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Alternatives to Mulch for starting a Forest Garden

 
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Good afternoon Permies!

So, I live on an acre plot of land in zone 9A North Florida, just a few miles south of the beginning of zone 8b. Unfortunately, I live out in the country, and am having difficulty finding Tree Services that will deliver boatloads of free mulch to my property. I'm hoping to convert my entire yard into a forest garden with all sorts of plants going, but my yard is kinda... Well, some areas are lush and have wild edibles and trees sprouting up, others are... Sandy and lacking. I know sheet mulching is a great option to get started for improving your soil to plant edibles, but I definitely don't want to pay for mulch. I'm hoping to take the most budget friendly and laziest route to build a food forest. I have a few ideas on what I can do to improve soil, and I was hoping for some input from you guys on here that have experience with forest gardening.

My current plan is to buy a bunch of Perennial Peanut Seeds, Moringa Tree Seeds, Sunshine Mimosa Seeds, Sunn Hemp Seeds and Dandelion Seeds, as well as some bare root Black Locust and Mimosa Trees. Perennial Peanut, Sunshine Mimosa, Mimosa Trees and Black Locust would act as my nitrogen fixers and chop and drop biomass, Sunn Hemp and Dandelion would be my dynamic mineral accumulators, and also more chop and drop biomass (And delicious Dandelion root tea!). The Moringa, (which I'm not sure is a legume or a nitrogen fixer?) would be another food source and chop and drop biomass. So, instead of sheet mulching, what if I just mixed up a bunch of seeds, threw them haphazardly throughout the yard, cut up the already growing grass and weeds and throw them on the ground to cover the seeds. I'm hoping to kind of emulate nature here to some extent, and I don't mind if not 100 percent of the seeds germinate, as long as they can grow and start out-competing the grass and weeds. And of course I would also plant the nitrogen fixing trees throughout the yard. And I would do this in early spring, right after the last frost, and just let everything grow rampant for most of the year, then chop and drop it back into the soil. Would this be acceptable alternative route to improve my soil before I start REALLY planting fruit trees and perennial food plants?
 
pollinator
Posts: 2440
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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For me building soil is:
1) Earthworks
2) Carbon: Mulch/BioChar/Hay/Straw/Rice Hull
3) Mineral: Rockdust/Sea90/Azomite/Lime
4) Inoculant: WormTea/Mushroom Slurries/Local Forest Litter
5) GroundCover: 80% legumes or 50% legumes for a pasture mix or 80% corn for carbon farming
So buying old hay and renting a U-Haul to bring it home might be an option.
The next would be to chop and drop. And for chop and drop I recommend the Bio-Intensive carbon farming way
 
gardener
Posts: 6403
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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How many people around you bag up fallen leaves and wait for them to be removed by the sanitation crew?
Leaves are great amendments for the NF sandy soils, add some clay to those leaves and water and the leaves/ organic matter will stick around a lot longer.

Planting Moringa is a great way to get organic matter available but without something to cling on to that organic matter, it will simply disappear through the sand.
The problem with nearly pure sand is that everything runs right through it.
Clay is the substance that sticks to just about everything which is why it is one of the items we look for when we do a jar test of a plot of land, no clay at all = high leach values.
What your current plan will do is work for a short time but it will not allow any water retention ( I lived in Pensacola for two years and dealt with the issues of NF sandy soil).

Before you spend money for perennial plant seeds or transplants, invest a little of it on a few bags of clay, spread it over the areas you want to grow in and gently mix it into the top few inches, every plant you put in after this will love you for it.

Redhawk
 
Kio Starfield
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Thank you both for your replies! I see some good ideas in here. I will definitely try getting some clay. I do see lots of yard waste, so perhaps it's time to start collecting it and adding it to my yard.

So, do 8-12 inches of woodchip mulch prevent this nutrient leaching through sandy soils?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 6403
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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In your area the wood chips will promote fungi to grow in them, the fungi will secrete a type of "soil glue" that will bind sand particles together where the mycelium are running.
This one thing makes wood chips very valuable in sandy soils, they will soak up some water and hold it but any that gets to the sand will start sinking in as soon as it touches the sand.
The only things that really help with leaching through sand are clay and silt, the superfine particles hold onto water droplets far better than the sand can. (it is all about the particle size when it comes to water retention)
 
Kio Starfield
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I'm planning on doing this with a fairly large area of my yard. Is the clay I want going to come in grains like sand or dirt? And what about areas that already have grass and weeds growing thick, should I worry about adding clay to these areas?
 
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Location: New Zealand
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Once you've added the clay, could you plant a summer annual legume like mucuna or similar to  provide a mass of high N biomass? It would reliably winter kill, one summer season of growth might make a huge difference, possibly a lot easier if you cab handle the wait and not starting for another season. Your hot wet summer but frosty winter climate has some limitations, but also you should be able to play it to your advantage with high growth potential tropicals in summer.

My climate is cool in summer, and frost free in winter. But my summers are warm enough for some tropicals. I planted Neonotonia wightii one season into a mass of impenetrable kikuyu grass. The legume outcompeted the kikuyu and killed it.  If you used mucuna or similar in summer there is a good chance your existing vegetation could be outcompeted, if you wanted this to happen.

What I'm suggesting is essentially like  a one-season kudzu, use a cultivar that needs a long season so it does not produce viable seeds before frost, out compete everything then start next season with a mass of compost/mulch grown  in situ.
 
Posts: 57
Location: Cape Town
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I was starting with pure sand  three years ago (winter rainfall area, very little summer rain, no frost). I finally caved this year and bought in woodchips, after several years of adding free sources of biomass (chopping and dropping acacia saligna, collecting bags of leaves off the side of the road). The bags of leaves and chop and drop and free horse manure had already improved the soil a lot, but they disappear fast and I struggled to get enough at one time to improve the soil without encouraging various grasses. I also did try encouraging beneficial weeds/plants by spreading seeds of various kinds, but I didn't have access to the amount of water that would be needed to start most seeds, and nothing really took hold (occasionally got some lupins and some nettles) I was struggling to get the grass under control given the improved soil, and the grass seemed to be negatively affecting the fruit trees, and making it very hard to establish any smaller companion plants. So I picked up cardboard (free) and layered on woodchips. The advantage is that now I'm having a much easier time establishing companion plants and the combination of woodchips and cardboard seems to be helping the trees a lot too. I'm hoping that by the time the woodchips are gone I'll established many companion plants and the food forest will be shady enough that free sources of carbon will suffice again. Rock dust also seems to have been helpful - as our sand is quite demineralized.  
 
Posts: 125
Location: Qld, Australia. Zone 9a-10
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A couple things I have not seen mentioned. Manure and larger pieces of wood, not just wood chips. I would also put a pond in, this will increase the amount and diversity of critters and their services.
 
Kio Starfield
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I appreciate all the replies this thread has gotten so far, thanks guys!

I'll give you guys some information on what i'm planning to do. I've got a few Turkey Oaks, some dead trees, and some large branches to prune and that will give me lots of logs and dead wood. I was planning to use those to build small hugelkultur mounds throughout the forest for annual gardening and maybe some perennials too.

I have a spot that I think would be nice to build a pond near the back of the house, it appears to be the lowest point in my yard so it would naturally catch rainfall. I would like to build a pond and grow a ton of water loving plants in there, but I dont want to put any fish in there. Do you guys have any suggestions for that as well?
 
S Bengi
pollinator
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Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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Alligator pond? I always think about that when I hear pond+Florida.
But on a more serious note, get some super tiny guppy fish for mosquito control.
I also like the idea of duck weed that you can harvest a couple times a week for nitrogen.
 
Kio Starfield
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Here's a question for you guys.

I have quite a few hardwood trees, some old rotting trees and dead trees I plan on cutting down. What about spreading the branches and leaves, and some of the larger logs across my yard, particularly over the super sandy areas? Ofcourse I would allow all of this to break down for a long time, I would imagine since the larger pieces will break down over a longer period of time, this would allow the soil to hold more nutrients and not suck them up as much. I imagine this would be better than no mulch but I question its efficacy, could something like this work if given enough time?
 
pollinator
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Location: Australia, Canberra
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Here on this entry, I have converted Fukuoka-San's table about the cover crops in an orchard.
 
Gurkan Yeniceri
pollinator
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Kio Starfield wrote:Could something like this work if given enough time?



Yes, it will but also will take too much time. Can you chip them?

Or better, use them in h├╝gelkulture mounds.
 
S Bengi
pollinator
Posts: 2440
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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Biochar works well for tropical/sandy soils.

That said I would concentrate the 'mulch' vs spreading it too thin.
Partially Sunken hugelculture sounds wonderful.

But more than anything else I like the idea of planting alot of super tall corn and sunflower plants, to grow your own mulch.
 
Kio Starfield
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S Bengi wrote:Biochar works well for tropical/sandy soils.

That said I would concentrate the 'mulch' vs spreading it too thin.
Partially Sunken hugelculture sounds wonderful.

But more than anything else I like the idea of planting alot of super tall corn and sunflower plants, to grow your own mulch.



How would that work?

And yes, I would be taking the logs and burying many of them throughout the yard sporadically.
 
S Bengi
pollinator
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Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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Growing your own mulch is growing 10ft corn every 60days and then chop drying them and then adding that as mulch even better would be to 'half-burn it' to make biochar. That much corm will make alot of mulch. you can probaly do 5sets per year. In no time your soil could have 20% carbon with that bio-char.

1inch mulch over your site will disappear super quick so you might not be able to hold enough water+mineral+soil life to make it self-sustaining enough. That is why making it around 7inches thick sounds supper.

I like partially sunken hugelculture because it buries the carbon deeper in the soil, and if you don't have enough water during the dry season, the root can access that stored water. But it it also above soil level so during the wet season the roots have have dry feet
 
Kio Starfield
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S Bengi wrote:Growing your own mulch is growing 10ft corn every 60days and then chop drying them and then adding that as mulch even better would be to 'half-burn it' to make biochar. That much corm will make alot of mulch. you can probaly do 5sets per year. In no time your soil could have 20% carbon with that bio-char.

1inch mulch over your site will disappear super quick so you might not be able to hold enough water+mineral+soil life to make it self-sustaining enough. That is why making it around 7inches thick sounds supper.

I like partially sunken hugelculture because it buries the carbon deeper in the soil, and if you don't have enough water during the dry season, the root can access that stored water. But it it also above soil level so during the wet season the roots have have dry feet



Interesting. So with the corn, the corn could be harvested and just the stalks could be thrown down as mulch? And how exactly would one "half-burn" the stalks? If I grew a large enough area of my yard, could I effectively cover the particularly bad parts and get the soil improved enough to start planting some fruit trees and perennials?

Thanks!
 
S Bengi
pollinator
Posts: 2440
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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If you want to harvest corn to eat/sell/turn to feed. It will take 75days+
So a bit longer than 60days but that is fine, stacking function is good.

To make bio-char a ditch or metal trough and add biomass/dry corn.
Keep on adding a new layer once it develops a layer of ash.
(similar to when light your charcoal to grill and you know it is 'ready' once the heavy smoke and big flames are over and the 'coal' has a thin layer of ash)
There are some designs where you can use the heat/syngas that is generated to power an engine/generator or heat a greenhouse/aquaponic pond, cook with.
https://greenyourhead.typepad.com/backyard_biochar/open-source-kiln-plans/



 
If we don't do the shopping, we won't have anything for dinner. And I've invited this tiny ad:
A rocket mass heater heats your home with one tenth the wood of a conventional wood stove
http://woodheat.net
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