Earthly Ruminations – On The Power Of Mulching

Interested in learning about mulching? Read ahead!

Wondering about soil . . .

Isn’t soil amazing? This humble brown stuff under our feet that we disparagingly call `dirt’ can store huge volumes of water and reduce flooding, nourish the plants that feed us and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Soil is a fascinating living breathing ecosystem, far beyond the scope of this blog to explore. Home to more microscopic organisms in a single handful than there are people on the planet and where minibeasts are giants of this dark world. Our land-based food system and in turn our agrarian civilisation, is firmly rooted in the soil, so we neglect it at our peril. On a global scale eroding soils pose challenges for feeding a growing human population. And in the UK Michael Gove has warned that we are 30 to 40 years away from the “fundamental eradication of soil fertility”.

. . . loving the soil . . .

An agriculture that respects the Earth must surely begin with being kind to the soil. Sadly, one of the worst things we can do to soil is to dig it over – every year. Digging rips apart the soil ecosystem, destroying its structure and increasing soil erosion. It breaks up the delicate networks of fungi, killing micro-organisms that are essential to retaining water and carbon and making nutrients accessible to plants. Tired soils lack fertility and are more dependent upon fertilisers to grow a crop. However shiny they look in the shops, our vegetables are also less nutritious these days, as they come from poorer soils. Ploughing was undoubtedly a great technological advance back in the day and had minimal impact when humans were few, especially if land had a chance to recover. But as the world approaches eight billion human mouths to feed, I believe we must question some fundamental assumptions.

Mulching in the forest garden - cardboard weighed down by branches

. . . covering the soil . . .

At Sadeh we love dirt. That is why we practise no-dig farming. Instead we mulch – cover the soil - and turn the field into food with the amazing power of cardboard. No back-breaking digging for us. Laying down cardboard or newspaper around plants keeps the soil moist throughout dry summers, which is good news for plants and means we can save on watering. Cover the weeds and they die in the dark, chewed up by worms, whose casts enrich the soil – less weeding is needed. We mulch to create new beds – covering grass with cardboard topped with a thick layer of compost (recycled from a local garden centre) and planting straight into this. By the time the cardboard has rotted away so too has the grass, leaving a rich crumbly structure in its place.

. . . loving the weeds . . . and munching the edible ones . . .

And now for a word or two on weeds. Did you know that when we dig we are actually bringing weed seeds to the surface of the soil where they germinate? Ever noticed that weeds quickly grow over patches of bare soil? You don’t find bare soil in nature for long. This is because weeds are nature’s repair mechanism. They are ecological pioneers, greening and fertilising the land with their cycles of growth, death and decay. They are building the soil to support the longer-lived plants, like perennials, bushes and trees.

Herb garden - mulching mint plants with wet newspaper . . . and topped with rotted down woodchip

. . . and adding groundcover

We can replicate the function of weeds by planting other plants that are useful to us and act as a groundcover layer. And mulching around these plants gives them a chance to get established and spread out before the weeds have a chance. In the forest garden we are establishing groundcover between the fruiting trees using a variety of plants - strawberries, that spread out with their runners; lemon balm that forms dense clumps; dwarf comfrey with their creamy flowers so beloved by the bees. In the Havdalah garden we are trying lamb’s ears as a groundcover plant – being drought-tolerant this furry grey-leaved plant is ideal here in the middle of the sunny field.

Havdalah garden - lamb's ears planted as bed edging

And bee kind to the weeds!

Of course, many wild flowers commonly called weeds are great for attracting bees and other insects, so we make space for them in the hedgerows and in the meadow and wild areas around the farm. Indeed, we can all make space for nature, for example by leaving areas of our gardens a bit messy, not mowing the grass too short and enjoying the wildlife.

Bumble bee on dandelion

And finally . . .

It’s great to have a tidy up now and again, and this month was the turn of the farm shed enclosure. From a chaotic jumble, order has emerged, giving places for the useful farm resources – cardboard, timber, canes, trays, pots and of course, cardboard.

Cardboard central                                                        Pallet Palace

Potting corner                                                                 Farm shed