Backwards Gardening

     What came first, the lettuce plant or the straw?  Usually, a layer of straw mulch is put around plants once they have established themselves in a bed to provide weed suppression and water retainment.  Using a semi-“do-nothing” approach, however, this straw appeared in my lettuce bed long before a single seedling ever emerged.

     Now, with the true “do-nothing” approach, seeds are simply tossed on top of the dirt where they are to grow, then covered with a layer of straw.  I compromised a little, though, by planting my seeds in little furrows and covering them lightly with dirt first.  Then, once the rows were planted, I covered the entire bed with straw hay.  As I looked back at the covered bed, however,  I couldn’t help but wonder if there would be enough light for the tiny lettuce seeds to germinate.  I was incredibly tempted to remove the layer of straw mulch –at least until I could see the first seedlings emerge.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I decided it was the perfect opportunity for the “do-nothing” method to be put to the test.  

     Day after day, I eagerly watched the bed for signs of life making their way through the dirt and straw.  I waited and waited, and nothing was happening.  So, I took the approach of an elderly gardening friend, who tells every plant and seed she sows, “If you grow you grow, if you don’t you don’t”, and I decided to let them be.

     Then it happened — a little later than it normally would have had there not been straw in the way — little green lettuce seedlings began to appear.  I could see them underneath the hay, stretching towards the sunlight.  They were a little leggy, which was to be expected, I suppose, since they still hadn’t broken the surface of the hay, but they were definately there!  Once again, I was tempted to pull back  the straw  — I was nervous that they would grow too spindly and simply flop over once they made it past  the straw ceiling.  But I thought back to what I had learned from hatching chickens:   if any help is offered during their struggle to break out of their shells, it is likely that, after they emerge, they will die — they need that struggle to make them strong enough to face the outside world.  So, I resisted the temptation to give the seedlings a little of my help, too, and left them to continue to fight their way through the dry hay barrier in the hopes that they’d, too, emerge a little more stealthy from the battle.  And they did!  To my great surprise, once the tiny leaves made their way past the straw, they began growing in the same manner they would have had there been no straw at all.  Having patience definately paid off!

      I am now seeing, first-hand, the benefits and wisdom behind the “do-nothing” method.  Besides being able to hold water for a longer time in the ground, thereby reducing plant transpiration, and providing organic compost to replenish lost nutrients that are taken up by each particular plant,   it also allows for a perfect, form-fitting mulch system to be developed around the plant’s root system — something that is not easy to achieve when laying straw after the plants have already been established;  it makes the plant less susceptible to bugs and rot; and it allows for easier harvest.   It’s truly made a believer out of me, and, even though it seems a little backwards, it will be the method of choice for most of my vegetable gardening from here on out.

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