Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mulching and Watering

Now that we aren't getting drenched every day with rain, we will need to start supplemental watering for the gardens. Mulching and watering go hand in hand. Mulch will help suppress weed seeds and help conserve moisture (a must for us, because we will be generating a water bill as soon as we turn on the supplemental water). You also don't need to water as often if you mulch--saves your time! So first, let's consider what mulches are good for your vegetable beds:


Compost--Screen the leaf mulch compost (FREE!--the black piles outside the garden: the screen is usually resting on the blue water barrel near the back gate-please return it to the top of the barrel when you finish), then apply it about 1"-2" deep around your plants. Using the compost will also help enrich your vegetable beds for next year.

Grass clippings--If you bag your grass clippings (from an herbicide free lawn), bring them to the garden and apply them to about 1/2 inch thick (avoid the area right around the plant stems). Fresh grass clippings if applied thicker than 1/2 inch can "heat up" and get smelly. One risk of using grass clippings is the possibility of introducing weed seeds, if your lawn is weedy.

Leaves-Chopped up leaves (run a mower over them) make fine mulch. You can see an example of this in Plot #6.

"Mainely Mulch"- This is a bagged product-a mixture of chopped up hay and straw that has been heated to destroy weed seeds. It is compressed into a bag and goes a long way. We've used this in Seed, Weed and Feed around the lettuce, cucumbers, broccoli, beets and carrots. Because it is chopped up, it fits easily around the plants. When we first seeded the lettuce, carrots and beets, we sprinkled the Mainely Mulch lightly on the bed to help retain moisture for the seeds to germinate. I know that Agway (North Branford--take Rte 139 North, then Route 80 East and Agway is on the RHS of the road, a few miles from the intersection of 139/80) and Natureworks in Northford carry this product (around $18.00 a bag), but there might be closer sources that I don't know about.

Newspaper-Wet 4-6 layers of newspaper, then spread the layers around the plants. This works particularly well to suppress weeds in large areas between plants (like in the spaces between tomato and broccoli plants). It is then best to cover the newspaper with compost, grass clippings or leaves to hold the paper down and to prevent the top surface of the newspaper from drying out.

-Let's face it, black plastic is not the most ecologically friendly mulch because it's made from petroleum products and doesn't do anything to improve the organic matter in the soil, but, it makes an excellent weed suppressant and warms the soil, which can be helpful for the heat loving crops, like sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra, peppers, cucumbers, squashes and eggplant. It is also easy to use and remains in place for the season. We used it in the Seed, Weed and Feed plot, partially for the above mentioned reasons, but also because I wanted to make it easy for the volunteers to tend the garden. Notice in Seed, Weed and Feed that we did not use it around the broccoli or potatoes. These crops love cool temps and would resent the added heat from the black plastic. It's best to put the black plastic down at the beginning of the planting season. (Sources: Agway and Fedco Organic Gardener's Supply (

Salt Marsh Hay- Connie was given a bag of this and we are using it around the potatoes (helps to keep them cooler) and in a few other open areas in Seed, Weed and Feed. Salt marsh hay is a good mulch around "the bigger" crops, like potatoes, but because it is so bulky, would be difficult to spread around smaller plants, like carrots, beets, radishes, lettuces, etc. Connie is checking on a source for this. Mainely Mulch is touted as a good substitute for this.

Straw- Agway (North Branford--take Rte 139 North, then Route 80 East and Agway is on the RHS of the road, a few miles from the intersection of 139/80) carries bales of straw (probably $10.99 per bale). Straw is a good mulch around "the bigger" crops, like potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, but because it is so bulky, would be difficult to spread around carrots, beets, radishes, lettuces, etc. I've usually had good luck with straw, but one year had the misfortune of purchasing a bale that had grass seed in it, so spent a chunk of time weeding the grass out of my strawberry bed. Mainely Mulch is touted as a good substitute for this.

Wood Chips
- Wood chips are excellent in walkways because they take awhile to break down. Fresh wood chips are not recommended for areas directly around the plants though because as they break down, they remove nitrogen from the soil, thereby robbing your plants of essential nutrients (I don't know how big a deal this is; this is just what I've read about it). Sawdust would behave similarly.

You can always add more of any mulch as the summer progresses and the mulch breaks down.


How to water: Mother Nature has been supplying plenty (almost too much!) water the past few weeks, and because of that, I suspect that some of the Community Garden plants are experiencing disease problems--too much wet on the leaves. To try to avoid disease problems later in the summer when we are watering by hose, it's generally suggested that you water at the base of a plant, and not directly on the leaves. This makes sense for most of the plants (tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, squashes, pumpkins); just water at the base. It would be difficult and really not necessary, however, to individually water at the base of the carrots, beets, and radishes,. Just give these plants a good overall watering and don't worry about getting the foliage wet. It's also best to water in the early morning, so that plant leaves have a chance to dry out, but naturally that won't always be possible. Please direct your water to the plants and don't water the walkways and open areas between the plants.

When to water: We hope for 1" of rain a week. It's best, if Mother Nature doesn't help, to SOAK the soil two or three times a week (as needed), rather than light sprinklings of water daily. A general way to measure a garden's moisture is to pull back the mulch, dig down 2", grab a handful of soil, then squeeze it. If the soil holds together, it's moist enough, if it falls apart, you need to water. For seedlings you should not allow the soil to dry more than 1/2", but once plants are established, allow the top 2" of soil to dry out before doing the squeeze test. Shallow rooted plants, like lettuce, might need watering more often than deeply rooted plants, like tomatoes. These are ROUGH guidelines--I read different recommendations in different books.

Happy Gardening!

Rodale's Vegetable Garden Problem Solver: The Best and Latest Advice for Beating Pests, Diseases, and Weeds and Staying A Step Ahead of Trouble in the Garden by Fern Marshall Bradley (2007)

Burpee: The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically by Karan Davis Cutler