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I think mulch hates me  RSS feed

 
r ranson
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It's not that I'm mulch-est, I just don't think mulch likes me very much.

I was thinking of posting this in the mulch category, but then bad dreams of people with internet for faces throwing all this groundcover in different stages of decomposition at me... it was very vivid dream, and made no sense at all because the people here are awesome and not faceless internet-monsters.

But then again, speaking out against mulch... this is going to label me as some sort of premie heretic.

Inquiring minds need to know, am I the only one who has no mulch mojo? Recently I found out no, there is at least one other.


This is my approach. I read about some new technique to grow food and I worry that I'm missing out on something awesome. But also a bit suspicious because I grow a huge amount more food per square foot than the new technique claims I can. So what do I do, I set up an experiment where I try the new technique on one area for a year or two, and observe. I try to be as true to the technique as possible, and sometimes I like it well enough to incorporate it into my growing style.

So when I read about mulch, love how the fungus works, it conserves water, evens temperature, adds nutrients, and it can bake a cake too, I'm stoked to try it. It makes total sense that it should work wonderfully well. I give it a good run, much more than any other newfangled growing technique I read about. I've tried everything I can get my hands on from carpet to leaf mulch. With one exception (and a few trials still ongoing) mulch totally fails to deliver all those wonderful promises.

For the longest time I thought there was something wrong with me. I have some sort of bad mulch mojo or something. But recently I read The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe and I discovered that someone else has reasons not to use mulch. Deppe lives in a similar climate to me, which got me wondering if it's the weather and not my mulch mojo after all.

To be positive, here's the good things mulch has done for me:
- wood chips are perfect for weed suppression in the herb garden, with perennial, extremely drought tolerant herbs.
- barley straw is promising in my Fukuoka barley experiment.

This is why I don't think mulch likes me
- it attracts bugs that eat the roots
- in the rainy season, it traps too much moisture which make the roots rot
- in the summer it prevents moisture from the air to get into the soil - we have dry summers with a lovely overnight dew that settles into the soil and the plants. It does not settle into the mulch.
- it prevents the ground from cooling off or heating up at the times of year I need it to cool or heat.
- it prevents the soil from freezing in the winter - most of the winter the soil is only frozen at night, then thaws come sunrise. Without this superficial freeze, I find that a great many insects survive in the soil - not necessarily beneficial insects either.
- rats love burrowing in it to eat my vegi
- it degrades VERY slowly here, much slower than the books say it should
- in the drought, aka every summer, it takes extra water to make certain the mulch AND the soil stay moist. Without the extra water, the mulch doesn't have enough moisture to decompose while it does all it's other jobs. It seems that when I have mulch, it takes more water per week than simply growing things on bare soil.


It is my understanding that mulch works by immitating the forest floor, the leaves fall, decompose, create nutrition for the other life of the forest.

I wonder if one of the indicators that I live somewhere where mulch doesn't work, is that deciduous forests are unusual in these parts. I noticed in other places, the conifers are starter trees and the mature forests are deciduous. Not here, not at all. Deciduous trees are the starter trees and conifers are the mature forest. The natural cycle of mulch and forests isn't the natural cycle here. Maybe there is something in the weather to explain this? I don't know. Do you know?

All I know is that mulch doesn't like me very much.


I just thought I would put my experience out there in case other people are struggling with mulch.

I'm also wondering what other local natural systems can I emulate in my food growing? Ones that rely less on mulch. More a question for myself, but maybe someone out there has some brainstorming ideas?



 
Satamax Antone
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Mate, i'm no expert, at all. But, i can see few things.


You're in conifer land, so, either up high, or up north (in the northern hemisphere)

So the soil must be acidic. Not much topsoil i'd guess, stoney gravely soil may be?


A bit of lime could help if acidic.

And for the mulch, may be seed it, stuff it in barrels, with some frequent sprinkle of water and roten wood. I would burry it a bit, rather than leaving it on top.


Don't spread it too thick too.


Don't ever use conifers for mulch! But more something like BRF (bois rameal fragmenté) Made out of branches and sapllings of deciduous trees.

Roten straw works quite nicely too.


HTH.

Max.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I am not a fan of mulch either...

The smell is nasty. I'm afraid that if I touch it that I'll get a disease. I get sick anyway from handling it because of the spores it releases into the air.
It provides great homes for bugs and gophers that I'd prefer to not have in my garden. They eat my plants more if there is more mulch.
In the spring it keeps things too wet so the roots and stems of plants rot, and so that bugs grow faster and want to eat more.
During the summer it dries out too quickly leaving plants parched.
Mulch is too expensive to purchase. It's too labor intensive to grow my own. Too much work to spread it around.

Around here, my natural soil system is lichens growing on gravel. Widely spaced perennials grow in the fall, winter, and spring and go dormant for the summer. Ephemeral annuals grow after a deluge.
 
Rebecca Norman
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Well, I'm still a mulch lover, but I've had no success using it outdoors here in the high desert. We have to irrigate as there is no rain to speak of, and the normal system here is furrow and flood irrigation, where you direct water to fill each garden bed or field bed in turn. When I tried to mulch onions with sticks and weeds, then when we irrigated, the mulch floated up and moved across the bed, pulling the little onions over. Also the climate is so arid that the mulch didn't start decaying in the first season.

But when I used mulch in the greenhouse, it has done all that lovely mulch stuff. The greenhouse is more humid, and I water with buckets so I don't get that flowing problem. The bottom of the mulch turns black and rotten, and the soil below it gets all dark and soft and damp and nice.
 
r ranson
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Location: Left Coast Canada
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Thanks for chiming in Joseph. Now I know two people who don't get on well with mulch.

Satamax, interesting thoughts.

You're in conifer land, so, either up high, or up north (in the northern hemisphere)


We aren't much more than 100 feet above sea level, about a minutes drive to salt water. I don't think that's high altitude, but then again, I wouldn't want to live much higher. It's zone 9a and not as far north as many of the mature deciduous forests I've seen. So I don't know if we can blame it on latitude or elevation for my lack of mulch mojo.

So the soil must be acidic. Not much topsoil i'd guess, stoney gravely soil may be?


If we cut down the forest and try to garden there, then yes, it can be very acidic. Then again, some of the conifer forests here aren't as acidic as you think, it really depends on what the glaciers deposited and how close to a salmon run your forest is. Growing where there isn't any forest, or hasn't been for a while, the soil is very slightly acidic, not much, not enough to bother the plants much, about Tomato loving acidic.

As for topsoil, there is not as much as I would like, only about two feet where my main gardens are, with some places as little as 1/8th of an inch but that's where a man used earth moving machines, not the original state of the place. In the forest, the topsoil goes quite a bit deeper than that. Where my main garden is, there is quite a bit of small stone and sand beneath the top soil, from where the glacier left it. But walk for a minute in any direction, and you can get everything from hard rocky outcrops to soft silt.

Does acidic soil prevent mulch from decomposing? I've noticed that the compost likes being a bit acidic, but maybe I'm wrong in thinking that mulch is like compost?

I have tried adding lime to my mulch, but I've noticed it gets thirsty and slows down how fast it decomposes. I'm not a huge fan of lime these days as I can usually get my soil ph pretty neutral with wood ashes applied to the soil over the winter. But lime does make a good backup.

And for the mulch, may be seed it, stuff it in barrels, with some frequent sprinkle of water and roten wood.


So compost the mulch prior to adding it? I haven't tried barrel aging mulch yet. I've done the leave it in the pile until it stops producing heat, turn it, leave it in a pile again thing.

Using semi-composted mulch had the advantage of not sucking up as much water as raw mulch. The biggest problem I had with it was that it attracted a lot more bugs than raw mulch. One of the times I tried it, there must have been a wrong fungus in it as some of the plants got this fungal infection.

The other thing I didn't like about it was that it doesn't imitate nature very closely. Nature doesn't make a big pile of mulch, leave it a few months to compost and only then distribute it. The older I get, the more I look to nature for inspiration.

I would burry it a bit, rather than leaving it on top.


More a question of semantics. I know that language changes with useage, so I may be off here. Is it still mulch if it's buried or would it be compost?
Don't spread it too thick too...Don't ever use conifers for mulch!


Great advice.
I've actually tried both thin and thick mulch, both conifers and deciduous, and mixed, and commercial, and paper, and... a great number of different kinds. The conifer chipper mulch actually works better for the herb garden, the rest... haven't found one that likes me yet.

Roten straw works quite nicely too.


Hopefully yes. I have a few trials still ongoing with straw. However, I've found that in this part of the world, when it comes to the vegi garden or anywhere where there are plants alive in the winter (ie, perennials) the straw needs to be removed come fall or it will attract and harbour many root munching bugs, even in a layer less than an inch thick. I lost a lot of fava beans this winter because I left the straw on the garden and the march fly larvae loved it.

On the whole, some interesting thoughts and pointers. It's nice to confirm that I have been using mulch 'properly' in my trials.
I still don't think that mulch likes me.

 
r ranson
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Poor little onions.

But when I used mulch in the greenhouse, it has done all that lovely mulch stuff. The greenhouse is more humid, and I water with buckets so I don't get that flowing problem. The bottom of the mulch turns black and rotten, and the soil below it gets all dark and soft and damp and nice


That's an interesting thought. How big is your greenhouse?

I haven't tried it in the greenhouse yet. My greenhouse is tiny with very little airflow. But maybe if I find the right mulch... going to give it some thought. It may be worth an experiment.
 
Rebecca Norman
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food preservation greening the desert solar trees
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R Ranson wrote:
That's an interesting thought. How big is your greenhouse?


We've got a few greenhouses, but I only mulch in the one attached to and heating my living space. It's too culturally weird and foreign to people here, so I haven't pushed it much on others. My personal greenhouse space is small -- the beds are maybe 40 square feet at most.
 
Pia Jensen
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When I worked for Wilder Landscaping in Santa Fe New Mexico, 2010, many of our client soil profiles were hi acid, infertile, erosion prone... Besides setting up extensive grey water reclamation systems (fully wired/automated/monitored as our clients were all very well to do) they had us regularly (weekly, bi-weekly then less often) add liquid Mycorrhiza applications. The results I saw within just a few months after commencing the myco applications were stunning. I have since used more naturally curated micro-organism mixes - Effective Microorganisms and Mountain Microorganisms (EM or MM) and am in awe over the prolific soil repair it produces. Here are recipes from a successful organic producer /land healer in Costa Rica.La Agricultura Orgánica - EM and MM Yes, sorry, it is in Spanish. But, very much worth translating.
 
Pia Jensen
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I am also, quickly, becoming a fan of red clover winter cover and mix crop (corn ... y que mas?)

clover for the fertile, soil mass accumulation and corn for the deep root busting earth potential... I have artichoke also and am going to use them for their prolific mass reproduction and root busting hard earth capacity (maybe not granite... lol) they don't mind a little acid soil

thinking hugel (diverse non acid materials) swale corn mix with clover hugel swale artichoke mix with ...
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Driving around town today reminded me of the fire hazard that mulch presents. I was remembering the places that I have seen beds of mulch on fire, and stopped to stomp them out.

 
Nicole Alderman
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Mulch doesn't much like me, and for a reason you didn't mention: SLUGS. Evil things. I covered a hugel mound with leaf litter (alder and maple leaves) from my woods. It was about 2-3 inches deep. It did a nice job of suppressing the grass and keeping things moist (although, moisture here this time of the year isn't a problem). I happily planted my peas under the mulch, in the soil. Of the thirty seeds I planted, only one managed to make it to the top... the rest were all eaten by baby slugs before they even got out of the leaves! The slugs had laid their nests in the leaves and all the little babies hatched out and were quite hungry. They dined on pea seeds. I ended up taking up all that mulch and throwing it under my raspberry plants, which the slugs aren't nearly as keen on eating. The raspberries seem to be thankful that the grass is smothered, and they seem to be doing well. It's only been a month, though.

I've found--in my bare two years of gardening--the leaf mulch does well under fruit trees, too. The grass is subdued and the trees seem healthy.

As for mulch with veggies, I've found some that seem to work decently here (a.k.a. better than grass clippings or leaf litter!). Coffee grounds work wonderfully. Supposedly they don't actually add acidity*. They also are not favored by slugs, and help keep them at bay. This spring I started applying my ducks' bedding (pine shavings and poop), and the slugs don't seem attracted to it. The peas I planted are doing well.




*I learned about the coffee from Dale Hodgins. Here's two quotes from http://www.permies.com/t/41259/composting/Dollar-coffee-grounds:
They're supposed to be pretty neutral. The acid comes out in the drink. I've never tested for PH. I'm told that everything here is horribly acidic, but when I plant stuff, I have to jump back to avoid being hit by the emerging growth.
and
The coffee is spread on the surface. Bugs drag it around. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are given a cover of coffee with no other mulch. The dark color makes the soil warmer.

 
r ranson
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Location: Left Coast Canada
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Coffee Not Acidic?!? Wow! I love coffee. I'm going to get my soil testing kit out and run some experiments.

Will read the thread you link to this evening as today is looking busy (but includes a stop at my favourite coffee shop ). Hopefully there's tips as to how thick and what time of year to apply it. Any pre-treatment needed before applying, stuff like that.

The only down side I can see is that I won't be able to let my chickens near the coffee mulch. That's okay, the gardens I want to use it on are fenced so the chickens can't get in.

If I can get the used ground, it's definitely worth a trial on my garden.
 
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