Compost and Mulch
Above, after the rain, the grass mulch on the path is the last place to find water. Even a tiny amount of mulch holds water and slows down evaporation.
Compost and mulch are two different things and can be defined by the materials used to make them and the way they are used in the garden. Compost is decayed organic matter and is made from anything wet that will putrefy and make an oozing and smelly mass, food scraps basically, and fresh animal manure. You can even use your own manure, if you dare. Scraps of meat and bone are also OK to use. These materials are composted to remove the heat and the ooze from them, so that they are then not so concentrated that they will burn the plants that they are meant to be fertilising. You can even put your used tissues in the compost; the huge population of microbes in the compost will deal with any pathogens thrown into it.
Compost is mixed into the soil in new garden beds and can be sprinkled over old no-till garden beds, as once established, a garden properly planted with companion plants, need not be dug over again. Compost is also ideal for mixing into potting mix for raising seedlings.
When Fukuoka says no compost, which is one of the four important points he makes in his book, he is referring to the crop residue left after the harvest, rice straw in this case. Crop residue, such as straw and hay, like leaves and branches, constitute mulch and as such should not be composted but returned to the land in a whole form where possible. Some of the finer mulch may be used as layers in the compost pile to help aerate it and soak up some of the liquid ooze it produces.
As Mr. Fukuoka points out, there is no need to make compost as the natural processes in the soil, where there is a healthy environment of falling leaf litter and the animals that feed on it, are in fact a composting process which is directly available to all plants. However it is necessary to make compost in some places, not only because the end product is useful but also because there are so many people living in confined spaces. There is then too much food and organic waste, and the best way to deal with it, on site is to compost it. The reduced compost can then be removed to be used elsewhere.
8. Making Compost
There are many recipes out there for making compost but don't be intimidated by this. You don't have to have all the materials that you are told are required and you can use some of the materials that we are often told to exclude, like garlic and onion skins and citrus peel. In the end, everything rots.
There are two kinds of decomposition, aerobic, with oxygen, and anaerobic, without oxygen. Anaerobic decomposition involves submerging the organic matter in water and is used to make methane. Aerobic decomposition will very slowly dry the organic matter as it decay’s into compost.
A compost pile will create a bit of ooze, so if the Earth has poor drainage it helps to have a layer of sand or loam on the ground to soak up any excess leakage. If there are weeds on the ground there is no need to pull them out, just flatten them down. They will rot away under the compost.
Place a sheet of woven weed mat about 2m wide and 4m long on the ground and spread a layer of mulch (chaff, grass clippings, hay, leaf litter) over one half of the sheet. This will help to soak up some of that ooze before it is lost into the ground.
On top of this layer of mulch you can place all of your food scraps and wet manures. Always spread these materials out in layers as you add them and leave them loose so the pile can breathe, never squash the compost down, this slows down the process of decomposition. Spreading the compost out in layers brings each newly added layer into maximum contact with the previous layer, which encourages decomposition and also maximizes its contact with the air, which helps the pile to breathe.
The weed mat is porous and allows moisture to leak and evaporate through it. Cover the compost pile with a 2m by 2m square sheet of plastic. The free end of the weed mat can be folded over the compost pile and the sheet of plastic as a cover. The plastic prevents the surface of the compost from drying out and the weed mat protects the plastic from the sun and other damage. The weed mat is also useful in helping to roll over the compost when digging and mixing it and moving it around. The weed mat allows the excess ooze, to ooze through it into the Earth below and also separates the compost from the ground and stops it being lost into the garden.
Worms and beetles in the garden will also be able to find their way into the compost pile and take part in the composting process. In tropical countries a large fly, called the American soldier fly, which has the appearance of a wasp, will lay its eggs in the compost. They will hatch into large hairy maggots that are beneficial to the composting process.
When adding larger and stronger materials such as paper, natural cloth, straw, weeds, large pieces of fruit like, jak fruit and pumpkin, it helps to cut them into smaller pieces. This aids the composting process and makes it easier to put the spade through it when the time comes to dig into it.
Each new layer of food scraps can be covered with a layer of mulch but this not essential. Each new layer of mulch, if you use it, can be watered a little to help it connect with the food scraps.
Use some rocks or branches around the edge to hold down the covering weed mat. If you have only limited resources then banana leaves and large palm fronds will stand in for woven weed mat and plastic.
After a couple of months the pile will be ready to turn. The easiest way to do this is simply to move it to one side and create a new pile in the same manner as described already. Move the pile by taking it away in chunks from the side, with a spade. Spread each chunk out in layers on another piece of weed mat. Building the pile in layers and taking it to the next pile in chunks and then spreading it out in layers has the effect of mixing the matter very efficiently with the minimum expense of energy. In another month or two the compost should be ready to go into the garden as fertilizer.
When ready to use, you may wish to leave the compost in the sun for a while to dry and make it easier to handle, should it still be very wet. However if compost dries out completely in hot sun it can cook and become hard and coarse and less water absorbent.
Sun can also help to remove ants that may be living in the compost. If ants are still a problem by the time the compost has dried enough to look like a rich forest soil, putting compost through a one inch - 2cm sieve, seems to convince them to leave in a hurry.
Plants like passion fruit may be planted around the compost pile to take advantage of any ooze and solids that invariably escape from it. And each time the compost pile is emptied, the next pile can be started in a new place and the old spot can then be used as a garden bed.
Throwing kitchen scraps in a chicken pen can result in unsanitary conditions for the chickens. Rather than giving the scraps directly to the chickens a compost pile could be made in a basket or small cage. The idea is that any worms or insects that crawl or fly out of the compost pile may be eaten by the chickens.
Scraps can be put in a split bamboo basket or wire cage or surrounded by a small fence that could be made from wire or bamboo or whicker.
The pile can be made like a normal compost pile by spreading food scraps out in a thin layer every time they are added to the pile. Each layer should then be covered with leaf litter, lawn clippings or chaff.
A lid may be placed over this to prevent the chickens getting directly into it and digging it up. The lid may also be made of woven bamboo and does not need to keep out rain or sun.
The chickens will spend a lot of time picking at and scratching around the compost pile. Place sticks and branches on the ground around the compost pile to stop the chickens from scratching big holes in the ground around it.
Piles of sticks and branches and leaf litter also attract and shelter insects and may be left in the chicken pen or around the garden if the chickens roam free. Chickens love scratching around piles of mulch.
Another compost idea for feeding chickens is to leave something like a chopped up pumpkin to rot in a bucket loosely covered with a cloth. Flies will be attracted to this and will lay many eggs. In just a few days there can be lots of fly maggots in the bucket. Before they reach adult size and turn to flies they can be poured out for the chickens. The chickens love them and they are an excellent source of protein.
Mulch is organic matter that has not yet decayed and is made from any organic matter that is hard or dry or has a lower moisture content. Lawn clippings, leaf litter, weeds, straw, hay, sawdust, chipped bark and wood, twigs, branches, logs, palm fronds, dry sheep, goat, cow, horse and elephant manure may all be used as mulch. Even paper, cardboard and old clothes made from natural fiber's like cotton, hemp and silk can be used and work well as a first layer to hold down weeds.
When using sticks and branches as mulch, break or cut them up only enough that they are able to lie flat on the ground. This brings them into maximum contact with the ground which will speed up the process of decay.
Seeds and seedlings can be planted right up against logs to great effect. Wood makes the most soil.
Raw mulch contains both nutrients and energy. If composted in a compost pile this energy is burnt off by the micro flora in the pile. Adding it as compost to the garden then only adds nutrients without the energy that the worms and beetles need to help them dig it in. The larger, irregular shape of raw mulch also creates habitat and protection for the worms and beetles. So by mulching the garden, worms and beetles are encouraged to turn this matter into humus and dig it into the soil.
Mulch is placed on top of the soil around the plants. Well rotted kitchen compost is ideal for fertilising your prize veggies however mulch may actually be superior. Mulch is complete, it keeps weeds down and protects the soil from the drying effects of the sun and wind. Mulch slowly releases soluble nutrients into the soil when watered, and feeds and protects worms, beetles and micro-organisms living in the soil. These tiny animals living in the soil will add their manure and do all the necessary digging for aerating the garden soil. And they will do more digging, more consistently and more delicately around the garden plants than any hoe or tractor ever could.
Mulch is spread out in thin layers to allow for maximum contact with the Earth and availability to feeding worms and beetles.
Mulch like chaff, grass clippings, hay, leaf litter and straw can be added to an established garden by throwing it in the air, so that it lands in a random pattern around the garden, as in Mr. Fukuokas 'One Straw' principle of mulching. Just shake the mulch off any plants it lands on.
A pile of lawn clippings or leaf litter may also be used as a urinal. Peeing on a pile of leaves adds nitrogen to them and aids decomposition. The leaves also help to prevent that spot from smelling bad. Just add another layer of grass or leaves after each use. The pile may be left there to decay or used in other areas. And different spots of the garden may be used in rotation to improve the soil overall.
Weeds make excellent mulch. When you don't use weeds for mulch, having to remove them is a chore. When you start cutting weeds to mulch around the papaya's and bananas and other fruit trees, you will find that there are never enough weeds to harvest.
In areas and seasons where wild fires are a problem, mulch on the ground may present a fire hazard. One course of action is to clear a fire break around the garden. The plants cleared from the fire break area may then be used for mulch in the garden.
10. Sheet Mulch
A description of sheet mulch can be found in 'An introduction to Permaculture' by Mr. Bill Mollison. Various layers of mulch are laid on the ground to make a garden bed and then one can plant potted seedlings directly into that. It does require regular watering to get it started because in the beginning the mulch does not hold the water so well. Once it gets going though, the mulch bed will save a lot of watering and needs no feeding. The mulch is the food. Sheet mulching is one of the best and fastest methods of enriching poor soil. Food and energy in the mulch is directly available to worms and beetles living in the garden instead of much of it being lost to the process of decay in a compost pile. The worms and beetles use that food and energy to dig over the soil and mulch and create the richest soil possible. The activities of the mesofauna (worms, beetles and other small soil digging creatures), fluff up the surface soil and dig deep holes and make oxygen, food and water available to roots, encouraging dynamic plant growth.
When making a sheet mulch bed it is better to cover a small area deeply, rather than spread the mulch thinly over a large area. Some people like to put some lime and organic fertilizers like chicken manure on the ground first but I have found that this is not essential. Newspaper, cardboard and natural fibre cloth may then be placed on the ground to hold down any weeds. Logs may be used to mark the borders. Next put down the largest mulch, like big sticks and branches and the stems of palm fronds, on the ground first. They need only be chopped or broken up enough that they can lie down flat on the ground. Successively place layers of smaller and smaller materials over the top of them. If it is available, a layer of chipped mulch may also be placed over this pile. Over the top, spread a layer of leaf mulch which may then be covered with a layer of lawn clippings. Make the top layers of leaf litter and lawn clippings as thick as possible, 30cm - 1 ft, of lawn clippings is good. A deep layer of leaf and grass clippings is necessary because it is very insubstantial material and disappears very quickly. You will be amazed at how quickly the mulch will disappear. Even the sticks and branches will be gone in six months. Plant potted seedlings directly in the lawn clippings and keep damp. For some plants, make a pocket of soil in the top layer of mulch for planting seed or seedlings into. A misting system on a timer is the best method of irrigation.
Mulch in a whole form is superior to machine chipped or shredded mulch but shredded mulch is fine as an upper layer in the sheet mulch garden. Whole mulch is better because it provides habitat for wood boring insects and various wood inhabiting bacteria and fungi. It also helps to create space and allows for more oxygen within the mulch. The mulch will rot in a more controlled manner and therefore does not lead to nitrogen starvation that mulch is so often blamed for. I have never had problems with nitrogen starvation.
Machine shredded wood chip comes into its own however with serious infestations of weeds like nut grass (cyperus rotundus). A 15 to 30cm - 6 to 12 inch layer of wood chip, perhaps camphor laurel or pine for this purpose for their weed suppressing properties, may be the only way of dealing with the deeply rooted corms and rhizomes of invasive weeds like this.
11. Giant Mulch
Urban environments contain many trees and for all sorts of reasons huge numbers of trees are cut down every day for removal to waste sites for burial, burning or chipping. Up to one third of all materials buried in urban waste sites is waste vegetation. This is an enormous waste of vital natural resources.
By using at least some of this material to construct giant mulch garden beds, we can begin to address the problems of the enormous amounts of waste involved, scarcity of landfill sites and atmospheric pollution. Giant mulch beds can also help to absorb the huge quantities of vegetation debris, suddenly created by catastrophic events like severe storms.
Giant mulching is the same method as sheet mulching but on a bigger scale. I have used many whole trees, (brought to me in pieces by professional tree removalists), for giant sheet mulching and made mulch beds 1 to 2 metre's deep. And there is no limit to how deep it could be.
Timber makes the most soil but the wood itself does not have much nutrition in it to begin with. There is a greater food value in the leaves, twigs and bark. As the wood decays it becomes a sponge, soaking up whatever dissolved nutrients that should drip on it. From the moment leaves fall from the trees, they release a green tea of nutrients whenever they get wet. So when a mulch bed is watered, a green tea from the top layer of leaf litter will trickle down through the mulch where some of it will be absorbed by the wood which is slowly turning into a black peat. What is not soaked up by the wood, drains into the soil to enrich it and feed plant roots.
Place the largest logs around the outside to mark the boundary of the garden bed. Then place the next size down logs and branches on the ground in the garden bed. It is possible to make a mulch bed on a solid bed of logs.
Continue building the bed as described before in the chapter on sheet mulching, breaking up branches only enough that they can be laid flat and laying down the largest materials you have first and placing gradually smaller and smaller sticks and branches over the pile in even layers. Finish by covering with a layer of leaf litter then grass clippings on top.
It’s better not to use materials like thorny and spiky branches and palm fronds. Thorns last a long time and if used in the mulch bed will be the last thing left when the rest of the mulch disappears. So every time you try to plant in the mulch you will get spiked. If you can get a garden shredder then thorny branches may be chipped and used as an upper layer in a sheet mulch garden, over which leaf litter then lawn clippings may be placed.
Banana's and papaya grow in spectacular fashion in a giant mulch bed. Papaya plants will fall over as the mulch rots away. It is best to allow them to do so and not stake them up as they will respond by putting down more roots. They will become stronger trees as they cannot fall any further. Their trunks then will bend back up to the sky and so will be shorter when they fruit (provided they get plenty of sun) and therefore easier to harvest. Papaya’s are actually pulled down and tied to a peg for this reason by papaya farmers in Thailand. Just cover roots with more mulch as they become exposed.
Likewise trees that fall over in storms can also be allowed to regrow from a fallen position instead of staking them back upright and can come back stronger than the original tree. Prune off damaged branches and cover the roots with soil and, or mulch. A tree lying on the ground can regrow from numerous points along its trunk and can end up looking like many trees.
For irrigation I like to place one inch poly pipe with misting nozzles over the mulch bed. It needs to be raised as the garden grows. It is more helpful to water on a regular basis than to water for long periods of time. Running the system with a timer is a very efficient way of watering. Ten minutes at a time, three times a day is enough to create the most startling growth. Once established, the watering regime can be reduced.
I have used a digital timer that allowed for a water regime of nine times a day for two minutes every hour from nine am to five pm. If suspended in the trees, this kind of system and water regime can grow epiphytes like orchids and ferns on anything and much faster than they otherwise could.
If you don’t have irrigation then you can still take advantage of a giant mulch bed as it will make the effects of rainfall last much longer. It’s always good for bananas; plant banana stumps deep in the ground and cover with a mountain of mulch. Papaya can be planted in the soil right up against logs around the pile and any trees and plants growing close to a large pile of wood are going to do much better. Even one single log lying in the garden is a very good place against which to plant papaya or anything at all. Vines like pumpkins, melons, sweet potatoes and tomatoes can be planted in the Earth all around a mulch pile and allowed to grow over it.
If there is a big pile of branches left from a clean up in the orchard, then consider planting all around it. Planting kitchen scraps that include various seeds like pumpkins, melons and tomatoes is a great way to start a vine garden. Vines love growing over a big pile of branches sticking up in the air. Their roots can reach out into the cool rich soil under the pile while the vines climb over the branches leaving their fruit hanging in the air.
And if the idea is simply to dispose of the wood, it is better to leave timber in a pile to rot away than to burn it. It will at least be making soil instead of adding to the ash and carbon already in the sky. And it will rot down much faster if it is wet, a large pile of branches can disappear in a year so why not just let sleeping logs die.
And if you have an interest in watching natural events then you will notice the many insects attracted to this organic mini-ecology and the birds and other predators that hang around and feed on them too.