A few weeks ago in Billings, at a municipal officials workshop, while eating lunch and eavesdropping on a conversation between the mayor of Malta and the mayor of Saco, I heard her ask him about his hay mulch garden. I overheard the words “no weeds.” I quit eavesdropping and scooted into the conversation. “Tell me everything you know,” I said. And that is how Howard Pippin, mayor of Saco, became my garden mentor.
When I moved back to Montana after 25 years in the Pacific Northwest, I bought my dad’s house on the edge of Harlem. My dad had moved to town but never had given up farming. He created a perfect lawn and a garden which fed half the neighborhood. But by the time I could settle into my new home, the lawn and the garden had endured some years of neglect. In this country it doesn’t take long for weeds to dominate. The first couple years I hired a man to mow the lawn, by that time more weeds than grass. In all innocence I planted a garden and condemned myself to hours bent over pulling weeds and hauling hoses.
By fall I was ready to give up gardening altogether. My back ached. Every muscle screamed. My scraggly garden yield was not worth it. And I also felt conflicted about both lawn and garden. In this semi-arid country I do not think it is right to use water to grow grass which you must water, then mow, then water, and then mow ad infinitum. I appreciate the beauty of a lawn but I cringe at the use of water. No other semi-desert cultures grow lawns. The people native to this land did not peer out of the teepee in the morning, stretch, yawn and say, “Think I’ll mow the grass today.”
So, I hauled in bark chips and covered the entire lawn. It was magical. No more grass to mow. No more nasty weeds to yank up. My water bill plummeted. In the former lawn I planted shrubs, trees and flowers galore. My yard is on the way to becoming a path-lined paradise. Every third year I have to put down more bark because the wind blows in new soil and then deposits more weed seeds. But meanwhile, there are few weeds to pull and I need only water the shrubs and flowers.
Once I had eliminated my lawn, I turned my attention to the garden area. I covered it with straw in the fall and then tilled it in the spring. I was dismayed. My newly enriched soil now grew an even more bountiful crop of weeds. So I planted a cover crop of barley to crowd them out. My barley crop was beautiful, but how do you harvest barley in a garden bed? So I tilled the barley under leaving a dismally bare garden patch, except for weeds which still needed to be hacked out. But my fruit trees and shrubs were filling out and being fruitful.
That’s why Howard’s words about his weed-free garden fell on my ears like rain following drought. He told me I could cover my entire garden area with old rotten hay. It would create a nutricious mulch. I could then plant directly into the mulch and never again have to plow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I could garden with little labor. No weeds.
Howard’s mentor, Ruth Stout, wrote a witty book “for the aging, the busy and the indolent” (the shoe fits my foot) called “Gardening Without Work.” I immediately ordered a copy. Next week I will drive to Saco to visit Howard. I want to see with my own eyes how he uses Ruth Stout’s methods to garden in our dry land.
Meanwhile, yesterday a neighbor farmer, Karl Humphreys, angled his tractor down my alley and lifted a bale of spoiled hay over the fence into my yard. With the help of a couple friends I soon had potatoes and onions planted and covered with a deep mulch of loose moldy hay in a portion of my garden. I don’t expect a large yield this year. I don’t want large. I want a few good things without battling weeds. Today I planted the next section with a variety of seeds and covered them with more mulch.
When I started my experiments with a bark chip lawn, it caused a bit of talk and some outright criticism. Folks wondered, “What is that woman up to?” Now my neighbors stop me in the post office or on the street and say, “I like what you are doing.” “I can finally see what you are trying to create with your yard. I wish I could do that.” And “Your yard is like a house of many rooms, each one different. It’s so beautiful.”
The hay mulch in my garden may not look like much right now, but just wait until fall when I can reach down through it and pull up potatoes and onions and carrots for dinner.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)