As promised, 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.
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.