Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Live Mulch Experiment

 I think an alternative title for this post could be "Basically, I Overplanted," or at least that's what it looks like.  We use a no-till method in our garden, which means we top-dress nutrients rather than turning the soil every year.  This allows me to constantly overlap sowing and reaping of different varieties in the same bed.  In seasons past I have worked hard to keep the beds thickly mulched (with shredded dead leaves, shredded hardwood mulch, or compost) to protect against moisture loss in our hot Texas summers.  But this year I am trying something different.
 With raised beds it makes no sense to plant rows (we don't need rows between which to walk), so I've used a variety of square foot gardening technique to arrange my plantings.  But this means only 6 tomato plants or 3-4 squash plants would use up ALL of one of my 4x8' beds, and I only have two and one in-ground bed. Plus, when you plant 12 kale plants in a perfect grid and 1/4 of them never make it to adulthood, you're left with a few empty square feet.  And this type of growing has always resulted in a fair amount of bare soil, thus the attention to mulch.
 One morning, as I walked in the garden, I realized the leaves of the mature existing plants were keeping the air and soil cool and moist beneath, and that flower seeds my kids had thrown out there were germinating under their cover.  It hit me that all this time I've been trying to grow a garden in a very logical, albeit unnatural arrangement.  In nature, plants are not perfectly spaced in a grid-like pattern.  And when one plant is mature, many new plants are up and coming beneath its canopy.  Why couldn't I use living plants like I use mulch - and get food out of it?  The mulch covers the soil and keeps it cool and moist.  The shadows of leaves do the same, and once those mature plants die, they can slowly be broken back down into the ground naturally.
 So this year I'm trying it out.  I'm crowding things in; I plant a kale seed every square foot, then when it's 3" high I plant mesculun lettuces around them.  Then when those are about 3", I plant something else - maybe scallions, maybe bush beans.  Hopefully soon every inch of soil will be hidden by plants.  I'm planting seeds about every 2-3 weeks, but they're so inexpensive.  And just look at all that life in the garden!  It's May, and my garden is full!  Also bear in mind that we have already harvested 11 shopping bags full of greens and lettuces since New Year's, not including the small harvests I've made when making dinner.  This from about 120 square feet.

Lettuces give shade and protection to newly transplanted tomatoes.  Chive and scallion greens shelter zinnia sprouts, and basil is germinating in the shade of kale.
 Thyme and chard shadow bush bean seedlings, pepper transplants are rising up between red onions, and the bolted (flowering) kale is attracting pollinators for summer crops.  Second-year asparagus spears sway in the breeze with onion greens, and marigolds are posturing to take over the edges.
 The entire garden is alive, which is huge change from the sparse Spring garden I had in seasons past (when I was careful to abide by square foot gardening spacing guidelines).  Now, I am not saying those guidelines are not true or that the methods aren't good.  But why not have the next crop on its way and benefiting from the first?  I've also noticed in this new experiment the seedlings are being protected from both heavy rain and pests.  It will be interesting to see how this method will fare for the summer crops.  I wonder how long I'll be able to keep my greens in the Texas heat?
 Here kale sprouts lift their tiny heads in the shade of blue borage leaves.
 Here kale buds and blossoms attract native bees and add color and beauty to the veggie bed.
Here kale seed pods dance in the breeze.  I think I'll let some of them fall naturally -- an early start on the Fall crop.  Clearly, we love kale.


  1. I like this idea! Keep blogging about it so that I can see how it turns out. I may try this next year!

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