Oh gardening. I’ve got to be honest. We have had a very rocky relationship (pun intended). I love it. I really really love it. But oh I hate it so much! I always gardened as a child with our family. We had a huge garden because we had a huge family. While we weren’t the envy of the valley or anything, we had a pretty successful garden in a part of the world that prohibits things from growing as much as possible. I believe having this moderately successful upbringing set me up for failure. I thought it was genetic and I was just good at gardening. Oh how laughable now.
My husband and I got married in April. He hadn’t ever, in his entire life, spent one day gardening. I could hardly believe that! Who doesn’t love some fresh peas picked straight from your own vines? How could you grow up without ever snitching a few of the new little potatoes out of their mounds for dinner? No fresh picked lettuce and spinach for a quick lunchtime salad? Not so much as a radish?? My heart cried for him and naturally, my new love kicked in and I determined that I would find a way to raise a little garden for us.
Before I continue, I must paint a picture for you of our residence. We lived in a tiny pink and pukey yellow single wide trailer on a main dirt road of the dustiest place I have ever set foot. Next door to us was the headquarters of a fairly large construction company with several employees that took this road past our house to get to work. Large machinery was often moving around right out our back door. Anyone leaving the entire south end of the community drove past our house on this dirt road.
And this dirt. It wasn’t regular dirt. It was dust. Fine, silty dust. And rocks to help hold things together. I dusted our house every day and we could never open our windows. Yay Nevada!
Anyway, around this little trailer, we had a small gated area with a lawn and a few trees that grew just outside the fence. Under the trees (which looked quite dead) we had a tiny patch of dirt that was enough to grow a few little plants.
Or so I thought.
I set to work one day planting a few potatoes. I thought they could survive just about anything. (Heck, Matt Damon can grow them on Mars right?) Well, come mid-late May, the potatoes were starting to grow…right about the same time the trees decided they weren’t dead and sprouted leaves, resulting in shade completely covering, at all times of day, our poor little new potatoes. Long story short, here is the photo proof of how great of a harvest we ended up with. That’s all of them you know. I included every single potato that grew from every single plant that year. We tried to eat them. Not so tasty.
Well, not intending to be beaten down (forever at least. I did take a year or two off.) I set out a second time to test my gardening skills. We had moved out to a ranch and away from the dusty construction area. They had a beautiful little garden spot already made at the house. We hauled in a small load of manure from the ranch and tilled it in. I planted the whole thing with a little help from my husband just because I wanted to teach him.
I took care of it – watering (almost every day because it dried out so fast) and weeding (at least a little bit 6 days a week) and everything I was supposed to do. And it worked. Things grew! It was a miracle! I planted everything at least a month ahead of anyone else in the valley and nothing froze. I was shocked. I was amazed. I was a good gardener!
Until I wasn’t.
Looking back at these pictures, I can see some warning signs. I was out there weeding every day but look between these rows!
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the manure we had brought in hadn’t composted long enough. It was FULL of weed seeds! No matter how much I pulled and hoed and fought against them, I lost. Epicly.
Not only did weeds get me, a week or so after these pictures, a hail storm with golf ball size stones ripped through. The soil was very much hard clay and quite unforgiving, causing the hail to bounce back up and do even more damage.
Gophers ate all of my carrots. Oh, and then the sheep got in – three times! And as if that all wasn’t enough, we watered from the creek with a pump and the ditch ran dry. You can’t make these things up.
I felt beaten. I had tried my very best. I had done everything I knew how and I had failed. Big time.
We ate some peas and the beats survived all of it, although not their greens. No corn. No beans. No carrots. No tomatoes. No squash. No potatoes.
I took the entire next summer to try fixing the garden spot. I researched and planted a cover crop of buckwheat that was supposed to help kill the weeds. It didn’t. It didn’t even help amend the soil. It bloomed early and made things a little worse actually. We got another hail storm, another dry ditch, and a blazing hot stretch. We did get a few cats and a dog to help with gophers. I tried different ways of amending the soil to keep it more “loamy” and soft including composting which can get kind of gross.
Fail. All of it.
Finally, I mowed over the buckwheat, tilled it in and started covering the ground with my grass clippings hoping they would decompose over the winter. I didn’t anticipate a garden the next year either. Impossible task. I continued to compost and hoped and prayed that one day I might have a way to fix it.
Lamenting to my mom one day on the phone proved to be the answer to my prayer. She mentioned a woman named Ruth Stout and sent me the link to watch a video of her planting and explaining her gardening method. This was very different than the gardening we had done in my childhood and I asked where mom came up with this. She had watched a homesteading seminar online and Jill Winger from the Prairie Homestead had mentioned what she called Deep Mulch Gardening. Mom said that she was really interested and wanted to try it but she gardened with a good friend and they had a pretty perfect, weed free, loamy soil, amazing garden. She feared she’d mess it up if it didn’t work.
I however, had nothing to lose! I read Jill’s posts. I watched Ruth’s videos. I read other articles and watch other videos of people trying this hay gardening. I hesitated. I had nothing to lose but the strangeness of this method held me back.
How could I cover my entire garden in a foot of hay? That is madness?
If I thought I had weed problems now! Doesn’t this lady know how many weed seeds hang out in hay? Yes actually. She did. But it didn’t matter.
The basic idea is that if your weed seeds can’t get sunlight, they can’t grow. Smother them. 1 seed or 1,000 seeds. Doesn’t matter. None of them can grow if they can’t get to the light.
This does include your vegetable seed too though. So how can it work? Here is the step by step of how we began Deep Mulch/Hay/Ruth Stout Method/No Till/whatever name you want to attach to this amazingness – gardening.
Start by tilling your garden. It may be the last time you ever do. We tilled all the weeds under first then brought in a load of the same weedy manure (’cause it had already done it’s damage) and then used the forks of a tractor to really break up the clay. It’s amazing anything, weeds included, could grow in that dirt. Hard as concrete! After breaking it up and mixing the manure in, we tilled over it again with a little bit of hay. Our hope was that the hay would keep it light and soft under the first 3 inches if we tilled some in.
Now comes the weird part. According to Ruth, old musty, rotten, spoiled hay is the best mulch you can have on a garden. Get some. Spread it over the entire garden. All of it. Deep. She said at least one foot deep, we went a little more. It does settle. This is kind of hard, itchy, dirty work. “Taking a roll in the hay” is certainly less fun than it sounds.
We are pretty fortunate to have access to plenty of old hay, living on a ranch and all. Not everyone is so fortunate. Ruth obtained her hay from nearby farms. She also said that anything that rots would work as long as you can get it deep enough: kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, bark chips. I used hay but I would love to find out what happens with the other things so if you give it a try, please let me know!
The time of year doesn’t really matter for this. The sooner the better (according to Mrs. Stout) because the hay will have a chance to begin decomposing. We just happened to find out about it at the very end of winter which gave me the time to research and decide to try it by early spring. The hay had a chance to sit for about a month before I planted.
Planting is a little more difficult than with plain dirt gardening because you have to part the hay into rows and then dig your row in the dirt and plant as usual. I wanted to have a nice, neat garden so I was a bit particular about this. Ruth was not. At all. Personal preference I guess.
The important part is to open up the hay to bare ground and leave it open until the seeds sprout and then you can tuck the hay in around it. We don’t want to smother them like all the bad seeds, remember? For other plants such as squash or tomatoes, I opened up a circle to plant my start and then tucked hay in around them. Potatoes can be simply thrown under the hay. No hilling required. No digging in the dirt. Weird right?
After everything is planted, continue as usual. Because I wanted to cram a lot of food into my space, my rows were a little narrow and that meant after I watered or the wind blew (daily) I had to go check to make sure my little seedlings weren’t covered up. If you spaced them a bit more, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Once you have the hay tucked in around everything, your job is practically done. I kept some extra hay nearby so when a super resilient weed tried to peek out, I’d cover it with more hay.
I watered it about once a week instead of every day like I did before. We even left on a trip for over a week and came back to perfect plants. Nothing even wilted. I could have never done this before.
I didn’t pull weeds. At all. All summer. None. Which was good because I had a potty training two year old and a newborn. I wasn’t getting out there to weed every day this year! The weeds grew all around the edges of the garden but not where the hay covered.
We ran out of water in the ditch again. It didn’t matter because we could use house water for the occasional watering that it needed.
We got a hail storm. It damaged things but the hay offered such a nice cushion that most everything came back. We got a second hail storm. It still rebounded and then flourished. My beets regrew the most beautiful greens. My green beans started producing. My corn made ears. Corn doesn’t grow to maturity there. Ours did.
The hay protected my plants from several freezing nights that wiped out some of my friend’s and neighbor’s gardens. We had the blazing hot streak like the year before. That hay acted like a perfect climate control bubble around my little garden.
I have never been so happy to garden in my life. It was easy! Even if you calculate the work of setting it up and the increased work of planting. You don’t have to do anything but water and harvest the rest of the year! You don’t even have to till it under at the end, just add a little more hay to keep it around one foot deep. Do you see the difference in those before attempts and this attempt? Do you see that miracle?!
Now for my sad ending…because I just can’t have a happy gardening tale to tell. We ended up moving at the end of August and I didn’t get updated pictures. And things had changed a lot by the time we left!
I didn’t get to harvest and eat all of our corn and potatoes and carrots and beans and peas. We ate so much food from the garden I couldn’t be too sad. We shared with neighbors.
Any time anyone came over they commented on how amazing the garden looked. Everyone thought the hay was weird at first but after seeing the results, we were the envy of the valley. I wish I could have taken pictures to show you. People actually tried to use our awesome garden to talk us out of moving. “How can you leave that?” they would ask. It was hard but knowing another couple would move in as soon as we were gone helped. Someone got to finish enjoying it.
I had no downsides to this method. Unless you count our little garden snake but I don’t because I only saw him twice and he was very small and kind. I don’t even know if the hay attracted him or if he was only passing through. I lived in a very arid, ruthless area of the West and it worked wonders for me. Ruth lived somewhere wet and said she never had to water. Ever. I don’t know where you live but I bet you could adapt this method to work for you.
No downsides. That’s as good a selling point as I’ve heard.
Happy Gardening! And don’t forget to keep me updated.