Dirty Business: Mulching and Hardening Off, Part Deux

Gardening doesn't have to be so hard.

Many moons ago, when Mrs. Butcher first suggested we start gardening, one of the biggest objections that I had was that I didn’t want to spend every day of the Spring and Summer pulling weeds.  I’d done enough of that shit when I was a kid in my mother’s Very Large Garden to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.  She told me that it was possible to garden without spending all that time pulling weeds.  I didn’t believe her, but I also know that the only way to disprove a system is to adopt it.  So, because she knew I needed to be led very gently into this venture, we just did a few tomatoes and peppers the first year.  I was so amazed at the result that the next year I agreed to have a much larger garden…and the rest is history.

The way that we were able to enjoy our garden that first year, rather than see it as a never-ending drudgery of weed-pulling, was through the use of grass mulch.  Mulching in this way does three things:  it keeps weeds down to the point of being manageable, it keeps the ground cool and moist, and—as the grass breaks down—it fertilizes the soil.  We’ve found that the ideal ratio of grass-to-garden is about 80:20.  In other words, if your garden takes up roughly 20% of your available land, then having the other 80% available for mowing will give you enough mulch to work with throughout the growing season.  Now, the plot of our current home is incredibly small, and it’s built on a hill, so we don’t have nearly enough grass space to cover all of the garden beds—which means that I also mow the lawns for our neighbors on either side of the house to get what we need.  It’s a nice, symbiotic, relationship.  They don’t have to mow their lawns, and we get the right amount of grass mulch.  We also share some of our bounty with them each year as an additional thank you, just like we do with the folks down the street who provide us with their horse manure.

Even with 80:20 ratio however, it’s still not enough to cover everything with the appropriate depth in one shot—especially now that we’ve added the strawberry bed.  But we get enough to be able to cover everything in a four-week rotation so that the mulch doesn’t pile up too much, or break down too fast, before we refresh it.  The thickness of the mulch is very important.  We’ve found that an ideal depth is about 1 ½ inches, which is thick enough to keep the weeds down and the ground cool and moist, but not so thick that it starts to mold.  Our first mowing was done on May 1st and I was able to cover the asparagus and strawberry beds.

The next mowing from the following week was enough to cover the onions and garlic as you can see in the header image.

Does this keep 100% of the weeds down?  No, it does not.  There is still some weed pulling that needs to be done, but it very manageable—no more than probably 15 minutes worth a week as long as I stay on top of it.  Trust me, that is a huge improvement over what I was doing as a kid, watching my summers pass me by while getting sunburned on my knees in my mother’s garden.

It’s also time to work on the second phase of hardening off our new plants, which is doing the first transplant into larger pots.  All of the seeds were started in very small pots (or even smaller plastic cups with little holes drilled in the bottom), and now they are large enough that they need to be moved into larger pots before they get too root bound and stop growing.  I’ve got two trays to work with:  one tray of eggplants and another tray of peppers.  The pictures here will show the pepper plants because the difference between before and after is more noticeable.

I’ve got a tray filled with jalapeños, green chiles, bells and sweet red peppers (called Escamillo after the male lead in the opera “Carmen”).  When I’m done, I’ll have two trays of peppers.

These little pots are 3 ¼” tall and 2” square.  I’ll be transplanting the peppers into pots that are 5” tall and 3” square which will give them plenty of room before the final transplanting into the garden at the end of May.  The process for transplanting is pretty basic but does require some care as these plants are still quite fragile.  The first thing I do is trim off the starter leaves from the stem.  These leaves will eventually die off anyway as more of the secondary and adult leaves grow, so by trimming them now I’m achieving two goals:  the stimulation of more leaf growth and I have more stem to bury in the new soil.  It’s important to use scissors or some other clipping instrument—rather than just using my fingers to pinch them off—because I don’t want to risk stripping the outside of the stem off the plant as I’m removing the starter leaves.

Next, I give the pots a few good squeezes to loosen the soil away from the sides of the pot.  It’s important, before transplanting, that I make sure the soil in these pots is still fairly moist, but not completely soaked.  Peppers, generally speaking, like drier soils, but if the soil is too dry when transplanting, then it will just completely fall apart and expose the plant roots which will make it very difficult to recover and generally results in a dead plant.  So, I want the soil to be moist enough to hold together when I’m doing this.  Sometimes, depending on how well developed the root systems are, I may also need to stick a thin instrument, like a table knife, down the sides of the pot and scrape inward along the bottom of the pot a bit to break the roots free from the bottom of the pot.

Then I turn the pot over, cupping the plant between two fingers, and give the bottom of the pot a couple of sharp raps to pop the soil loose.  Next, I turn the plant over and cup the soil in my fingers while lowering it into the larger pot.  Then I start filling the pot with fresh soil all the way up to the leaf line.  I usually have to gently lean the plant this way and that so it doesn’t get buried under the soil as I’m adding it to the pot.  As I’m adding the soil, I give the pot a good shake to even everything out. 

Burying the plant all the way to the leaf line accomplishes two things:  it allows for more root hairs to sprout out of the now-buried stem, and it gives the plant a solid foundation for strength in its growth.  This is particularly helpful if your plants are a bit on the leggy side and are in danger of falling over and/or snapping at the stem.

By the time it’s all over, I went from two trays of eggplants and peppers to four trays.  Then I poured about an inch of water in the bottom of the trays so it can be absorbed into the soil from the root side.  This allows the soil itself to firm up evenly within the pot.  If I had poured the water over the top, the soil would have moved all over the place and created weak spots which wouldn’t give the plant the sturdy foundation it will need for the final stage of hardening off.

Back under the grow lights they go.  I won’t run the fan for a few days so they can get settled in their new homes and so they can grow enough to actually make using the fan worthwhile.

Finally, I pulled the domes off of the strawberry plants a couple of weeks ago because they were getting too tall for the domes. I’ve been pinching off blossoms roughly once a week to encourage root and plant growth.  So far so good.

About butcherbakertoiletrymaker 575 Articles
When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


      • …I think camus said something like “the purpose of a writer is to stop civilization from destroying itself”…& tips on how to grow stuff you can actually eat seems like it would be somewhere at the opposite end of the spectrum from the collapse of civilization…or at the very least a handy thing to know if that should happen all the same…& I think it was steven king who said that amateurs wait for inspiration while the rest of us get up & go to work…or something along those lines

        …so…if not a role model then perhaps an inspiration?

  1. I wish my wife would go for this method of mulching, we bought five yards of expensive mulch & with delivery that was around $300!  With her though it is not always about what works but what looks good so dead grass is a non-starter.  Did require a shitload of weeding too since we waited about a month too long to mulch.  Your peppers look good though, my daughter killed off my first batch when she didn’t water while we were away but my cayennes are doing well & have a few smaller ones that have been slow to get going.  I’m now looking for a watering system for the greenhouse when we are away if you have any experience or ideas.  I hooked up a sink and two hose outlets in there so can just use a dripper system but I need a timer or master controller that is either timer or wifi enabled.  Amazon has a bunch of options but reading reviews seems like most are cheap Chinese products that won’t last very long.

    • …I helped someone set up a system like I think you’re describing that used one of these


      …which we hooked up to the tap via a sort of splitter arrangement that meant the tap could be left open & each of about four outlets from that could be independently opened & closed…so you could run a hosepipe off one & fill a watering can from another while one was available for the timer…something like this


      …then there were two “circuits” that could be programmed from the timer independently with something like six on/off sequences (you don’t have to use them all but any day that’s “on” all the timed on/off sequences run…it’s not clever enough to do different timings on different days) that could be set to run (or not) on any or all days of the week

      …their system fed to feeder pipes on each circuit to get the water down the system & from there to a different set of thinnner pipes that have holes spaced in them to drip water into the soil…& those can have yet thinner pipe jabbed into them where you want with not-quite-sprinkler heads you can spike into the ground & twist open/closed to adjust the amount of flow when the system is on

      …it was a bit of a production getting the whole thing rigged up the first time but aside from occasional repairs if something chews a bit of pipe somewhere (or puts a fork through it or whatever) it’s been pretty successful & minimal effort since…when the weather turns cold they just detach the timer & tie a bag over the exposed pipe ends & leave it all out over the winter so it’s just the timer that needs to be put out again the next year (along with a check & those repairs if the system isn’t holding pressure) but if it’s just for a greenhouse you may find it’s less hassle the first time & worth packing the whole lot away except for when it’s useful?

      …& it might make sense to get a “smarter” timer but I can’t say as I’ve played with those…the digital kind like the one in the link is a distinct improvement over the mechanical sort with dials to twist though…at least in my somewhat limited experience?

      • That looks pretty cool, it sent me down the right rabbit hole at least.  I saw some with 8 zones which seems like we may have to go that route to be able to water everything that requires different amounts of water and not a one size fits all.

        • …yeah…I can see how that might be the sort of thing that could make sense in a greenhouse…but I figure that’s going to be more expensive in line with being more advanced

          …the stuff I helped get set up was for watering an outdoor garden but broadly the dripper pipe kind of set a baseline & the little adjustable heads let you put more water in by specific plants…& those had a fair degree of adjustment from the kind of slow seaping level that the “base” pipes provide to a pretty constant stream like a tiny watering can or a really low pressure sprinkler about the size of your little finger…so you could kind of achieve zones in the sense of some bits getting more water in the same time that others got less…but not to the extent you could with a whole different watering regime for one set of plants vs another if they each had their own “circuit” tuned to a different set of timings/rate of flow/whatever?

      • We do a compost/mulch blend that has some steer manure.  It breaks down over the year and you start over again.  The one we use breaks down enough you don’t need to turn it much.

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