Mulching away

I’ve been having trouble with my mulched areas. I love the idea of using mulch to drive back the weeds and feed the soil, however I haven’t quite cracked the practicalities.
For example:
I like using cardboard as a sheet mulch to keep grass and weeds away from newly planted shrubs and trees in the garden. It works very well as a simple solution up to a point. If the area is to revert back to grass as in the case of the field trees, it’s fine. I use brick sized stones to keep the cardboard down, which works much better than I expected against the winds we get. By not covering the cardboard, the surface keeps drying back out and it lasts up to a year without too much degradation. You need to make sure that any bits of tape and plastic labels are removed, since these do not disappear like the cardboard does.

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New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

The problem I have is that this does not fully work against creeping buttercup, which is almost everywhere. The buttercups then spread over the mulch, and if you are foolish enough to enjoy the flowers, they seed everywhere, and you get a lovely ground cover of buttercups! These are probably one of my least favourite weeds. The roots are so persistent, and it is too easy to pull the top off, leaving the crown (which will regrow) behind. I’ve been struggling in the tea garden, which I have fully mulched over the last two years or so. I have five stages in progression: Bare soil exposed from removing the excess soil for terracing the orchard; Reasonably intact cardboard mulch, which is gradually being reclaimed by buttercups; a rather mature buttercup mulch where the cardboard has fully degraded; an area weeded in early summer and replanted with himalayam strawberries (which I hope will replace the buttercups as a living mulch – they are fighting it out at the moment); and an area, which was replanted with root crops – (salsify, scorzonera, skirret and also the maca).

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The idea of the root crop area, was that since they would need digging up in the future, I could take the opportunity to weed out the buttercups at the same time. Maybe I should have just left it till that stage, however, as well as the new buttercup seedlings and buttercups creeping in from the edges, I also noticed a lot of little dock seedlings, and (the little pink flower like londons burning) that seeds around so much. I couldn’t take it and had to start clearing the weeds early. I have left the corpses thickly around selected plants. However, since the weather has been wet and mild, unhappily the weeds have carried on growing. I’ll have to remove them and put them in the compost bin.
The new raspberries that I planted there didn’t do too well last year, only a few canes survived through to regrow. I noticed new shoots coming from the autumn bliss ones, so hopefully they will do better next year. I’m not sure why they struggled, but the survivors now seem happy enough. They should be sheltered enough there. It hasn’t been as good as I hoped in the lee of the barn. It seemed like a midge haven, but obviously they are tougher than the tea plants!
The other area which I mulched in a different way, and have been readdressing, is the orchard area to the right of the path as you look downhill. I covered around the trees and blackcurrant cuttings with cardboard, as usual, then used all the lovely cut grass from the pathways to cover the whole area thickly, including the area of card. Unfortunately it looks like it wasn’t thickly enough, since grass is now growing though in most of the area outside the cardboard sheets. I have tried mortal tree’s suggestion of lifting the mulch back over the growing shoots and adding a bit more mulch (https://mortaltree.blog/2013/06/16/group-and-conquer/). At the moment however, it just looks as though I’ve been feeding the couch grass! I think that the area of card will decompose more quickly as well – being covered in damp retaining material. I wasn’t expecting to achieve weed free straight away, since I know there is couch grass, docken and nettles as well as the ubiquitous creeping buttercup. But am a little disheartened. I’ve used up my stock of cardboard sheet to make a light proof layer and remulched with fresh grass cuttings (yes, he’s cut the pathways again) between the trees and the trackway, although I didn’t quite have enough cardboard to finish as far as I wanted to mulch.

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Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

The only weed excluding mulch that does seem to have done pretty well is the floor underlay from the last time the hall flooded, which we were able to reclaim. It is a very thick black plastic sheet, with a slight felt on one side. I’ve laid some on the drive bank to clear back the horrid creeping grass there. I’d like to get the top bank planted, but also need to build a retaining wall to stop it all falling back into the drive again. S. wants to resurface the drive along there, and it makes sense to do that first before building the wall. We removed the sheets to scrape back the soil where S. thought it was encrouching on the drive and I’ve been pleased by how little has been growing back. I used stones, old tyres and fenceposts to keep the sheet down, and that was the only problem I had – it did tend to catch the wind exposing the soil again.

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Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

If the hall floor needs replacing again, as seems likely, we’ll try and get hold of some more of that sheeting. I wonder if it would work for a water proof membrane for a green roofed car port….I’ll have to think about that.

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24 thoughts on “Mulching away

  1. Excellent progression you’re making. I am entirely unfamilar with the buttercups, but am all too familar with couchgrass. I might suggest you try progressing up from ground level. So long as you stay down there, the weeds you describe seem to have the superior strategies. Planting a fast growing nitrogen fixer ( in your case perhaps broom/ cystisus?) that will grow up, shade, and block wind dramatically changes the situation below and often has detrimental effects on weeds designed to fill in cracks quickly. In some places where I have pure stands of couchgrass I have laid bricks I shuffle around intemittantly, leaving holes that mulch plants and trees I planted can grow through. I of course lift much of the roots of the couchgrass when I shuffle these because they grow right on the surface of the ground beneath the stones. The real point of this method is to give the mulch plants enough of a break to grow up and shade out this noxious weed. I am happy to say it is working.

    The poor health of your raspberries may be an allelopath (plant poison) released by the weeds. I find they are quite sensitive to the allelopaths from creeping charlie (glechoma). I have a stand that has struggled in a bed I partnered with creeping charlie to keep weed free. Now the prefered mulch plants like oregano and ajuga are filling in, and the nitrogen fixers nearby are casting shade over the ground. The creeping charlie is becoming a minority of the population, and the raspberries are becoming quite happy, spreading, and making fruit.

    So glad to see such a wonderful start to what I’m sure will be a lush forest garden in time.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement Luke. You must have been reading my mind, or perhaps I’m reading yours, since broom seed is on my shopping list for this winter. I was hoping that tree lupin might do the trick as a nurse shrub, however I had a couple of hiccups – first the ‘tree lupin’ seed I bought turned out to be blue lupin, then having got some true tree lupin to germinate, the few plants that survived to be planted out did not like the first winter and died. I am much more confident about broom, since I have some plants that I have been given that are doing quite well. I gather they seed around a bit here (hence the gift) so I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

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      1. I have heard great things about broom, and seen firsthand wonderful things from my plants. Need to publish an N-fix on it. I look forward to hearing how they fare as food forest plants for you. Thanks!

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  2. J & D > We think that it’s a mistake to see a mulch as a weed-eliminator. It’s primary purpose is as a soil improver arround permanent planting (fruit bushes and such like). There is no substitute for digging and forking out weeds ; and even with a soil that is completely free of noxious deep-rooted pernicious weeds, no mulch will prevent re-infestation from seed, creeping vegetation, suckers, offsets or whatever. We use a hoe to deal with pernicious weeds that still come through after planting out of fruit bushes, and nearer the roots we just keep taking off the foliage until the roots are starved to death. We mulch a great deal, but only to improve soil, never with the primary purpose of eliminating weeds.

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  3. Thanks for your comments. I guess every garden is different with the weeds present as plants and seed bank. The soil here certainly is benefiting from being mulched. As well as being light, shallow, and permanently washed by the rains, it has been compacted by hundreds of sheep feet. Anything I can do to improve that has to be a good start! As you can see so far I have simply succeeded in eliminating the easy, annual weeds leaving the toughies and these will certainly need digging out – as you suggest probably several times. One of my gardening rules is ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and a clear soil counts as that. It either will be filled with weeds or hopefully plants with purpose. I’ve still got a long way to go.

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  4. I use cardboard a lot in my garden and all junk mail as mulches, however I use them on ground I want to clear before planting and I have learnt the hard way I have to move in fast to remove the perennial weeds which go straight into the recycle bin, you can’t compost perennial weeds in our damp climate they just regrow, I also put annual weeds in the recycle bin now as I have experienced compost full of seedlings, I laugh when I hear them on Gardeners Question Time (GQT) say to leave the weeds on the surface and they will die off, ha, ha, they obviously garden in very tame areas, not in my garden they don’t,
    after the cardboard has killed off the weaker weeds and grass I dig out the tough grass and weeds, plant, then put down a covering of junk mail with grass clippings, pine needles (I’m fortunate the previous owners planted some lodge pole pines) or sand to hold the junk mail down, so long as the blackbirds don’t chuck it every which way looking for tasty bites it works fairly well, but I can’t just walk away, again I have learnt the hard way you have to keep on checking and pulling the badies,
    the black plastic, I have a large piece of plastic I move around the garden but though it looks like it has killed everything when I remove it I find the minute air, light and rain get to the ground a whole new batch of weeds emerge, I have concluded that as the ground has not been cultivated before there is a seed bank in the ground going back centuries! potatoes I read and have found are the best crop to grow to help clear ground, as you weed when you earth up and really dig to get them out, it has helped but like everything else it is not a cure all,
    there is a book in Stornoway library, The Wet Garden (sorry can’t remember the author), anyway he writes that the wet garden is the hardest of gardens because of the constant moisture providing an enviroment for weeds, and add to that our mild temporate climate where sometimes the grass keeps growing through winter, we have chosen a difficult path,
    but look at that view from your garden, the panelist on GQT might have tame gardens but they don’t have a view like that, Frances

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    1. I agree with everything you say Frances! The almost constant damp is a blessing and a curse, as, of course is that view: good for the soul, but also quite exposed to the winds. I’ve contributed to my own nasty seed bank with docken and buttercups as described above. Even the couch grass is going to seed ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I keep telling myself to do one bit properly, and I have been doing better this year. I’ve had a little bit more time, and although people still moan, the weather has been a bit drier than usual overall till recently.

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      1. I agree with you regarding the weather this year, late spring and early summer were much drier and it has been warmer which gives some hope, also I have finally realised that when I get an area cleared to keep on top of it before starting a new area, it has meant some parts of my garden have been neglected but the areas I have kept up are getting easier which means I have time to work on another area, I am also concentrating on areas closer to the house as that is what I see from the house,
        I too have added to the seed bank in my garden, you are not alone, time when working is always a problem, since retiring I have more time but have definately noticed a decline in energy as I get older, Frances

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  5. The strawberries I’m sending you have been sucking the life out of the mint, as far as I can tell, as well as stunting the growth of the blackcurrants. I therefore hope they will be able to sort out the creeping buttercups etc, where you plant them.

    I don’t think there is a complete and definitive answer to mulching. I was planning to put cardboard round the apple tree I get this November in order to keep weeds down while it gets established. Whether I then cover the cardboard is another matter, partly because the compost itself might have seeds in it! Maybe I’ll just put bokashi solids in the intended area to give it a fertility boost.

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      1. Vetch seeds! I’ve collected bitter vetch, (lathyrus linifolius) Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), and tufted vetch (vicia cracca), if you fancy any of these as nitrogen fixers.

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  6. Thank you so much Helen, did you want to try any vetch seed? I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of some of the wild flowers in the tree field. They are perennials, so may not be so suitable for green manures, but, the tufted vetch in particular is quite pretty. I’ve got some roots on the soap wort cuttings, but I’ll try and establish the plants a bit for you.

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    1. Helen, They’ve come already! I love royal mail! They look like they’ll make lovely strong plants. I’ve potted some up and planted some in the polytunnel. Thank you very much!

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      1. Brilliant, Nancy! As they have arrived so quickly and been put in growing medium, I think they should survive and the ones in the polytunnel may even produce more plants for you over autumn ๐Ÿ˜Š.

        Anyway, sorry not to have replied sooner about the vetch – I didn’t receive a notification about your comments. It would be great to have some of these seeds, considering they fix nitrogen and create biomass as well as looking pretty.

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  7. So much resonates here, and that’s despite our weather is slightly dryer! I need to get slightly more of the heavy grade cardboard cartons used for e.g. flat pack furniture, ideally. I am very lucky to have a willing helper who likes nothing more than rooting out pernicious weeds. That’s my D not your two Ds, N ๐Ÿ™‚

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