Deep mulch garden system mulching process with hay bales in the garden at Prairie Road Organic Seed

Making mulching choices for your garden's future fertility and ease of care

Deep mulch garden system at Prairie Road Organic Seed

A couple of weeks ago I posted about how we prep our no-till garden for a new season. That generated questions, like, “Do you have any recommendations on where to get straw bales free of (weed) seeds?”

Those questions are key… what you use and where you get your mulch is critical! We recommend hay-- not straw. But before I get into our recommendations and why, let me share what ‘NOT’ to do!

Avoid Straw
Straw is the dried down stalk of grain that has put all of its nutritional value in the seed or grain it produced. It is organic matter but there is nothing green there and it won’t be adding much in terms of fertility.

Another issue with straw is that the grain is harvest after any weeds that were present have also gone to seed. If the grain field was weedy, the weeds will be baled with the straw, and you will be hauling them into your garden!

Avoid Ditch Hay
Make sure to avoid any hay from road ditches. In our area, the county weed board checks road ditches for noxious weeds, such as leafy spurge or Canada thistles; resulting herbicide applications can leave persistent chemical residues. You do NOT want to bring any chemical contamination into your garden.

What We Recommend
We recommend using hay from the first cutting before ANY grass or weeds go to seed. For our location in North Dakota, that is the first week of June. Adjust the timing for your location.

We cut an alfalfa/hay mix of Brome and June grass in early June when the grass is lush and rich. We let it dry down into a sweet smelling hay, then rake and bale it into small square bales that can easily be carried into the garden.

Mulch between the rows in a deep mulch garden system at Prairie Road Organic Seed

Where to Find It
Sourcing weed free hay that is also free of any chemical contamination can be difficult. I recommend finding a local organic farmer who you can work with to produce the hay you need. See if you can locate a nonprofit educational organic farming group in your area. Check to see if they have any publications with a classified ad section, or ask if they could steer you to some possible sources.

Another possible resource which may help you find organic farmers who produced hay in your area is the “Organic Trader”. This is a buy/sell classified publication mailed to each of Organic Valley’s 1,800 farmer-members. Farmers who produce organic hay for sale to organic dairies in various regions of the country advertise in this publication. You can find it here.

Go to ‘The Organic Trader Archives’ section and click on the link to access an online pdf copy. The classifieds are organized by region, starting with the ‘Midwest’, followed by the ‘Mideast, West and South’ and finally the ‘Northeast & New England’ region. If you find a farmer reasonably close to you, you might consider calling and asking them if they can do small square bales of an early season cutting. If not, ask them if they know of anyone who might be able to fill this need.

Sugar Snap peas on a trellis mulched with hay in the deep mulch garden system at Prairie Road Organic Seed
How Much?
Our garden areas are approximately 90 x 90 and 60 x 60 square feet. The area we hay is 2 acres. That gives us more hay than we need in one year. We also use hay for things like mulching our raspberries and covering carrots in the late fall, prior to digging them right before freeze-up.

The rows in our gardens are 3 feet center to center. When the plants grow large in mid-to-late season, the 'row' space is much reduced but still allows good access for tending and harvesting, etc.

The east garden has 27 rows, not counting the rows along the fences, with 3 feet between rows. We normally use 5 bales per 90 foot row; so with 3 feet between rows you could expect to cover about 18 feet with one bale of hay.

We hope that helps you estimate what you will need to mulch your garden space. 

Generous Spacing? Generous Spacing!
We have had a lot of people comment about how much ‘wasted’ space there is in our gardens. So let me address that upfront. Think of it like this— we’re literally composting between our garden rows. Composting in place! The soil microbes and the earthworms are relishing this soil ‘cover’ being provided for them and they are WORKING it. They are breaking down that hay laying right next to the ground, composting from below, and incorporating those nutrients into the soil, making it available to your plants. And it is amazing how those roots will reach in under the mulch, accessing the fertility there.

Generous spacing also allows for good airflow throughout the garden, reducing disease pressures, which can be brought on or made worse by overcrowding. One never knows how dry or wet the season may be but either way, drought or monsoon rains, plants benefit from having adequate space. We have the space, so there is no benefit for us to crowd. But that is definitely a luxury; not all gardeners have that luxury.

If you do NOT have the space to ‘compost in place,’ do what you need to do! Maybe raised beds and square foot gardening is more realistic for you! You can always compost your kitchen waste and add fertility to your garden. BUT if you DO have the space, consider a deep mulch garden!  This might be an option!

Keep those gardening questions and comments coming. We love hearing from you!

Our best to you,
Theresa & Dan