All the signs are pointing to a long, hot, dry summer this year. For one thing, it’s currently almost 80 degrees outside. In April. In Montana.
Stick a finger in the dirt in my raised beds, and it’s powder dry just below the surface. Powdery. In April.
All of this has me worried. I don’t like to water much, but since our average annual rainfall is 17 inches, one has to irrigate if you’re going to grow much of anything here. My other inspiration was a rapidly-sprouting crop of weeds. I filled the new beds with semi-composted chicken shitty straw from the compost pile when I built them a month or so ago, and there are a lot of weeds coming up. My composting cycle has sped up enormously since I got chickens, but it still takes a long time for stuff to break down around here, and I’ve never gotten a hot pile going of the type that will kill weed seeds.
So I decided to smother them. In the long beds I use for tomatoes, I used the fancy “green” paper mulch I bought at the nursery. For the veggie beds I used wet newspapers. It’s the same theory. You put down a barrier to keep out the light, and the weed seeds never germinate. But especially around here, where it’s so windy, you can’t just leave paper to dry and disintegrate.
So I cover the paper layer with a good inch or two of hay. Ruth Stout is generally credited with proselytizing for hay mulch — and I tried it last year in these beds where it was really successful. I didn’t have any weeds, and the tomatoes did much better with a thick layer of mulch to keep in some moisture. Looking at the bare dirt in my new beds has been really bugging me this spring, so I decided to give it a go on the whole shebang.
Now, there’s an ongoing argument out there about straw vs. hay for mulch. I’ve used both. I like straw mulch for areas like the pathway between beds (as you see in the photo above) or for perennial beds or fruit bushes. But I find that the straw I can buy around here is too sharp to use in my vegetable beds. It tears holes in leafy plants, and gives me splinters. People who advocate for straw claim you get fewer weed seeds from it, but the straw I buy here still has a fair amount of wheat seed attached, seed that will indeed sprout in the garden. Hay is essentially grass and/or alfalfa baled up, and people who argue against hay claim that it will infest your garden with weeds. I didn’t have an issue last year with these long beds, in part I think because of the weed barrier. What I liked about the hay is that the grasses are softer than the wheat straw, and this makes it easier to plant through and easier on the plants. It also holds water really nicely.
So we’ll see how it works out. I had a couple of patches of bed where I’d started seed, so I tucked hay in around the seedlings. For everything else, I soaked the bed, then put down a thick layer of wet newspaper, then covered it with an inch or so of hay. I then wet down the hay thoroughly. My goal is to only have to water a couple of times a week in the summer — do a thorough soaking, and hope that all this mulch will hold in the water.