Week Three-Irrigation and Mulching

May 16, 2014

Author: Ian Whittington

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

My first bean sprout

My first bean sprout

Three weeks in and it finally happened: I got sprouts!

When I came back this past Monday I was pleasantly surprised to find one bean and three cucumber sprouts. A few days later even more bean plants had shot up.  But alas something else came up.


A lot of weeds.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This week we learned about irrigation and mulching. From volunteering at Common Good City Farm (CGCF) I wasn’t completely ignorant on setting up irrigation systems. The week before I helped lay a few lines of drip irrigation tape over some new potato beds. Was I an expert by this week’s class? Absolutely not. But when Joe started talking about laying out irrigation tape I couldn’t help but think, “hey, I actually sort of know what you’re talking about!”

It turns out the process with NFI was just a little more involved. You see CGCF has a lot more beds dedicated to food production for the surrounding community. Consequently they have a larger, more permanent irrigation system. When I helped CGCF the previous week it was more to address the fact that we had planted our potato beds in opposition to how the irrigation system was already set up. That and we just needed to connect some pieces of tape to existing lines. At NFI we were pretty much setting up the entire irrigation system from scratch.

In principal setting up the irrigation system is quite simple. All we have to do is lay out the irrigation tape in a configuration that touches every bed and hook everything up. In practice, however, there were complications. Like at CGCF, one obstacle was the fact that the irrigation tapes were in various lengths. This meant that sometimes a line of tape would be either too short or too long in relation to a bed.

Another issue was that the holes poked into a line of tape to set up connections with another line didn’t always match how the beds were configured. This meant we had to plug holes and make new ones, a task I found to be frustrating until I figured out the proper tools to use.

By the end of class, well, we didn’t have the irrigation system set up. In the end it seemed there were too many things Joe and his assistants had to figure out, not to mention the fact that new pieces of tape were still on their way. The coming rain might have also been another factor.

My bale of straw for mulching and some laid out irrigation tape

My bale of straw for mulching and some laid out irrigation tape

Besides learning about irrigation we also talked about mulch. Mulch is important because it helps keep soil healthy. It does this by:

  • Keeping soil from drying out
  • Preventing erosion
  • Moderating soil temperature
  • Reducing soil compaction
  • Adding nutrients and organic matter


This in turn maintains an environment that supports the microbes that will help our plants grow to be big and healthy.

If you’re like me your first thought when it comes to mulch goes to ground up woodchips. That, however, is just one type.

Mulch can also come in the form of:

  • Rocks
  • Newspaper
  • Grass (living mulch)
  • Straw
  • Plastic
  • Leaf mold/compost


For our purposes our class will be using straw. One important thing to remember is that straw is not  hay. While straw is mainly made up of hollow plant stems, hay still contains seeds.  If you use hay, be prepared to do a lot more weeding.

Speaking of weeds, another reason mulch is so important is because it helps suppress weed growth. A few years back my next-door neighbor had some extra mulch he let us have. We were able to get enough to cover most of my backyard but not quite enough to cover one last section. For the past few years I’ve had to spend part of spring battling the weeds that came through. The part with mulch has had spotty weed coverage at best. The part that wasn’t mulched? Well, its the bane of my existence.

My bed covered with straw for mulch

My bed covered with straw for mulch

Although I had some weeds last week, this week they seemed to be more widespread. Some of the shoots I’m finding are coming from roots I missed when I first prepared my plot. But the vast majority, despite looking like grass, seems to be coming from small rock like seeds.

I’ve noticed other plots seem to be having the same problem. The uniformity in the weed sprouts and the seeds I’m finding attached to their roots make me wonder where they came from. Could they have come from the compost? Perhaps they hibernated in our plots over winter. Regardless I’ll have to watch for them every time I visit my plot. I’m hopeful the straw will make it less of a problem, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be any less vigilant when it comes to pulling weeds.

I’m sure I’ll be doing that a lot for the next few months.

Back to Top