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Observation vs. highly touted practices

 
Posts: 197
Location: Northern California Mediterranean climate zone 10b
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Hi all,
I've always heard that one of the key "rules" of permaculture is observing before acting.  What do you do when your observations lead you to conclude that a generally accepted practice doesn't work as well as everyone says it should?

I have been trying out a fairly deep mulch in my vegetable plot.  I started with straw, but it has become impossible to get here in the city.  I do have an unlimited supply of free wood chips, tho.  So I switched to that.  Yes, it does keep the soil moist and somewhat loose, and encourage worms, etc.  However, I've also noticed that it provides an almost tailor-made home for slugs.  It's very damp and foggy where I live, and the community garden is overrun with slugs.  Seedlings get eaten as soon as they pop up.  Even fairly big transplants get eaten to the ground in a day or 2.  I've found them in my beans 7 feet off the ground.

I'm moving to a new plot this fall, so I get a clean slate.  I'm thinking of trying out ollas.  I hear the surface drys out and gets dusty, because the moisture is below.  I'm thinking that would discourage slugs.  

Anyone have experience with ollas?
 
gardener
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I've used home-made ollas, as they aren't available locally and I've had mixed results. I certainly agree that getting the water down below the surface is the better way to go. That said, sometimes it seems as if the dirt around the olla gets too dry, they stop working and I have to water around the outside of the pot as will as re-filling it. I find it's very inconsistent in my climate, how long to leave it between refills, so sometimes one ends up empty.

I'm not sure that they will solve your slug problem though, as it sounds as if the slugs are thoroughly out of control. When my slugs were really bad, about 5 years ago, I put down planks of old wood in various places in the garden and then I'd tip them over in the morning and collect the slugs. Since I had ducks who thought slugs were candy, it was a rewarding morning job! The interesting thing is that around the same time, there was an increase in garden snakes, and this has been a more permanent solution. I still occasionally have some problems and have to remember to go hunting with a flashlight *and* check inside my olla pots as slugs think the pots make a good home, but once the problem wasn't so out of control, natural controls seem to keep the slugs in check.

I also have allowed an ornamental pond installed by the former owners to "go native". This has helped the frog population, so they may also be keeping the slugs in check. The other day I spotted two tree frogs 10 ft up in my Scarlet Runner beans napping in the sun.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Jay Angler wrote:

I'm not sure that they will solve your slug problem though, as it sounds as if the slugs are thoroughly out of control.



Yes, they are.  It's awful.  And it's very hard to do anything about it, because it's a community garden.  This year, I tried sheeps wool, I bought a roll of copper netting, I put down sluggo, I tried beer traps.  Still got eaten.  I even found slugs inside my plastic, storage bin "greenhouses" that I start seeds in.  Lots of people there are not tidy, and there are a lot of weeds in the spring.  I saw rats going into one woman's garden plot.  It's a disgusting, overgrown mess.  That's why I was hoping having the surface be dry would discourage them from anting to cross it to get to the plants.  The only thing they never bother is onions.

 
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My philosophy is now “do what works”, though I haven’t resorted to chemicals and probably never will. I tried no-dig gardening for two years but it didn’t work for me: grass ended up growing everywhere in the garden beds, and weeds outcompeted the vegetables. I’ve enjoyed digging into my thick met of weeds and overturning it this Spring.

What’s hard about the holistic approach of permaculture is that all the puzzle pieces seem to needneed to fit to get it to work. Lack an important element- in your case it’s natural predators who eat slugs- and it can become a total failure. In my case it’s not being able to have chickens to eat the weeds and scratch the grass, and no access to resources to make quality potting mix to prepare seedlings beforehand to outcompete the next generation of weeds. Like you I’m also in the city and can’t access the things I need.

My problem is opposite to yours though- slugs can’t survive my garden because it’s so dry that nothing survives. I’m using pine needles as a mulch now, as they keep down weeds and keep the soil moist underneath. In a very dry Mediterranean climate like mine a good mulch is vital for anything to survive as we don’t have any rainfall in summer.

 
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I've actually been watching closely to see what happens with the recent rains + my increasingly deel mulch. We have weather extremes here, so when it's dry, there's little to no visible life in the soil. I haven't had the mulch during the rainy season, and we're only about a week into it. I know snails can be a problem elsewhere on the island. But yeah, I'm convinced natural predators are the ultimate solution. I wonder if you could talk to whoever runs the garden and ask if some habitat spaces could be created?
 
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We've had a huge surge in snails and slugs this year, the year after I invested my hard-earned money in woodchips (can't get them free here). I agree with Priscilla that natural predators are the ultimate solution. AND that this will be the worst year for them, because the woodchips are new and there are lots of places for the snails (they also love the black planting bags we use for new cuttings, and we've greatly expanded those this year so there's just a lot of habitat.) I think what will happen is that this will be a hard year for certain things (still, it's a great year for the trees and mushrooms who love the woodchips) and then things will come back into balance.

In the meantime, I do the same as Jay and put down pieces of old cardboard/landscape plastic to attract them, then in the morning feed them to the chickens and ducks. I've done this for about 2 weeks, and I'm finding fewer and fewer and seeing a lot less damage.
 
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I like the ducks option re snails & slugs, but have also used wood ash as a barrier around plants to keep snails/slugs at bay. The rough dry alkaline composition of ashes deters snails who need damp to 'go' on. I also wonder if some dry compound like lime or chalk wouldn't be a good barrier. We used ash because we have a wood stove and plenty of ash from winter burning. Ash also adds some minerals to the soil but is best used if soil is already more acidic. Its not useful for us now as our soil is very alkaline.

Our area is blessed with a 'bark' plant that takes the outer bark from logged trees and sifts it into different sizes for garden use. One would think that pine bark would be acidic, but its actually alkaline so do check how those wood chips are effecting your soil besides providing moisture barrier and potential soil conditioning.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Tim Kivi wrote:My philosophy is now “do what works”, though I haven’t resorted to chemicals and probably never will. I tried no-dig gardening for two years but it didn’t work for me.



It doesn't work for me, either.  It seems to be fine for perennials, but then, who would dig around them anyway?  For me, I've noticed the soil gets very compacted, even with lots of worms, and the annuals just don't like it.

My problem is opposite to yours though- slugs can’t survive my garden because it’s so dry that nothing survives. I’m using pine needles as a mulch now, as they keep down weeds and keep the soil moist underneath. In a very dry Mediterranean climate like mine a good mulch is vital for anything to survive as we don’t have any rainfall in summer.



I'm in a Med. climate, too!  Where are you?  I'm in San Francisco.  No rain 6-8 months out of the year.  But since it's a community garden, I have access to water.  Where I am, it's very damp and foggy.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Priscilla Stilwell wrote: But yeah, I'm convinced natural predators are the ultimate solution. I wonder if you could talk to whoever runs the garden and ask if some habitat spaces could be created?



We do have lots of "mess" laying around.  There are bazillions of birds there.  And some larger tree/shrubs they like to hang out in.  But we are in the middle of the city, so there are  no snakes or ducks or things like that.  Plenty of gophers, tho
 
Lori Ziemba
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Jo Hunter wrote:

In the meantime, I do the same as Jay and put down pieces of old cardboard/landscape plastic to attract them, then in the morning feed them to the chickens and ducks. I've done this for about 2 weeks, and I'm finding fewer and fewer and seeing a lot less damage.



I have done this in the past, but the problem is it's a community garden, and it's not that close to my house.  So I only get up there twice a week.  I can't check on it every day.  So I don't know if making a home for them is a good idea in that situation.  My thoughts were more along the lines of making it a PITA for them to get to my plot.  I could maybe put a board down in the empty plot next to it, but it would probably get moved.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Jain Anderson wrote:
Our area is blessed with a 'bark' plant that takes the outer bark from logged trees and sifts it into different sizes for garden use. One would think that pine bark would be acidic, but its actually alkaline so do check how those wood chips are effecting your soil besides providing moisture barrier and potential soil conditioning.



Hmmm, you mean get the soil tested?  I've been thinking of doing that, because the stuff I planted in the "new" plot did so much better than the stuff I planted in my "old" plot.  I have no idea what kind of woodchips they are.  They're always different.  We just get a truckload dumped for free whenever we ask.  
 
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I do not think failed practices is a Permicultural thing, but rather a agricultural thing.

For instance, here we cannot do no till even on a large farm scale, our soil just does not tolerate it. So we till, but we minimal till, which is far better than what we used to do. I am not against no-till farming, or refuse to try new farming techniques, it just is not a thing we can do in this region.

The USDA even knows this, and has money available for "failed practices". It does not happen often, but if they grant money for a conservation project (soil, water or air), and that project fails, they have money to rectify that situation. They have that "conservation insurance" because they know, sometimes despite everyone's best work, things go wrong. I have seen it here once in the last 11 years.

We do not have the luxury of having insurance against some things failing, and being reimbursed for it, but we can hedge our bets on some of this stuff. I try different things, but on a small scale, see what works and move forward with incorporating it onto more land. So far swales, road building, and nitrogen fixers have really worked well here, so I have increased the acreage I have in that. For some on here, they can go 100% permaculture and try it, and if they fail...they buy food from their real jobs. I am a full time farmer so if I fail, I would lose a lot, so I cannot go 100% permaculture from the get-go. But neither way is wrong. We hedge our bets...things do go wrong sometimes.
 
Tim Kivi
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Lori Ziemba wrote: I'm in a Med. climate, too!  Where are you?  I'm in San Francisco.  No rain 6-8 months out of the year.  But since it's a community garden, I have access to water.  Where I am, it's very damp and foggy.



I'm in Adelaide, South Australia! We have wonderful rainy winters where spinach, rocket (aragula), coriander (cilantro) and other plants grow by themselves. Then the rain stops and it seems to immediately become summer.

I'm now only into the second week of Spring and already it's like a hot European summer. But today I put my finger underneath the pine mulch and the soil's still moist and damp- I can't believe it! This is the first time I've mulched seriously and the difference with the soil still exposed to the sun is amazing. I don't know how the slug and snail problem will become as I haven't had moist soil in hot weather before.

I remember last year when I put out styrofoam wicking boxes during summer. One box got covered by snails on the outside, and it became about impossible to pull them off- even styrofoam came off attached to them. I suppose styrofoam is very dry for them and they get stuck. You might like to experiment with some styrofoam.
 
Jain Anderson
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Lori Ziemba wrote:

Jo Hunter wrote:

In the meantime, I do the same as Jay and put down pieces of old cardboard/landscape plastic to attract them, then in the morning feed them to the chickens and ducks. I've done this for about 2 weeks, and I'm finding fewer and fewer and seeing a lot less damage.



I have done this in the past, but the problem is it's a community garden, and it's not that close to my house.  So I only get up there twice a week.  I can't check on it every day.  So I don't know if making a home for them is a good idea in that situation.  My thoughts were more along the lines of making it a PITA for them to get to my plot.  I could maybe put a board down in the empty plot next to it, but it would probably get moved.



I bought a cheap soil tester. I 'tested' the tester by sticking the probes into vinegar and baking soda finding it reasonably in line. I also found out that drier climates tend to have more alkaline soils while wetter climates overall have more acidic soils. The tester verified that for us. I've since been adding sulfur to increase the acidity of our soils and our plants are doing better. I also try different varieties of the same plants to find which grows best under the conditions we have.
 
Ruth Stout was famous for gardening naked. Just like this tiny ad:
Heat your home with the twigs that naturally fall of the trees in your yard
http://woodheat.net
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