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The Importance of Mulch

My tomato seedling and the row cover in the background.

I've written before about mulch and why I love it so; however, I have recently had a nice lesson in its value.

Normally, at my community garden, a nearby rice farmer offers us bundles of wara (rice straw) for our use in our gardens. Most of my fellow gardeners use it to keep their watermelon up off the soil, but I used it liberally throughout my garden as a soil protector. It was amazing. The soil underneath was moist and absolutely teaming with life. It did remain cool for rather longer than I would have liked, but I didn't feel that was a serious problem. I knew in the long run that if the worms were happy and present in large numbers, then everything was OK.

A close-up of the wara mulch.

This year, though, the farmer told our group he wanted to use the wara himself. I wasn't the only disappointed one, but we put a brave face on it. I used old sheets, pillowcases, onsen towels, and a frost protection blanket to cover my soil. I wasn't thrilled about it, but I figured protection from the elements was protection. What difference could it possible make?

It made a difference.

My soil is crusty. I find that I have to break through a hard layer when planting seeds and seedlings. It isn't a horribly thick crust, but I'm not pleased at this turn of events. Underneath, the soil, too, is dry despite a reasonably good run of rain these past few days. My soil, then, is probably not as porous as it should be and probably not retaining as much moisture as it should to be healthy. I know how I feel when I'm even slightly dehydrated, and I'm betting my soil is feeling just as poopy.

My soil is underpopulated. Last year, I saw worms everywhere. I would move a leaf, and there they were. I would dig a hole for a seedling, and I apologized to groups of them for being a pest. I would make a row for seeds, and one or two would flop out of the soil on the side in a panic. This year I find myself missing those little squigglers and worried about them. I'm also worried about my soil and subsequently my plants and my harvest. If those guys aren't there, who else isn't? If they aren't there eating, pooping, and mingling about the beds, then is my soil up to par? I'm betting no, and I'm not happy about that.

My soil is not humusy. I prepared a new spot for my tomatoes last fall. It had been the former home of an assortment of free-loving greens - two or three kinds of kale and norabo - that I let run wild behind a screen of scarlet runner beans. When they had all had their fun and I'd collected the seeds, I layered on leaves and composted cow manure and left it to settle. I covered it with a row cover to keep it all from blowing away, and went on about my other seasonal business. Two weeks ago, when I took the cover off and went to plant my tomato and basil seedlings, I found soil that was dry and crumbly. Some things had broken down, but not enough. It didn't have that moist, chocolate cake kind of look and feel that good soil should have. The tomatoes are already looking less than healthy, jaundiced even, dare I say it, as is the basil. Surely, it's a nutrient problem, and I'm not pleased.

Solutions
I've started spreading around various leaves and debris on the soil in my garden in an effort to draw those worms and creatures back to my soil. Even though my garden is down in a river valley, it is quite windy, so I need something that can stay in place. I have no perfect solution, but I'm working on it. I've found more old pillowcases and towels, and I've even started surreptitiously gathering handfuls of sugina (horsetail) to spread on the soil. (Read about it's usefulness in The Holistic Orchard. Here's my review to tempt you further.)

Got any mulch stories? Let's hear it.

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