Deep Mulch Vermigardening

Along with Joel Karsten’s Straw Bale Gardening presentation, another Homegrown Food Summit video that really got me fired up was Jill Winger’s “Mulch Gardening Secrets”. Since I had plenty of hay bales on hand for my “Hay Bale Vermigardening” project this spring, I figured it was the perfect time to test out this other approach as well.

Of course, as per usual, the idea has been to take this method one step further and to turn it into an official vermigardening approach as well.

For my first bed, I selected a pretty neglected and overgrown stretch of dirt sitting at the end of my long hay bale (and beside my “sandbox trench” raised bed)

The first thing I did was clear out most of the weeds. As you can see I wasn’t TOO worried about getting every last one (after all, everything would be buried under a fairly thick layer of mulch).

Next, I lay down a bunch of fall leaves (mixed with miscellaneous yard waste), happily donated by one of my neighbors.

Then came the thick layer of hay over top.

This was around the time I was first priming my bales (for the hay bale gardening project), so I still had some soy milk powder. I figured I might as well sprinkle a bunch of it over top of the new mulch bed – especially since we were expecting (and ended up receiving) a huge dump of rain. The idea was to kick things up a notch in the bed by making it a bit more interesting for the worms.

In hindsight, I wish I had mixed it with water first, since I ended up with globs of it throughout the bed after the rain – and even some bad odors.

The first plants I added to the bed (about a week and a half later) were 2 eggplants, 1 watermelon, and 1 curly kale.

Less than a week later, I added 3 pepper plants.

Much more recently, I added 6 lacinato kale (aka “dino kale”, “black kale”) seedlings.

As you can see in the next image, everything has been coming along quite nicely so far. I’ve added an additional layer of moldy hay, and will continue to layer more on as the plants continue to get bigger.

Looks as though things are in good shape down below as well. It’s nice and moist, and there seems to be a healthy population of worms (including plenty of Red Wigglers) – these have mostly moved in on their own (there would have been some in the coarse vermicompost I added in/around the planting holes as well).

Kind of cool to see the difference between the kale plant in the mulch garden vs the ones growing in bare soil in the sandbox garden (planted at exactly the same time, and all the same size originally). Obviously, tighter spacing in the sandbox bed would be contributing to that – but nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the mulch garden curly kale is doing really well!

Can’t wait to see how the dino kale does!

My next deep mulch bed was somewhat “accidental” (i.e. not originally planned). As some of you may recall, I excavated a vermicomposting trench bed so I could add the contents to my long hay bale bed. I needed some place to put 6 cucumber + 8 cherry tomato seedlings, and I suddenly realized that the (mostly empty) trench could make for a fantastic deep mulch bed.

The cucumber seedlings were looking pretty pitiful by the time I planted them.

But things have been coming along quite nicely since then.

The tomatoes (also very dismal looking when planted) have been bouncing back nicely as well.

Similar to the other mulch bed, I will be gradually adding more layers of hay to the trench over time, as the plants continue to get bigger.

All in all, I am really happy with the deep mulch approach so far. One thing I’d like to try, as a means of once again kicking things up a notch, is to periodically sprinkle (and mix) in some poultry feed (or something similar). I think the worms and other critters will go to town on on it, and it will be converted into nutritious plant food quite quickly.

Stay tuned

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    • Adam
    • July 17, 2015

    When you say “hay”, are you referring to alfalfa or some other type? Sorry, I’m not knowledgable enough to know by the picture. It probably doesn’t matter much, but I like this idea. I’m not sure how well the worms will do in AZ, but I bet they may do ok with a deep enough mulch layer. We will see soon.

    • john grierson
    • July 17, 2015

    Hi.I love your blog, I’ve been far4ming worms in a small way for years . I have a project planned much like yours. I’ve ordered some new beds to fill a space I made by pulling out flowers and a tangelo tree. about 6 metres by 1400. I’m putting in 3 metal beds, average size 1500 by 1400 by 40mm. high. 2 week delivery. I’ll layer horse manure, weeds grass clippings and card board. I have a good shredder which chops up damp cardboard well, add sheep manure. the best bit is my son manages a market garden where they process lettuces and other veg, so I get trailer loads of scraps . I’ll finish with mushroom compost from garden suppliers. Are you interested in receiving photo’s? Regards. John.

    • Tom
    • July 18, 2015

    Hello, I’m relatively new to this site, but since I discovered it, it’s been extremely helpful to me. It helped answer a lot of my questions about the worm bin I set up a couple months ago now, and it’s since thriving (I attribute that mainly to this site and it’s information).

    Anyways, I just read this, and couldn’t help but be amazed at how awesomely huge and healthy your vegetables growing in the mulch look. I’m correct in thinking that the only true “fertilizer” they have feeding them consists of decomposing organic materials and worm castings? Because that is amazing.

    • Mary Trott
    • July 18, 2015

    Hey Bentley, aren’t you worried about weeds from the hay next season, or will you do the same thing over again?

    • Bentley
    • July 21, 2015

    Adam – This particular “hay” is mostly mixed grasses, including timothy. Alfalfa hay would probably be even better.
    Do let me know if you test this out in AZ! Would be very interested in seeing how this would work in a really hot arid region.
    John – I am always interested in reader projects, and would love to see some pics when you have them. Thanks
    Hi Tom – what you add to these beds is up to you. There is a wide-range of earth-friendly options. As touched on, one of the things I added (apart from the hay and leaves) was soy milk powder. And I also plan to sprinkle in poultry feed as well. While I’m sure the plants would do fairly well without these inputs, you’re definitely going to get better results with at least some other inputs. The beauty of having the worms in the bed is that they can accelerate the process of converting these materials into “fertilizer” for the plants.
    Hi Mary – weeds are terrible in my beds regardless, so I’m not overly concerned. But yet, it is pretty likely I will also be continuing to use this approach since it seems to be working out so well.

  1. Personal experience has shown me there’s a big difference between hay and straw in the garden. Hay has seeds and will produce grass (found this out the hard way) which you really don’t want in your vegetable garden. It’s always best to use straw.

    • Bentley
    • August 7, 2015

    Hi Denise,
    I think it’s safe to say there are advantages to both. I’ve worked with straw before and it worked well. Now I am testing out hay. We’ll see how things look next spring (with the grass etc), but so far so good.

    • Mr-Yan
    • August 8, 2015

    OK I’m in. I read this post then went outside and re-mulched two small beds planted with a mix of kale and collards. Each bed is about 1 m x 1 m.

    They were mulched with just shredded leafs that have mostly decomposed in the last few weeks. I re-mulched with a few inches of chopped weeds mixed with fall leaves (hot composted for the last week) some partially finished vermicompost with worms in it, a 2 year old box of dry babyfood oatmeal, and more dry shredded leaves.

    • Trina
    • August 16, 2015

    What is the difference in this and the famous “lasagna Gardening”, a method so called because you layer nitrogen with carbon ( to prevent odors and balance the chemistry). Example: Grass clippings (N), then mulched leaves (C) or straw (C), Then more grass etc rtc. Hay is practical because it is already a balance of N and C by the way. I was skeptical about all the seeds present in hay, but my beds worked very well with it. No weed issues. The seeds probably get fried in the decomposition process. Read the book about Lasagna Gardening!

  2. Hey Trina,
    It’s safe to say these are fairly similar approaches. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s not so much about giving it a fancy name (that people can then claim ownership of) as it is about getting inspired and trying things out.
    This is one thing I love about “vermigardening” – it’s not ONE specific, rigid gardening method. It can apply to a wide range of methods (as long as you get the worms involved! haha)

    If I was compare my deep mulch vermigardening to my lasagna vermigardening (from a previous season), I’d say the mulch bed has been much more of a gradual thing (I set up the lasagna bed basically all at once) and hasn’t been as involved. BUT that’s certainly not to say it couldn’t be – I’d love to see what might happen if I continued to add layers. Unfortunately, just not enough time for much garden “play” these days.

    There’s always next season!

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