By Thomas Christopher
For Capital Region Independent Media
A recent conversation with Carol Reese took me back, way back to my earliest days as a gardener.
Carol, who retired in 2021 from a distinguished career as a horticultural extension specialist in the University of Tennessee system, is a sought-after speaker at symposia and other events all over the United States. Her 117-acre gardens in west Tennessee are considered to be cutting edge.
We were talking about Carol’s concerns with the American gardener’s reflexive application of fertilizer in early spring.
This has an environmental cost: much of the fertilizer washes away with storm water to pollute streams, lakes and rivers, even poisoning the groundwater as it soaks down to the water table. Much of what we apply is unnecessary; as Carol pointed out, the last two elements in a commercial fertilizer’s three-element formula, the phosphorus (typically listed as “P”) and potassium (“K”), are usually already present in our soils in sufficient quantities.
In fact, increasing the levels of P and K may make it more difficult for your plants’ roots to absorb the nutrients they do need and can even poison them in sufficient concentrations. Nitrates (“N,” the first element in the fertilizer formula) may well be needed but come with considerable environmental harm. Synthesizing nitrates for fertilizers is an energy intensive process that consumes huge volumes of natural gas, so their application greatly increases the carbon footprint of our gardens. Soil tests recommendations, Carol adds, are based on agricultural practices and not terribly reliable in the home landscape.
Anyway, the lush growth that fertilization promotes is in itself a problem. It’s more attractive to pests such as deer and makes the plant less able to cope with summertime droughts.
Her own landscape, Carol asserted, has none of these problems since she borrowed a technique from the late Ruth Stout.
Ruth Stout is largely forgotten today, but she was a popular figure in organic gardening back in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember her because, as a somewhat rebellious teenager starting his first garden, I was impressed by Stout’s reported fondness for gardening in the nude. Even I had enough sense not to try that in my mother’s unfenced suburban backyard.
Stout also had substantive contributions to offer. She had had an epiphany one spring while she waited for a dilatory local farmer to plow her vegetable garden. Eventually, her impatience led her to invent a pioneering method of no-till gardening based on covering the soil with 8 inches of loose hay.
I’d forgotten all about this until Carol told me that she had adapted this practice for her own landscape. Carol listed three ways that such a mulch contributes to the garden. By protecting the soil from the sun, the mulch greatly reduces or even eliminates the need to irrigate. The deep blanket of mulch also inhibits the growth of weeds, so there’s little need for weed control. Finally, as the hay decomposes, it releases plant nutrients into the soil, supplying most of the current crops’ needs. Indeed, if replenished regularly, a hay mulch can supply all the nutritional needs of an ornamental landscape, and most of those of a vegetable garden; some supplementary nitrates may be needed there. One good organic source of that is cottonseed meal.
Like Ruth Stout, Carol favors hay because she can get old bales left over from the previous year’s cutting very inexpensively in her rural neighborhood. A suburban gardener, she says, could accomplish the same results by collecting the bagged leaves left out on the curb in fall.
Straw is often recommended as a better mulch than hay because the straw contains fewer weed seeds. Pile the hay on 6 to 8 inches deep, though, and no weeds will emerge except around the perimeter of the mulch, and these are easily pulled with an occasional passing snatch.
Those wanting to learn more about Ruth Stout’s deep mulch style of gardening will find her classic “Gardening Without Work” available in reprinted editions and as an e-book.
To listen to my conversation with Carol Reese, click on the link for the Growing Greener podcast at the Berkshire Botanical Garden website: www.berkshirebotanic.org.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Christopher’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.