anyone tried Ruth Stout's school of heacy mulching in zone 9+?

toffee1August 29, 2010

Anyone in zone 9+ tried Ruth Stout's method of gardening? ie putting 8-10" of hay straw etc as mulch? Sounded very interesting but I wonder if it will work in our warmer climate? Will there be bugs, slugs mice etc problem?

Thanks for sharing your experience.

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I love mulch and am not familiar with Ruth Stout's methods, but I'd have to think covering my yard 10" deep in straw would be a fire hazard.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 1:45PM
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davissue_zone9(z9 Sunset 14)

I think when she was writing, people had quarter acre vegetable gardens, and mulching with whole flakes of baled hay was a realistic proposition. If I'm remembering right (it's been a loooong time since I read her books) she said to pull the mulch away from the germinating and young plants at first, then snug the mulch up closer once they got big enough not to get buried. She assumed there was enough space between rows for large amounts of mulch to be piled.

Now a-days gardens are much smaller, and the rows much narrower as a result. Trying to mulch that heavily would be difficult, until the plants were close to full grown. Until then, some other method would be needed to control the weeds.

BTW, if you decide to try this, use straw, not hay. Hay has seed in it and will create a weed problem in it's own right.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 5:19PM
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socalgal_gw Zone USDA 10b Sunset 24

I only use 2-3" of mulch - no problems with critters. My only problem is that I live in a pretty dry climate and when we get rain, it often only gets the mulch wet, not the soil.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 5:54PM
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Min3 South S.F. Bay CA

didn't she garden on the east coast? quite a difference. long time since i read that book.

and if you mulch everywhere, the native ground-dwelling bees can't dig their homes so we really need to leave bare dirt for them. gotta help all the pollinators!

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 6:47PM
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I have roughly 7,000ft2 of land to garden. I would like to use Stout's method of heavy mulching, I am planning to put 2" of Alfalfa hay plus another 3-4" of shredded remains of freshly cut trees (leaves and branches in pieces). The local tree companies can deliver free truck loads of those to my house. I may have to buy the alfalfa hays though.

What I am afraid of are the bugs, slugs or even mice that may call the mulch their new home.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 7:17PM
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Min3 South S.F. Bay CA

we had a pack rat in our low juniper ground cover some years ago- not fun getting rid of all the junk it had dragged in and clearing out all the branches it had chewed off.
now we have roof rats... i don't think we will ever do another thing, like for example, thick mulch, to make hiding places for rodents.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 10:18PM
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hosenemesis(SoCal Sunset 19 USDA 8b)

And don't forget the earwigs. They love those conditions.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 11:00PM
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what if I keep it to about 4-5"? would that at least eliminate the rats?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 11:15PM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Rats go for food first. They worry about nesting after that, and prefer to be up off the ground.

If you have fruit/nut trees, a bird feeder, a vegetable garden, or you are in an urban environment, you will have rats. If you don't have fruit trees or a bird feeder, and you keep your trash sealed and don't leave pet food outside, you will largely reduce the potential. Here we had a lot of problems with rats because the neighbors put out birdseed in a very messy way, there was seed and peanuts and sunflower seeds, etc, everywhere, and the rat population exploded.

In 15, if you get a lot of rain and put the straw out in the fall, the straw will decompose somewhat by spring, but nothing like in the humid southeast or where there is summer rain with heat and humidity. That really breaks stuff down fast. Here with our dry summers and modest rainfall it's just too dry---material dries up but doesn't break down fast.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 1:35AM
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Absolutely mulch! When I don't get around to it, I can see a HUGE difference in the plants that are mulched with 6 inches of straw and grass clippings, and plants that are not. My summer squash leaves are 6 inches wide when in bare soil (watered every day) and 18 inches wide when mulched and watered when dry. Mulching keeps the nematodes down in my tomatoes. Mulching encourages earthworms and all kinds of other happy soil organisms.

As for the native soil bees, obviously the entire back yard can't be covered with straw, so they will be able to find a spot somewhere. Plus, before humans got here, soil was covered with growing or dormant grasses and the bees were around then--so clearly they must be able to "work around" areas which aren't bare soil. Plus they will have more to eat with happier plants!

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 1:50PM
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Carla, I am in the Bay Area so similar but less heat in the summer. Do you encounter sow bug etc or the hay/leaves simply dehydrate instead of compost as witnessed by others?

I am really intrigued and wanted to try.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 4:07PM
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hosenemesis(SoCal Sunset 19 USDA 8b)

Me too. Do you have trouble with earwigs and pillbugs?

    Bookmark   August 31, 2010 at 8:05PM
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I don't think I have enough moisture everywhere to be of interest for year-round pill-bugs. But earwigs are a major problem, they love to hang out in my fruit trees in pots and eat the fruit and leaves at night. But since I discovered Sluggo-Plus, the earwig population has been very reduced, plus it gets the slugs too.
But again, I can't emphasize enough the difference in my in-ground veggies between mulched plants and unmulched. It doesn't matter how often you water the unmulched plants, they are much smaller and grow more slowly than the happy mulched plants. When I first began mulching it was to conserve water, and so this side-benefit came as a complete surprise, but I see it every year I get around to mulching in time for summer.
I should mention where I live I have heavy river-bottom clay soil, baking in the summer sun with no rain from May through November, so it's possible those with different soil or in places that get regular rain wouldn't have the same results.

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   August 31, 2010 at 11:53PM
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Thanks Carla, thanks for sharing your experience. This is what I am planning on doing:

A layer of Alfalfa hays in the bottom then a layer of shredded tree branches/leafs. May top it off in some area with compost.

Our city provide free compost, some local tree company deliver free shredded tree stuff but I have to buy the alfalfa hay.

think I should add a layer of cardboard in before hay?

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 4:03AM
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FYI alfalfa will provide more nutrients than oat straw, but it will also give you seeds of alfalfa and possibly weeds, so make sure that it worth the trade-off to you. If you are doing cardboard first you could just put the free shredded trees on top of it. I like oat straw over newspapers because it doesn't cost a lot, goes a long way, and breaks down quickly to help break up my heavy clay soil.

I have also bought for the veggie garden the cheap (89 cents per cu. foot) manure/compost blend in plastic bags from Home Depot. I poke a couple of holes on one side and flip them over holes-down, line them up between the rows in early spring, and then cover them up with straw. The bags slowly feed the soil all summer and the plastic keeps the moisture in the soil. Next spring, I slice open the bags of well-matured compost (usually they are full of earthworms by that point) and work it into the soil, and start all over again.

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 1:20PM
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16 yds3 of shredded tree cutting were delivered to my house today. This weekend is mulching time. Hopefully will top off with compost before rainy season starts. Do i even need to top them off with compost?

    Bookmark   September 10, 2010 at 6:29PM
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hosenemesis(SoCal Sunset 19 USDA 8b)

The reason for the compost is to put nitrogen back into the soil, I believe. The shredded tree bits will decompose, but that process sometimes removes too much nitrogen from the soil.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 1:36AM
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The decomposing of heavy-carbon tree shreds will temporarily lock up nitrogen, but if there's adequate N in the soil already it won't be a problem. Additionally, tree chips are an excellent source of micronutrients so the long-term benefits are worth it.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2010 at 10:32AM
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I hope this link works , it is to an article about heavy mulching in a Los Angeles garden.
I mulch with straw, pine needles and wood chips, add composted horse and chicken manure, and run drip lines under the mulch.Since doing this there have been more little critters than when I started the garden and it was bare earth, such as slugs and sow bugs, but they are only a real problem around seedlings and the lettuce, and I use sluggo in any areas I want to keep them under control.

Here is a link that might be useful: Straw/ Hay Mulch in LA

    Bookmark   September 17, 2010 at 11:41PM
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I am new to posting to this site although I have referred to it from time to time when I had a gardening question. I find that when several people corroborate each other on a subject it's usually the right answer. Very interesting.
As to Ruth Stout, I read about her quite a while ago through Rodale, and I thought she made perfect sense. When I built my house here in Sacramento (shout out Carla) I started gardening in earnest. I started out using the Bio-intensive method because my ground had been scraped and compacted down to hard clay. I constucted a few beds with this method, but I always added mulch because I couldn't stand to see the bare soil getting baked. In bio-intensive the ground is supposed to be mulched just by the foliage of the plants close together. Problem is when they are small. Then a friend loaned me "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemmenway. I experimented with one bed using what he called his bomb proof sheet mulch bed. I was really blown away. I now have committed my whole garden to this method with some exceptions. It is the Ruth Stout method with a giant kick start. This web site details the process. I have added to the knowledge of this method by putting it to work on my 1/4 acres under Sacramento conditions. I generally do not need to water during the winter rainy season, but because we normally get no rain between May and November I add drip irrigation between the top two layers at about five inches apart. If I keep my top mulch at about 6-8 inches I only need to run the drip system every few days when it is 100 degrees F or over. otherwise much less often.
This method requires a lot of collecting of materials but i get most for free. Sacramento is a tree mecca. Every late fall I go around in my van with large plastic bags which I use over and over again to collect the leaves which have fallen and people have been so nice as to have placed in nice piles. I stockpile the leaves because when it's done it's done. I don't have to go far from home to find plenty, much more than I can use. I like oak, elm, and just about any deciduous type. Avoid magnolia types. I avoid wood chips for the most part because they do take a long time to break down. I am able to find straw from ads on craigslist for free, and I have my own secret source for free spoiled straw and hay. Because I live in an urban area I use coffee grounds for my nitrogen source and it again is readily available from coffee shops for free. In fact you are keeping it out of the landfill. I supplement sometimes with oyster shell and greensand just to be sure I have enough P&K, but probably with the tree leaves I don't need it. Also I chop up my plants like tomato and everything not harvested and add that as well. I think that because P is supposed to help grow strong stems and stalks P must be in those stemmy parts. Incidentally when you remove your plants with this method you simply cut the plant off at the base level and allow the roots to rot underground. I never dig! Ruth would be proud.
I did run into problems planting small starts so I got a few hundred clear plastic pint containers and cut the bottoms off. I clear some mulch aside insert the container and plant inside. When the plants are big enough I pull out the containers. I just keep reusing those containers. When I plant seeds like carrots I reduce the mulch layer down a lot and add it to another bed. When the carrots get big enough i start to add mulch back again. Slugs are an issue especially in a newly formed bed with things like lettuce and chard. I just deal with it by using sluggo and some hand picking at night with a headlamp and a bucket of soapy water. We have a lot of slugs here anyway. Pill bugs are shredders and they seem to go after the areas that the slugs have munched on, otherwise they are valuable for breaking stuff down. I think Ruth would approve because this method really gets thing off to a dynamic start. Afterwards you just do as Ruth does and just keep adding more mulch. I do continue to sprinkle coffee grounds with the other mulch materials. Normally I have to pull my irrigation lines up about two inches a year because so much new compost has formed. I do this when I am planting a new crop.
The exceptions to the sheet mulch method is for potatoes and sun-chokes because you would have to dig up your bed to find them all. So for those I use a high-rise method in a wire composter. It works great.
I guess that's it except that I wish I could have met Ruth Stout. She sounds like a fabulous person. Come on gardening in the nude! How great! I couldn't get away with that here.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2012 at 8:39PM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Come on gardening in the nude! How great!

Guessing she stayed away from roses and cacti?

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 2:29PM
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And if her technique attracted rats and other vermin, gardening in the nude wouldn't really be advisable under those conditions, either.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 2:23AM
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