Friday, 24 July 2015

A few words on weeding & mulching & permaculture gardening

(Originally published 8 July 2015 here )

There are many different styles of permaculture gardening, and some of them make me cringe. The people who go in for earth-moving equipment, changing the landscape, making swales, cutting down trees for hugel-culture etc. are, to my mind, no more stewards of the land than cops in riot gear are crossing guards.

But that's just me. If you're into it, have at 'er. I suppose there are those who want to work with the land (me) and those who want the land to work for them (those guys).

In all cases if the land you have drains poorly or has any number of "flaws" that make it a poor site for growing what you want to grow, then you have two choices. Grow something suitable to the land, or change the land.

The first rule in nature is "thou shall not have bare soil". That's why we get weeds in our gardens. Weeds protect the soil surface so that it doesn't dry out. The roots of weeds keep the soil loose so it doesn't get compacted. Yet weeds can be a big old pain, even for those of us who eat or make medicine from so many of them (my worst weed is actually grass!). So what to do?

Chop and drop.

Don't pull the weeds, cut (chop) them off at soil level. If it's big, chop it some more. Drop it on the soil. This acts as a mulch, keeping the soil cool and moist, and smothering most of the next round of weeds - not all, of course, never all. It also returns the nutrients to the soil. Attractive? Not particularly, although as you get good at it, you learn how to make it look reasonable.

Compost is kind of a waste of time, when you think about it. Pull stuff out, haul it over to the heap, turn it, layer it, turn it again, and once the pile shrinks you get lovely soil, but it sure does shrink, doesn't it? Chop and drop eliminates those steps and feeds the worms right where you want them, in the soil. It lessens the need to weed (somewhat). It keeps the moisture in so you hardly need to water. I think it's great.

I'm a big fan of mulching, maybe thanks to Ruth Stout's books. (An aside - did you know she gardened naked? I can't imagine, she mulched with straw and that is some prickly stuff!). In the world of mulching there are many things that make my blood run cold. Cardboard and newspapers - why would I want to put all those pulp-making chemicals and dyes on my soil? Black plastic doesn't even bear talking about. Wood chips just make me sad, and if there's any pine in there it will make the soil sad too (or at least far too acidic for anything but blueberries). Give me straw!

Unfortunately, as a beginner I couldn't tell a straw bale from a hay bale. So when some city folk moved up here, bought a piece of land with a barn on it, and that barn was full of lovely rotting bales, (rotting = good) we gladly accepted their gift of as many bales as we could take. The next year our beds were hay fields and we're still fighting that stuff. When I tell you my worst weed is grass, I actually mean Timothy. Lesson learned.

Straw has no seeds. If it does, not very many, and they're most likely to be oats. The odd oat in the garden is a nice thing, they're pretty, the tops if tinctured while still milky are good for the nerves, the stems, if cut while still green make a wonderfully nutritious winter infusion, high in magnesium. Some straw bales will be wheat straw, it depends where you live - not much wheat grown around here.

Our vegetable beds and the strawberries, too, thrive on mulch. When I chop and drop the weeds, it's more of a chop and tuck, I put them under the mulch. They disappear quickly that way. It's important to remember to give the soil a very good soaking before the mulch goes on; after that it's only occasional deep watering for the tomatoes and everything else does just fine on its own.

Potatoes love straw. Actually, potatoes can be a gardener's best friend. If you have lousy soil, try what I did a few years back when carving out a new bed where once was lawn. In spring time I raked the surface, took the grass right off as much as I could. Underneath it was ghastly; gritty sandy dirt, and full of grubs. The robins took care of the grubs in one day. When that little matter was cleared up,  I spread the contents of my composter over the area, much of which wasn't yet broken down, but I didn't care. I plunked the taters down on top of that and mulched lightly at first. When they sprouted, and several times afterward as they grew, instead of hilling them with dirt I added more straw. I got a really good crop and when we took it off, the soil had turned into velvety chocolate cake. I've done this several times now, and it's a very useful trick.

It's also real permaculture, in that you work with the land, instead of forcing it. I could have rented a roto-tiller and brought in bags and bags of questionably sourced commercial soil, but that's not my style and it's not within my budget, either. For the cost of seed potatoes and a bale of straw, I got a better outcome, I think.

Of course my very best friends in the garden are my nettles and comfrey. Stew the leaves of those for a few weeks in a bucket of rainwater and you have a superb compost tea - nettles are nitrogen bombs and comfrey apparently is the closest thing to manure. However, I can't stand the smell of that tea, it's absolutely foul. I occasionally use it for a sulking tomato plant, but they like molasses and seaweed "tea" too, and that can be made overnight with a couple glugs of molasses and a piece of kelp. I'm not big on liquid fertilizers anyway. I don't want to feed plants, I want to feed the soil. Molasses, at least, is good that way, it feeds the microbes who release their nutrients.

My primary method to use nettles and comfrey is a variation on the chop and drop theme; chop and allow the nettles and comfrey to dry, then tuck them under the mulch. You have to let them dry, especially comfrey. Drop one leaf of comfrey on a lawn and it will turn into a plant. Trust me. Dry it first.

Now you may be surprised to hear this, but over the last few days I've been gradually and painfully digging out my nettles. Not all of them of course, I'm leaving a few big bruisers so they can go to seed. Nor will it last, they'll be back bigger and better next spring. They thrive on abuse, nettles do, so this is what must be done. The moon is waning, a good time for planting root crops, and I want to put more carrots in there. Now this may be an error. The soil will be very nitrogen rich so I may end up with spectacular looking carrots that are all top and no food. We'll see. It's a big bed, so I'll be able to put in some more leafy things as well when the moon begins to wax again. Or - and there's 50% chance of this - the nettles will fight back and I'll give up. They really can be brutal, especially as they get older.

Stay tuned.

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