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Soil is a water tank – mystical mulch for urban gardens

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by cecilia.macaulayLeave a Comment

Once you get into mulching as a hobby, stepping outdoors can give you the thrill that casino-goers are after: all this great stuff lying around for the taking. This need for surprise, for a boon, it’s in our DNA, so you may as well find a harmless way to satisfy it.

Like a spirit gone too long without love, soil that has been trampled and baked dry will most likely repel the life-giving water that comes its way. Off it rolls, down the drain and out to sea. We don’t see the treasures that are too close – most of us miss the fact that the soil is a water tank, waiting to be re-charged. Like putting money away in investments for a rainy day, now is the perfect time to arrange for the water that comes your way to be caught and stored in your soil, ready and waiting for all the non-rainy days that are certain to come. Like a heart full of hope, gardens that have been given a Permaculture treatment are ready to catch every bit of rain the minute it comes. In the inspiring You-Tube video ‘Greening the Desert’, renowned Pemaculturist Geoff Lawton employs every bit of low-tech (no tech) ingenuity to transform a patch of Dead Sea land into a lush food forest. A mundane miracle. It was done by digging swales, planting nurse trees alongside fruiting trees, and covering everthing with a protective, nourishing mantle of otherwise unwanted organic matter, mulch.

Mystical mulch

Obviously going to a garden centre and buying a plastic-wrapped bundle of straw doesn’t turn us on, or more of us would have done it by now. Don’t worry, mulching is new to many of us, and we all need more encouragement to get it happening. So this is my suggestion: you forget about ‘should’, and set about discovering your inner mulching artist, your inner hunter-gatherer. Discover a way of dressing your garden (or weed-patch) that is so beautiful and so entertaining that it catches on with the neighbours, that you get to know yourself as someone who is part of the solution, a culture-creator. Don’t expect easy. Easy is boring, don’t waste your talents on easy.

Make mulch-hunting fun

Last year I went mulch-hunting with a Permaculture couple who combine work and fun. We got equipped with rakes, rubbish bins and bathing costumes, and went to the ‘secret and forbidden place’, nestled in a mountain gorge. 70 years earlier, local miners had used their spare explosives to turn the stream into a community swimming pool, which nature had now reclaimed. The stream fed into one end, past the crumbling 1930’s diving blocks, and waterfalled down and away. Sunshine filtered through the fringe of gum trees, and the pool was swirling with water-weed, vivid and oxygenating, a constant supply of nutritious mulch waiting to be harvested.

Swimming had been forbidden, as it would probably be too much joy for modern people to handle. But falling in hadn’t, making it one of life’s more blissful experiences of getting wet. The next week when I came back with my mum and nephew, we got bucketloads for her ‘stage 4’ water restriction garden. Imagine a city where mulch-hunting was one of the things families did for weekend entertainment. Turning ‘bleak’ into ‘oasis’ just a usual weekend pastime.

Rich soil, poor soil

If you measure healthy soil, half its weight may be the bodies of soil microbes. Living, breathing friendly bacteria, miles of fungi threads and minibeasts. They aren’t in the soil, they are the soil. Without them, soil is merely dirt, and only the diseased, weedy and tenacious will hang on in there.

In healthy, fluffy soil, rain trickles into the tiny passageways and airways these micro-creatures have created, and they hang on to every bit of water for dear life. They make more offspring to help them with the task, then release their water and nutrients to plants when things start to dry. When we protect them with mulch, and feed them with compost or worm farm castings, we are helping them save the planet by taking carbon dioxide out of the air, and holding it in their little bodies, in the soil. We are humbly, effectively sequestering greenhouse gas; we are turning rubbish into life.

Desertification is one of the downward spirals of global warming, and we can see its process at work in our own gardens. Soil is cleared, trampled, compacted. Without air pockets and nourishment, and the tunnelling earthworms, plant-protecting micro-life dies. The soil becomes even more hardened, unable to absorb water, unable to produce life. The poor get poorer. So much cheaper to prevent than to cure.

Mulch smorgasboard

Pea straw from your garden centre is probably the most practical mulch around. I have found it lets rain in, keeps evaporation out and weeds down. It breaks down to fertiliser pretty quickly, and gets topped up every year. I have used it with a newspaper layer underneath on my mother’s garden in the countryside to keep down weeds, and every veggie, flower and shrub planted there survives without watering. But if its shaggy Old MacDonald look doesn’t go with the image that you and your plants want to create, no wonder you keep on forgetting to mulch. It would be like hessian underwear beneath a slinky silk gown.

Stone mulch: Gardeners in desert countries do this – pile a layer of pale-coloured stones around their precious plants. They deflect the suns rays, block evaporation, and release warmth slowly on cold desert nights. They don’t rot down and provide nutrients, but well, if rocks are all you have….

Living mulch: Plant other useful plants so thickly that you cannot see the straw mulch. Or just use sturdy ground cover plants alone.

Mongolian horsehair mulch: Not your average mulch, nor useful for nourishing, as it will take years to break down. But it does its job, stabilising moisture and temperature, and keeps the weeds at bay. The soil in this pot plant is mostly rich homemade worm compost anyway – pot plant gardens are small and precious enough for such luxury. The horsehair was intended for bowstrings, from a violin shop I popped into while searching for compost heap material – I prefer my compost to be enchanting. In the process of asking for waste materials, I made friends with the adorable violin craftsman Brenton. Deciding to do things you cannot yet do by yourself connects you with other people.

Pot pourri: mulch for pot plants: Reclaim spent flower petals and finely-shaped dried leaves. The plant, the pot and the mulch all contribute to the visual atmosphere you are trying to create, the very purpose of your garden. For big gardens, Jackie French my favourite gardener and writer, recommends running over autumn leaves with the lawn mower to get the breakdown process started, to stop your mulch flying away from where you put it.

Sawdust: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’, say friends who have used it, been caught up in it like a perpetual snowstorm. Being so high in carbon, it takes forever to break down, and the process can take the nitrogen from the soil. It can be good for paths, I hear.

Dried long grass: Can make lovely mulch. So can a boxful of autumn leaves. If the grass has weedy seeds, or the fallen leaves were diseased, you will be bringing trouble into your garden. ‘Use observation’ is the first rule of Permaculture, and if you are blazing any trails, doing any thinking for yourself, it will really come in handy. Check that any dead leaves did so from old age, and not some pest or virus. That’s also a reason I take fallen leaves away from my favourite pot plants, and heat treat them in my compost, rather than just leave them to be self-mulching. The restrictions of pot plant systems means that they need every bit of garden hygiene help I can give them. Run any new ideas by friends, or better still, people who think differently from you. Run them by Google, and listen to experience, not opinion. Trust gardeners, not salespeople (or non-gardening activists and columnists) and keep in mind that nobody knows the best way – it is waiting to be discovered…by you.

We need to ‘mulch’ ourselves as well

Taking deep breaths, keeping hydrated and making nourishing meals for ourselves is beneficial. Like what is missing from mistreated soil, these are the things we fail to do when under pressure, the very actions most likely to turn things around – even if a pot plant or a patch of well-tended soil in your life will be your reminder of the things needed to keep life lively. So have a glass of water, a deep breath, and call up a friend for a mulch-making date.


Cecilia works as an eco-illustrator, Permaculture teacher and Japanese translator.

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