Post 41 – Mulch

Looking at the pictures of our site you will undoubtedly notice one thing, no mulch.

I began to get sidetracked in the post on water about the philosophy of mulch, but decided instead to save it for its own time. Now when I say mulch, what I mean here are the wood chips that we typically get from tree cutting services.

Not to make it more profound than it should be, the idea of mulching is something that I have wrestled with a bit on this site. In Florida, mulch is almost sine qua non in permaculture design. The soils are terrible in general and they cap over becoming hydrophobic, and the heat and humidity devour or bake anything you lay on the ground.

In my wrestling I have gone so far as to sign up for a free delivery service but not request any drops. The reasons I have not pulled the trigger are a previous bad experience, and research.

The last time that I requested mulch it was dropped smack in the middle of my front yard, this huge boil of a mass for all the neighbors to see. One neighbor even walked by and said “Who did you piss off?”. For a solid week I received a nice round of the stink eye from behind blinds and curtains. I spent my evenings after work, hauling load after load in a wheelbarrow to the backyard. To top it off, not only did the load include wood chips but it was accompanied by several logs, and I do mean logs. Some were 5 feet in length and about 2 feet in diameter.

That was approximately 5 years ago, the mulch is all gone now, having faded away into the soil never to be seen again, but most of the logs are still here.

Probably the more important reason personally is the research side, and admittedly the reasoning here can and should be debated.

Not everyone has access to mulch in the quantities that we typically recommend when starting a site, free or otherwise. Also, not everyone WANTS a huge mass of mulch dropped in their front yard, no matter how short term it may be. They may be wrestling with HOA’s, troublesome neighbors, or any of a number of factors that prevent its use.

What I see potentially happening when we require what may be an inconvenient drop of mulch as step one, is that it could become an impediment to further implementation, either expressed outright by the client or not. Personally, this has been the case for me for probably a year and a half after I received my PDC. I will concede that I am relying on my own personal experience in making this statement but I can’t imagine that I’m alone.

To be clear, I’m not trying to create a negative impression of the use of mulch, by any means. I’ve used it, I believe in its benefits, if you can do it that’s great. I also know that there are certain situations that completely obliterate the issues I mention. If you are an “established” designer and installer and you maintain a large store of mulch on your own site, you have the trucks and trailers to move and contain it, and you don’t “put out” the customer in this phase, then the argument is over. But what if you don’t have a site to store this on, or the big trucks and trailers to move it with?

What I am trying to say is that before we make mulch a de facto reflex step in all designs, we should seek out and at least know about alternative strategies, for the sake of our designs and for the sake of permaculture saturation in the community. What do we do in those cases where we simply CANT front load the system with mulch?

As this site develops, it is one of the things I am looking more at. Honestly, it is something I wish I would have considered more before starting where I did. Currently, I am trying to ramp up my green manure production with Mexican Sunflower and Fakahatchee grass. I may look at including Vetiver grass as well, it is something that ECHO uses a lot as well.

Personally I believe, if done right, the green manure strategy can have its own benefits and I feel it sticks more to the succession ideas of permaculture.

What I mean is, if we incorporate a succession phase of a large starting volume of green manure in design and early implementation, as an alternative approach to mulch, it would largely achieve the same result albeit over a longer time period. I believe we should be factoring this into our designs as a “Remediation Phase”.

A key to doing this correctly would be the implementation of green manures that have fast regrowth, are tolerant of potentially poor soils and neglect, and are economically feasible. Ideally we would want a mix of woody and herbaceous plants. Nitrogen fixing is a bonus that would provide a shot in the arm to anything we’re trying to incorporate on potentially nutrient depleted sites.

If the volume is sufficient, the first and potentially second harvest of green manures could provide us with an adequate ground cover to preserve moisture and cool the soil, the woody and herbaceous types providing their own benefits. Once we are ready to implement the next stage of design, the point where our mulch layer reaches a level of decomposition, the succession would involve beginning to plant out our next phase plants, and steadily reducing down the green manures until we reach a minimum set that will remain with the design.

The benefits and problems I see with this approach are as follows:

Benefits:

  • You know the quality of mulch that you’re putting down on the site. You are avoiding the potential of spreading mulch from diseased trees, or pesticide ridden shrubs, or unwanted pests like tree borers
  • Your green manure production system is mature at the time you are implementing the rest of your design and can support your efforts
  • You have an early start on the ability to create nutrient solutions like compost tea, having those available when you implement the next stages of design
  • You have an early start on the ability to create compost on sites where there may not be adequate materials to do so otherwise
  • You have an early start on the ability to do vermicomposting
  • It creates a new tool in the design toolbox

Problems:

  • It introduces a delay into the final design implementation. If you are living on design and install, this could impact you financially or strategically in your business
  • It potentially introduces an added cost to the design
  • The stink eye from mulch may turn into the stink eye towards loads of green manures growing on a site. One time I grew Sun Hemp as a cover crop and a “concerned” neighbor asked me what I was growing, thinking it was marijuana
  • If green manures aren’t chosen carefully (rhizomes, runners, etc) you could potentially create more of a problem than a benefit
  • Sourcing plants in volume may become difficult if you aren’t propagating your own, using naturalized species, or have an agreement with a grower to produce volume (which may load you down with plants)

Another important thing to consider is WHEN to use this as a strategy. Some of the conditions I could see where this would be viable are:

  • A client does not want to deal with wood chip piles on their site
  • Wood chips are not available
  • You do not have the infrastructure to manage it (trucks, trailers)
  • There is a concern of infestation from outside mulch sources
  • You want the nutrient preload on site through nitrogen, compost, teas, and vermicomposting, or you want it faster.
  • The site is going to require early nutrient or resource rehabilitation that doesn’t have toxic considerations (pollution, etc)

If we personally develop our own regional plant appropriate “Remediation Phase” we can at least have it ready to go as an option.

In closing, I do admit there are problems with the approach, I do not offer this as a panacea. What I do hope is that this is something we as designers and installers can consider, debate, and improve upon to the point that it is refined and usable as a design component.

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