Category Archives: Mulch

gardening in a dry year


It’s been a dry year here in California. One of the driest winters on record. To us, even though we had a very wet fall, it seemed like after the holidays the faucet was shut off. There was really almost no rain whatsoever after the holidays. Such a strange winter. And this spring we are certainly seeing the signs. Sure, if you squint your eyes and turn your head a little to the left, things look pretty good. Flowers are blooming, trees are leafing out. But if you look closely you’ll notice that the lawn is almost dead already, spring flowers are getting torched by this early heat (supposed to be in the 90’s tomorrow!), and we are relying heavily on irrigation…already. This is going to be a long summer.

A few years ago I wrote a post on drought friendly vegetable gardening, (wow, I used to write such different posts back then!) which is worth a read if you are struggling with water issues too. In regards to that post, we outfitted two more beds with in-line drip irrigation. We ordered 15 yards of mulch to heavily cover the irrigation and our tender crops. We are also focusing heavily on three beds this growing year instead of last years four beds. And I’m heavily mulching the flower gardens to help retain every last ounce of water in the soil. We need, however to get these beds on a timer, so that they can be watered in the evening or early morning hours. That is an easy step, we just need to put it higher on our priority list.

Luckily we have the option of putting our laundry on grey water. We’ve had this since we moved in, but it only drains out to one spot. Though I shouldn’t complain, the snowball hydrangea looks quite happy about the situation. However, my hope for the near future is that I can hook it up to a pipe that has multiple perforations in it, so that it can water a larger area along our foundation plantings.

How is the rain/water situation where you garden? Do you have any drought gardening tricks?


Filed under Mulch, Soil, State of the Garden, Water, what we've learned

Getting the garden ready for next year

Nothing is more motivating, garden speaking, then a visit to the Sonoma Garden Park. It’s been a while since we’ve visited, but I’ve been missing it. And since our attentions are starting to turn outside-wards, I was looking forward to the inspiration. Oh yes, nothing is more humbling and motivating than a visit to a beautiful garden. It wasn’t more than a few hours before we got home and got our hands in the dirt. First up was to attend to this row of berries, to get them up and off the ground. A couple of stakes, some twine, some weeding and a good mulch of compost and we’re ready to be deep in boysenberries next summer!

This above patch was the watermelon patch, which we put our seven year old in charge of. He pulled up all the old watermelon plants, dug up the dirt, smoothed it out and hauled the compost from the front of the house and laid a thick layer on top. He got a very big ice cream cone after that, believe me!

This patch was my patch to tackle last week. We had wanted to lay a good cover crop, but it was overwhelming to know where to begin. We should have planted the fava beans weeks ago, but every time we walked out there, the job just seemed too big to tackle. So I put on a watch, grabbed my gloves and a shovel and just started digging, for 10 minutes. Then I went back inside for a while to work. Then back out to dig. Then back inside to tackle laundry. Then started hauling compost to dig in, for 10 minute segments. Then spread out gypsum to cut the clay soil and fava. Then another thin layer of compost. All in 10 minute segments. Got it done in two days. Of course this is only a tiny segment of what we hope to dig and put in cover crop, but hey, it’s a start! I just realized that my 7 year old works faster than I do…hmmm…guess that’s why I’m still waiting for my ice cream cone!

p.s. We had another jar lid pop this Sunday. Again on a Sunday. Strange. This time from something canned two years ago with a different batch of lids….


Filed under Compost, Mulch

How to Mulch (Day 5 of 30 Days to a Better Garden)

Mulch is a gardeners best friend. When we mulch we notice a difference in our garden almost the very next day, it’s miraculous. The plants seem to perk up a bit due to all the extra moisture retention in the soil. The mulch keeps the weeds at bay and over all gives the garden a finished look. If you aren’t familiar with it, mulch is basically a material either organic or inorganic that you put over the ground around plants to insulate the ground. If you are a garden newbie, mulching can seem a little overwhelming, there are so many choices, it seems like a lot of work and the idea of covering up the soil that you’ve worked so hard to soften and get ready for your new plants is counter intuitive. But I’ll help explain what to use, how to do it and what the benefits are so that you can mulch your garden it with confidence and ease. You won’t regret it, I promise!

First let’s talk about why you should mulch. There are so many reason to mulch:

  1. Helps the moisture from watering in the soil instead of evaporating into the air so fast
  2. Smothers weeds by preventing light from reaching weed seeds
  3. Shades the soil that it keeps the soil cooler therefore preventing heat stress on plants
  4. Likewise it also works to keep the soil warmer on cooler nights
  5. Keeps your vegetables cleaner
  6. Adds organic matter into your soil as it breaks down, increasing your soil’s nutrient content

There are so many things you can use to mulch your garden with. This year we are using straw because it’s fairly inexpensive, very effective and we already have it on hand to use for the chicken coop (and we had extra bales that we used as seating at our Harvest Party). Our favorite soil book is called Secrets to Great Soil and I highly recommend that you get a copy (it’s inexpensive) if you are interested in improving your soil. This book has a chapter on mulches which includes a great chart of all the different things you can mulch with. It rates it’s appearance, insulation value, relative cost, how thick you should lay it down, it also rates it’s weed control along with a number of other factors. It’s a great book. For the sake of simplicity, I am only going to share with you inexpensive yet effective choices from that long list. While you may want to use expensive, good looking and fragrant cocoa hulls for your front yard flowerbed, it might break the bank to use it for a large vegetable garden.

Here is a list of lower cost, effective mulch materials:

  1. Chopped or Shredded Leaves – Adding a 2-3 inch layer of leaves over your garden beds can be free if you have many trees on your property. It is listed as a good insulator and a good method of weed control.
  2. Coffee Grounds – I use coffee grounds (always less than 1 inch deep) in my potted plants. We are big coffee drinkers here so we always have plenty of grounds. This might be a good option if you are in an urban area and getting bales of hay isn’t a convenient option. Coffee grounds as a mulch is a fair insulator and good at weed control, and it looks nice too. Plus as Daphne mentioned yesterday in the comments, coffee grounds make for excellent slug and snail control.
  3. Compost – We typically don’t mulch with compost. While we do add compost to the soil and sometime spread a layer of compost around the plant during the growing season, we usually spread something over the compost layer as a mulch. However if you have plenty of compost it makes a good insulator and is fair at weed control. Spread a 1-3 inch layer over the soil around your plants.
  4. Hay & Straw – Being that we live in an agricultural area, getting bales of hay and straw is easy and convenient. We also like the look of it as a mulch and it is easy to get the boys involved in gardening – they love to carry big armfuls of it. To be effective, you’ll want to spread a 6-8 inch layer of straw or hay on the ground to have it be both a good insulator and weed barrier.
  5. Grass Clippings – We use grass clippings in some places too, where big stalks of straw seem too bulky. Grass clippings are free for us and it only takes an inch of fresh clippings to provide a good layer of insulation. Make sure however that your grass is not going to seed when you cut it or you’ll get grass seed all in your garden, which is not good. Grass clippings are an excellent fertilizer too, which you can read more about here.
  6. Newspaper – While layers of newspaper around the garden might not be the most attractive thing, it can be a low cost way to provide good weed control. Spread several layers around plants, but make sure to avoid the colored glossy inserts. If you have the time, shred or rip up the sections for even better coverage.
  7. Seaweed – If you like to take trips to the coast like we do, bring a big garbage bag with you and collect seaweed on your beach walk. Seaweed makes an excellent weed barrier and a good insulator. You’ll need to add a good 4-6 inch layer to the soil which will slowly break down and add nitrogen, potash and micronutrients to your soil.

We typically add mulch right after our plants have been placed in the ground in spring. We start by keeping the mulch away from the base of the plant at first when they are little and tender and gradually add a thicker layer as the plant grows. In fall we rake all the straw and grass off and add it to the compost pile.

Do you use mulch? What do you use? What has worked and what hasn’t?

Check here to see who won the book giveaway! Thank you for all of your great suggestions and questions!


Filed under 30 Days to a Better Garden, Mulch

7 Things to Improve Your Soil

We’ve been thinking a lot about dirt lately. Or, rather ‘soil’ as we gardeners like to say. We’ve been thinking about weeds and learning about how you can tell a lot about your soil by what weeds grow in it. We’re just starting to learn about this so we’ll keep you posted. But it’s gotten me to think about how as gardeners we are truly stewards of the soil. Any organic gardener knows that your plants are only as healthy as your soil, so its important to take excellent care of it. The best way to ensure your soils health is to add plenty of organic matter. Sure, we know that the three big soil nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but macro and micro nutrients are also critical because those are are what break down the organic matter to release the nutrients to your plants. Here’s a list of things you can easily do to improve your soils health.

  • 1. For new garden beds, mix one inch of compost or 3 inches of grass clippings into the top 6 inches of soil.
  • 2. Mulch around plants with 2 inches of grass clippings, coffee ground or compost which will slowly add nutrients to the soil and encourage earthworms and other soil organisms
  • 3. Apply a spray of compost tea. Compost tea is low in nutrients but high in micronutrients
  • 4. Plant a living mulch this summer such as oats or white dutch clover around your vegetables. Their roots will loosen compacted soil and concentrate nutrients for your vegetables to feed on.
  • 5. Dry out eggshells and crumble them into the soil for a boost of calcium and micronutrients. (via katrina)
  • 6. Start a compost pile, bin or vermiculture box.
  • 7. Double dig your soil about 2 feet deep, blending in compost as you go. The benefits will last indefinately. This will improve drainage, aeration, improve root growth, encourage earthworms and allow nutrients to be evenly spread through the root zone.
  • All these ideas are pretty easy things that you can do this weekend. I hope you try a few!


    Filed under Compost, Cover Crops, Fertilizing, Mulch, Soil, what we've learned

    free fertilizer vs. $16,000 fertilizer

    We a seemingly endless amount of weeding and thinning this weekend which gave us a nice amount of amaranth, pursulane, chinese mustard and micro-greens to have for salads. A small reward for all the time spent on our knees.
    grass clippings
    Scott also mowed our lawn and used the grass clipping in our newest experiment in the broccoli/cauliflower bed. We read a great article in Mother Earth News this weekend that explored the different types of organic fertilizer on the market. As you know, fertilizers must be labeled by their Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (N-P-K) levels. Being that nitrogen is a likely deficient in many soils, the author compared the fertilizers based on their per pound of nitrogen. She compares 17 different store bought organic fertilizers, the cheapest being SoyBean Meal (7-2-1) at $4/lb of nitrogen and the most expensive being TerraCycle Plant Food (.03-.002-.02) at a whopping $16,987/lb of nitrogen.

    Or she says, you can just use ordinary grass clippings which contain anywhere from 2% – 5% of nitrogen. In most areas you can work in about half an inch into your soil, or put a 1-2 inch layer as a mulch on your garden bed and that will provide all the nutrients most crops need for a full season of growth! Not only will it provide nutrients, but the grass clippings as a mulch act as a good weed prevention and as a moisture retainer.

    Usually we just put our grass clippings into the compost pile and let them compost. Doing that dilutes the nitrogen power down to about 1%, but the benefit of compost is that it departs its nutrients into the soil over a matter of years rather than in just one growing season.

    Either way, obviously, is beneficial. And obviously much, much cheaper than buying organic fertilizer, wouldn’t you say? I don’t know, free vs. $16,987, you make the call.


    Filed under Fertilizing, just picked, Mulch, Our Weekends, what we've learned