The Incredible Benefits of Mulch

When we began our incremental move back in December, we had a few days each visit to accomplish what we could. My number-one priority was gathering leaves from beneath the maple trees to mulch an area for the garden. My husband and I raked 10 heaping trailer loads and spread an 8-inch layer over 1,800 square-feet of ungrazed pasture.

The soil beneath was red clay– intimidating to tame for a first-year garden. Plus it had long been growing grass with no manure return. I worried about being able to add enough organic material to sustain our vegetables.

Several weeks later I spread several barrels of compost and re-covered the earth with leaf mulch. Then in March, we dug our first potato trench, and I was amazed at the improvement, already. The soil had darkened and become more granular. The smell was lovely and the shovel sliced in easily. The grass and weeds beneath the mulch had died off and broken down into the earth.

In April, we mowed the field and spent a day raking grass clippings to add another layer of mulch, as the leaves had broken down perfectly.

Now, in only six months of mulching and doing little else, we’ve converted inert clay to rich garden soil. The areas that lack mulch are rather like concrete, since exposed clay essentially bakes into bricks.

We’ve seen mulch in action. Here’s why it works so well:

Mulch protects the worms and microorganisms and allows them to do their work of breaking down organic material. Soon the bottom layer is converted to rich humus.

It prevents evaporation, allowing water to nourish the plants rather than vanish into the air. This makes mulch an essential element of water conservation in this time of drought on the West Coast.

Mulch also retains heat in the winter months, protecting roots from frost, and cools the soil in summer. Especially important for plants like tomatoes, which are susceptible to fungal problems, mulch prevents splash-back when watering (don’t water the leaves!).

Finally, mulch is the best possible way to suppress weeds. With no chemical sprays– even organic sprays can do damage to the soil and surrounding plants– nutrient-hungry weeds are simply smothered and turned into compost.

While we used leaves and grass clippings, there are a multitude of options for how to mulch.

Wood chips are a huge reservoir of nitrogen, an asset to the soil as it breaks down. The process takes longer than other mulches, which can be a positive or a negative.

Bark dust and straw are great options, but keep in mind that hay– as opposed to straw– can contain grass and weed seeds that may add to your troubles.

Pine needles, as well as some leaves, have a high acid content, so check your pH before applying, or use them only on acid-happy plants like blueberries. Lime can be applied to raise the pH if necessary.

Plain brown cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper– the ink is soy-based– topped with bark or other mulch is especially effective against weeds. Simply cut holes where vegetables or flowers will be planted.

At the end of the season, mulch can simply be tilled in to decompose and return its nutrients to the soil, or new layers of compost and mulch can be added on top for “lasagna gardening,” a popular no-till method.

For more information on lasagna gardening, read:

Building Soil with Lasagna Gardening at Homestead Honey

Lasagna Gardening at Learning and Yearning

3 Great No-Till Gardening Methods at Northern Homestead

Lasagna Gardening at New England Permaculture Homestead

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The Garden: Winter Surprises

A rather magical part of our new home is that it was clearly once a well kept, well loved place with nurtured gardens. The overgrown brambles and fallen trees add some to the mystique as spring bulbs nod through. Grape hyacinth lines a path along the creek, and new clusters of its thin leaves promise more to come.

I had seen a small patch of this bulb above emerging in January and wondered if it might be irises or lilies. On this trip, more than 100 square feet of the angular green leaves lined the top edge of the creek bank, and a neighbor gave me the exciting news that they are all tiger lilies– thousands of them!

Daffodils opened on both sides of the driveway at the end of the bridge, one cluster beside a budding rhododendron and another shrouded in weeds and brambles. I spent an hour cutting out the latter group, pushing the blackberries back to the slope toward the creek. In their wake, I discovered many more lilies, more daffodils, lamb’s ear, and other plants just appearing.

In addition to the delightful surprise of long-forgotten bulbs, I was thrilled to see my own small garden taking shape as the garlic and shallots continued to push through the mulch.

While the spring will be a time of transition and continued trips up as the move stretches out over months of packing and hauling, and as the weeks in which I’d like to be starting seed and planting peas pass,  I’m satisfied to know that already a garden is thriving at our new home.

Starting the Garden

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Since we won’t be on the property full-time until spring, it’s critical that we time the garden prep right on our visits in order to have a productive summer. To that end, we have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that we already have a triumphant patch of garlic and shallots. My goal for our trip up near the first of the year was to prepare, plant, and mulch garlic to overwinter. This trip up I was thrilled to pull back the leaf mulch and discover two-inch green sprouts!

The bad news is that the soil– particularly in the sunny pasture area where our vegetable garden will be located– is solid red clay, full of rocks, and heavy grass that hasn’t had livestock on it in what I would guess is decades. Fortunately the land is slightly sloped, so I hope this encourages decent drainage. This photo is from up the mountain, but it’s basically what we’re working with:

So we will be importing as much organic matter as we can lay our hands on. The first order of business was cleaning up the leaves from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees, which greatly improved the neatness of the yard. With our toddler on my back or playing in the leaves, my husband and I raked and hauled a dozen or so trailer-loads of leaf litter to the garden site between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

We spread the mulch across the grass, eight or so inches thick. In several weeks, we’ll till them into the soil along with as much compost as possible, then mulch again. In the future, my intention is to avoid tilling at all, but I think the clay would remain a solid, impermeable barrier this year without significant amendment.

In the mean time, I’ll get some lettuce seed and other greens started here to transplant in the early spring. I hope that with enough coordination, effort and soil improvement, we’ll manage to yield a respectable harvest this first year.

Our Corner of the Earth

This was the first time since beginning this transition that returning to California felt like leaving home. Maybe it’s because this time we moved all of our treasured and most frequently used books: cookbooks, field guides, reference books on animal husbandry and gardening. Maybe it’s because the crisp, piney mountain air had begun to do its work on our lungs. Or perhaps the work we did at the property this trip began to truly make it our own.

The little house is arranged with enough furniture to fulfill most of our basic needs; enough so that we are questioning what we may simply leave behind. I still need my desk. We have yet to convert the range to propane, so we were still cooking on the induction burner and smoker. But the essentials, we found, more than supported us. The bare property, I think, with its spectacular scenery and rich potential, could keep us happy with little else.

The weather was temperate all week, with a few downpours of quenching rain. With my daughter on my back or playing in the grass, my husband and I raked more than a dozen trailer-loads of leaf mulch from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees and hauled the piles to the area we selected for our garden: a spread of field between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

As we sweated in the chilly air, we both felt incredulous that this is where we would toil and grow. The beauty was overwhelming.

My husband used the chainsaw to cut a fallen tree into five-foot lengths and hauled them down the mountain while I dragged and rolled down what I could. The work was hard, and only a glimpse at what we can anticipate. We left the property feeling satisfied that we’d accomplished much from our list, but we have a long, challenging journey ahead of us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.