The Gordon Gnohm

Play along at home, read Future Farmer in The Braidwood Bugle every Wednesday. 

Mulch Pt 4 Living Mulch

Ploughing, cultivating or digging over land destroys the structure of soil. Baking that soil is a very fast way to create dirt. Continue this behaviour and soon dirt will become desert.

How best to repair the earth?  Stop Ploughing! Then Mulch.

The only way to improve your soil health is to mulch it, and let the microbes do their thing. Soil should not be exposed to the elements, the nutrients that feed your crops depend on it. Under the safety of mulch, microbes will feed your crops and improve your soil structure. If a tree can mulch itself from a significant height, imagine what a leaf dropper can do at ground level. A living mulch provides leaf drop and shade directly to the surface of the soil. 

Living Mulch

Ground covers

If you kept your soil covered with fresh leaf fall, to provide sun protection and improve water retention, how would your productivity improve? 

Mulching in between growing plants can become a chore. A living mulch is a better longterm solution for you and your garden. A combination of ground covers is the easiest way to provide protection and nourishment for your precious soil. 

When choosing groundcovers, the flowers and leaves are important considerations. Leaf size can determine how long it takes to become compost and when the petals fall, they add variety to the mix. Prostrate Grevilleas create a thick airy mulch, insulating the earth from harsh sun. Wind speed across the surface of the groundcover is diffused and does little to disturb the mulch or soil. Windblown autumn leaves collect around low lying plants, adding to the benefits of ground covers.

As weve learnt, the nutrients come from the variety of materials dropped on the soil surface. Stacking different varieties of ground covers will excite the microbes more than a monocrop. Your garden will become more beautiful and provide better function to your backyard ecosystem. 

I like to stack Hardenbergias with creeping Myoporums. The Hardenbergias nitrify the soil and have medium waxy leaves with purple pea flowers in winter. In contrast the Myoporums have a small, almost succulent leaves and the little white flowers make a soft summer blanket. The bees and pollinators go wild for this all year round, as do the humans. 

Grasses

Most paddocks are already covered in living mulch and how your grass is managed will determine the benefits to your soil and productivity. When grass gets sour, farmers tend to mow in tractors to refresh the crop. This breaks up the grass and lays it down to become mulch for microbes, if you have any. Mown grass, like all plants, becomes stressed and stops growing to heal the scars. The mown mulch will offer protection during this time. 

If you applied a roller to the back of your tractor to smash it all down mechanically, you wouldn’t lose grow days, but you will still need to drive your tractor. Rolling the grass down will provide mulch for your microbes, but it will take the same time. 

What if you could smash down the grass, feed your stock and microbes, and leave your ground better than before?  

Scientists have studied livestock saliva and its beneficial effect on grass. They discovered that grass chewed on by livestock behaved differently. This magical juice allows the grass to repair on the grow, with no loss in productivity.

So, what if you densely stocked a temporary paddock for a day?

The sour grass will get trampled into the earth to feed microbes. The trampled grass will protect the earth from sun and wind, holding more moisture. The microbes will boom to meet the new food load. The animals will eat what fresh grass is available in the defined space. Seed heads will be pushed into the ground where they can strike and grow. Manure is left in the mix.

That’s a lot of benefit. 

The stock can be moved along the next day, into a similar temporary paddock, right next door, and repeated. Move your stock on once the material is around 70% trampled. You still want some longish grass standing to create a variety of pockets for moisture collection, shadows and wind buffering at ground level.

If you want to enhance your paddock further, you could then apply seed over the area. Seed in clay balls is a good method, easy to make and spread by hand. I recommend Microlina in damp areas and Kangaroo Grass in dryer sections. All grass is good and the more varieties that exist in your paddock the better for your livestock and your land. Or you could add cover crops here as well.

Covercrops

These are introduced to improve your soil, in paddocks and gardens alike. Things like lucerne are a great cover crop because they provide soil protection in the hot times and they have a penetrating tap root that mines minerals from down deep. This mighty tap root doesn’t compete with shallower rooted grasses or veggies so it’s a great companion to most endeavours. This living mulch can be left for stock to eat, it can be Chop & Dropped or it can be harvested and stored for later.

Beneficial cover crops are numerous, they all have a special effect on your soil, so stack as many as you can together. No more monocrops. Think clovers, brassicas, grasses, peas etc. The more varieties the better. I always have vetch, red & white clover, lucerne, peas and grasses rambling around my garden.

This week

Melted Basil

This week

Another weatherBot failure. Forecast 4C, actual 0C. The glass on top of the foam box of corn was frozen. Corn is Ok. Mulch was firm to touch, full of frozen water from the afternoon watering, but not noticeably icy. Saturday my soil temp was just above 20C. Monday sleet before rain. Normal spring.

Im learning a lot about frost hardiness by neglecting my wildgrown vegetables. The pumpkins planted under fruit tree canopies didn’t notice. I planted Basil with the tomatoes, only some got burnt in the frost. Basil surrounded by leafy greens survived better than those without neighbours. The basil hasn’t been bred for frost hardiness, but this trait will be encouraged. Who knows??

Nasturtiums in spring melt in the late frosts and days later, new growth. 

Cauliflowers have enjoyed the watering since the tomatoes joined their bed. The heads have doubled in size and all specimens provided tucker.

The smallest of the beets, carrots and parsnips have been harvested and roasted with local lamb. Another few weeks and they would have been great. The biggest have been left to go to seed, they will take up space for many weeks.

Remember, 

Every day is a school day,

Stay Awesome

The Gordon Gnohm

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