Mulch is the collective noun for material that evolves into actual soil. It's organic material (leaves! bark! wood-chips!) that gets defined by function: it's used to protect tender plants, and add good stuff to the soil. By etymology, it comes from a word for "soft."
Wood chips are my preferred mulch at the Farm.
It smothers weeds and –– rather faster than you might imagine –– the mulch turns into rich, light soil in a sweet ring around around young fruit trees and asparagus.
The mulch provides extra insulation over the winter, and gives emerging plants a little additional opportunity to stay safe in the chancy spring weather.
Mixed in with the native clay of at the Farm, these wood chips (plus whatever other amendments we can find) are the start of the most important rehabilitation of the farm: the ground.
First, understand that soil is made up of two things: minerals and organic material. Minerals can be in the form of a very fine grind like espresso, which makes for heavy clay soil, or a more coarse grind (sand), all the way up to, of course, solid rock.
The organic component includes leaves, roots, decaying matter plus soil microbes and other busy little creatures under the surface.
There's an ideal mix of minerals and organic material, and it's rare to find it –– especially on a neglected old dairy farm like the Would-Be. The very best soil is rich, airy, full of nutrition and microbial life.
Unlike most of the ground around the Farm.
First line of remedy: a compost pile.
Where else to pile grass clippings and weeds?
I took an actual composing class a few years ago. I'm not an expert, though I am a believer. Long story short: a smart gardener just keeps heaping stuff onto the compost pile, turning it from time to time, and using the finished, good-looking stuff from the bottom of the pile to improve the soil under the plants.
Lucky for my trees, a friend had an enormous pile of chipped tree –– the remains of a big ole maple –– to share for mulching purposes.
Truckload by squatting truckload, we've conveyed chips to the farm over the past couple of years. I used square yards of it to coddle my young trees and the asparagus. A few chips made it into the compost heap, along with mule-loads of grass clippings and eggshells.
Alas, all good things come to an end. Even the remains of a big ole maple.
With chips thin on the ground that autumn, I toted a couple of bales of straw to the farm to bed things down for the winter.
Always an experiment.
I figured straw was a better option than hay.
The terms are used interchangeably by some: after all, both are some sort of dry vegetation that come packaged in bale form and are used in animal husbandry.
But straw (like the plastic ones we now think of first), is generally the hollow, dry, stalk of an oat or wheat plant. The middle of the plant. Hay, meanwhile, is the tops of various grasses and plants –– cut green and allowed to dry. Hay might include clover, timothy, broom, alfalfa, and any manner of meadow plants.
Naturally, hay is full of flower-heads. Any gardener will tell you, the point of flowers is seed. So if you aim to smother weeds (and weeds are just plants growing where you don't want them to grow), you do NOT want to spread flower-heads around.
Ipso dipso facto macto, you'd think straw would be a pretty solid choice to protect plants and not compete with the resources at root...
The wheat straw made a miraculous rise from the cold soil this spring.
Instead of simply blanketing my sleeping plants and giving itself over to the forces of bacteria and mushrooms, the straw followed its own generative agenda.
Full disclosure: It did seem odd to see actual heads of wheat in the bale last fall, but I didn't take the time to investigate.
It's always hurry-up time when the cold weather is coming.
But as a crop, it's not a good match for the Would Be Farm. Or a good mulch. I'm guessing it will continue to pop up around my daffodils and plum trees for years. Probably not enough, however, for even a single loaf of artisanal, hand-ground-grain bread.
I vowed not to be caught chipless again. I've been checking Craig's List a little too regularly. So far, none of the chippers are just right for our needs.
Until I find the appropriate tractor-powered equipment –– somewhere between "wimpy" and "Fargo" sized––I am obliged to hunt chips where I may. The county maintenance guys have not panned out, nor is there a lively tree-service economy nearby.
Sadly, in June, I ended up paying good money for a truck-load of funky, treated commercial stuff from the local wood-pellet operation.
I'd rather have the pizza and make my own dang chips, but as Mumsie used to say, if wishes were horses, and horses could fly, there'd be nothing but horses in the sky...