In the heat of the summer, I cut way back on my gardening activity. I water. I harvest. I turn red in the face, sweat, and retire to the blow-up pool that serves as our backyard swimming hole.
In August, I'll start some seeds for the fall garden, plant some new peppers and tomatoes, and cut back or pull out the plants that couldn't take the heat, but July is a sort of hiatus in my gardening year.
This year I’ve spent a lot of mornings in the garden, and those hours have been enjoyable and rewarding. I took the time to remember what I knew but sometimes ignored because I was in such a hurry. For example, I remembered Ruth Stout. Born in 1884, Stout lived to be 96 and continued to garden all those years.
Her method, which she wrote about in many books and magazines, was "simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray... I don't go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile."
Stout suggested using 8 inches of mulch, and she said she used hay in her Connecticut garden. You can’t use hay as mulch in Texas. Hay is full of seeds that will sprout in our long growing season and continue through our short winter.
You can, however, use wheat straw, which you can get from a local farmer. It is nice clean material, easy to use, and does not involve extremely heavy plastic bags you have to haul around. You also can use pine straw, fallen leaves, pecan hulls, coffee grounds, and any other sort of organic material that is available and relatively cheap since you need a lot of it.
Compost is a wonderful mulch, but rarely do we have enough to use it that way. If you do, by all means, use it.
The only warnings about mulch are that you be careful where it has been and what is in it. For example, if the cotton has been heavily sprayed with toxic material, stay away from the gin waste.
The same for any other material. Grass clippings make a good mulch, but if they come from a lawn treated with chemical pesticides or herbicides, you don’t want them. If you get bedding from a friend with a horse, ask about medications the horse takes. You don’t want antibiotics killing the microbes in your soil.
While rocks may seem an attractive mulch, they will heat up your garden and cook your plants in no time. Weed barrier cloth will discourage root growth and air and water circulation in the soil. Rocks and weed cloth will discourage soil life — worms and beneficial micro organisms that do good work in the soil.
Mulch may not be the answer to all garden problems, but it does have many beneficial functions. In addition to rotting and feeding the soil as Stout mentioned, it keeps the temperature of the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Mulch helps maintain a relatively even temperature that encourages plant roots and lets water trickle down to them. As a result, you will need to water less often when you use generous mulch. The soil is cooler and damper longer under its layer of protective covering.
Malcolm Beck, one of the fathers of Texas organic gardening, did an experiment a few years ago. He put a 4-inch layer of mulch on the ground and watered it thoroughly. There was no rain on that patch for 108 days, yet a moisture meter reading showed that the soil under the mulch was still in the low-moist range. During a very hot July day, the soil temperature beneath the mulch was 85 degrees, while soil temperature on a bare spot nearby was 120 degrees.
Mulch also holds onto your valuable topsoil that you’ve improved through the years. It protects the soil from both flooding and wind damage. It also holds onto fertilizer that you add from time to time to your beds. Much water and water-based fertilizer will evaporate in the sun if it is sprayed on bare soil.
It is a good idea to mulch your container plants as well as plants growing in the ground. The soil in containers will dry out faster than the earth, so helping conserve moisture is a great benefit to the plants you are growing in pots of any size.
When you put the mulch down, be as generous as you can. Anything from 1 inch to 6 inches will work, with the optimum somewhere in the middle. Put your mulch in all your garden beds — flower beds, vegetable beds and borders.
Put it around your trees as well. Drought causes a lot of stress for trees, and the added nutrients as the mulch composts will encourage tree health. Start the mulch about a foot from the trunk — you don’t want to mulch right next to the trunk because it can encourage trunk rotting — and out as close to the drip line as your mulch will go.
A good layer of mulch will help prevent weed seeds from germinating and runners from spreading. Without sunlight, most seeds will not germinate and the mulch keeps the sun off the soil. Even the everlasting Bermuda grass runners will skim along the top and not attach to the soil and multiply, making them easier to pull out and control.
As the mulch settles and breaks down into the soil, continue to add new mulch on top. A constant layer will greatly decrease your work in the garden — you’ll water less, pull fewer weeds and have fewer sickly plants.
When you are ready to plant your fall garden, all you have to do it pull the mulch away, plant your new seedlings and pull up the covers around them.
Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books, including "Easy Edibles" from Texas A&M Press.