Left in Andover: Mulch ado about gardening

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

No matter how many times I pass it by, I still get a charge out of my favorite sign. It reads “Home Groan Vegetables.” Keep an eye out for it going north on Route 5 out of Hartland.

As a child I spent many miserable summers toiling in my family’s vegetable garden (See Left in Andover: Getting in touch with the earth). It still feels like my 5-year-old self is out there hoeing weeds somewhere.

But I have long since been liberated thanks to titles like Gardening Without Work for the Aging, Busy and Indolent and How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. Their author, Ruth Stout, the queen of mulch, anticipated today’s regenerative agriculture movement by the best part of a century.

Our heavily mulched pumpkin patch.

Stout prescribes keeping cultivated areas covered with a minimum 8 inches of mulch. In her ideal no-till garden, as in nature, the under layers decompose. The top layer is organically replenished. Subterranean microbial and soil structures remain mechanically undisturbed. Carbon is sequestered.

Stout was doctrinaire in her approach, famously strewing potatoes and seeds in her garden, covering them with mulch, then calling it a day. My husband John and I are not nearly that radical. But for home gardeners such as ourselves who choose to maintain neither tractor nor rototiller, heavily mulched raised beds offer bounty without the groan.

Although we had admired Stout for many many decades, we never went all in with mulch until inheriting our daughter Ida’s massive garlic patch about five years ago.

John sharpening his scythe to cut hay for mulch this past July.

After a couple of Octobers of asking a neighbor up the hill to dig up our garden mechanically, then investing in $200 worth of straw at $15 per bale, I had to draw the line.

Overcoming a long standing reluctance to applying weed-seed infested hay on the garden, John sharpened his custom built scythe and started cutting our field.

What is work and what is play is, after all, subjective. Stout’s goal and mine was a no-work garden. John, even though he rarely eats vegetables, was fine devoting numerous early mornings to sharpening and swinging his scythe. He considers scything the perfect mental and physical exercise.

But honestly, the garden is insatiable, capable of absorbing an endless amount of mulch. Just as I think we have accumulated enough layers to keep the weeds down, a bald patch pops up.

Some of this summer’s garlic bounty from our heavily mulched garden.

But as long as John keeps scything, and a neighbor in keeps mowing our hayfield each fall, I am happy to keep raking it up. In any case, this is our last year keeping up our daughter’s garlic.

Ida plans to take back her proprietary strain of German hard neck to plant in her own garden this fall. And who knows where my husband and I, aging, busy and indolent, will be heading next. Maybe to the closest grocery store.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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