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Hay! Make Good Mulch

from: Jodi Reichenberger

I would challenge you to find a culture that has not used hay (in all forms) for mulch and other gardening chores. There are many ways to use hay for composting. Here are a few ideas...

Have you EVER wondered (read struggled) to figure out what to do with the left over corn stalks? Think about it for one minute... All that green and all that tough fiber that corn 'builds' as it is creating those wonderfully sweet kernels. There has just GOT to be something left in those 'leftovers' to go back into the ground. I do not know about you, but I have chopped (by hand, with a machete), I have torn apart, I have stomped on, I have ripped my fingers, I have pulled my hair.... There IS an easier way. Bury them. Yes, bury them, with HAY. Then let them sit all winter. When spring comes, stick a shovel down into that rotting mess and stick a seedling in it. You would be surprised at the result. The roots will intertwine, the worms will come out to play. And you have reduced your workload to practically nil... in my book, that is a win/win situation.

With the hours I keep, (sound familiar?) our fall 'clean-up' amounts to leaving everything that was growing right where it lays, and covering it all with hay. (usually the bales I use to do my fall decorating... it is my favorite time to decorate.) It does not take a lot, even four or five inches deep, old man winter will lay it ground level by spring. (Hint: I had grass clipping piled to my waist, and four months later, it was four inches thick) You can usually plant seeds right in it by spring. Peas and cabbage, potatoes especially! Not only does it save you work (like THAT idea? ;) But it enables you to make full use of intensive planting techniques.

Look ma! NO WEEDS!! Can anyone say 'FAR OUT'? Hay is a awesome alternative to weeding. Instead of pulling unwanted plants out of the ground, and disturbing the roots of every other living thing around it, bend the weeds flat and cover them with hay.

Ever hear of the 'no till' method of planting? It was created by farmers with too much leftover hay. (I am SO kidding! ;) Pile some hay on the area you want to plant next spring and you will find the area completely ready to plant without pulling that heavy noisy, gas fueled tiller out once. It is possible to plant any kind of crop the following year without disturbing the sod. Ruth Stout (did you not read about her in Mother Earth News?) says that spading, plowing and cultivating are all completely unnecessary, and do more harm than good. She says if a heavy hay cover is laid on even the toughest ground in the summer, plantings can be made in it the following spring. No other preparation of the soil is required. (I LIKE that idea)

Cabbage, tomatoes and other transplanted seedlings are exceedingly easy to put out in hay. Use a string to mark the row, (if you tend to get things crooked like I do) and a box to carry your seedlings, and you can plant almost as fast as you can meander... stick your shovel down to make a break in the (what is now soft decaying matter) gently place your seedling into it, pat it in with your foot, and move on to the next. Why I will bet you could set 100 seedlings in a half hour without breaking a sweat. And they will grow splendidly, too!

My FAVORITE plant to grow in hay... can you guess? I will give you a hint. If you have ever bit into one that still had some dirt on it... YES, I am talking about potatoes. You can grow the BEST potatoes in the world and be the envy of all your gardening friends by laying the eyes on top of the leftovers of last year’s hay mulch. Lay them out and cover them with hay. That us IT. You can increase your yield a tad by adding some well rotted manure to this mix. I just cannot say enough about this method of growing potatoes. My father taught me to do it. The potatoes are clean and easy to harvest. Depending on how closely you plant them, you can easily inspect them for pests. (The fancy term is integrated pest management) And I do not know if you have this compulsion to see how they are 'coming along' but I know I do. It is quite easy to pull the hay back without disturbing the growth of the potato, and 'take a peek'.

After you have used hay mulch regularly for a few years, you can practically forget all about pH problems with your soil. And you can altogether forget about using poisonous chemical 'fertilizers' and (yawn...) 'soil conditioners' as it would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. There is nothing I do not grow with hay mulch and I barely made my way thru biology and chemistry. I do not really WANT to knowwhy a base causes this to happen or why ions are released or held onto. I just want to grow good healthy plants to feed my family nutritiously. And adequate organic matter acts as a practical buffer and helps to neutralize the extremes of pH in any soil. (I DID retain that much from my studies... ;)

Do your feet get cold in the winter? When your feet get cold and wet, would it help to wrap them in plastic? (you know.. keep the wet IN?) Stacking up a heavy hay mulch onto the cold wet garden in the early spring is not a good way to start. Hay is a 'slow burn'. It is not especially good for the short term. If hay has not had a chance to compost all winter (you know... ROT) it won't do much more than keep the cold and the wet in. If you have got hay to use, wait till the soil temperature warms up and use it as a mulch. You can move things along by adding some rotted manure or compost to it, but it takes time. Do not hurry your garden....

Lots of hay bales always makes me feel rich. Do not ask me why. It is crazy I know but I feel some weird form of security from them. I use them to create borders. I use them to kill grass. I use them to set pretty potted plants on and make arrangements. I use them to stick my fork in when I am too lazy to take it to the garage. I use them to sit on... well, I think you get the idea. And yes, eventually they rot. There is nothing more in this world that I like spreading around better than a well rotted bale of hay. (no wonder I am still single after all these years...) The earth worms love 'em. And if I ever need a few, I know straight where to go to find them... okay. I think I have run out of ideas for you and now I am just rambling.

I hope that I have convinced you of the value of hay composting. It was my intention. It is easy, cheap, and it is NOT labor intensive. It IS sustainable. That is MY way to garden!

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