Lasagna Method / Ruth Stout Method

Deep Mulch

Soil should never be exposed to the sunlight. Keeping a large amount of biomass (ideally 6-8 inches) on the soil retains moisture, suppresses weeds and slowly breaks down building soil with lots of organic material.

Ruth Stout

Ruth Stout in her 1979 book The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the year-round mulch method. outlines her simple method to reduce unwanted weeds, reduce watering needs and make a beautiful soil with lots of tilth. It’s very simple. Just apply 8 inches or more of straw mulch on top of your garden bed.

Since Ruth Stout many others have promoted gardening with lots of mulch. The Back to Eden method uses wood chips as mulch to increase the fungal component in the soil. Food forests use copious amounts of mulch to jumpstart the ecological succession, and in their mature years they provide their own mulch in the form of dropped leaf and plant matter. Regenerative ranchers such as Gabe Brown speak often about keeping the soil protected by using mulch (although for large areas it’s better to use cover crops as a living mulch).

All the soil pictured was created in one season simply by laying straw down on top of our hugelkultur beds. The white hyphae is from the edible wine cap mushrooms that proliferate.

Why Mulch?

Look at any natural landscape. You will never see bare soil, unless there has been some kind of disturbance. Nature abhors a vacuum. Pioneer weed species immediately begin to conquer bare soil. In conventional agriculture we till the ground thinking this will help, but all we do is make a perfect landscape for opportunistic weeds. If we leave the soil bare, we will be constantly fighting weeds. Mulch is the answer.

Soil should never be exposed to sunlight. Worms, bacteria, fungi and other decomposers in the soil food web all dislike and harmed by sunlight. They prefer dark, moist conditions–exactly the opposite of a dry sunny patch of dirt. It’s very important to keep what Gabe Brown calls, ‘a layer of armor’ on your soil.

The Problem With Deep Mulch

We understand now why it’s important to keep soil covered, and we understand the benefits to applying large amounts of organic material to our soils. But where do we get this organic material? Straw and hay are relatively cheap, so we could just buy them (as we’ve done in the past). There’s two problems:

  1. Pesticides. Is your straw grown without the use of biocides? Are you 100% sure? Some farmers use persistent herbicides (specifically plant growth regulators) that can harm your plants. If you can be absolutely certain your straw has no persistent herbicides then you should be okay.
  2. But even if you have no-spray straw, this still needs to be grown somewhere. Our goal is produce all our own fertility onsite. Buying straw uses acres somewhere else (as well as fossil fuels to cut and deliver).

The solution is to generate our own biomass onsite to use as mulch. We do this by growing cover crops and by cutting existing vegetation. We also chop and drop plants that we grow once they’ve been harvested. For example, once we harvest a broccoli flower we cut the stem (leaving the roots in the ground to decompose) and drop it in place. It will become food for our soil life, and eventually become soil that will grow the next round of broccoli.

How to Plant into Deep Mulch

There are two ways to plant into deep mulch, both of which are very simple.

  1. Use your hands to make a hole in the mulch until you reach the soil. Plant your transplant into the created hole, then squish the mulch back around the plant so its leaves poke out and get sun. This will keep its roots moist, but still allow it to get sunlight.
  2. Overseed many seeds by sprinkling directly onto the top of the mulch. Keep watered for a few days until they sprout and then you’re done. We do this with kale to grow mini kale for salads. It’s very easy, and doesn’t need to be weeded or even watered once its established.
Transplants planted into holes in the mulch. These plants thrived this season.
Young brassicas establishing themselves after being sprinkled on top of a layer of straw mulch. Don’t overthink it; plants want to live.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction.

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