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Brush and saplings as mulch for soil improvement and grass suppression  RSS feed

 
Dan Boone
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
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OK, I just spent the last hour reading all the threads in this mulch forum with promising titles, and could not find much discussion of this.

Here's my scheme and situation. I am trying to build a small orchard area in the nearest-to-my-house corner of extensive "oldfields" that are going back to forest. I do not have access to mechanical clearing, leveling, plowing, or excavation; only what I can do with hand tools. Nor do I have any sources of off-site mulch at this time.

So I have a few freshly planted or transplanted fruit trees with nine month's growth on them, surrounded by hummocky tussocks of vigorous clumping grass. The trees are doing fine but there is definitely grass competition going on. I've done some digging up of individual grass tussocks, but each one is ten minute's hard work with a mattock. And there are thousands if I range far enough afield, hundreds and hundreds within the area I ultimately hope to build into a food forest.

Moving away from my orchard area, there's a lot more of these grass tussocks interspersed with saplings that are trying to reclaim the former pasture. Most of these are winged elm (perfectly fine trees but I have lots of mature ones and don't need a forest of them) with a bit of honey locust, osage orange, and western red cedar (a juniper species). As I work to enlarge the orchard area, I'm cutting a great many of these saplings with hand tools, and clearing away the lower branches of larger specimens that I'm leaving in place (at least until my fruit trees are much bigger) for windbreak, bird habitat, biomass generation, nitrogen fixing, and the like.

So with my machete I'm generating a lot of saplings and brush (small branches) that are woody in character but generally less than an inch in diameter through any stem. Until recently all this brush was very leafy; now that it's winter all the leaves have dropped except from the red cedar (about 5% of the total).

At first I was stacking all this small woody debris into deep and tall brush piles, which are a fine thing to have for wildlife habitat. But I've come to the realization that I may be better off stacking this stuff in loose drifts as a sort of mulch, not right up against my fruit trees (because nibblers would hide in there whilst munching) but on top of the grassy tussocks in the vicinity of my trees and in the vicinity of future tree-planting locations.

My reasoning is that when I do this, all the leaves and needles will drop to the soil surface and enrich the soil, while the stems will serve as a partial barrier that helps suppress the tussocky grass. It's not a thick enough layer to block the grass completely, but it should impede it some, and like any other mulch, it will shade the soil, help retain moisture, and eventually decompose into soil nutrients.

However, I never hear of anybody doing this. Everybody seems to shred or chip, using gear I don't have. And I'm not sure whether that's because my situation is unusual or because it's a terrible idea to use brushy stems as mulch for reasons I haven't discovered yet. So I'm posting for feedback.

Some of the reading I have done talks about the value of differently-sized woody material at the soil surface in a forest garden. And I can already see some suppression of the grass as hoped. There's also the notion that this woody material will help to more quickly shift the soil from a pastoral bacterial regime to the fungal regime we want in a food forest. Balanced against that I can think of a few downsides, including:

1) It's messy and unsightly. Not a factor in my situation; nobody sees it but me and I don't care.

2) At some point I will probably have to police up the larger stems, because they are a tripping hazard and will not decompose completely in this moisture regime for many years. I'm cool with that if they help suppress the grass in the meanwhile.

3) It's not AS effective in suppressing the grass as a layer of proper mulch or a sheet mulching regime would be. Irrelevant here because I don't have access to good mulch in volume.

4) Some people worry about termites in woody debris, but this is far enough from structures not to be a concern for me.

Has anybody done a lot of mulching with hand-cut brush and limbs? How did it work out? Have I missed some fatal flaw? All opinions welcome.
 
David Creed
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Hi Dan, it sounds like you have a hell of a lot of work on your hands, just a couple of ideas off the top of my head. Try and make some type of fork bent at 90 deg with some chain attached, hammer it in behind a tussock and pull out with your vehicle, turn it upside down and cover with cardboard and soil, look online for a used chipper, I found one for £25 and with a little work it is working fine now, spread out the mulch and again cover with cardboard and soil, this should give a good humid environment for the mulch to break down quicker than out in the open, good luck Dave
 
Dan Boone
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
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forest garden trees woodworking
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Thanks, David. Lot of work indeed! Thanks so much for the suggestions.

Sadly my only vehicle is a super-light SUV with a lot of plastic structural parts and no secure attachment points for hooking and pulling. Nor would I care to risk a breakdown under towing strains it's not designed for, given that I can't afford to replace it. So the tussock-pulling is right out.

In this thread I was hoping not so much for "here are some other approaches you could use if you had stuff you don't have" (like sufficient organic matter to do a proper sheet mulch, or a chipper) as I am looking to benefit from the experience and informed speculation of others regarding the thing I am doing with the stuff I do have (saplings and branches).

That said, I really do want a wood chipper and I am watching garage sales and local used-item sources for one that I can afford. There are threads in this mulch forum calling the value of a wood chipper into question (example), and my own impression is that they are a lot of trouble and labor for disappointing amounts of throughput, but I'm so rich in brush and so poor in mulch that I'd use one if I had one for sure!

 
Dale Hodgins
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I'll bet you could benefit from snow fencing. Dense brush piles are the ultimate snow fence. Orient piles so that they can serve this function. They could also sit atop swales. Critters will often hide and feed on growth in a brush pile. Your best hope for the grass may be in helping them feed.

I have mowed down about 20,000 sq ft. of very tough salmon berries with this cordless hedge cutter. It also cut some 6 foot grass clumps.

http://www.permies.com/t/37947/gear/Cordless-hedge-trimmer
 
Dan Boone
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
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Dale, your thread on using those things has convinced me that I want one the next time I get a hundred bucks ahead of my other obligations. I like my battery string trimmer and my battery chainsaw despite their very real limits. I never looked twice at the hedge trimmers -- I don't have hedges! -- until I saw your thread. Then I was like "I'm a doofus."

We get surprisingly little snow here but when it does snow -- when it's blizzarding in Kansas basically -- the snow does tend to blow and drift. I hadn't considered the siting of my brush piles with that in mind but it's a good idea, especially since winter here is dryer than spring and fall and the snow usually melts in a few days to irrigate whatever it's piled near.
 
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