by Eliza Holcombe Lord, Master Gardener, Master Naturalist, Permaculturist

Tip: How to Prepare Your Garden Beds For Spring and Summer

A nice summer harvest from GrowJourney's cofounders' no-till organic/permaculture garden.

A nice summer harvest from GrowJourney’s cofounders’ no-till organic/permaculture garden.

What if I told you that you could grow baskets full of organic produce without having to till your soil? Or fertilize? Or pick weeds?

At GrowJourney, we’re outspoken proponents of no-till organic gardening and farming practices.

Researchers at Rodale Institute have shown the innumerable benefits of no till organic farming in their 30 year trials. And piles of research have also proven the benefits of using similar no-till methods in your garden, as we’ve written about here. We’ve put these methods to use in our own gardens, and have personally experienced the many benefits of no-till organic gardening.

A soybean crop growing through roller-crimped cover crops at Rodale Institute. The cover crops feed and protect the soil while blocking out weeds. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are required. Yields match or exceed conventional input-intensive farming practices while providing additional social and environmental benefits as well.

If you’re using no-till organic methods on a large scale—such as on a farm—that requires you to use “green mulches,” aka cover crops (unless you have a forest farm/food forest). Cover crops also work on a small-scale, such as in your garden, but you can opt to use “brown mulches” such as leaf and wood chip mulch. Both brown and green mulches feed the soil microorganisms that make soil a living, functioning system (aka “the soil food web”) which then feeds and protects your plants.

A few of the critters that comprise the soil food web.

A few of the critters that comprise the soil food web.

Using Mulch In Your Garden

In our area of the country, trees are abundant, and provide a range of beneficial “waste” products for gardeners. We like to use chopped fall leaves as a mulch and as browns in our compost.

But our favorite garden mulch is wood chips (*untreated and preferably hardwood mulch). Wood chips offer the added benefit of making a visually attractive edible landscape, unlike bare exposed dirt which doesn’t tend to be very attractive.

Can an edible, organic no-till landscape also be beautiful? We think so. This is a photo of one of the front yard garden beds of GrowJourney's cofounders. Squash, strawberries, nasturtiums, alliums, Camellia sinensis, grapes, elderberries, tomatoes, and other edible plants can be seen where grass used to grow. How many more species can this multifunctional landscape support relative to a monoculture grass lawn? How much more carbon can be sequestered? How much more human food can be produced?

Can an edible, organic no-till landscape also be beautiful? We think so. This is a photo of one of the front yard garden beds of GrowJourney’s cofounders. Squash, strawberries, nasturtiums, alliums, Camellia sinensis, grapes, beans, elderberries, tomatoes, and other edible plants can be seen where grass used to grow. How many more species can this multifunctional landscape support relative to a monoculture grass lawn? How much more carbon can be sequestered? How much more human food can be produced?

Beauty is an important function in a garden, but beauty isn’t very important on a large farm that doesn’t have to worry about what the Joneses or the HOA think. Also, in our area, local tree service companies will often even drop wood chips off at our house for free, since it saves them the municipal disposal costs.

How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chip In a No-Till Organic Garden?

Heirloom squash growing in a heavily mulched, no-till organic garden bed.

Heirloom squash growing in a heavily mulched, no-till organic garden bed.

Why use wood chip mulch? A review of the scientific literature by Washington State University, Puyallup Research and Extension Center concluded that using wood chip mulch:

  • Improves soil moisture
  • Reduces soil erosion and compaction
  • Helps maintain optimal soil temperatures (up to 50 degrees F in some extreme environments!)
  • Increases soil nutrition
  • Reduces salt and pesticide contamination
  • Increases binding of heavy metals
  • Improves plant establishment and growth by enhancing root establishment and transplant survival and increasing overall plant growth performance;
  • Reduces disease
  • Reduces weeds
  • Reduces watershed pollution
  • Reduces pesticide needs
  • Improves aesthetic appeal (*as the researchers stated, it’s much harder to quantify this benefit, but let’s face it: rows of exposed plowed dirt are ugly; mulched beds with edible plants makes a much more attractive landscape)
  • Saves money (less inputs, higher plant survival rates, less plant maintenance, larger crop yields, etc = big savings)

How to Prepare Your Garden Beds With Mulch

Ok, all that sounds great… But what does this have to do with preparing your garden beds for spring?

A tomato seedling transplanted into a bed with wood chip mulch. Notice that the wood chips are pulled away from the stem of the plant so as not to cause stem rot. A small stick is inserted next to the stem of the plant in order to deter cutworms.

A tomato seedling transplanted into a bed with wood chip mulch. Notice that the wood chips are pulled away from the stem of the plant so as not to cause stem rot. A small stick is inserted next to the stem of the plant in order to deter cutworms.

Pick the option below that sounds most like you, then get growing, er going!

  1.  I already have garden beds with healthy soil  – If you already have established garden beds with good soil biology (e.g. your plants have grown well without any fertilizer), then your job is simple. Just top-dress your beds with 6″ of wood chip mulch in the spring, and plan to do the same thing again in the fall. When transplanting your seedlings into the bed, simply pull back the mulch, make a small hole in the soil, plop in your seedling, and be sure not to pile the mulch back around the stem of the seedling since this could cause the stem to rot, thereby killing the plant. So, keep the mulch very shallow right around the immediate vicinity of your plants’ stems and deeper further away from your plants.
  2.  I already have garden beds, but my soil isn’t very healthy  – If you’ve struggled to grow healthy disease-free plants or have had to use fertilizer to get your plants to grow, #2 describes you. Before putting on your wood chip mulch, you’re going to want to give your soil a microbiological boost by putting 2″ of pleasant smelling compost (you can also substitute worm castings which you can buy here) on the soil surface or by applying a deep drench of actively aerated compost tea (AACT). As soon as that’s done, top-dress the bed with 6″ of wood chip mulch and you’re ready to start planting. Add another 6″ of wood chips every fall and spring, and use compost, worm castings, and/or compost tea every 1-2 years as needed.
  3.  I don’t have garden beds, but I want to make them in time to plant this season  – We could write an entire article about how to start a new garden bed. There are multiple methods you can use that will work great: raised beds, in-ground beds, sunken beds (if you live in a really hot dry area), lasagna beds, hugelkultur beds, etc. Regardless of the type of garden beds you make, top it off with 6-8″ of wood chip mulch when you’re done.

*Definition – “Top-dressing” means what it sounds like. Place the wood chips on the surface of your soil. Do NOT till the wood chips into the soil as this will temporarily rob your soil of plant-available nitrogen. When you top-dress your mulch on to the surface of your garden beds, worms, fungi, arthropods, etc will slowly break down the mulch for you, aerating the soil and bringing bioavailable nutrients to the rhizosphere of your plants as they work. And they work 24-7 for free!

We hope this gardening tip was helpful! If you have any questions, please ask it in the comments section below.

Final Note: Edible Landscape Reading Recommendations

If you want to do edible organic landscaping so you can have an attractive garden in your front yard, we highly recommend getting any or all of these five edible landscaping books:

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