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Spring Planting Begins with a Fall Cover-Up

Updated on September 6, 2014
Two of the three sisters almost ready for final harvest and then composting
Two of the three sisters almost ready for final harvest and then composting | Source

I have spent most of my adult life learning, re-learning and trying new gardening techniques. I have tried each and every new garden fashion that has come along. It was finally time I decided to re-examine my own garden likes and dislikes. My greatest dislike is weeding. A variation of the Ruth Stout “No-Work” gardening method presented the best philosophy.

Let me tell you just a little bit about Ruth Stout in case you may not have heard about her. Her book was published by Rodale Press in 1971. These are a compilation of articles she wrote with Richard Clemence starting with her first published article in 1953. Their advice is to use the mulch method. Her preferred mulching material is high grade hay! The technique is to spread a layer of hay then pull away the hay from the soil surface where you want to plant and sow your seed or plants without tilling. As you can see Ruth was way ahead of her time to promote the use of hay as not only a natural plant nutrient when as it decomposes but as a way to limit weeding. Neither she nor Richard knew that their no till approach was a side benefit to this type of gardening. Ruth and Richard’s book is still available on Amazon at this url

Tweaking Ruth's Method

I tried Ruth’s method one year. I came into a large cache of old hay that a farmer wanted to clear out of an old barn. I was a bit excited and tried to mulch too much. I did not reserve any for later applications. That is one of the secrets to this method. Since I only put down one thick layer that summer I ran into some problems as the hay began decomposing. Some weeds began to take hold where the mulch had decomposed to the soil surface. The problem was that the rest of the garden still had a really thick layer. It turned out to be just a bit of a disaster. That is what living and learning is all about.

Today I use a variation of this technique that works better. My method uses other materials too. Because I did not have a continuous supply of hay I had to find other materials. For this I turned to my favorite organic refuse, leaves. One of my all time favorite gardening activities is securing as many tree leaves as I can get my hands on. I scour the neighbor’s yard. They think I’m nuts. I rake them up myself too. Normally I use the lawn mower along with wind direction to blow the leaves into large piles I can then drag with my old flat sheets. I found that tarps have a tendency to fall apart along tears that run with the graining of the plastic threads. A good old flat cotton sheet is far more durable.

old sunflower stalks are thick and need to be flattened before the leaves are piled on top
old sunflower stalks are thick and need to be flattened before the leaves are piled on top | Source

Save Your Household Paper

Before I can put my collected leaves where I want them I need to prepare the area. This can take just a bit of work but is really not that hard. Unless I had corn or sunflowers or something else that has a hard woody stalk I just set the lawnmower on high and run it across the area. It doesn’t take all that long. I lay over the large stalks I can’t mow. I know you are asking why I didn’t remove this material. The answer is easy. Why would I want to take our organic material and replace it with other organic material? I have controlled for pest infestations by encouraging macro predators like birds. I have controlled my pests from the past season with micro organisms like Bacillus thuringiensis. I rotate crops every season. In short, I am not afraid of perpetuating a bug problem. I am only concerned that the surface of the area I want to spread the leaves is as flat as possible.

Ruth Stout would only push the large old vegetable waste over and apply a new layer of hay. Since I had to change her method to serve my own gardening needs I had to make sure that the area to get the leaves was not lumpy. I do this because I first put down a layer of paper, paper board or even regular corrugated cardboard. Besides the fact that leaves do for the most part have weed seed, the cardboard acts as a bio degradable weed barrier also. I get two ways to control weeds in an area. Paper and cardboard are recognized organic garden products that are safe to use. In recent years it has become the norm for most printing inks to be soy based. That means they are safe to use. It is still not really recommended to use glossy full color paper in a vegetable garden but no one seems to care if it is used in an ornamental garden area. Be sure to pull off any tape or pull metal staples before using the cardboard.

I stopped recycling paper products several years ago. I save every piece of junk mail going so far as to remove the little plastic window from solicitation. Beer cases, pasta boxes and just about every paper product that comes into the house goes to the garden. I began to walk past paper waste bins and take paper out. I began taking home as much of the corrugated cardboard from work as I could. I just can’t get enough paper products to use in my garden. I do not cover up the cardboard where I have potted plants outside. When you turn the boxes upside down so the printing faces the soil you have a mosaic patterned brown area for a few days. Then the cardboard turns a nice medium light gray. It really isn’t that unattractive. I could have thrown down a thin layer of mulch to cover it up but why? Besides it is really easy to patch and repair areas where larger pots encourage the cardboard to compost quickly.

One of my areas where pots lived on top of scrap cardboard.  Do you see any weeds?
One of my areas where pots lived on top of scrap cardboard. Do you see any weeds? | Source
Today's recycled paper
Today's recycled paper | Source

Make Time For Spring This Fall

Any paper product will provide the first line against weed control. Be sure to overlap this to help control perennial weeds like bindweed from just popping up through. All garden refuse can be used at least below the paper barrier as more mulch. Why keep a compost pile? If it is weed seed free then use it on top of the paper layer. Preparing your planting site this fall while you are cleaning up saves you an equal amount of time in the spring. Using a no till method of gardening is the only way to garden. I rake back the leaves to form a trough and take an edger tool or just a plain old square edging shovel to pierce the paper layer. All I need to do next is drop in the seed and sprinkle them with a bit of potting mix out of a bag. Done!

I don’t have to till. I break tills every couple of years. These are expensive and not terribly green. I am using a no till method that preserves the micro flora and fauna in the soil. I have few or no weeds. I water less frequently. And, I did all my spring work in the cool pleasant air the fall before. Sounds like a spring fishing trip with a cooler of cold ones may just have to take up all that free time in the spring.


Some paper products, like that paper coffee cup left from this morning, have a plastic lining that does not decompose. HubPages would terminate this blog if I told you what it looks like after the paper board dissolves away. At least they don't decompose quickly if at all. Or consider the cereal box lining that keeps your cereal fresh. It is not wax paper but another supple plastic that may with enormous amounts of time decompose. Just be careful to only use untreated paper products or your garden will look a bit trashy. If it feels like it has plastic on it then it probably does.


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    • hostaguy profile imageAUTHOR

      frank nyikos 

      4 years ago from 8374 E State Rd 45 Unionville IN 47468

      Thanks Robert! And, thanks for bringing back the other Ruth Stout book too.

    • profile image

      Robert Plamondon 

      4 years ago

      Isn't Ruth Stout great? Her other gardening book, "Gardening Without Work," is back in print, too (full disclosure: I republished it myself).

      I agree about the need to have mulch on hand, rather than mulching once. Oddly, British farm writer Geoffrey Sykes made the same point in the Fifties, and he wasn't talking about gardens, but straw-covered chicken yards. Either way, the main thing is to maintain the mulch.

      We've used cardboard mulch around berry bushes. It works well and lasts a long time.

      Thanks for writing!


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