatoes. I apply mulch now only when the flowers are profuse, or may even
wait until the fruit sets before mulching the plants. Then the mulch seals
the heat in instead of sealing it out.
For late-ripening tomatoes I mulch my plants heavily when I set them out.
For the earliest possible fruit, set out enough to get ripe tomatoes in
unmulched soil until the juicier and better-flavored tomatoes are ripened in
the mulched rows. By the wise use of mulch you can prevent tomatoes ripening
all at one time. Much the same is true of corn, despite a long-continuing
difference of opinion about whether it should be mulched at all. Organic
gardeners throughout the northern planting zones consistently get improved
crops and growth response by mulching when plants are up about a foot high.
Other vegetables which do best in well-warmed soils include the melon and
Still another way mulch makes home gardening more rewarding with less work
is in growing potatoes.
Large crops of the highest-quality potatoes can be grown by laying the seed
(preferably small whole potatoes) on top of the remains of last year's
mulch. Make double rows, 14 inches apart, with the seed the same distance
apart in the rows. The idea of this is not only to get a heavy yield, but to
make it easy to inspect the vines from both sides occasionally, and take
care of a rare potato bug or a bunch of eggs that the Ladybugs have missed.
Having laid the seed in straight rows with the aid of a string, cover the
rows with 7 or 8 inches of hay, and do nothing more until several weeks
After the blossoms fall, begin moving the hay carefully to see how things
are progressing. Small potatoes an inch or two in diameter can be separated
from their stems without disturbing the parent plants, and the hay then
As for the soil-type factor, along with curbing weeds, a carpet of mulch
performs in a number of less frequently realized directions. Cultivating a
hard-packed soil will favor moisture percolation and air penetration, but
the dry, bare surface may be completely eroded in a flash storm.
Furthermore, continued cultivation may speed up organic matter loss and thus
destroy favorable soil structure.
Mulches influence moisture penetration in several ways. Bulky materials such
as wood chips, sawdust and straw temporarily hold a considerable volume of
water, and thus prevent loss by runoff when the rate of application -
natural or artificial - is too rapid for soil penetration. This may be more
important with a heavy silt than with a porous sand soil. However,
maintaining the soil structure loose and open may be the most important
factor involved. Rain beating on an exposed soil compacts it and subsequent
baking in the sun almost completely eliminates its capacity to absorb water
rapidly. The open soil structure found under a mulch is also favorable to
rapid air exchange. Roots require oxygen for the respiration process through
which energy for growth is released.
Harvest and Winter Protection
At harvest time, vegetables which sprawl on the ground, such as cucumbers,
squash, strawberries, unstaked tomatoes, etc., often become moldly or even
develop rot. Others may be damaged by falling onto uncovered soil. A mulch
prevents such injury by keeping the vegetables clean and dry, and by
providing a cushioned layer on which they can rest or drop.
Besides this aid, a late-summer mulch helps to prolong the growing season.
By buffering the effects of early frosts, it allows more time for second
plantings or late crops to mature. At both ends of the summer, mulched soil
and plants derive a noticeable benefit in this guard against weather
As Indian summer wanes and fall makes its mercury-dropping entrance, the
usefulness of a mulch follows the season. There's a somewhat different prime
purpose in the fall and winter mulch, though, and it's important to keep
this in mind. Protection, especially of bulbs, perennial roots, shrubs,
etc., is the objective now; protection, that is, from sudden temperature
changes, from up-and-down thermometer readings which can harm overwintering
The mulch now should be applied after the first hard frost to prevent
alternate thaws and freezes from heaving soil, roots or bulbs. Its purpose
once winter sets in is to hold the lower temperature in the soil, avoid a
rise and subsequent refreezing which shifts the earth and plants, often
exposing enough to cause winter killing. To protect young shrubs, and
particularly roses, mound several inches of earth around them early in
autumn, then mulch after the first freeze with several more inches of
leaves, straw, yard trimmings, etc. Young trees can be protected from rabbit
or field mouse damage by wrapping hardware mesh loosely around their base
before the circle of mulch is applied. Of course, the winter carpet of
organic matter also helps condition the whole garden area for the next
How much mulch? The amount that does the best job for you, your soil and
your plants. Working out an ideal mulch program takes some experimenting,
some trials with various materials and depths. It's only common sense to
check on the most plentiful free and reasonable sources, to test the effects
of different mulches in your climate locale, your own soil type and timing.
But the program more than pays - in dividends of better home-grown foods, a
finer soil, and happier gardeners.
This is directed to the OP, but my ISP has lost the original message....
Why tear up your garden on a specific date? Do you plant things like
broccoli, kale or collards? If yes, they pretty much laugh at frost. I've
got friends south of Cortland, who've been growing things like that right
into early December. They pull lots of dry leaves around the plants, and put
sticks in the ground taller than the plants. They put old shower curtain
liners (clear plastic) over the plants on the coldest nights. The sticks
keep the plastic from laying right on the plants.
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