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Thoughts on mulch in the semi-arid high desert  RSS feed

 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Recently made an observation on my property that I felt was worth sharing.

It may be old hat to some. For me, little things like this become revelations.

I live at altitude in semi-arid north central New Mexico, where we get a fair share of winter precipitation. This is on account of the surrounding mountain ranges, including the southern rockies to the east, and large swings in temperature. When clouds move in after a warm day, it can act like the lid of a jar which traps in heat and moisture.

The days are typically above freezing throughout the winter due to the strong UV, and so if there is snow, there is usually snow melt every day.

One of the first things I did for the property along permaculture lines was to cover the bare clay-loam soil with a thick, course mulch that I had access to in quantity for free. I happened to lay most of this down in the spring when the soil was soft with winter snowmelt. "Mud Season", for those in the know. This no doubt helped to motivate me, as it's much more pleasant to walk on when there's a layer of wood scraps on it. Luckily my timing had the effect of trapping in all that winter moisture, which then remained moist into mid May.

Now we are in winter again, and I'm discovering the flip side of this action.

With each day some more snow melts. But in December, the amount that melts each day over the wood mulch is small. This small amount of water then bleeds across the exposed dry mulch and is summarily offered up to the dry winter sky in sacrifice. Since it is never warm enough to melt the snow in quantity over the mulch, this micro-cycle repeats, and the snow piles shrink while the soil under the mulch remains dry. Not exactly what you want to observe when your area gets only 13 inches per year on average.

Near the trees, where I have placed roundish stones, there is a completely different story. Most of my trees received leaves and honey locust pods as a mulch, with stones placed on top around the drip line. I like the way the pods and leaf elements lie flat, and shed water readily right up until their protective coatings break down. Because of the sleight mass, they don't absorb water like a sponge the way the chunkier, drier, woodier material in other areas does, so the water that travels through becomes immediately stored and protected beneath and within the mat, which has good contact with the soil. I've consistently found the moistest soil under a blanket of leaves for this reason. It serves as a semi-permeable bio-plastic.

Of course, the stones are serving an important role too. They accelerate the melting of the snow quickly enough to cause the accumulated moisture to slide down into the mat. Rounded stones are better at this for many reasons. They present more potential angles to the sun for heat capture, just as a protruding shoulder or nose becomes a prime target for sunburn. Flat stones on the other hand have less mass and almost never get as hot. Unless they are wedged into the ground like a spade, flat stones also tend to keep new moisture from reaching the soil directly under them. Aided by round stones, the mulch underneath shows signs of continued breakdown with each freeze-thaw cycle throughout the winter. Compared with this, the other areas of the land appear biologically inert at the soil surface. While these other areas are not supporting specific plants at the moment, it is nonetheless a shame that the potential for water capture there is falling so short.

Of course, it makes perfect sense now to revisit my mulching strategy.

Thinner, flatter, and waxier material is perfect here. It's sheeting format permits heat transfer from the stones directly through the mat to the soil surface, keeping the biological engines going at half pace throughout the winter, all the while collecting precious water in preparation for the typically rainless spring. Small stones or gravel lightly laid over the organic matter here and there helps hold it down, melt snow, warm the soil, and also serves as feet for much larger stones. This limits compaction from the large stones, creates habitat, and gives the big stones a better chance to stay above the snow level during heavier accumulations, so they can continue to accelerate the melting. If the mulch needs to be replenished, small leaves can be dropped right over the stones. They will eventually find their way down below and between them. Luckily, honey locust, siberian elm, and Russian olive trees that are prevalent here all shed small pinnate leaves in great quantity. Curled locust seed pods ladened with nitrogen are thrown where they will fit and are eventually flattened into the mat by passing feet. Honey locust seedlings appear all over in spring. It's nice to see them, even though the vast majority of them don't stay around very long. They certainly can't hurt.

Such a simple observation, but leading to a much clearer focus and a substantially different course of action for my particular location.

It's a challenging place, but it's talking to me, and I like to listen.


























 
Chris McLeod
Posts: 52
Location: Cherokee, Victoria, Australia
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Hi!

Mulch is great, but what you are finding is that the top layer of the mulch is exposed to the UV from the sun and has formed a hard outer layer. I think what happens is that a waxy enzyme forms to bind the mulch together and the UV bakes the outer surface. Also mycellium threads start to form deeper in the mulch. All of these actions prevent the mulch from running away (erosion) with the first big rain storm.

The bonus is that you are starting to create soil and retain long term moisture and this is an early stage with mulch.

What happens next is that pioneering plants get established in the mulch (some may call these plants weeds, but pioneering is a better name). Let these grow and then when they die off, cut them back and drop them onto the surface of the mulch.

Your soil will really start to get going now.

You will notice that the mulch will start absorbing water at this stage, rather than the water rolling off the top. You could at this stage add a light coating of compost, mulch or rock dust to the surface and this should help with water absorption and plant growth.

If you break up the mulch then you will break up all of the mycellium strands which are converting that mulch into top soil (which will eventually look black and loamy / sandy).

By about 2 years you should have some good herbage growing - hopefully there are enough wild plants in your area to seed up the mulch.

You can keep adding mulch to the soil, but at this point chuck it around thinly, otherwise you may smother the processes going on.

You can even spread compost, rock dust or manure around too - just not too thick - unless you have bare patches of clay or rock.

Regards

Chris
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Thanks for your thoughts Chris

My problem is that I'm not getting _any_ soil building processes going under the shredded woody mulch.
That area also happens to have greater exposure to wind.

The soil is just not getting the snowmelt under the wood, and the soil still looks like the original clay there and feels like it too.
It was airy enough apparently to allow the desicating spring winds to dry it out through the mulch. Either that, or the wood wicks all the moisture out to the surface and is now working to keep everything underneath it dry.

No signs of any mycelium under it at all.
But there are signs of mycelium under the areas where I mulched with leaves.
So, I think it will be fine to remove the woody stuff in spring (or maybe just after the snow melts some more) and replace it with something else, without disrupting any processes.
At the current rate, it would take forever to build soil with that mulch.

I am entertaining trying some living mulches.
What is your general location?
Do you have any experience with the following?

Birdsfoot Trefoil
Birdsfoot Fenugreek
Strawberry Clover
Black Medick
white clover
Astragalus exscapus
freckled milkvetch
Stinking Milkvetch
Desert milkvetch
Ashen milkvetch
Painted Milkvetch
Melilotus
Vicia Cracca
Lathyrus vernus
wild lupine



Chris McLeod wrote:Hi!

Mulch is great, but what you are finding is that the top layer of the mulch is exposed to the UV from the sun and has formed a hard outer layer. I think what happens is that a waxy enzyme forms to bind the mulch together and the UV bakes the outer surface. Also mycellium threads start to form deeper in the mulch. All of these actions prevent the mulch from running away (erosion) with the first big rain storm.

The bonus is that you are starting to create soil and retain long term moisture and this is an early stage with mulch.

What happens next is that pioneering plants get established in the mulch (some may call these plants weeds, but pioneering is a better name). Let these grow and then when they die off, cut them back and drop them onto the surface of the mulch.

Your soil will really start to get going now.

 
Michael Newby
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Posts: 697
Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
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Stones are great tools when used properly in the landscape. Windbreaks, thermal batteries, solar collectors, all kinds of things. Big stones sticking out of a pond will help keep it from freezing as winter starts and thaw it out earlier when spring comes around. Loose rubble walls/piles of stones have been shown to act as dew collectors and can help add moisture to the surrounding soil.

How thick are you applying the wood chip mulch? For initial soil building processes it's been my experience that you want a good thick layer - I've gone as deep as a foot. This gives enough mass that even if the top inch or two dry out in the dry season, the lower layer in contact with the soil stays moist. This moist area next to the soil will begin to foster all sorts of beneficials that will start the true soil building cycles. Many of these will form a biofilm that will greatly increase the chips water holding capacity and resistance to drying out. Mycelium will help transport water an nutrients through the chips and soil. Both of those things help to bind the chips together like Chris was saying. None of this will happen if the chip layer is too thin and dries out completely.

Owning a tree service, I have large piles of wood chips that I get to watch break down and I am always amazed at the activity you will find as you dig down into the piles, even a pile that's only 1 month old and been in the 90-100 deg summer days, as long as the chips came from green wood so they already have some internal moisture. I can dump a pile of chips on bare dirt and as long as the dirt isn't toxic in some way there will be loads of tiny little earthworms near the edges of the pile at the soil/chip interface. These guys don't start to flourish because of the wood chips specifically, but because all those new little microorganisms that are starting to flourish are great fodder for the worms.

One thing I have noticed is that wood chips that include a large amount of smaller branches and leaf material as opposed to just big woody trunk pieces start to break down much faster. I guess the technical term for that kind of specific wood chip is ramial wood chips and there's been a few studies regarding them. Basically the actively growing twigs and cambium layers have a higher density of enzymes and nutrients that many of those beneficial organisms need so their populations grow faster and they break down the material faster. Chips from mixes of trees also seem to break down faster compared to chips from all one species.

Instead of going through the trouble of removing the woody stuff, you could probably get some good results by putting a layer of leafy/twiggy mulch over it. This will add to your overall organic material and provide what I think might be keeping your woody mulch from breaking down - better moisture absorbtion/retention and a broader spectrum of food to support a broader spectrum of beneficial micros to break down all the material. The more diversity the better, especially in the soil. My wife always laughs at me because I'll get excited when I see a new color slime mold or LBM pop up on a pile of chips but there just signs of increasing diversity in the chips.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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I love the stones too. Everything near them seems to grow better, including the native species.

I plan to expand their role in the growing areas.

I applied the mulch very thick. In many areas it did reach a foot. The issue is that we get too few rainstorms that are heavy enough to make their way down through it. And what does get down to the soil I fear is much less than the total. I need a way to get as much of it down there as possible. I have thick mulch around my fruit trees but they get some extra TLC. When I give them supplemental water the soil stays moist much longer, but then again I've been supplementing with a bucket, so you can see that is a very different form of delivery from precipitation. The saturation point with a bucket occurs much faster, because only a local part of the mulch is wetted, and then the water just lives under the thick mulch. Maybe 90% capture with a bucker vs 30%? Here is a look at what my precipitation pattern looked like during the summer monsoon of 2012:
http://dev4.taosdigital.com/php/dailyRain.php?qm=07&qy=2012

Anything less than a half inch and it may as well not have rained at all in terms of capture.

I completely understand what you and Chris are saying, and I'm fully on board that this is the goal, but basically there is no evidence of that biodynamic occurring with this woody mulch.
I'm pretty well convinced I need to try some other material.



Michael Newby wrote:Stones are great tools when used properly in the landscape. Windbreaks, thermal batteries, solar collectors, all kinds of things. Big stones sticking out of a pond will help keep it from freezing as winter starts and thaw it out earlier when spring comes around. Loose rubble walls/piles of stones have been shown to act as dew collectors and can help add moisture to the surrounding soil.

How thick are you applying the wood chip mulch? For initial soil building processes it's been my experience that you want a good thick layer - I've gone as deep as a foot. This gives enough mass that even if the top inch or two dry out in the dry season, the lower layer in contact with the soil stays moist. This moist area next to the soil will begin to foster all sorts of beneficials that will start the true soil building cycles. Many of these will form a biofilm that will greatly increase the chips water holding capacity and resistance to drying out. Mycelium will help transport water an nutrients through the chips and soil. Both of those things help to bind the chips together like Chris was saying. None of this will happen if the chip layer is too thin and dries out completely.
.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Sounds like you get a lot more moisture than I do!

Checking... Mt Shasta area gets nearly twice as much rainfall as I do it looks like. That definitely explains why it may be working much better for you.
With 25+ inches, you can afford to lose a % to evaporation.
You may also have a much more humid environment, so that even when it doesn't rain, your wood is staying somewhat damp, that way when it does rain, it gets past the wood more readily.


Michael Newby wrote:Owning a tree service, I have large piles of wood chips that I get to watch break down and I am always amazed at the activity you will find as you dig down into the piles, even a pile that's only 1 month old and been in the 90-100 deg summer days, as long as the chips came from green wood so they already have some internal moisture. I can dump a pile of chips on bare dirt and as long as the dirt isn't toxic in some way there will be loads of tiny little earthworms near the edges of the pile at the soil/chip interface. These guys don't start to flourish because of the wood chips specifically, but because all those new little microorganisms that are starting to flourish are great fodder for the worms. .
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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That may be worth trying, for sure. That would save some work, and if there was a leafy layer over it, any water that got down there would tend to stay down there. Then the environment down there would begin to be a lot more like what is going on in your Mt Shasta environment.

Slime mold?

Not in my neck of the high desert!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts


Michael Newby wrote:
Instead of going through the trouble of removing the woody stuff, you could probably get some good results by putting a layer of leafy/twiggy mulch over it. This will add to your overall organic material and provide what I think might be keeping your woody mulch from breaking down - better moisture absorbtion/retention and a broader spectrum of food to support a broader spectrum of beneficial micros to break down all the material. The more diversity the better, especially in the soil. My wife always laughs at me because I'll get excited when I see a new color slime mold or LBM pop up on a pile of chips but there just signs of increasing diversity in the chips.
 
Michael Newby
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Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
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While the Mt. Shasta City does get a decent amount of precip, the land to the NE of the mountain is in the mountain's rain shadow - Mt. Shasta is a hulking volcano that juts almost 11,000 ft above the surrounding countryside so it really causes helps to create a variety of "large" micro-climates. For a better idea of the weather in the area Montague is a close match with an average of ~13 in/yr. The high dry areas are nothing but sage brush and junipers. We're not quite as high in elevation, but the August temperatures regularly hit the triple digits while dropping back into the 50s or 60s at night. Winter temps tend to be in the 20s and 30s with the chance for good variation. One thing we fight here is a lot of wind - good for turbines, bad for just about everything else.

Sounds to me like the main problem is getting the chips initial moisture content up and kept up long enough for things to start happening. Any way to maybe hook some buckets up to soaker hose running under the mulch? You could fill the buckets up as needed during the first year and the soaker hose would put the water down where it was needed. You could even set up rain water collection to help fill the buckets when it does rain enough.

Do you have any chickens? They love to dig around in the chips in search of goodies and their poop really seems to help activate the chips.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Wow. then your climate does sound a lot more like mine than I had imagined.
I'm quite familiar with sagebrush and juniper

Yep... keeping them moist is the problem.

Unfortunately no chickens yet.

This area with the chips is kind of open and I am hoping to solve this without much energy / cost input because I haven't decided what I want to do with it yet. Just trying to condition the soil a bit in advance.

I think I'm going to try laying some leaves over the existing mulch as you suggested. It would be like putting a layer of perforated plastic over it. Water gets in but not out, and it would get very humid under that leaf layer, I'd imagine. My intuition tells me that would do the trick.

Thanks again for offering your perspective.



Michael Newby wrote:While the Mt. Shasta City does get a decent amount of precip, the land to the NE of the mountain is in the mountain's rain shadow - Mt. Shasta is a hulking volcano that juts almost 11,000 ft above the surrounding countryside so it really causes helps to create a variety of "large" micro-climates. For a better idea of the weather in the area Montague is a close match with an average of ~13 in/yr. The high dry areas are nothing but sage brush and junipers. We're not quite as high in elevation, but the August temperatures regularly hit the triple digits while dropping back into the 50s or 60s at night. Winter temps tend to be in the 20s and 30s with the chance for good variation. One thing we fight here is a lot of wind - good for turbines, bad for just about everything else.

Sounds to me like the main problem is getting the chips initial moisture content up and kept up long enough for things to start happening. Any way to maybe hook some buckets up to soaker hose running under the mulch? You could fill the buckets up as needed during the first year and the soaker hose would put the water down where it was needed. You could even set up rain water collection to help fill the buckets when it does rain enough.

Do you have any chickens? They love to dig around in the chips in search of goodies and their poop really seems to help activate the chips.
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1357
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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Most desert soils are ultra fertile in that they have alot of minerals and so they dont really need much help on that.
What they do need is ways to break up the soil in various stages of "hardpan".
I think that creating dimples with a stone near the center, is the best way to go.
In arid place the soil/humus is really created by fire "bio-char"

So I would start a worm composting bin to buildup humus.
Use nitro-fixing living mulch in the sun, and use regular mulch only under tress maybe.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Thank you S

I was aware the fertility of desert soils is high, but I had not considered that fires had anything to do with it.
Would these fires have occurred long ago? I have been here 6 years and there hasn't been a brush fire anywhere to my knowledge.
No signs of it to my eye either. I am in an area that was overrun by sheep herding in the days of the Spanish.

Correct, the soil here is very high in minerals but very low in organics (in the neighborhood of half a percent)

I agree, the main problem is keeping the moisture level in the soil consistent, and to a lesser extent aerating it. Also, pushing down the pH a bit.
Strangely, the soil map for my location suggests that it is well-drained, though it does have a fairly high clay content. It is actually classified as a clay-loam.
I once did the drain test here and it did indeed qualify as "well-drained", to my surprise.

It starts to get tough / like firm rubber, about 1.5 feet down, and is very tough by 2 feet down. That's when I reach for the pickaxe. Still workable, but requires more energy at that point.

My impression was that the soil would start to improve more as humic enzymes and organics infiltrated it. So my strategy has been to aerate it with a pitchfork and disrupt it just enough to
introduce air pockets, but not so much as to disrupt the soil structure, then add water, then cover it with organic matter. then add water again to flush some of the organics down the air passages and help seal all the moisture in.

Please explain the stone in the depression idea further. Sounds intriguing, but not sure I follow what's going on there.
Is that meant to act like a dew collector?

Are there any living mulches you would recommend for this soil type?
I have no experience with what works and how to get them started.


Thanks for your input.


S Bengi wrote:Most desert soils are ultra fertile in that they have alot of minerals and so they dont really need much help on that.
What they do need is ways to break up the soil in various stages of "hardpan".
I think that creating dimples with a stone near the center, is the best way to go.
In arid place the soil/humus is really created by fire "bio-char"

So I would start a worm composting bin to buildup humus.
Use nitro-fixing living mulch in the sun, and use regular mulch only under tress maybe.
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1357
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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This is what I have in mind http://www.permaculturenews.org/2012/09/19/imprinting-soils-creating-instant-edge-for-large-scale-revegetation-of-barren-lands/
The stone would be place 1/2 down the slope to condense dew at night and hopefully the dew would run down to the center and then soak in.

Tell me what you think of the link above.


 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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All I can say is... wow

you know, a friend of mins had referenced this technique some years ago but for some reason it hadn't made an (ahem) impression upon me at the time.

I think it's fascinating and will surely try it.

coupling this idea with other practices, like dropping stones in them as you suggest, sounds very promising.

I can also see adding some organic matter.

Heck, they could even me made into little hugel-pits by driving a small tree limb vertically into the center.
Then you also end up with a sponge that absorbs the dew and rain and delivers humus an moisture slowly to whatever takes hold there.
that might work well for establishing more demanding plants than native grasses.

Definitely worth experimenting with!

Thanks for sharing the info and link!



S Bengi wrote:This is what I have in mind http://www.permaculturenews.org/2012/09/19/imprinting-soils-creating-instant-edge-for-large-scale-revegetation-of-barren-lands/
The stone would be place 1/2 down the slope to condense dew at night and hopefully the dew would run down to the center and then soak in.

Tell me what you think of the link above.


 
Chris McLeod
Posts: 52
Location: Cherokee, Victoria, Australia
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Paul Gutches wrote:
I am entertaining trying some living mulches.
What is your general location?
Do you have any experience with the following?

Birdsfoot Trefoil
Birdsfoot Fenugreek
Strawberry Clover
Black Medick
white clover
Astragalus exscapus
freckled milkvetch
Stinking Milkvetch
Desert milkvetch
Ashen milkvetch
Painted Milkvetch
Melilotus
Vicia Cracca
Lathyrus vernus
wild lupine


Hi Paul,

I forgot to mention, it would have been optimal if you had deep ripped the soil before applying the mulch. I've tried this over a large area using a 20 tonne excavator and now have some awesome herbage growing there only 2 years later. I've also tried this on a small scale by digging holes by hand about a foot wide (300mm) and about that much again deep about 6 to 9 foot apart (2m to 3m) when I planted out the food forest here (over 300 fruit trees). Mulch was then applied on top of this and also mixed into holes with the fruit trees (clay / mulch mix).

The soil was originally hard baked volcanic clay and the rain just ran over the surface washing away all accumulated organic matter year after year. I'm at 37.5 degrees latitude south (Down Under) at elevation and have cool wet winters (never below freezing, but the occasional snowfall) and hot dry summers. It is almost 40 Celsius outside today (104 Fahrenheit) in the shade and we're having a heat wave for the next week or so.

The reason I mention the deep ripping or just breaking up the clay a bit is because the water is stored in the clay rather than the mulch. The mulch acts like an insulation blanket against the sun and cold and reduces evaporation thus starting the soil processes. It has been my experience that if you don't break up the clay, then you need a lot of mulch in a thick layer. Occasionally, like in my strawberry bed the mulch can be about 1+1/2 foot deep (0.5m). When it is this deep, the soil life does the digging for you and will break up the clay and store water.

Your mulch is most likely drying out and a dry environment is not good for the fungal growths (mycellium) which will turn the mulch into soil. You could try applying water to it regularly during the summer months to experiment and see what happens. You could also try getting in plants with heavy duty roots such as alfalfa during the cooler months to break up the soil a bit too.

I tried fenugreek here this year and it is dying off in the dry...
White and red clovers are really hardy and do well here.
Vetch has finally self seeded here, but pops up in Autumn and dies off in early summer leaving a lot of seeds.
Wild lupine - I think I call these Russell Lupins? They put on a great show and are really prolific self seeding plants here (I just picked up a pack of multi-colour Lupins)
The rest I don't know about.
California poppies are prolific self seeding plants and also really drought hardy.
Geraniums (pelargoniums) and olives are real givers in very hot dry summers.
Apricots once established are very drought hardy.

Try also maybe growing some fruit trees from seed as they will have much larger root systems than the grafted trees which can be a bit stunted. I've been experimenting with these here and they seem to be pretty tough.

The photo below was taken just after Christmas which is high summer here!
Bees in wildflower meadow 2.jpg
[Thumbnail for Bees in wildflower meadow 2.jpg]
 
Chris McLeod
Posts: 52
Location: Cherokee, Victoria, Australia
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Just read all of the comments. Very thoughtful replies.

The other thing that works well here is shade. A lot of our rainforest plants here are incredibly well adapted to heat and drought and are worthwhile in creating shade and building organic matter in the soils. Black wattle (acacia mearnsii) and Blackwood (acacia melanoxylon) are both good shade providers, leguminous and provide outstanding timber. They've become something of a weed in other parts of the world (South Africa as well as other spots).

There are plenty of other plants too (carob etc) which perform similar functions. Have a look at the Greening the Desert project - if they can get a food forest started there...

Fire changes the soil ph here too (makes it more basic) which can be a real problem for the diversity in the forest. I'm unsure about how this cycle actually works in all the fine details, but the eucalyptus trees here benefit from wiping out the competition for sure.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 106
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Chris McLeod wrote:
I forgot to mention, it would have been optimal if you had deep ripped the soil before applying the mulch. I've tried this over a large area using a 20 tonne excavator and now have some awesome herbage growing there only 2 years later. I've also tried this on a small scale by digging holes by hand about a foot wide (300mm) and about that much again deep about 6 to 9 foot apart (2m to 3m) when I planted out the food forest here (over 300 fruit trees). Mulch was then applied on top of this and also mixed into holes with the fruit trees (clay / mulch mix).


I'm not familiar with deep ripping and have never used large machinery myself. Will need to Google it.
Would love to see before and after pics of your food forest if you have them.

Chris McLeod wrote:
The soil was originally hard baked volcanic clay and the rain just ran over the surface washing away all accumulated organic matter year after year. I'm at 37.5 degrees latitude south (Down Under) at elevation and have cool wet winters (never below freezing, but the occasional snowfall) and hot dry summers. It is almost 40 Celsius outside today (104 Fahrenheit) in the shade and we're having a heat wave for the next week or so.


Last night we hit -15F (just a short spike down). Our summers are wet and winters are a bit less wet than summer. Our dry seasons are spring and fall, and spring winds can be horrendous in their persistence. Never above 90 here in summer, and nights swing back down to the mid to high 50's. Sometimes as much as a 40 degree temperature spread.

Chris McLeod wrote:
The reason I mention the deep ripping or just breaking up the clay a bit is because the water is stored in the clay rather than the mulch. The mulch acts like an insulation blanket against the sun and cold and reduces evaporation thus starting the soil processes. It has been my experience that if you don't break up the clay, then you need a lot of mulch in a thick layer. Occasionally, like in my strawberry bed the mulch can be about 1+1/2 foot deep (0.5m). When it is this deep, the soil life does the digging for you and will break up the clay and store water.

Your mulch is most likely drying out and a dry environment is not good for the fungal growths (mycellium) which will turn the mulch into soil. You could try applying water to it regularly during the summer months to experiment and see what happens. You could also try getting in plants with heavy duty roots such as alfalfa during the cooler months to break up the soil a bit too.


Alfalfa is definitely in the works for multiple reasons. But I have no mechanical water delivery means here. No well or pumps. It's all direct runoff, infiltration, and only some supplemental water hauled from a community well 3 miles away (a nice flat ride). Yes, my mulch is drying out and that is the problem. Not enough moisture at the mulch/soil interface to activate biology and breakdown.

Chris McLeod wrote:
I tried fenugreek here this year and it is dying off in the dry...
White and red clovers are really hardy and do well here.
Vetch has finally self seeded here, but pops up in Autumn and dies off in early summer leaving a lot of seeds.
Wild lupine - I think I call these Russell Lupins? They put on a great show and are really prolific self seeding plants here (I just picked up a pack of multi-colour Lupins)
The rest I don't know about.
California poppies are prolific self seeding plants and also really drought hardy.
Geraniums (pelargoniums) and olives are real givers in very hot dry summers.
Apricots once established are very drought hardy.


Good to know. I've had some fleeting success with white clover but it is very timid at first. It struggles to establish.
What kind of vetch? I am hoping to establish some perennial vetches.
I've got a nice patch of California poppies that produced seeds prolifically so I fully expect to see them stick around. It's one of my favorite flowers and the color is fantastic.
Too cold for Geraniums and olives here.
I have an apricot tree (Wenatchee var) that's just starting out. Ironically it is the only fruit tree I have that is doing poorly!

Chris McLeod wrote:
Try also maybe growing some fruit trees from seed as they will have much larger root systems than the grafted trees which can be a bit stunted. I've been experimenting with these here and they seem to be pretty tough.

The photo below was taken just after Christmas which is high summer here!


I've got 5 apple, 2 pear, 2 nectarine (the redgold are doing very well), 1 cherry, 5 plum. Sand and Nanking are on deck for spring or next fall.
Apples and pears and nectarines are bare root grafts. I've also planted some plum and local cherry seeds around to see what happens.

I think I'm going to experiment with making my own hand operated soil imprinter to see how the technique works here, and seed it with a mix of nitrogen-fixers and natives.
Doing everything on a small scale to start until I'm confident of what consistently works.

Thanks for the great information!



 
Kelly Smith
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Hi Paul,
I am just a few hours north of you in Colorado, and it sounds like we are experiencing the same issues, with similar soil types.
I wanted to add a few things that may help:

if you cant get a ripper, you may try to find a broadfork or other hand tool that will loosen up the soil by hand (depending on the size your breaking up). i think the main goal is to break up the hard top that forms on clay soils that have been exposed as this speeds up/helps water get into the soil, vs being held in the mulch. we didnt do this before we mulched, but i will be giving it a try on a small scale this spring to see how it helps.

in my area, hairy vetch seems to be the vetch that does the best. alfalfa also does good here once established (in irrigated fields it does great)
i would like to find a good living mulch that will grow in our area. something that can be chopped and dropped would really help the mulching come alive, imo.

good luck and keep posting updates




 
S Bengi
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Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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A hard pan a few feet under the surface is very bad. A hard hat an inch or so thick AT the surface is nothing more than a dirt mulch.
It stops evaporation/water loss, however you dont want runoff taking water leaving your property.
So it would be good to have that water run to a depression that has a tree/plant in it. Thus double your effective rainfall.
 
Paul Gutches
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Thank you for your comments.
Near what town/city are you? Would like to compare soil profiles using the online tools.

I feel I must clarify that I do not have a hard pan clay crust on my soil. The top is actually fine and loose and fairly easy to move around for a foot or so. In fact, I've been taking advantage of that to shape some water collection areas, which I can do for a tree in about a half hour. Water does not seem to have too much problem soaking into the soil. I only see some runoff in the lowest portion of the property when we get more than a half an inch of rain at once.

The problem is that the soil gives it back up too easily, because of the lack of organic matter, and wind, and UV, and lack of protective vegetation and land features. The mulch was an attempt to keep the water in there longer, and it works during the summer months when the water gets down to it quickly and in quantity. But not in winter. I am losing most of the snowmelt to evaporation in winter because the mulch changes in it's function in winter, I've found. At least the mulch I've selected.

If, for instance, I had (for sake of discussion) a layer of plastic with holes punched in it near divets in the landscape (kind of like a spring mattress pattern) and had some stones around the rims of the divets, I would fully expect to capture 80% or more of the snowmelt in the soil. Leaves act very similar to plastic, from my experience, and my original post was comparing the relative dampness under the leaves and stones, vs under the wood mulch. The difference is striking.

If I can get a living mulch going, maybe combining the land imprinting idea that S mentioned, I think that would closely mimic the function I'm looking for. Living mulches and leaves have a lot in common, except for the amount of vertical space they use.

But... who needs theory right?
I'll post on the results of my experiments come summer!


In the meantime, I've used a standard pitchfork to aerate the soil in spring and allow water to penetrate more rapidly.

I've had success with hairy vetch too. Too bad it's an annual. I'm too lazy to do that every year.

I always considered living mulches to be low growers. It would hurt your back if you had to chop and drop them!

Ever been to CRMPI in Basalt, CO ?

The primary nitrogen fixer there is Siberian Pea Shrub, which he chops and drops around his trees and such.
I've planted a lot of Pea Shrub here too... it's just too young to be making a difference yet.
They can get to 8 feet tall or more.

Buffalo berry is also a good one. A shrub with edible fruit.

Paul


Kelly Smith wrote:Hi Paul,
I am just a few hours north of you in Colorado, and it sounds like we are experiencing the same issues, with similar soil types.
I wanted to add a few things that may help:

if you cant get a ripper, you may try to find a broadfork or other hand tool that will loosen up the soil by hand (depending on the size your breaking up). i think the main goal is to break up the hard top that forms on clay soils that have been exposed as this speeds up/helps water get into the soil, vs being held in the mulch. we didnt do this before we mulched, but i will be giving it a try on a small scale this spring to see how it helps.

in my area, hairy vetch seems to be the vetch that does the best. alfalfa also does good here once established (in irrigated fields it does great)
i would like to find a good living mulch that will grow in our area. something that can be chopped and dropped would really help the mulching come alive, imo.

good luck and keep posting updates




 
Paul Gutches
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I love the leguminous trees and shrubs. They are my best friends at this stage, second only to hugelbeds.

I've planted Pea Shrub, Buffalo Berry, Honey Locust, Autumn Berry (Elaeagnus Umbellata), and Sea Buckthorn.
Also planning to add black locust and Russian Olive (Elaeagnus Angustifolia) at some point, in a wetter area of the landscape.

Chris McLeod wrote:Just read all of the comments. Very thoughtful replies.

The other thing that works well here is shade. A lot of our rainforest plants here are incredibly well adapted to heat and drought and are worthwhile in creating shade and building organic matter in the soils. Black wattle (acacia mearnsii) and Blackwood (acacia melanoxylon) are both good shade providers, leguminous and provide outstanding timber. They've become something of a weed in other parts of the world (South Africa as well as other spots).

There are plenty of other plants too (carob etc) which perform similar functions. Have a look at the Greening the Desert project - if they can get a food forest started there...

Fire changes the soil ph here too (makes it more basic) which can be a real problem for the diversity in the forest. I'm unsure about how this cycle actually works in all the fine details, but the eucalyptus trees here benefit from wiping out the competition for sure.
 
Paul Gutches
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This has been my exact strategy so far for the trees!
But, will that be enough to compensate for the tough rubbery layer 2 feet down?
Can that layer be conditioned by the presence of humus and moisture to become more malleable?

I've given each fruit tree it's own local water collection design. Easy to do here.
Specifically, I've created runoff depressions that collect water just outside the water rings, then I drilled infiltration holes with an earth auger near the bottoms of those depressions, and added a mix of small stones and organic matter to the holes to keep the water infiltration capacity and retention high, and also to inhibit cold air from settling down into them when they are drained.

The results of this practice have yet to play out here, but I am optimistic about the strategy.

As one answer to hardpan, I want to build largish hugel-sponges in concentric cupping arcs perpendicular to the wind and devote between 10 and 15 feet of land between each for collecting runoff into them.

I've figured this collection area would store the equivalent of between 24 and 36 inches of rain in the beds depending on the amount of rainfall. And I think that is also a very promising approach.
I plan to plant fruit trees and bushes on the opposite side of the water infiltration, so the trees are protected from wind and winter uv, and can mediate their own water requirements by reaching into the beds.

Quite looking forward to getting started with it!

S Bengi wrote:A hard pan a few feet under the surface is very bad. A hard hat an inch or so thick AT the surface is nothing more than a dirt mulch.
It stops evaporation/water loss, however you dont want runoff taking water leaving your property.
So it would be good to have that water run to a depression that has a tree/plant in it. Thus double your effective rainfall.
 
Devon Olsen
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paul, ive impatiently read through the entire thread reading all that it has to offer and am glad i did
i am currently working on a land in cheyenne wyoming, and though the soil is different, mostly sand, about a foot of "topsoil" and rainfall about the same, about 12 for most of the city, the site is located in the center of a circle of drought though and gets about 9-11.5 inches a year, with many storms raining/snowing all around us but completely ignoring our property
i mulched a small potato plot this year and a few other spots and though i didnt go very thick, just an inch or two, i noticed the same sorta thing, immediately after a rain, the top 1/8inch of woodchips would absorb moisture and look great, but digging down revealed a dry, dusty soil and yielded poorly, even weed had trouble growing there, i am hoping it will eventually break down and these effects will be reversed but i looked to the rest of the yard and asked myself how the native grasses managed to mulch themselves each year without drying themselves out
and the answer appeared to be that though there is mulch, there are also mottled spots of exposed soil, though these spots do evaporate faster, they also allow immediate entry of moisture into the soil, an island of bare soil, surrounded by mulch, the soil didnt really get a chance to erode heavily and i hypothesize that moisture is able to enter the soil and then be protected by a net of mulch, rather than a sheet and is hence slowed in evaporatio0n while allowing moisture to enter during our more frequent rains that total perhaps a 16th of an inch of moisture
where i had the main pile of woodchips however, about 3-4ft thick, the bottom of the pile formed into about and inch and a half of extremely rich, moist, dark brown soil that i am sad to report i had no seeds or season for when i moved the pile out of my way
of course texture can do magic to help the land and a 6ft hugelbed can shade a spot allowing snow to melt without evaporating and slowly soak the soil deeply as it does so, also there may honestly be something to that imprinting of the land, i once walked in a mountain meadow, it had a stream from snowmelt running through it and the soil was as soft and lush as a pillow and moist, green plants abound and mushrooms erupting into the world to showcase their beauty, that land had many bumps ands depressions, all covered in a dense grassland, i have been seeking to replicate this ever since by taking a shovelful of dirt and flipping it over as i walk around the yard, slowly but surely adding lumps to the land, one spot about 10x15ft across has been bare for years and so i did this, one bump after another and though i have yet to see what spring brings, during moisture events, it collected rain better and rather than just monogamous soaking and evap, there are spots that have concentrations of water during rain events and this is a great sign to me

of course diversity is always a good idea and i am very excited to hear of your success with pods/leaves and stones as opposed to wood chips, and ill have to give that a go up in cheyenne sometime

my aunt is currently renting a home and sharing 40 acres with the landowner in Ribera, NM and she says he is ok with some work being done garden wise and she'd like me to help her get it going, so i'd like very much to hear of your progress with everything, do you have project thread by any chance that documents your progress here or elsewhere? (i find its useful for remembering observations made years ago)
 
Paul Gutches
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Hi Devon

Thanks for posting and sharing your thoughts!

Unfortunately I have no specific project thread for this, mostly because I don't have a strong notion of what the project is.
"The Project" seems to change every time I observe something and learn something

That said, I will gladly post the results of any experimenting I do.

Devon Olsen wrote:paul, ive impatiently read through the entire thread reading all that it has to offer and am glad i did
i am currently working on a land in cheyenne wyoming, and though the soil is different, mostly sand, about a foot of "topsoil" and rainfall about the same, about 12 for most of the city, the site is located in the center of a circle of drought though and gets about 9-11.5 inches a year, with many storms raining/snowing all around us but completely ignoring our property
i mulched a small potato plot this year and a few other spots and though i didnt go very thick, just an inch or two, i noticed the same sorta thing, immediately after a rain, the top 1/8inch of woodchips would absorb moisture and look great, but digging down revealed a dry, dusty soil and yielded poorly, even weed had trouble growing there, i am hoping it will eventually break down and these effects will be reversed but i looked to the rest of the yard and asked myself how the native grasses managed to mulch themselves each year without drying themselves out
and the answer appeared to be that though there is mulch, there are also mottled spots of exposed soil, though these spots do evaporate faster, they also allow immediate entry of moisture into the soil, an island of bare soil, surrounded by mulch, the soil didnt really get a chance to erode heavily and i hypothesize that moisture is able to enter the soil and then be protected by a net of mulch, rather than a sheet and is hence slowed in evaporatio0n while allowing moisture to enter during our more frequent rains that total perhaps a 16th of an inch of moisture


That makes sense.
I would be curious to have a very close look at those weed stalks too. Many weed stalks, especially natives that are adapted to dry conditions, will have an outer layer that deflects water readily and decomposes slowly. They are also usually rounded stalks. Nothing for water to grab onto. I would guess that in addition to allowing precip in through the net, the biomass also absorbed less of the rain that fell on it.

Devon Olsen wrote:
where i had the main pile of woodchips however, about 3-4ft thick, the bottom of the pile formed into about and inch and a half of extremely rich, moist, dark brown soil that i am sad to report i had no seeds or season for when i moved the pile out of my way


How long was the pile there and what type of wood was it?
If it was there for a while, you may have gotten a big dump at some point and the water stuck around a long time working that wood down to soil.
Or, if the pile is located in a depression, rain can bypass going through the top of the pile and enter under the mulch at ground level from the sides.
Just trying to work out what may have happened there.

Yep, I think the land imprinting is definitely worth playing with. And always nice to see working examples in nature herself.
Without having seen the video clip [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD2CBLmkw6c#t=23m45s ] and read the info that S linked to, I was already on that path on my own, creating modulations in the landscape and collection pits. The imprinting sounds perfect for general reclamation, especially for restoring native grasses and beginning to store more water on site.

The richest darkest humus I have ever seen was under a pile of Honey locust litter that was located at a low point where water collected. I came by with a bucket to collect the soil and found it loaded with big earthworms! It was one of those aha moments for me!

Please post any discoveries you make with any of this.

 
Devon Olsen
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cant wait til you do start a thread fir experiments, post a link and ill make sure to follow along and pitch in my two cents for ya from time to time

and im gonna have to look for that round stalk thing, ive never thought look for such things during observations so ill keep my eyes peeled

interestingly the pile was on a slope so there was no collection due to any depression, and even during the heaviest rain we had (if i had to guess id say a whole inch or so at a time) it didnt penetrate more than an inch
i think the moisture can entirely be attributed to fungi, bacteria, worms and soil contact and had little to do with rainfall other than that small amount that would have been necessary to support life
it was comprised of multiple species from what i could tell, im pretty sure it was fairly local so if i had to guess id say it was mostly pine and cottonwood though it could have been other species as well, those are just the most popular trees in the area that people have planted (the cheyenne area had no trees for miles upon miles when people first started settling from my understanding, so every tree is a result of human activity)
it was also stacked downhill and touching a pile of imported horse manure, so there may have been some nitrogen leached into the pile from water moving along the ground
both piles were imported in the spring and moved in the fall so it was only one summer, not even any snow to slowly work its way into the pile, just the few rains that do as you say and kind of run off the pile rather than soaking in

definately interesting stuff to observe, thats for sure
 
Paul Gutches
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Lots of questions for you! (even a simple woodpile can provoke serious discussion).

Was your pile located at the top of the slope or further down from the top?
Was the manure upslope or downslope from the pile?
Was the soil dry when you first laid down the pile of wood chips?
Did you drop the big pile all at once, or in several small loads over an extended time period?
Were the woodchips dry or fresh when they were dropped?

If there was a decent sized area of slope between the pile and the top of the slope, that could easily explain how moisture got under the pile.
It would simply travel down the slope and infiltrate the pile of chips at ground level, where it would be slowed and trapped.

Very similar to a hugelbed / swale.


Devon Olsen wrote:cant wait til you do start a thread fir experiments, post a link and ill make sure to follow along and pitch in my two cents for ya from time to time

and im gonna have to look for that round stalk thing, ive never thought look for such things during observations so ill keep my eyes peeled

interestingly the pile was on a slope so there was no collection due to any depression, and even during the heaviest rain we had (if i had to guess id say a whole inch or so at a time) it didnt penetrate more than an inch
i think the moisture can entirely be attributed to fungi, bacteria, worms and soil contact and had little to do with rainfall other than that small amount that would have been necessary to support life
it was comprised of multiple species from what i could tell, im pretty sure it was fairly local so if i had to guess id say it was mostly pine and cottonwood though it could have been other species as well, those are just the most popular trees in the area that people have planted (the cheyenne area had no trees for miles upon miles when people first started settling from my understanding, so every tree is a result of human activity)
it was also stacked downhill and touching a pile of imported horse manure, so there may have been some nitrogen leached into the pile from water moving along the ground
both piles were imported in the spring and moved in the fall so it was only one summer, not even any snow to slowly work its way into the pile, just the few rains that do as you say and kind of run off the pile rather than soaking in

definately interesting stuff to observe, thats for sure
 
Devon Olsen
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yes i think most moisture came from moisture entering at ground level as the piles were located about 1/3 of the way down the hill, granted its a very easy slope (i dont know the grade as i cant find a formula for figuring out the grade of a slope) but it drops a foot about every 6-10 ft run if i have to guess... maybe answers for that in thread as well

as for other questions i can answer a few but not all of them as it was a while ago, im going to check my project thread just to see if it perhaps contains a few answers for ya

ok... so according to my post on wed, april 11th, i had them purchased and dumped (all at once) on the 10th, i didnt record if it rained that day or not (darn i need to observe so much more than i do) but on the 11th it was wet according to that post
the prediction at the time according to my post was that it was SUPPOSED to rain/snow(with snow at night) all week following the 11th
so if i had to guess i would say it was probably mostly dry when they arrived with all moisture arriving after they had been placed there though that week didnt bring too much from the looks of it, it appears to have made spots of grass green as opposed to brown within approx 12 days - im gonna check that picture out and compare it to the greener spots first thing this spring and see whats changed

manure was definately uphill, and still is, though both piles are deeper and steeper and moved about 50yds up the slope

no word on whether or not they were fresh, if i had to guess - WAIT! i dont have to guess - wish i could edit that april 11th post now but, i picked them up from the guy i worked for last summer, he was helping someone cut down some cottonwoods and a pine or two and i purchased both the logs and the chips from him from a site about 1-2miles down the road, and got a few free loads of wood out of the deal too whenever its cheaper for them to dump them off with me for free than it is for them to drop them off at composting facility for a fee - which depends on the driving distance most of the time -also got a temp under the table job for a few months

and thank you so very much for starting up a discussion on my woodchip pile, that may make me remember some important stuff someday soon!
please feel free to ask any more questions you have either here or in my thread contained in my sig
 
S Bengi
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If you are on a slope vs flat land then then woodchip would not just catch the rain that fell on it but on all the rain flowing downhill.
This would effectively double/triple the rain that it collects. It was also green vs dry so microbes can start attaching now vs waiting
So they would get a high population head start and then just go dormant but not back to zero population when it gets "dry".
The extra Nitrogen leaching from "upstream" will also provide the microbes with extra nutrients to multiply, thus more food for worm.

Was the woodchip in full sun or was it undershape. With the tree providing a higher humidity due to evapotranspiration.
The shape from the tree would also block the sun and thus less solar "heating" would occur.
By being on a slope the wood chip also act as a dam/depression.
 
Devon Olsen
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thank you for your input, S
the piles were in full sun at all times with no shade being cast on them other than perhaps 5 mins first thing in the morning as the sun just breached the horizon and cast super long shadows from house and tree and the bottom of the hill

it sure is exciting to think of all the things that can make life succeed in a "simple" pile of woodchips

i should add that our soil is mainly sand and that unless we get large monsoon type events or very heavy traffic somewhere, most water penetrates soil immediately if its not evaporated off first so any water "running" would be doing so under the soil at least a little bit... which could be another benficial thing in this situation but could also mean most water hitting the pile was mainly a result of h2o being a byproduct of organic matter breaking down, rather than water flowing from up the hill
 
S Bengi
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The good infiltration sound like something good. But could also mean that the water goes too deep before the plants root can get to it
However it seem like the fungi from the green woodchip is growing down to the "water level"
Or the fungi from the "water level" is growing up to the woodchip.
Or a tree+fungi is obtaining water and the fungi "network" is bringing it to the woodchip.
The fact that there is extra water for worms and also for the microbes that worms eat, means that something cool is going on.
The possibilities seem so fascinating
 
Morgan Morrigan
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Great observational reflections.

I have been reading about the terraced gardens in Mexico, and posted a bunch under the archeo agriculture thread, may want to breeze thru it. Also, only published study on rock vs. organic was done in the Salton Sea , by a S. Cal university. can't find the study now. Showed rocks/gravel worked much better than straw, because it did let the moisture thru.

http://www.permies.com/t/19463/permaculture/Ancient-grid-gardens-SWest#163636

i would be tempted to go over to a section that stays frozen, and has a pretty good grade to experiment.

Dig a foot deep trench. shovel full of woody mulch. throw in a handfull of compost. move up a foot, and dig again, leaving a 3-6 inch space between rows. throw some dirt over the woody mulch, and pile rest on the dirt strip. put rocks on top of dirt strip.
You only have to dig deep on the first one, and prob want some big rocks to hold that swale in place.
So you are backing up the hill, doing filled swales, and end up with what looks like contoured field of row cropped rocks !

Easy to do at a relaxing rate, since you are moving uphill, you aren't creating too bad of erosion problems.


Plant green mulch on the dirt covered woody mulch. insert grape every 6 foot in offset on rows, and mix in some buffalo or autumn berry and apricot.

Apricot does great with desert soil and light moisture. trunks need to be painted white or insulated so they don't flower out so early they get caught with last frost tho. really !

birds love the autumn berry, and will pick off any grasshoppers in the winter. guess they are too picky to do it in the spring,summer, or fall around here.

 
Paul Gutches
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Thanks Morgan for contributing.

This might be better suited for Devon, as I don't have any slopes on my land to speak of. Sure wish I did! Bought my land before the permaculture bug bit me!

Very gentle grade here.

What I want to do is related though, wherein I manufacture my own shallow slopes between hugelbeds.
Natural rainfall levels are just not enough here I'm afraid.

There is one area where I shaped a shallow slope for some honeylocust trees. I sacrificed the slope as a growing area by covering it with plastic to maximize runoff and covered it with cheap gravel to keep the plastic from UV damage.

It channels water gently to some deeper holes near the trees. And now they stay moist all year round without supplemental watering. That is one case where the soil stays moist under the mulch, but that's because, ala Devon's wood pile, the moisture is going in directly under the mulch. Not passing through it. Working great so far.

Wish I didn't have to sacrifice growing space to do it. But it is cheap, quick, and very effective. The more things I can do once and then walk away from and just enjoy the better, right?

Grapes! Now that is something in the queue for when I feel I REALLY know what I'm doing

Paul


Morgan Morrigan wrote:
So you are backing up the hill, doing filled swales, and end up with what looks like contoured field of row cropped rocks !
 
Paul Gutches
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Incidentally, I envy anyone with partial shade!

I can't wait to get more of it!

When the package says "full sun", it was written by someone who has never been to Taos, I can tell you that!

I planted some raspberry on the north side of a latilla shed, which gets only modest bits and pieces of light throughout the day, and it is enjoying itself immensely!

A little sun at this altitude goes a long long way!


Chris McLeod wrote:The other thing that works well here is shade.
 
Andrew Parker
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I have noticed that wood doesn't break down easily here in my not quite so high as yours semi-arid valley unless it is covered with or touching soil (just ask my fence posts). Exposed wood does, however, lose mass over time, turning into something the consistency of styrofoam (just ask my fence panels). I had a large pile of wood chips in my backyard for a few years that refused to decompose until my chickens knocked it down and spread it out, mixing it with dirt as they scratched for bugs.

Snow will sublimate (lose water mass to the air without actually melting) in a dry high-altitude environment. You will get more useful water if you can melt it and get it into the soil. It sounds as though your mulch is also insulating the snow from the heat of the sun-warmed soil (and perhaps keeping the soil frozen underneath it), giving more opportunity for sublimation.

The native grasses here are predominantly bunch grass, so Devon may be onto something with his "Island" observation. As much of the annual precipitation in this area is in the form of snow, it makes sense that plants would adapt to it by allowing snow to touch the soil and soak in. The grass island also protects the snow from wind and sun, to some extent.

Desert soils will seal up under a deluge, dumping the water off quickly into arroyos, but melting snow will soak in much deeper.

When researching the subject of lithic mulch (check for that discussion somewhere here at permies) I came across some papers that studied ancient Pueblo gardens where the rock mulch was applied with alternating strips of bare soil. Perhaps they were attempting to enhance a natural process they had observed?

Have you researched keyline farming and the Yeomans plow?
 
Paul Gutches
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Andrew Parker wrote:Desert soils will seal up under a deluge, dumping the water off quickly into arroyos, but melting snow will soak in much deeper.


I love the winters here precisely for this reason. Because it is an opportunity for deep, slow hydration. And that is happening near all the stones I've added. Thankfully, those stones happen to be near important trees, shrubs, and plants.

But the area with the trouble has no stones or other means of melting the snow rapidly, as you pointed out, and so, is both melting and evaporating in micro-cycles, as well as sublimating directly.

I think land imprinting to restore natural grasses is a very good technique for prepping areas that I am not yet focusing on.

I have a few artificial soil islands created by protective windbreaks where the snow is melting fine and soaking deep. But of course, exposed soil becomes a liability in the spring and summer.

That's why the grasses that Devon observed work so well, as you referenced. They fill in when the winds and sun come, and yield to the winter sun when the snow needs melting and the danger of evaporation is least. And of course, the root systems permit the fast infiltration of water into the soil.

Nature is just brilliant.

So brilliant and simple that most of what she has to say just goes right over our heads.

 
Chris McLeod
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Paul Gutches wrote:
I always considered living mulches to be low growers. It would hurt your back if you had to chop and drop them!


Hey Paul,

Yeah, that is what your mower, soft footed grazing animal (definately not sheep, goats or cattle) is for! You can even use a scythe if you want to go all old school!

We're in the middle of a massive heatwave Down Under and the summer rains have also failed, so I haven't had much Internet time.

http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/now-you-see-it-now-you-dont-weather-bureau-backtracks-from-50plus-forecast-20130109-2cfm5.html

The average maximum temperature for the continent hit 40.33 Celsius (that's about 104.5 Fahrenheit). Not good.

I'll do a youtube update next week on the farm here and it should be interesting to see the massive changes from the early summer update.

This is a before shot of the same area from October 2009 showing the trenches for the worm farm being put in.



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Paul Gutches
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Andrew Parker wrote:Have you researched keyline farming and the Yeomans plow?


I'm somewhat familiar with the technique, but was under the impression they were best suited for a significant slope with runoff water.

My property has a very gentle slope that rarely produces runoff.

Where water does collect I've got a berm to keep it on my property so it soaks in.

 
Paul Gutches
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Chris McLeod wrote:

his is a before shot of the same area from October 2009 showing the trenches for the worm farm being put in.


Those temps are out of a horror movie, almost.
Let's hope this movement can help reverse the trends.

I've got a little buffer here against increasing temps.
It's such a cold climate.

Worm farm looks like quite an operation.
At first I thought you were doing something with temperature and vents.

Paul
 
Andrew Parker
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Paul,

Many keyline projects I have reviewed on the internet were on moderate slopes.

If you have ever flown over the desert during the spring thaw (mud season), you will notice the sun reflecting back off the sheet runoff, almost like the surface of a lake. That runoff will continue after the snow has melted, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, until the soil has reached an equilibrium and stops discharging excess moisture. Using a Yeomans plow properly should significantly increase your soil's capacity to absorb and store more water, thereby reducing or eliminating sheet runoff and erosion.

A quick search located a permies member, Owen Hablutzel (owen (at) permacultureusa.org), in New Mexico who specializes in Keyline and the Yeomans plow. He makes his living answering questions about it and plowing, so I don't know how much information he will give you off the meter, but you won't know unless you ask.
 
Paul Gutches
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Andrew Parker wrote:Paul,

Many keyline projects I have reviewed on the internet were on moderate slopes...

A quick search located a permies member, Owen Hablutzel (owen (at) permacultureusa.org), in New Mexico who specializes in Keyline and the Yeomans plow..


I'm not sure mine would even qualify as moderate I only have 6 acres to boot. If I had much larger acreage I'd consider it... but things here are on a scale where I may not even need machinery outside of building big
berms and beds in a hurry.

It's very gentle. It wants to move toward the Rio Grande in the one low area where it does collect, but now I've got a berm there at the low point near the property boundary. Just did it in the fall.

It's more or less a low wide level damn in an arc, done with earthbags and then covered. So any buildup has plenty of room to spread out laterally and fill the shallow crease in the land.
I'm kind of excited to see how much accumulates during a rain. Maybe I can do a poor man's keyline and cut narrow trenches for greater, more distributed absorption there. I've also considered digging in some tree stumps and log segments vertically for greater infiltration and holding capacity.

The water collecting there is currently not coming from my growing area. It's getting there by way of the main driveway that connects the other properties and from a gentle grade that does not run through my growing area.

that spot is my best shot at starting a small closed canopy food forest, where I'd love to have black locust, walnut, hackberry, Russian Olive, currant, gooseberry, and autumn berry, to name some.
I'm at the stage where I'm just going to observe it over a monsoon season. There might be pond potential at some point if I can give it enough wind and sun protection.

I caught Owen's YouTube presentation on what he did for the Whirlwind ranch in NM ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3twLVn7nss ).
It's interesting. They have a lot more land than me, and a lot more runoff moving through it, so I think that was definitely the right solution for that site.


Paul
 
Andrew Parker
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6 acres can be a lot of land or not much, depending on one's perspective.

It might be nice to get the water in the soil before it collects at your dam. Unless he lives just down the road, it probably would not be economically viable to have Owen drop by and make a few passes with his plow. If a 1/4 acre of lawn can justify buying a riding mower (five in my neighborhood), 6 acres justifies at least a nice two-wheel tractor, a small 4 wheel tractor, or a four-wheeler rigged to pull farm implements (or even a truck, SUV or passenger car). You can make swales with a variety of plows and cultivators.

Can you get fruit and nut tress established and maintained without irrigation? Would the driveway supply enough water for a small runoff-agriculture orchard/food-forest? Apricots and apples are pretty hardy.

If you still have access to wood chips, you could fill your swale trenches with chips and cover them with soil, like long skinny hugelkultur beds.

About 30 years ago, I read a book about runoff agriculture in the Negev. For orchards, they divided slopes into diamond shaped collection plots with the tree or bush located at the lowest point in the diamond. Lots of options, depending on the topography and what you want to plant.
 
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