Heavily Mulched, No-Weed Gardening Saves Water

Use Newspaper and Grass Clippings as Mulch to Avoid Evaporation

Heavily Mulched, No-Weed Gardening Saves Water

By Anne Hart Lieb, Ohio

Heavily mulched, no-weed gardening saves time, labor, and water.

Believe it or not, there is an inexpensive, organic method of making your garden free of weeds and require no watering (or very little during drought or in an arid climate).

The upfront work investment in creating no-weed gardening far outweighs the small amount of work required for the remainder of the growing season.

With this gardening method in place during the summer drought of 2012, I only watered the garden once every eight or 10 days (even the tomatoes!), never lost a plant, and had vegetable quality of normal yields. With normal weekly, even twice-monthly rains, a low-water-consumption garden like this does not require extra watering, because it does not allow fast evaporation of soil moisture.

Additionally, the newspaper/grass-clippings layers described below create a thick, dark mulch barrier that prevents any weeds from growing.

If enough space is left between the planted rows, a mower or weed whacker will handle any weeds or grass sprouting up in the paths between the rows of vegetables, creating a garden where no weeding will ever be necessary. In fact, allowing grassy paths in the garden is great for being able to walk through the garden after a rain, because there is no mud.

Here are the simple steps needed for amazing no-weed gardening:

1. Plant a row of hybrid or heirloom seeds (according to packet directions) or small starter plants. Leave the ground as flat as possible around the plants or seeds. Never plant on a small “hill,” because that causes water to run off the hill instead of keeping the dirt immediately around the plant as moist as possible. Essentially, planting on a small hill dehydrates a plant and can kill it.

2. Using a shovel or weeding tool like a hoe, make a continuous “curb” of dirt (three to six inches high) around the newly-planted row, as seen in the photo above. I call this the “bathtub,” because it places the vegetables inside a bathtub-shaped area which holds water next to the plants or seeds where it is needed instead of allowing the water to escape, which only encourages weed growth. When building this dirt curb, do not use the dirt directly next to the plant. Instead, get the dirt from outside the row, such as the area that would be used as a walking path between the rows of plants. The reason for this is that it is important to keep the dirt which is immediately close to the plants as flat as possible, and not cause divots or hills in the dirt near the plants or seeds. This will ensure uniform soil moisture throughout the “bathtub.”

Once this step is done, the garden is already 50% more drought-resistant, because the bathtub-shaped rows hold water in, close to the plants, rather than allowing it to run off into parts of the garden where it is not needed or wanted.

3. If seeds were used instead of starter plants, wait to perform the rest of these steps until the plants have all sprouted and are visible.

Did you know that newspapers (and the ink) actually compost and can be tilled right into the garden next year? The newspapers help to aerate and enrich the garden soil for next year.

Once the plants are visible, lay newspaper around the plants, and completely cover the entire bathtub shape, allowing newspaper to hang over the edge of the bathtub a few inches, as shown in the photo above. Get the newspaper as close to the stems of the plants as possible, keeping in mind that any uncovered areas will provide enough light for weeds to grow. Cover thoroughly with two-to-six layers of newspaper (or more if you have loads of newspapers). The thicker the better.

While placing the newspapers, immediately spraying them with water keeps them from blowing away in the wind until they can be secured.

4. Cover the newspaper with grass clippings. Grass clippings contain no seeds, and thus will not promote grass or weed growth. The grass clippings perform three vital functions: 1) acting as a paperweight to hold down the newspaper against the wind; 2) preventing sunlight from getting through to the ground, thus preventing weeds from growing; 3) providing an essential layer of mulch to trap moisture into the ground, allowing very little soil evaporation. This eliminates the need for frequent rain or watering and keeps the soil moist 5-to-10 times longer than unprotected soil.

5. If the garden resides in an area that can get windy, use rocks, planks, or logs to weigh down the outer perimeter of newspaper, as shown in the photo above. The grass clippings will hold down the newspapers in a 15 mph wind, but not much above that. A good wind gust can pick up the edges of the newspaper, lift it up, allow unwanted evaporation of soil moisture, and also cause the grass clippings to blow away or get messed up. If the wind does not have a chance to lift up the edges of the newspapers, they will stay neatly in place with grass clippings intact.

Congratulations. You now have a garden that requires very little water and no weeding.

Do you have any tips for no-weed gardening? Let us know!

Originally published in the September/October 2013 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.

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