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Mulch is a key to no-till gardens


Now is the time to plan your no-till garden for next year

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Adding organic matter or mulch is the best way to insure a healthy garden.The crux of no-till gardening is to pile on enough mulch so that weeds don't germinate and grow up through it, said Barb Fick, a horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Fick has kept her vegetable garden viable with the no-dig method for years. To establish a new no-till garden in the fall or winter, find a sunny spot and outline where the new beds will be. Use a garden hose or rope if the borders are curved.

Be sure to lay out the vegetable beds so that you can easily reach any part of the bed from a path while kneeling. It's important not to step into the bed and compact the soil. Next, start heaping on the mulch. Fick prefers to pile on aged mint straw in the fall.

"Whatever you use, don't skimp on mulch," she said. "A heavy layer not only keeps weeds from growing, it also keeps the underlying soil moist, greatly reducing the amount of watering you need in the summer."

If you use leaves, grass clippings or straw, you might need as much as eight to 10 inches of them, Fick said. If you use cardboard or newspaper as mulch, you'll need less of it, however you'll want to add a couple of inches of organic matter over it though.

Over time, the mulch layers will help loosen up the clay soil. When you're ready to plant in the spring, push aside the mulch layer where you want to put your seeds or transplants. For the first year or so, you may need to dig out old roots and add topsoil or compost in the hole where you want to plant.

An advantage to no-till is that you turn over a small amount of soil only where you'll plant seeds or starts.

If you're growing large transplants like melons, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, in the spring you can lay down heavy black or red plastic to warm up the soil faster, conserve moisture and reduce weeds.

One caution though: depending on its weight, plastic sheeting eventually breaks up into tiny pieces as it deteriorates from exposure to the sun. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation – the best ways to water a no-till garden – should be placed under the plastic. As your crops come to an end, incorporate the dead vegetation into the mulch.

For more gardening tips from the OSU Extension Service, visit extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening.