Hay Mulch and Other Low tech Adaptations for Home Gardens

Spring 2019
Drawing by Toki Oshima

By Joyce White

My garden area in Stoneham’s stony foothills is ringed with trees, mostly ash and maple, that have grown very tall during the 21 years I’ve lived here. Their roots have grown very long, too, reaching beneath the soil of the whole garden area.

Because of those roots and the annual crop of stones, I gave away my Mantis tiller that had worked beautifully in the lovely loam of my Stacyville gardens. My aging muscles rebelled when I had to start the tiller again every time it encountered roots and rocks.

Moving to Mulch

Now a 3- or 4-inch layer of hay mulch spread over the garden keeps weeds down. Like everything in life, hay has positive and a negative attributes. One of the negatives is that the soil is slower to warm under hay mulch in the spring; another is that I have to buy and spread the hay.

For an old woman who wants to keep gardening, though, the positives outweigh the negatives. I’m often asked if hay spreads weed seeds. That has not been my experience, but occasional clumps of witchgrass (quackgrass, Elymus repens) do appear, and at the edges I’m always fighting creeping Charlie (ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea). Aside from that, I don’t do much weeding – except for trying to keep grass from growing too tall under the solar electric fence surrounding the garden.

Slugs were also a consideration with mulch. During my first few years of gardening here, I had so many slugs that most evenings I would go to the garden with a quart yogurt container and would usually fill it! Then I began using Escar-Go! from Garden’s Alive and Sluggo from the local farm supply store. Described as “a unique blend of iron phosphate and slug/snail bait additives,” it interrupts feeding and has worked well for me. I see few slugs now, but during a rainy spell, if I see some damage, I sprinkle a little Escar-Go! in the area.

After everything has been harvested, I spread a thin layer of wood ashes and lime, and then cover that with a thick layer of chopped leaves and grass from the last lawn mowing. Then I wheelbarrow hay bales to the garden. The bales separate easily into 2- to 3-inch flakes, with which I cover the garden. This is my last garden chore, usually done by mid-October. In 2018, though, snow arrived on October 24, before the hay. So eight bales of hay sat in the garage waiting for a major thaw or for spring. In this area snow was already too deep by early November for a wheelbarrow. By early December, we still had no thaw, and snow banks were even higher, so I gave up on the possibility of sliding the hay downhill on a plastic sled.

Gardening in Pots

Because root vegetables don’t do well around the tree roots, I’ve begun experimenting with carrots, parsnips, beets and potatoes in big pots and grow bags. They grow well, but preparing large pots for planting is somewhat labor intensive, although in a different way from digging planting rows through hay mulch. I don’t get as large a crop as I would if I planted into good garden soil, but even so, I don’t need to begin buying organic carrots and potatoes until well into December. Those big pots are close to the deck, and I can just put my hand into the Pro-Mix and pull out smooth, straight ‘Yaya’ carrots and smooth, round ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes. Perhaps because I have small plantings and no other gardens are nearby, I seldom have potato beetles – in fact, none at all in the last two years.

I tried parsnips in pots in 2018 for the first time. They grew big and healthy, but I’m waiting to see how they survive the winter. They’re in their pot in the unheated garage but are not mulched as they would be in the garden. Both round and cylindrical red beets produce beet roots in pots, but I am not as satisfied with container-grown beets as with carrots and potatoes.

For the one ‘Sungold’ tomato plant and a large pot of European cucumbers that I like to have close at hand, beside the garage door, I use new Pro-Mix, but all other pots get recycled mix. I store the mix in four big, old-fashioned washtubs plus the big pots in the garage all winter. When the mix thaws in spring, I add lime – except to the potato grow-bags. I also add good sifted compost when I have it.

Each year, whether the mix is new or used, I also add alfalfa meal, greensand, bagged composted cow manure and boxed organic garden fertilizer. I avoid bone meal, blood meal and fish meal because they tempt critters that apparently think a fish or dead animal must be in there.  Additions are not scientific but mostly by guess and experience. Those seeking more precise directions can check “Potting Mixes for Certified Organic Production” by George Kuepper.

Starting Seeds

By mid-March, new Pro-Mix is prepared for seedlings. Several varieties of tomato seeds go into individual cups because I have never found the commercial equivalent of my tomato juice made from a mix of ripe red and yellow tomatoes. Even the most expensive organic juice lacks the depth of flavor that a good mix of my ripe tomatoes yields.

I sow seeds of peppers, broccoli, and some flowers and herbs in March, too, germinating them on top of the refrigerator for warmth. I cover the trays of little cups loosely with a plastic produce bag from Hannaford with slits cut in it to help retain moisture while still allowing enough air circulation to prevent mold.

As seedlings emerge, I move them to a bench by the sunny sliding glass door. As soon as they are strong and sturdy enough, they occupy a small, portable greenhouse on the deck, which I watch closely to avoid too much sun. Temperatures can get unexpectedly high in a closed plastic greenhouse in the late morning. Twice I confess to scorching some delicate plants before I remembered to unzip the greenhouse to let in cooler air.

I move big pots from the garage to their summer location as soon as snow banks melt so that the sun can thoroughly warm the soil before planting or transplanting takes place – sometime in early May for root crops, mid-May for lettuce seeds, and the end of May for cucumbers, peppers and ‘Sungold’. Peppers go into smaller pots of soil in a child’s wagon so that I can move them to the garage at night and into the sun by day until nights remain warm.


All of these pots need to be watered frequently. My irrigation system is simple: Two big plastic barrels catch rainwater at each end of the garage and another at the end of the house under the downspout of the gutter. That one collects far more water than the other two. Also, a dozen 5-gallon buckets sit under the eaves of the garage. When they are full, I put their covers on until I need the water. Screening covers the barrels to deter mosquitoes from laying eggs there.

Because lifting buckets – I’ve gone to a smaller 5-quart size – got to be too hard, I bought a small pump and an extra hose a few years ago. This makes watering the garden much easier, but I still use the small buckets for the pots because I can judge the amount they need more easily. On hot days they need a daily drink.

Transplanting to the Garden

When it’s time to plant the garden, the grass and leaves have pretty much broken down. I move the hay to either side of the row and spade up the soil. I then add compost, manure and amendments, and spade it up again to mix them in thoroughly before sowing seeds. Fencing for peas goes up after peas emerge, and the battery gets hooked and the perimeter fence turned on. As plants emerge from each row, I move the hay mulch back closer to the plants.

Around the end of April, I pot up tomato seedlings one more time into quart yogurt containers, and big, sturdy tomato plants are the last to go into the garden – some already bearing blossoms. They aren’t planted in rows but in scattered, good-sized holes about 3 feet apart. Sometimes I stake and tie them as they grow; other times I use cages stabilized with a sturdy stake. In late fall I pour a dilute bleach solution into one of the barrels and soak all the tomato stakes and cages in an effort to prevent disease, but that seldom works completely. (Ed. note: Eric Sideman, MOFGA’s organic crop specialist, recommends a 12X dilution of household bleach. Certified organic growers must be sure to use a bleach product that is approved for organic production. And Caleb Goossen, MOFGA’s organic crop and conservation specialist, reminds gardeners that stakes and cages should be cleaned of soil and crop residues before being sanitized.)

Even though I’ve been gardening for 75 years – I had my first 4-H “Victory Garden” at age 10 – I still learn something and have at least one surprising failure every year. I plan to continue gardening for as long as I am able, and even though I say each fall that I’m going to plant a smaller garden next year, that doesn’t seem to happen. The Fedco catalog comes, the order goes out, and another gardening year begins again.

About the author: Joyce White gardens in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

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