Use hay to improve your soil!
You may think of hay as that sweet-smelling stuff that fills the lofts of country barns with something soft for the young to bounce on. Perhaps in your youth hay came down a chute in the barn and you fed it to your pony, hoping he wouldn't nip your fingers. Or is hay to you that beautiful fragrance over New England meadows in early summer, when it lies freshly cut, neat and combed?
Whatever your previous concept, one thing is sure: If you are looking for a guaranteed low-labor method of soil improvement, hay can be one of your best allies. A thick layer of ordinary field hay will actually prepare any area for planting, literally transforming a piece of nubby ground into soft soil ready for growing plants. And no digging and sod removal are involved. All this will occur in eight months to a year, depending on how tough the field is.
Suppose you have a desire to plant flowering shrubs, or a hedge of the self-sufficient multi flora roses at the wilderness edges of your place, or where the area is thick with weeds, field grass, heavy turf. Perhaps the very thought of plunging a spade into such matted earth fills you with dismay. A disc harrow and tractor seem needed to penetrate. Suppose you would like to set out some fruit trees, but the place for each tree must be dug and prepared at least 3 feet in diameter, which is a prospect to give you pause. But with the hay treatment it will be easy to prepare these or any areas you wish to plant.
How To Plant Sans Spade
First you decide on the shape and size of area you'd like to plant next year, and then pile hay 2 feet deep on that area. The grass or weed growth beneath is deprived of air and light. No matter how tough its fiber, it soon dies and rots. Very likely you have noticed that when heavy leaves are left on a lawn, a brown spot develops beneath, so it is easy to understand how the grass under deep hay could completely disintegrate in a number of months.
Having piled on the hay, forget the whole thing till next year.
When you remove the hay, the area will be free of grass and ready to work. Roots dead and rotting under the soil surface are left to fertilize and add organic matter to the soil in your new planting. You should not have to do any over-all spading of the area. Simply trowel out enough soil to make a hole as large as each new plant requires. Depending on what you are planting you conceivably may want to remove the few unrotted roots encountered. In any case, run your spade around the edge of the area to sever live roots coming from the surrounding sod or scrub growth and thus prevent them from encroaching.
Where To Find Hay
How does one come by hay? There are many possibilities. Do you live near a parkway or in a semi-rural area where the edges of the road are mowed? If so, the workmen are usually delighted to deliver the raked piles to your place—saves them carting them to the dump. Have you a meadow that is cut annually? Or do you know anyone who has? Just ordinary meadow grass is fine for this purpose. And of course you can buy "spoiled hay." There is nothing sloppy or unattractive about spoiled hay. It is as dry and pleasant to handle as fresh cut material. It has merely been caught in the rain so that it cannot be fed to livestock. Farmers bale it for organic gardeners to use as mulch. It costs $5 a bale delivered in our vicinity, and $2 if we go and get it. Three bales would prepare an area 12 by 12 feet for planting. You take the bale apart and fluff up the hay as you spread it.
After you have laid hay thick on the chosen area, bacterial action begins in the soil beneath. As the hay decomposes it helps enrich the soil. Earthworms gather in abundance and thus aid in transforming both grass roots and hay into organic matter. Nitrogen in the soil is used up by the bacteria that decompose organic matter. Subsequently the nitrogen is returned to the soil many fold, but in the meantime supplementary nitrogen feeding may be indicated. A sprinkling of lime over the earth before you lay on the hay is not a must but does keep the material sweet.
You can prepare for planting and achieve the same end with compost topped by hay. Spread the area with layers of grass clippings, dead weeds, straw, pine needles, corn stalks, weeds or any organic matter that you would put in the compost pile.
You actually are building a compost pile "on the spot," on the place you are preparing. Then neatly cover this material with a layer of hay, or topsoil if you have no hay. The soil is not essential but looks neater. Add lime in the layers as you arrange them. When you plant the following year the hay or compost which has not completely rotted can easily be removed and used elsewhere as a mulch.
Salt hay is all right as a mulch but since it won't rot it doesn't contribute the same food value that fresh cut hay or other organic materials do. All winter under the sleet and snow as Christmas passes into Ground Hog Day, decomposition is taking place under your hay. Then come spring, when the snow melts away and the land dries up a bit, rake away the hay and there is the miracle of fresh new black earth. I must say we greatly prefer this rather indirect approach to digging up a new area for planting—and what could be simpler?