Publications (Paul's Blog)

September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:48 pm

Bare soil is a “no-no.” Like raking grass clippings and leaves then putting them in the garbage, maintaining bare soil in our flower beds or vegetable gardens is counter productive. These are old habits associated mainly with neatness and what was once considered standard landscaping ethic. Although most modern day gardeners employ mulching mowers and excess yard waste goes to the compost pile, there are still some people who insist on keeping their gardening spots with nothing but bare soil between their plants. This is fine at planting time as long as your flowers, shrubs, or vegetables are spaced properly so they eventually grow together and shade the ground.
The mindset concerning bare soil culture dates back to the previous century when our forefathers were mainly sustained by the family farm. The thinking was that weeds would rob the crops of sunlight, moisture, and valuable nutrients. This was and still is true today. I grew up listening to my dad and his friends swapping stories about plowing straight rows behind a mule and chopping weeds in the cotton or corn fields. Consequently, my own early attempts at vegetable gardening consisted of straight rows meticulously weeded down to bare dirt. It reflected what I had been taught.
Today, with advanced soil science, techniques, and a better understanding of biology in general, my vegetable garden looks quite different. There are no straight rows or bare soil to be seen. Here are some facts about bare soil.
1. Bare soil dries out quickly. This is especially true of freshly cultivated soil. Any time we turn the soil we are increasing air between soil particles. This is a good thing when faced with tight, compacted soils where better drainage is needed, but is counter productive in soils that are already well drained and well composted. Here in north central Texas our rainfall is sporadic to say the least. Soil that drains quickly but still retains moisture is what we strive for. The summer sun baking down on bare soil increases evaporation at the very time when moisture is needed most.
2. Bare soil invites weeds. Any soil disruption brings weed seeds to the surface. Sunlight actually increases the germination rate of many common weeds that plague us as gardeners. Even the disruption of pulling existing weeds will tend to set the stage for more weeds. This is why “chopping cotton” was the never ending chore for my dad and previous generations of subsistence farmers.
3. Bare soil heats up and cools down quickly. Because of exposure, air penetrates deeper and faster into the soil. Bare soil can be a blessing in early Spring when you are waiting for seeds to germinate, but works against us when temperatures go to extreme heat or cold.
4. Bare soil decreases life below ground. The cutting edge of soil science today is studying the various roles of soil dwelling creatures. From tiny microbes to larger creatures that can be seen with the naked eye, we now have a much better idea of how important living soils are. Everything from decomposition of organic matter to availability of minerals and nutrients to general plant health is related to the presence (or not) of microbes and other soil dwellers. Many of these microbes will die immediately when exposed to sunlight. Others, like earthworms, simply dry out when exposed to too much air. As it is with most life forms, these guys need a stable environment.
The answer of course is to plant desirable plants thick enough and/or cover the ground with mulch. In Nature, mulch acts as an insulating blanket while providing a food source as it decomposes. In the home landscape, shredded wood is most commonly used although grass clippings, leaves, straw, manure, basically anything organic that will break down to feed the soil is good.
Stone is also a very practical solution. Although stone does not feed the soil like organic mulches it does precipitate minerals and is an excellent insulator. Stone helps break up rainfall and runoff offering superior erosion control. It does not float or blow away like the popular shredded or chipped wood mulches. As far as longevity, stone is about as permanent as it gets.
Lately there have been several recycled materials being sold as mulch. We have seen such things as shredded tire rubber, reconstituted paper, and tumbled glass used in place of traditional mulches. The common drawback to these materials is they tend to be pricey due to the processing involved and in some cases dyes are added to make them more attractive.
With all these choices, there is absolutely no intelligent reason to maintain bare soil for the sake of neatness. In fact, one may proceed to indulge in all sorts of interesting patterns, colors, textures, and combinations thereof just using mulches. Things can be kept neat and tidy enough to suit the most demanding personality. Bare soil doesn’t really make much of a statement plus instead of reducing weed growth, bare soil actually encourages it.
There is another option and that is the use of living mulches. Choose a shorter plant to act as a groundcover. Our lawns are, technically, a groundcover. Surprisingly, the same guy that practices bare dirt gardening would not stand for a bare patch in his lawn. Grass covers the soil, reduces heat by absorbing the sun’s energy, keeps the dust down when it’s dry, and gives us something to walk on besides mud when it rains. American suburbanites are well known for their meticulous dedication to lawn culture.
Choices for groundcover are many depending mainly on desired height, longevity, color, exposure to sun, and ease of maintenance. I prefer groundcovers that are short (generally less than one foot tall), that produce visible flowers, and that spread quickly from rhizomes, seed, or both. Being evergreen is also appreciable, but not something I insist on. There are plenty of choices that will perform nicely in any exposure from deep shade to the blistering heat of full sun. Explore your options.
In the vegetable garden, companion plantings will cover the ground while offering insect control or perhaps something extra for the kitchen table. I find some of the shorter types of mint, basils, and other herbs work well. Farmers tending large acreage have been using cover crops and even double cropping nitrogen fixing plants (legumes) like peanuts and alfalfa. Tree orchards lend themselves to double cropping as well. These things also work well in the veggie garden. Try planting some beans in with taller plants like corn and okra.
No matter how you slice it, bare soil equates to high maintenance even if you own a tiller or other cultivation equipment. If you are one who habitually maintains bare soil, and you need further proof, simply try using mulches on any small portion of your landscape. You should see the difference in a side by side comparison. Mulching will result in healthier soil, robust plants, more flowers, better harvests, less water, less work, and more enjoyment of your outdoor environment. Don’t let old habits drag you down. Mulch that soil or plant something you like. If you don’t cover that soil, Mother Nature will, and you may not like her choices.

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