Worlds Best Mulch

As promisedworlds best mulch, a post about the best mulch we have ever used. If you haven’t already guessed it from previous pictures, we use both shredded and whole leaves in our mulching program. It is free, easy to handle, free, effective, aromatic, free. It also happens to be free, which just happens to be my favorite word today.

When we first started our garden, the place was all grass and hard clay soil. To be kind, it looked like crap. Little was growing and digging plants in was just about the worst experience I have ever had. We killed the grass with newspaper and mulched over that with wood chips. This looked nice and effectively killed the grass, but did little to improve soil quality. After a year, the plants were growing well in the xeriscape and the newspaper was doing its job, but under the newpaper we still had hard dense clay, blech.

I had long been reading numerous gardening gurus extolling the virtues of shredded leaf mulch as both a mulch and soil conditioner. The idea was that local arthropods, worm, fungi, bacteria, and other sundry soil creatures would process the mulch far quicker than they would work on wood chips. You would need more leaves to keep up, but in the end the decomposed duff would find its way into the first few inches of soil and work its magic for your planties.

So last fall, plagued with unemployment boredom, I set out to give it try. I donned my urban camo, pulled the license plates off of my truck, got myself some mirrored sunglasses, and set out upon my neighborhood every Tuesday and Friday; yep, you guessed it, trash day. I would covertly idle into the nicer streets in my hood and pilfer bags of leaves. What’s that, you think I’m nuts? Well stranger, you don’t know the half of it. I would pile the bags high in my garage (I should note this pile was somewhat visible to the public, much to my wife’s chagrin) and slowly work on getting them into the garden.

best mulch“But teacher, how do you shred leaves?”

With a homemade shredder, free I might add. So I took my garbage can (Yay multi-use items) and modded my weed whacker with one of those crazy narly torture like devices you bolt on in place of the line spool. It had 3 blades that whir around and make you worry about your eyes, so yes, wear protection. Leaves go into garbage can, shredder comes to life, lid with hole cut in it goes on, and several minutes and a rather imposing dust cloud later (neighbors love me) you have shredded leaf mulch. This goes out to the garden, compost pile, or another receptacle for later use. Wash rinse repeat ad infinitum.

I piled this sh*t high, sometimes a foot thick. At times I would skip the shredding and just pile leaves around my xeriscape. Neighbors looked on with worry. Did he lose it? Did he ever have it to begin with? Conjecture flowed about like hot butter on a pancake. Weeks came and went as I kept toiling away with my weed whacker stuck in a trash can moving up and down like I was operating some sort of butter churn out of the twilight zone (doo dee doo doo, doo dee doo doo).

So the results, you ask? Phe effing nomenal!!! They say a healthy soil will have six or so red wrigglers per full spade of soil. Well, just moving the mulch aside and exposing the soil surface will reveal that many earthworms. Dig a bit, not with your spade silly, with your fingers, and you would find a veritable worm orgy, or schmorgisborg; well hell, let’s just make a new term here: a worm schmorgisb-orgy. Notice how I wrote you no longer need a shovel. That’s right, you can condition hard clay soil in just a few months sans tiller, with just a little bit of ingenuity, and a heaping pantload of perceived insanity.

What was an eight ft by twenty foot by eight ft tall pile of leaf bags (lovingly referred to as OPBL: other people’s bagged leaves) has now dwindled down to just a dozen or so bags, just enough, I presume, to last the summer until the next scavenger season begins anew. Susie has stopped stressing about the pile of bags and now extols the virtues of my practice herself. Neadless to say we were both amazed and have been enjoying the results so far.

But lets get back to economics class for just a second. All my equipment was free or repurposed, so no additional cost and I figure I used about two gallons of gas embarrassing myself around my hood. Wood chip mulch costs between a clam and a half and several pelts a bag at the local big box. In the past, i.e. the first year here, we spent around $60 on mulch a year. Not really all that much savings until you compare how the two methods stack up.

The wood mulch broke down some, but generally just covered the soil. We still have some mulch from those first bags, albeit mostly crumbs now, but still there. The pine bark didn’t break down at all and the clay under it may as well be fired pottery. When you dig a plant in, some of the wood gets mixed into the soil and causes nitrogen shortages as it breaks down, leading you to have to coddle along a yellow plant until the wood breaks down in the soil. The leaves don’t act like this. They break down fast and feed the beneficial critters along the way, leaving a layer of black, loamy, crumbly duff that gets churned into the soil by the critters. This leaves the hipster gardener with several inches of heavily amended soil chompin’ at the bit to grow him some fine veggie goodness. This duff, tho high in carbon, won’t tie up nitrogen like the mixed in mulch because it has already done so as it was breaking down, just above the soil surface where nitrogen is abundant, read in the air.

It’s hard to place an intrinsic value on my leaf mulch since there is no retail based analog to compare to. Wood mulch just plain sucks unless you are bringing in a lot of compost for your soil, so more added cost there too. But I hear you all clamoring for a figure, so ok. I value my mulch practice at (Dun Dun DUUUUNNN) ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!! There, you happy?

I hope this will get my readers off of wood chip mulch as soon as fall comes. The aesthetics are similar, but the results are just too good to be true, until it is true, and then it is oh so good.

Thanks for reading, back to the garden to say hello to my wriggly friends.


Today We Dry Basil

basil1This stuff is always a treat during the wintertime. It is great in soups. We shoot for having several jars of dried basil before the first frosts take out the plants. This year we will exceed that and have plenty to spare. So for now we are going to have to eat plenty of pesto and let the rabbits have the rest. Oh yeah, rabbits LOVE basil. Of all we feed them from the garden, they will hit the basil first. Over carrots even.

Basil is just one of those plants everyone should grow. You don’t need much space, soil, water, nutrients, etc. It just grows. As easy as it is to grow I am continually astounded by the prices our grocers charge for fresh basil. It boggles the mind when you feed 20 bucks (super overpriced grocery value) worth of basil to the bunnies. If you have sunlight, soil, or even a pot, grow basil.

Good Golly Glauconite Greensand for Green Grass

Glauconite GreensandOne of the most used amendments in my garden is Texas Glauconite Greensand. It is amazing stuff and if you live in an area where St. Augustine grass is popular, then you need this product. It is mostly glauconite (potassium silicate) but contains an abundance of other minerals. If you can get your hands on it, and you should be able to find it, it makes a great addition to any veggie or herb garden.
We were lucky to get some established St. Augustine at our current house when we moved. It is an older house and this grass was well established and slowly overcoming the bermuda areas. Why did the last guy have two different kinds of grass? Probably for the same reason he fixed his sink drain with duct tape and string (suprisingly it is still holding up after two years, just a little odd experiment we have going on), or collected milk jug pull tabs behind the fridge, or stockpiled chickenwire…but I digress. Anyhow, it was nice having this type of grass because I grew up with it and enjoy the feel over coarse bermuda, which is the other established grass. However, the grass beamed with this horrid yellow color despite being well watered.

Enter greensand. I had heard much about this stuff in my readings of local gardening gurus (who’s books I will begin reviewing soon) and they all said it was a wonderful product. It is mostly ocean sludge from a former bank of prehistoric ocean, so it contains mineral and nutrient remnants from a lot of different kinds of animals. It is mostly a potassium product, but it comes replete with iron, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and many trace minerals being an ocean product. Well, former ocean product.
St. Augustine greens with potassium and iron, not needing much nitrogen, unlike bermuda or some other grasses. Potassium, a mobile nutrient, will move with water and wash away in heavy rains, which at the time we were having (they are free to return at any time too, hint hint, ma nature). Yay water, boo yellow grass.
So from the get go we started broadcasting greensand. I would try to hit it when a storm was on its way so it would get washed right to the root zone. This worked well, and you could see some recovery, but, and you will read this in many places, the stuff only really starts to work after a year of putting it on. That is exactly what would happen. The grass would be bitchin’, then it would go yellow in spots. This went on for a year.
During the winter of ’07 I put my last bag out. We had used a bunch the first year preparing the beds and treating the grass, and I cant remember how much we went through, but my gut says at least 8 forty pound bags over the year. Well, come spring ’08 the grass is solid green, and looking great. The only thing that will yellow the grass is drought (I try not to put too much water on my lawn, so it usually looks like crap), but even then the yellow is very hard to see. So here’s to success.
We have not bought any more since the last bag used over winter, yet. I will most likely be buying a bag to use for planting in veggie starts as the summer wears on, and on, and on, and on (damned two season states). I may also get a bag to put down on the lawn once, hopefully before a big rain.
Last year I had a new raised bed show potassium deficiency in my tomatoes, and some sul-po-mag and greensand cleared it up within a weak or so, no fussing necessary. Just dump the stuff around the plants and water, presto.
You can’t use too much, unless your try to grow in it straight, but a little goes a long way once you get a good soil food web going. I hope to keep it down to two bags this year. Really, nothing has shown a need for it.
But what about heavy rains? That is where the soil food web comes into play, as it will keep these nutrients bound in humates. If your soil is not alive, it will all just wash away and need replenishing. Florida residents growing on sand know all about this I am sure. Lots of rain and little substrate for soil life.
For the vermicomposters (worms) out there, I would use this as a partial ingredient in my “grit” for the wormies, but more on all that later.
It is a mined product, and should not be overused if that begins to occur. That said, it is mostly a detritus derived mineral from shelled creatures and dead fish from long ago. Since a constantly replenishing shower of dead aquatic life (hmm, dead life huh?) rains down to the ocean floor, this may not be so finite a resource, but I haven’t looked into to it much, so chime in if you have something to add.
Bottom line, way down here, and thanks for reading, is to get some and use it and enjoy the results. In a year you will glad you did.