Sunday, October 03, 2004

Gardening: nature and mulch


Nature knows, nature grows, nature does it the easiest and most elegant way, and say, how can we imitate nature in our gardens.

BUILD SOIL FROM THE TOP DOWN. Nature doesn’t dig up soil, except for wild pigs. It throws down leaves and twigs and dead animals all to decay from the top down to make soil. In the garden, create your beds by laying down newspaper as a leaf substitute, put a little manure and kitchen waste under the paper, a little straw o compost over it and let it decay into soil in nature’s way.

NATURE COVERS THE EARTH IN WALL TO WALL ORGANIC MATTER. The only place that there are spaces between plants is in a desert. Look at most commercial farms, or those gardens with a lot of bare dirt between the plants and you see something looking more like a parking lot than nature.

In permaculture we call all this dirt showing between plants: brown desert. What to do about this? Grow more weeds for one. Many, as in purslane, mallow, dock, wild radish, wild chicory, and pigweed, are far more nutritious than anything grown commercially, by a factor of almost 10. Weeds also give the gophers and other critters something to eat beside your plants. Also, grow smaller plants between your bigger ones. And mulch, mulch, mulch, it’s not living and oxygen making like a weed, but at least it’s organic, and makes soil instead of little pockets of desert.


Above I commented of how Nature, in all climates except the desert, carpeted the Earth with 100% organic matter. A prairie is all plant, a forest has trees and plants and deep mulch, neither leaving any gaps unfilled with organic materials. In a garden, one way to fill the gaps between the designated plants, is with other plants, prairie fashion, either a weed or another designated plant. For example, winter squash or pumpkins were traditionally grown under corn to suppress the weeds and keep the hot sun off the ground. (Along with these two, beans growing up the corn made up the traditional Three Sisters of the Native American garden). Or you could grow lettuce or strawberries under sunflowers or apples tress over blueberries over lettuce. And so on.

You could also imitate the forest, spreading a thick carpet of organic mulch between your designated plants. You know about our cardboard and woodchip pathways. You know about newspaper and straw or compost between plants. In permaculture, comfrey is grown specifically as a mulch plant, taking advantage of its endless growth as a supply of leaves to pack down against the soil. Neighbors foolish enough not to leave the grass on their lawns when they are mowed, are another source of mulch, if the grass isn’t full of chemicals. Straw bales, or even more nutritious, hay, are a quick and easy way to pack in moisture saving, soil cooling and soil building organic material between your plants.

Think of yourself as a microorganism, busy converting organic matter to soil if the conditions are right. Would you want to hang around near the surface on a hot Sonoma summer day? Then again, under four to eight inches of straw or leaves or newspaper or plucked and piled up weeds, how would you feel now about sticking around and making some soil for the garden?

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