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Grow your own mulch article

 
Posts: 20
Location: Portugal
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Our land has low levels of nitrogen and we are looking to fix this without the use of chemical fertilizers. Our land is already growing nitrogen fixing plants (Clovers, vetches and bird foot) trees (mimosa) and shrubs (broom). So it seems that nature naturally fixes itself if left to its own devices. However we want to speed this up by growing a lot more green material for mulching as well as fixing nitrogen into the ground. These are called cover crops, green manure or green mulch.

This will not only give us a better supply of mulch for composting and planting but the plants will fix nitrogen into the ground. As we usually like to mulch around our plants with a layer of green mulch followed by a layer of brown mulch, we will continually grow these nitrogen fixers in half of our annual garden every year to have green mulch readily available.

If you’re new to this, here is some terminology for the following article:

Cover crops: Annual plants such as clover that you plant on a resting field or bed to prevent soils drying out, washing away and to fix nitrogen into the ground.

Mulch: Organic biomass that is used to cover the soil to prevent soils drying out, prevent weeds from growing, stop top soil washing in rain and to provide nutrients to the microorganisms in the soil (e.g. hay)

Living green mulch: For example: clover can be grown around plants to act as a living mulch to prevent soils from drying out, hold off weeds and fix nitrogen

Green Manure: This is cuttings of cover crops that can be used in compost piles or as green mulch (see mulch above). Green mulch is higher in nitrogen than brown mulch (e.g. dry leaves, straw or hay)

clover

Annual nitrogen fixing cover crops:
Listed below are the ideal times to plant cover crops that fix nitrogen in the soil. However I am sure most of them can be planted at different times just with a lower yield. There are many other cover crops that bring up nutrients (dynamic accumulators) and create biomass (lots of green mulch) that can be planted but this list just refers to nitrogen fixing cover crops. There are also other crops that produce a large amount of biomass (e.g. radish) and accumulate minerals (e.g comfrey) but these will be included in another blog.

English name (Latin name / Portuguese name) – note there are many varieties for some of these but we have listed at least one

Spring Planting:

Chickpeas (February) (Cicer Arietinum / Grão de Bico)
Clovers (Trevo)
Subterranean Clover (Trifolium Subterraneum / Trevo Subterranean) – availible in organic bulk seeds at the local agrological shop in Portugal. A advantage of this is that it is self fertile, however it does not attract as many pollinators as other clovers.
White Clover (Trifolium Repens) – Shorter  and spreads more than red clover, so it is better to plant as a green mulch around plants
Red Clover (Trifolium Pratense) – Taller than white cloverso it is better as a green manure
Alfalfa ( Medicago Sativa / Alfalfa)
Mustard (Sinapis hirta / Mostarda)
Sorghum (Sorghum Bicolor / Sorgo)
Oats (Avena Sativa / Aveia)
Rye (Secale cereale / Centeio) – Lots of biomass in spring
Peas (Pisum Sativum / Ervinhas)
Lupins (Lupinus / Tremoso)
Phacelia (Phacelia Tanacetifolia / )
Vetch (Vicia cracca / Ervilhaca) – Naturally occuring on our land

Summer planting
Cow pea (Vigna unguiculata/ feijão frade) There are many examples of summer beans that can be planted
Buckwheat (Trigo Sarraceno)
Yellow serradella (Ornithopus Compressus / Serradela) – Occurring naturally on our land
Plus most of the plants included in the spring planting above, if you have sufficient water to irrigate

Autumn planting
Clovers (Trevo) – Naturally occuring on our land
Subterranean Clover (Trifolium Subterraneum / Trevo Subterranean) – availible in organic bulk seeds at the local agrological shop in Portugal. Its good as its self fertile, its bad as it does not attract so any pollinators
White Clover (Trifolium repens)
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
Alfalfa ( Medicago sativa / Alfalfa)
Rye (Secale cereale / Centeio) – Lots of biomass in spring
Ryegrass (Lolium  / Azevém)
Oats (Avena Sativa / Aveia)
yellow serradella (Ornithopus compressus / Serradela) – Naturally occuring on our land, can withstand heavy gazing
Vetch (Vicia Cracca / Ervilhaca) – Naturally occuring on our land

Winter planting
Fava Beans/Broad Beans (Vicia Faba/ Fava)
Peas (Pisum Sativum / Ervilha)
Chickpeas (February) (Cicer arietinum / Grão de bico)
How do they fix nitrogen?
On the roots of these plants lives a nitrogen fixing bacteria (rhizobium and others). This bacteria takes in nitrogen from the air within the soil and the nitrogen is then available from the plants roots, leaves and stems.

To fix this nitrogen into the ground, the plants should be either:

Chopped before they go to seed and allowed to decompose in the ground, a technique called ‘chop and drop‘, then one should ideally dig the green mulch into the ground or cover it with an additional layer of brown mulch, to ensure the nitrogen isn’t released into the atmosphere but sequestered back into the soil.
Allowing animals to  graze it and recycle it is a less efficient way of fixing the nitrogen because some nitrogen from urine and manure will volatilize (passed off as vapour) as ammonia and is lost from the system
Add the green mulch to compost piles
Add the green mulch around plants in other areas of the land (then cover the green mulch with brown mulch)
Don’t forget to let some go to seed so you can replant in the next season.

Mulch layering
We usually use a little compost or aged manure, which is then completely covered with green mulch (you should not be able to see the compost or manure). We then completely cover this with a thick layer of hay and then a thin layer of straw (again the previous layer should not be visible). The hay has a higher nutritional value for the soil than straw but can harbour seeds from weeds so we cover it with straw which does not contain weed seeds and stays dryer so does not act as a medium for weeds to germinate on. The straw we use has grain seeds of plants which are nitrogen fixers so often a further green cover crop is grown from these seeds that can be chopped and dropped for further nitrogen fixation.

Interplanting with annuals
We have been planting clovers around our trees and annual plants as these fix nitrogen and stop weeds growing in beds. There are different theories on when to plant the cover crops around different annuals, but I would suggest doing it a few weeks after you plant annual crops such as cabbages and corn for less competition .

Below, you can see that the bed in one of our annual gardens is covered in green. In this small bed we had summer crops of tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, brussel sprouts, leeks and onions. The broccoli leaves are still growing and being harvested for the chickens and salads. It has a variety of herbs to attract beneficial insects and to repel pests. It also has the complete area covered in a variety of clovers which we allowed to go to seed.  We have been collecting the seeds for the past few weeks. This week I will pull out all of the plants which will either go to the kitchen or to the chickens. I will cut back all of the clovers and leave the leaves in the bed (chop and drop) and dig them into the ground with a little bit of compost and cover with hay and straw. Ideally some of the clovers will find a way to grow back from the roots and seeds to fix more nitrogen, I will then leave this bed to rest for one year. During this time I will continue to chop and drop the clovers.




Perennial nitrogen fixers
Growing annual nitrogen fixers is a quick method to get nitrogen into the soil. There are also nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs that can do the job year after year without maintenance. These can be planted in between nitrogen demanding trees, around annual beds or in pasture fields as a lot of them also act as fodder crops providing more sustainable food for livestock as well as shade. I will write about these in a future blog. However until these are established, the quickest way is with the annual cover crops mentioned above.

References:

https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-2160.pdf

https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/cover-crop-basics

http://www.drapn.min-agricultura.pt/drapn/conteudos/FICHAS_DRAEDM/Ficha_tecnica_096_2001.pdf
http://keelayogafarm.com/2017/12/28/growing-green-manure-portugal/

feedback and additions welcomed!
 
Posts: 47
Location: Berkshire County, Ma. 6b/4a. Approx. 50" rain
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Awesome post. Here's a redundant resource: http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu/decision-tool.php

I recently bumped into a talk by Elaine Ingham on youtube. Her premise is that a lack of balance between fungi and bacteria in the soil can favor weed growth, and lock up "nitrogen" in the soil in the form of nitrate, in our annual gardens. A fascinating and easily digestible take on soils science.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWeenFw_xV4&t=442s

She definitely has encouraged me to experiment with inoculating my soils with stropharia rugosoannulate.

 
Posts: 758
Location: Bendigo , Australia
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I loved the information and will experiment more
 
pollinator
Posts: 1841
Location: La Palma (Canary island) Zone 11
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Here for summer and dry paces, they sell "pasto sudan".
Sorghum × drummondii (Sudangrass)

They are annuals, but they were talking about "new varieties" that were supposedly better, but i was wondering what sort of change it was or if it was an hybrid that I Will not be able to keep seed from… It is orginally an hybrid, but that has been stabilized. I hope it is still the case of the seeds we can buy! I needs to be sowed at 2 cms deep, nearly an inch.


Here we can grow tagasaste of course!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cytisus_proliferus

It is calle tree lucerne, because it serves as alfalfa.

I don't want to derail the thread either... Talking about alfalfa, when we need to buy some... either the dry grass or seeds, I have read that it comes round-up ready, thus GMO! How can we sure to not get one of these!?! Now I have even a doubt about the one I bought for my sheep before I can produce more myself...

Well, just seeing that mulch and animal food come from the same plants! Can it even be a better fertilizer if part of the mulch has gone through ruminant digestive track?



 
pollinator
Posts: 272
Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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This year, I got a bit overwhelmed by weeds: We had so much rain that they grew prolifically and I could not get at them in the rain. Instead of pulling them out of the alleys, I took the weed wacker to them. Not only did it save me a lot of time as I was able to do it all in 2 days, I now have green mulch if I leave it in between the beds or food for the chickens if I wheelbarrow it to them.
Love that little electric Ryobi! 3 battery charges and 2 hours did it. [Wear glasses, long sleeves: the debris can sting!] By slanting the device a bit, I was able to shave the ground and even slice the crown of weeds under the ground.
It also gives me a lot more time to concentrate on the beds that really cannot take a weed or two, like garlic. Even though the garlic was mulched , a lot of weeds came through the mulch [last years'leaves + straw].
Now, I can take the beds one by one.
Around the trees in the orchard, I don't yet have enough companions. I'm still working on it. So far, chives have worked well. I'm looking for forbes that disappear in the ground come winter so I can do a good cleanup. I'm sure some bushes would be good too but I fear that having branches in the way would make it hard to remove all the decaying fruit. The chickens will help but not having branches to contend with, pruning the trees will be easier too.
Since I have so much rhubarb and the deer won't eat it, I will start placing rhubarb around the trees. Yes, they are heavy feeders but when I put chicken do-do around, I do double duty. Chicken litter [wood chips and poop] feeds and covers the roots. In the fall, the large rhubarb leaves will have shaded the weeds around the trees, kept the moisture in and the few weeds will be easier to pull.
 
pollinator
Posts: 139
Location: Western central Illinois, Zone 6a
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This year due to the rains in the Midwest and having to work close to 60 hours a week due to employee issues(quitting and no one wanting to apply) my yard turned into hay. Except for the fence line you could not tell where the yard ended  hay fields started. I had read some of Ruth Stouts writings this past winter and was wanting to give the deep hay mulch a try since I don't have access to wood chips for mulching/composting. Before the rains started I was asking myself where I could get enough hay to do what I wanted to. Then, as the rains fell and grasses grew it dawned on me and I ordered some scything gear from Scythe Supply. Now, I mow when it's wet or dry and I have all the hay I will need to mulch the gardens and start building the beds for next year. Lots of good clover in the hay off the yard. Our lawn areas I mow with a bagging mower and use that to feed the chickens and our goose and mulch around the trees.

I've also planted a nitrogen fixing cover crop where we plan to put corn next year, and I'm planning on cutting and mulching that in place.
 
Posts: 44
Location: Texas Zone 9
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Xisca Nicolas wrote:Talking about alfalfa, when we need to buy some... either the dry grass or seeds, I have read that it comes round-up ready, thus GMO! How can we sure to not get one of these!?!



Look for organic alfalfa seed.  In the U.S., at least, Roundup-ready is NOT allowed to be sold as organic.
 
Posts: 124
Location: Newfoundland, Canada
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If a person has the area, s/he could have a lawn area. Replace grass with perennial cover crops. Then when the "lawn" is mown, the clippings can be used as mulch. Same Idea as using 1/3 of growing space for cover crops.
 
Rosie Carducci
Posts: 44
Location: Texas Zone 9
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Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta have some great YouTube videos on cover crops.  Look for the newer ones--they no longer use or recommend RoundUp to terminate the cover crops.  Here's a good one from Gabe Brown to get you started:

 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
pollinator
Posts: 272
Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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Jotham Bessey wrote:If a person has the area, s/he could have a lawn area. Replace grass with perennial cover crops. Then when the "lawn" is mown, the clippings can be used as mulch. Same Idea as using 1/3 of growing space for cover crops.



We live at the limit between forest and prairie in the Central Sands of Wisconsin. Whenever I mow, I use a mulching mower: The grass the flowers and their seeds remain on the 'lawn'. The ripe seeds get naturally covered before the winter.
This year, I decided to rotate the lawn mowing, to wait longer before mowing and to keep the blades as high as the mower allows.
The mulching mower allows the soil to be naturally replenished with organic matter.
Keeping the blades high means the 'lawn' will not be so stressed. Also, it means that a flower-producing plant, after a cutting will flower physically lower on the plant. In July and August, when all other lawns look either brown from stress or an ugly bright green because of fertilizers and constant watering, mine will still look flowery and useful.
With 8 zones, the rotation allows the beautiful flowers to produce seeds while always having some flowers on most zones open for pollinators.
My 'lawn' now looks more like a short prairie. There are Indian paint brushes all over and I will seek to promote those beautiful blue flowers [Ohio Spiderwort] that my bees like so much. They do need a deeper bed and if they come in the middle of a zone, it is easy to avoid them until they go to seed. They can also be easily transplanted:I have transplanted them successfully even when in bloom.
I make an exception in the lawns around milkweed. Not just for the monarch butterflies that feed on the leaves, but also for my bees. Milkweed is exceptionally rich in nectar all day long [which is exceptional amongst flowers - most have nectar available in the morning only] and because it flowers for about 5 weeks, they have plenty to eat for about 5 weeks. Because the roots are so deep, if you choose to grow some buckwheat, just do a light discing and plant: You will not harm the milkweed. The honey made from milkweed does not sugar and is light and pleasant in taste.
One word of caution: The nectar is so thick and syrupy that honeybees can get stuck in dry years and die on the flower, unable to detangle from it. The solution is to water it at night some, so the nectar flows better.
 
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