The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

June 21, 2019

Using agricultural paper mulch in the garden

Filed under: Mulch,Planting,Weeds — Tags: , , — bob @ 2:57 pm

Through the years I’ve used a lot of different kinds of mulch ranging from natural materials like straw or grass to man made materials such as plastic sheeting. The plastic I’ve tried has been in all the colors of the rainbow plus some that aren’t.

They’ve all claimed to have an advantage over plain black plastic. The color red was supposed to enhance tomato production. Light reflecting off of silver was supposed to confuse insect pests and on and on. Maybe there was a small incremental advantage they provided that could be seen over acres of crop, but in the garden I could never detect any.

One thing they all have in common is that they physically suppress weeds by preventing growth or inhibiting seed germination. I’ve settled on run of the mill black plastic.

This year I’m experimenting with agricultural paper mulch. It’s been around for some time — maybe you’ve tried it.  I’ve never thought to use it until I started reading about the problems plastic products in general are causing. Some countries have even threatened to declare war over it. Then there’s the problem of micro-plastics showing up everywhere in the environment.

Paper mulch doesn’t have those kinds of drawbacks. One big advantage is, over the course of a growing season, it will slowly break down. Then when the growing season is over, it can be tilled into the soil saving a lot of work removing it.

There are biodegradable plastic sheet mulch products that farmers use but first generation materials leave behind undesirable by-products in the soil as they decompose. That’s the reason why many of these products are not approved for organic farming. The paper mulch I have has been found to be acceptable by an organic certifying agency.

When I opened the box, I expected to see brown paper, sort of like a grocery bag but it has a faint purple hue to it. I don’t know if that is a result of the manufacturing process or if the color was added to differentiate if from other paper products.

Like all kinds of sheet mulch, it’s critical that the edges are firmly secured so the wind doesn’t get under it and tear it or blow it away. Some gardeners pin down their mulches with metal landscape pins. I like to make shallow trenches that accept the edges of the mulch then I’ll bury the edges with soil, sort of like what a farmer’s mulch laying machine would do.

Installing paper mulch is similar to plastic mulch.

Installing paper mulch is similar to plastic mulch.

You have to be a little careful when laying it down. With plastic if you start to veer off course, you can stretch it back in place. Paper does not stretch so any adjustments have to be made slowly over a distance. To minimize any placement issues, I stretch string as a guide when digging my trenches.

Paper mulch cuts easily with a pair of scissors or a utility knife.

Paper mulch cuts easily with a pair of scissors or a utility knife.

It’s important to have a smooth seed bed too so that the paper will lay flat and not have open voids between it and the soil surface.

To plant, I cut an X-shaped opening and fold back the edges of the cut. Then I carefully dig out some soil and place the plant in the hole and fold back the paper.

The paper makes an attractive looking mulch when it is new, I’m not sure how it will look after being exposed to garden conditions for several weeks.

This fall I’ll let you know how it performs over the course of a growing season and how well it tills in to the soil.

Bob

June 14, 2019

Hay or straw for the garden?

Filed under: Mulch,Weeds — Tags: , , , — bob @ 10:22 am

Nowadays people use the terms hay and straw interchangeably and in most cases it makes no difference whatsoever. For example we say we were on a hayride at a get together even though the wagons are filled with straw rather than hay. Straw ride just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In a garden however, getting the two confused can lead to problems in the future. Hay and straw are often both used as weed control mulch in the garden but the results you get can be quite different.

Hay is a crop that is grown and harvested as a feed crop for cattle, horses and other farm animals. Straw on the other hand is a byproduct of a grain crop, in our area it’s usually usually wheat straw that we see.

Why would that make a difference to us in the garden? The problem lies with hay. Hay often is made up of a combination of different plants growing in a field or meadow. Farmers will cut and bale the plants in a field like that to feed to dairy cows that are in their resting stage, called dry cows. That kind of hay is of low quality and is less nutritious than say alfalfa hay but that is fine for dry cows because they don’t require dense nutrition when they’re not producing milk.

You never know what plant combination you’ll get in a random bale of hay. More often than not they contain weeds that you can inadvertently introduce to your property. I’ve seen such tenacious perennial weeds like thistle come into a garden as a result of their seeds hiding inside a bale of hay.

Low quality hay often has a dull color and different plant stems can be seen.

Low quality hay often has a dull color and different plant stems can be seen.

Straw on the other hand, is much better for use as a garden mulch. Since wheat and other grain crops are so competitive in a field, they suppress the growth of many weeds. Farmers also will control weeds one way or another to ensure the highest yields they can get of valuable grain. That results in straw with no or very little weed contamination.

Clean wheat straw has an even, bright amber color.

Clean wheat straw has an even, bright amber color.

Granted, there are exceptions to the rule. You can find weed-free hay such as one hundred percent alfalfa or timothy but these can be expensive. Sometimes straw can be highly contaminated with weeds if it was grown in less than optimum conditions.

Be aware of the difference between hay and straw when shopping for mulch.

Composting hay can reduce the number of weed seeds to a minimum but that has to be done the right way in order for the compost to reach a high enough temperature to kill the seeds. I’d be wary of composted hay unless you’re sure of how it was composted.

Sometimes you’ll see “spoiled hay” that may be high quality hay that was left outside in the weather and began to get moldy making it unacceptable as a livestock feed. That can be okay for use in the garden if you know it came from quality hay.

Bob

 

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