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Mulch Q's for Mediterranean Climate  RSS feed

 
Nolan Robert
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So Cal!

Would mulching here:

keep rain water in the soil without the need for micro ditches/swales and waffle gardens?

create better soil?

lower the amount of overall watering needed?

create a better micro-climate for micro-organisms?

(currently dealing with EXTREMELY sandy soil, that water runs off and does not penetrate)

I hear a lot about mulch but it seems like it is mostly talked about in temperate climates.

Thanks!
 
Aljaz Plankl
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Depends on mulch you're going to use.
You can forget about hay, it will draw more moisture out of soil and keep all the rainwater for itself.
This are my experiences using only hay without additional watering or organic matter.
You need as much fresh stuff as possible for mulching, manures are excelent.
What really works here in Slovenia in sub-meditaranean climate region is no-dig soil mulched 10-20cm with one year old goat manure (straw bedding) in fall.
No dig is essential i think, as capilary action is not damaged.
Also, when diging you introduce too much air, making soil even more dry.
Even if you incoirporate organic matter, soil uses it too quickly because all life needs to reastablish.
 
Alder Burns
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The longer I live and garden here in the northern Central Vally (CA) the less and less enamored I'm becoming of mulch as the panacea for every need of the garden. At least combined with irrigation (and I will always have to irrigate here if I want any summer crops or anything other than, say, acorns and olives and such like), mulch quickly becomes a habitat for large numbers of earwigs, pillbugs, and, if damp enough, slugs. If I bury my drip tape or soaker hoses in the mulch, it's much more likely that rodents will chew holes in it. A permanent wood-chip mulch or some such around permanent plants is working, but such plants are usually up out of the reach of the ground bugs and have the heavier, emitter hoses. But for annuals I'm stepping back to bare soil and hoeing, which also seems to be the best way to keep the cursed bermuda grass in check
I've tried to subdue this with cardboard sheet mulch, but two years plus under a solid cover isn't sufficient yet.....I'm just going to keep at it in this one area, re-doing it in patches where I see it coming through; but I definitely can't plant anything in there or the grass will be back through the gaps where I insert any plants through.
My hunch is that the Mediterranean ecosystem is just different, and perhaps lower in diversity than the Eastern, summer moisture places I've lived before. When and where I irrigate, aggressive pest species rapidly proliferate, and their predators, parasites, fungi, etc. that might keep them in check elsewhere aren't present here yet. Several sources recommend poultry rotated through garden areas....which I can see working, though it requires more fencing and infrastructure than I have yet, and also ducks, basically free ranging except where very small plants are present...they have more appetite for bugs and less for plants than chickens do, and they do not scratch like chickens do, and their bills fiddle through the mulch seeking out the bugs. Odd thing that a wetland bird should be a good solution for a dryland garden.....I have them on the one/two year plan!
 
leila hamaya
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i think one of the keys to getting mulch and water right is in the timing. and often weathering the beds for quite a while before hand. i'm sure theres a bazillion different ways to do it "right" ....but in context for me its all about letting the mulch get weathered through the rainy wet times, and even better all winter long before planting in the spring.

i generally keep adding and adding new layers as i go, and every time i add a new layer of mulch i have to water for a long time, ideally even before and after. if i know it will start raining for a few days in spring i try to get a new layer on just before.

otherwise with lots of mulch you have water really extremely deeply at first, then later you can not water, or sparingly water once plants are established through the dry season.
 
John Polk
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I think that mulching practices need to be tailored to the site.
The fine tuning of the system may take a couple of years to find the best solution for each site.
Soil types and weather patterns will greatly effect what works best.
Some trial and error tests would be needed to find a 'happy medium'.
And once you have found the right combination, don't forget: next years weather may be far from normal...oh, well.

For example, in an area where you typically get 1/4 inch of rain per event, and have 4 inches of mulch, it is unlikely that any of that rain will ever reach the soil. The top 1/2 inch of mulch will get damp, and most of that moisture will evaporate off in a warm, arid region. It would be labor intensive to go out and rake the mulch away from the plants just prior to each event, and then push it back into place after the rain stops. In a smallish garden, that practice could maximize the use of rain, but would be impractical on a large site.

Letting your mulch decompose on the surface works well in humid environments, but can be counter productive in an arid region. In an arid region (or season), I think that it would be more productive to mulch with finished (or almost finished) compost. It is much quicker to compost in large piles than it is in thin layers. Finished compost will turn dirt into soil much quicker than raw vegetation will.

For most arid regions with a Mediterranean climate, I think that the optimal time to mulch is in the autumn. This gives the mulch the opportunity to collect a maximum of autumn rains and winter snows, and ample time to weather before the spring rains cease.
 
Nolan Robert
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John Polk wrote:I think that mulching practices need to be tailored to the site.
The fine tuning of the system may take a couple of years to find the best solution for each site.
Soil types and weather patterns will greatly effect what works best.
Some trial and error tests would be needed to find a 'happy medium'.
And once you have found the right combination, don't forget: next years weather may be far from normal...oh, well.

For example, in an area where you typically get 1/4 inch of rain per event, and have 4 inches of mulch, it is unlikely that any of that rain will ever reach the soil. The top 1/2 inch of mulch will get damp, and most of that moisture will evaporate off in a warm, arid region. It would be labor intensive to go out and rake the mulch away from the plants just prior to each event, and then push it back into place after the rain stops. In a smallish garden, that practice could maximize the use of rain, but would be impractical on a large site.

Letting your mulch decompose on the surface works well in humid environments, but can be counter productive in an arid region. In an arid region (or season), I think that it would be more productive to mulch with finished (or almost finished) compost. It is much quicker to compost in large piles than it is in thin layers. Finished compost will turn dirt into soil much quicker than raw vegetation will.

For most arid regions with a Mediterranean climate, I think that the optimal time to mulch is in the autumn. This gives the mulch the opportunity to collect a maximum of autumn rains and winter snows, and ample time to weather before the spring rains cease.



So I can use compost like mulch? Lay it on bare soil as a protective covering? Won't it dry out quicker than mulch, and be pretty much just dirt on dirt?
 
Nolan Robert
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Aljaz Plankl wrote:Depends on mulch you're going to use.
You can forget about hay, it will draw more moisture out of soil and keep all the rainwater for itself.
This are my experiences using only hay without additional watering or organic matter.
You need as much fresh stuff as possible for mulching, manures are excelent.
What really works here in Slovenia in sub-meditaranean climate region is no-dig soil mulched 10-20cm with one year old goat manure (straw bedding) in fall.
No dig is essential i think, as capilary action is not damaged.
Also, when diging you introduce too much air, making soil even more dry.
Even if you incoirporate organic matter, soil uses it too quickly because all life needs to reastablish.



What about making little ditches to collect water and plant plants in, and covering the area with either mulch or manure? Think that might work?
 
Nolan Robert
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Alder Burns wrote:The longer I live and garden here in the northern Central Vally (CA) the less and less enamored I'm becoming of mulch as the panacea for every need of the garden. At least combined with irrigation (and I will always have to irrigate here if I want any summer crops or anything other than, say, acorns and olives and such like), mulch quickly becomes a habitat for large numbers of earwigs, pillbugs, and, if damp enough, slugs. If I bury my drip tape or soaker hoses in the mulch, it's much more likely that rodents will chew holes in it. A permanent wood-chip mulch or some such around permanent plants is working, but such plants are usually up out of the reach of the ground bugs and have the heavier, emitter hoses. But for annuals I'm stepping back to bare soil and hoeing, which also seems to be the best way to keep the cursed bermuda grass in check
I've tried to subdue this with cardboard sheet mulch, but two years plus under a solid cover isn't sufficient yet.....I'm just going to keep at it in this one area, re-doing it in patches where I see it coming through; but I definitely can't plant anything in there or the grass will be back through the gaps where I insert any plants through.
My hunch is that the Mediterranean ecosystem is just different, and perhaps lower in diversity than the Eastern, summer moisture places I've lived before. When and where I irrigate, aggressive pest species rapidly proliferate, and their predators, parasites, fungi, etc. that might keep them in check elsewhere aren't present here yet. Several sources recommend poultry rotated through garden areas....which I can see working, though it requires more fencing and infrastructure than I have yet, and also ducks, basically free ranging except where very small plants are present...they have more appetite for bugs and less for plants than chickens do, and they do not scratch like chickens do, and their bills fiddle through the mulch seeking out the bugs. Odd thing that a wetland bird should be a good solution for a dryland garden.....I have them on the one/two year plan!


My best bed has actually been the one that I put down compost and then covered with free local mulch (mostly tree leaves). The water soaks right threw and then it stays in there. So since I'm using mulch from trees from my area, maybe it reacts to water differently?

I don't have any hay mulch to use hahaha!
 
Nolan Robert
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I've thought about the chicken Idea before.

I've read that in nature animals are very important in plant growth cycles, as they disturb the soil and also manure and mulch for you with the plant leavings they... leave.

But, I don't know how long I'll be at this property, and I don't want to leave chickens here for the home owner to contend with when I leave!

Maybe I can "rent" a friends chickens for a spot I want to plant in?
 
John Polk
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So I can use compost like mulch? Lay it on bare soil as a protective covering? Won't it dry out quicker than mulch, and be pretty much just dirt on dirt?

To me, this is one of those 'iffy' situations. Compost can be a great mulch. Most compost is basically dead plant material that has most of the water out of it through the composting process. Yes, since it is drier than 'fresh' plant material, it will absorb more of the rain (and irrigation water). In the wrong situation, that means most rain that falls on it, will end up being evaporated into the atmosphere (during the dry months). A light covering of 'regular' mulch will help mitigate that problem.

I grew up in SoCal, but spent most of my time in 4 different parts of L.A. county. Each of those areas had entirely different climates. What would work to perfection in one zone, would be totally worthless in any of the other three. Two of those parts were less than a mile apart, as the crow flies, but the differences were extreme. I also spent a couple of years in the Middle East. What worked best there, was almost exactly the same as one of those areas, but would not work well in the other three. That is why I stated that each solution must be tailored to the site.

Whether it is compost or mulch, it isn't (yet) part of the soil. Eventually, it will become a part of the soil, but in the mean time, it is acting as a protective layer, a buffer zone - an important 'edge'.

Tree leaves (especially from natives) can make a very good mulch for plants. For most of us, our first choices will be things that are in abundance, at no cost. Free leaves (or grass clippings) will almost always 'trump' a bag of xyz purchased at the local garden shop. Use what is readily available to you. Whatever it is, it is a step above bare dirt.
 
Nolan Robert
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John Polk wrote:
So I can use compost like mulch? Lay it on bare soil as a protective covering? Won't it dry out quicker than mulch, and be pretty much just dirt on dirt?

To me, this is one of those 'iffy' situations. Compost can be a great mulch. Most compost is basically dead plant material that has most of the water out of it through the composting process. Yes, since it is drier than 'fresh' plant material, it will absorb more of the rain (and irrigation water). In the wrong situation, that means most rain that falls on it, will end up being evaporated into the atmosphere (during the dry months). A light covering of 'regular' mulch will help mitigate that problem.

I grew up in SoCal, but spent most of my time in 4 different parts of L.A. county. Each of those areas had entirely different climates. What would work to perfection in one zone, would be totally worthless in any of the other three. Two of those parts were less than a mile apart, as the crow flies, but the differences were extreme. I also spent a couple of years in the Middle East. What worked best there, was almost exactly the same as one of those areas, but would not work well in the other three. That is why I stated that each solution must be tailored to the site.

Whether it is compost or mulch, it isn't (yet) part of the soil. Eventually, it will become a part of the soil, but in the mean time, it is acting as a protective layer, a buffer zone - an important 'edge'.

Tree leaves (especially from natives) can make a very good mulch for plants. For most of us, our first choices will be things that are in abundance, at no cost. Free leaves (or grass clippings) will almost always 'trump' a bag of xyz purchased at the local garden shop. Use what is readily available to you. Whatever it is, it is a step above bare dirt.



I've been mixing the mulch in with a pitchfork as of late because I don't think we have enough things living in the soil to help break them down for us. Our soil is mostly sand, with no living organisms in it.
 
John Polk
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I've been mixing the mulch in with a pitchfork as of late because I don't think we have enough things living in the soil to help break them down for us.

Any time that you mix organic matter into the soil, you are providing food for the soil 'critters'. Dirt has no life. Soil is teeming with life - the 'Soil Food Web" (SFW). As the food supply increases, the critters will begin multiplying - to the point that there is insufficient food, at which point the critter's population will begin decreasing. Adding organic matter to the soil is the simplest way to add microbial life to the soil.

I have heard some people argue that compost must be finished before adding it to the soil. Personally, I don't buy that philosophy. In a typical compost pile, the bacteria begin breaking it down, and reproducing more bacteria. All of this activity will heat up the pile to 140-160* + F. After their food supply will no longer support the large population, they begin dieing off, and the pile begins cooling down. At this point, the fungi begin to move in, since their diet is different than the bacteria's diet, and they cannot survive in the higher heats that the bacteria thrive in. I believe that once the fungal numbers maximize, it is an ideal time to put this fungi populated pile onto or into your topsoil. The fungi will then populate your soil. If you keep adding organic material, the fungi will have an endless supply of food, thus maintaining a thriving population. Woodlands (trees) thrive in a fungal environment, where tree leaves comprise a large part of a fungal diet.

I believe that adding fungi rich material is an important first step in building a food forest. Half finished compost, and leaves are great sources for fungal environment.




 
Nolan Robert
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John Polk wrote:
I've been mixing the mulch in with a pitchfork as of late because I don't think we have enough things living in the soil to help break them down for us.

Any time that you mix organic matter into the soil, you are providing food for the soil 'critters'. Dirt has no life. Soil is teeming with life - the 'Soil Food Web" (SFW). As the food supply increases, the critters will begin multiplying - to the point that there is insufficient food, at which point the critter's population will begin decreasing. Adding organic matter to the soil is the simplest way to add microbial life to the soil.









I've heard that in less brittle areas you can just leave mulch on top of your soil and the microscopic critters and worms will bring it down for you. But I think it's too dry here. That's why I have to mix it in, so it becomes more mature litter. Otherwise it doesn't break down, it just sits on top of the dirt and dries out.

Is it bad for the soil if you use a pitchfork to get the mulch in? Is it the same as tilling? Not that I have much "soil" to start with, as you pointed out.
 
John Polk
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I don't see the harm in using a pitch fork, or broad fork.
I have heard claims that it admits too much oxygen into the soil, but I do not think that is even an issue.
Soil needs approximately 25% of its space occupied by water and air.
Most soils I have dealt with could use more water and air than they have.

A hand operated pitch fork is not going to have any significant impact on the soil life.
If it is delivering food to the soil life it is having a positive effect.

Something like a rototiller, on the other hand, can be devestating to the soil life.
Multiple blades, spinning at 600 RPM, don't give living creatures much of a chance.
We all know that worms move slowly - certainly not quick enough to outrun a 600 RPM steel blade.
Most of the soil food web is much slower than a worm. Some of those critters probably move less than an inch in their lifetimes.
Two minutes with a rototiller will probably kill more critters than an 8 hour day with a pitch fork.

 
Nolan Robert
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John Polk wrote:I don't see the harm in using a pitch fork, or broad fork.
I have heard claims that it admits too much oxygen into the soil, but I do not think that is even an issue.
Soil needs approximately 25% of its space occupied by water and air.
Most soils I have dealt with could use more water and air than they have.

A hand operated pitch fork is not going to have any significant impact on the soil life.
If it is delivering food to the soil life it is having a positive effect.

Something like a rototiller, on the other hand, can be devestating to the soil life.
Multiple blades, spinning at 600 RPM, don't give living creatures much of a chance.
We all know that worms move slowly - certainly not quick enough to outrun a 600 RPM steel blade.
Most of the soil food web is much slower than a worm. Some of those critters probably move less than an inch in their lifetimes.
Two minutes with a rototiller will probably kill more critters than an 8 hour day with a pitch fork.




O.k. cool.

Now, what about making pits with a hoe and putting compost and than mulch in them? I've been having some success with this method, but is it destructive of the soil?

I'm thinking that since I'm adding organic material into the soil (I think? If I'm putting it in the pit than I'm adding it to the soil, right?) and also growing plants in the pits, that provide shade and ground cover, that the disturbance of the hoe is compensated for.
 
John Polk
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I've been having some success with this method, but is it destructive of the soil?

I think that anything we do to the soil has the potential of doing some harm to the soil life.
It becomes a trade-off.

I believe that if one kills a billion critters in the process, but that process creates food and suitable habitat for 10 billion critters, it is a net win. If you are starting with good soil, you want to do as little harm as possible. But, if you are starting with compacted, lifeless soil, almost anything would be an improvement.

Many claim that just putting mulch on the surface will accomplish the same results, and with less harm.
To an extent, that is true, but it is a very slow process.

Imagine 2 side by side plots. On one of those plots, an inch of manure, and 2 inches of straw are laid on the surface.
On the other plot, the same materials are worked into the top 6 inches of the soil.
The plot that has the material worked into it has the capacity to grow a fair crop this (and every) year.
The roots of that crop are digging their way deeper and deeper into the soil each year, where they will eventually decay.
If this same process is repeated each spring, at the end of the 4th year, the plot that has had the material dug in will have perhaps 6 inches of good topsoil, loaded with organic matter. The other plot will have maybe an inch or two of soil sitting atop maybe an inch of soil that has been partially rejuvenated.

It is much quicker to improve soil than it is to build soil.
From the estimates that I have read, it takes nature about 1,000 years to build an inch of soil.
With some labor, we can do that in about a year.
How soon do you want good soil?
Most of us cannot afford to buy land with 6-12 inches of good loam. We have to make our own.

 
Nolan Robert
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I think that anything we do to the soil has the potential of doing some harm to the soil life.
It becomes a trade-off.

I believe that if one kills a billion critters in the process, but that process creates food and suitable habitat for 10 billion critters, it is a net win. If you are starting with good soil, you want to do as little harm as possible. But, if you are starting with compacted, lifeless soil, almost anything would be an improvement.

Many claim that just putting mulch on the surface will accomplish the same results, and with less harm.
To an extent, that is true, but it is a very slow process.

Imagine 2 side by side plots. On one of those plots, an inch of manure, and 2 inches of straw are laid on the surface.
On the other plot, the same materials are worked into the top 6 inches of the soil.
The plot that has the material worked into it has the capacity to grow a fair crop this (and every) year.
The roots of that crop are digging their way deeper and deeper into the soil each year, where they will eventually decay.
If this same process is repeated each spring, at the end of the 4th year, the plot that has had the material dug in will have perhaps 6 inches of good topsoil, loaded with organic matter. The other plot will have maybe an inch or two of soil sitting atop maybe an inch of soil that has been partially rejuvenated.

It is much quicker to improve soil than it is to build soil.
From the estimates that I have read, it takes nature about 1,000 years to build an inch of soil.
With some labor, we can do that in about a year.
How soon do you want good soil?
Most of us cannot afford to buy land with 6-12 inches of good loam. We have to make our own.



I want good soil as soon as possible, as I imagine most folks here do.

If I threw out organic matter and broad forked it in (thus giving it some aeration and water infiltration), would that create compost on/in my soil?
 
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