Well, friends: it’s been more than a little while since I last posted on this site. This could very well be linked to the seasons: spring is here. As the days get warmer and longer, activity at the farm picks up. A winter dinner used to be around 5-6pm. Now we eat around 8-9pm, or we simply have a sumptuous late lunch. It’s the rhythm of the seasons. And if it becomes too late to eat a big meal, well, there is always “cereal hour”, which is a bowl of cereal/granola with yogurt, a scoop of peanut butter and dried dates or raisins.
Recently I received a Facebook invitation to join an extremely active online group based on the documentary, “Back to Eden”. Joining this group encouraged me to finally watch this movie, which inspires something that we do a lot around here at the farm: mulching.
Enter Paul Gautschi, an energetic, enthusiastic, God-loving, mulching evangelist. Paul lives in Sequim, WA on the Olympic Peninsula. For decades he has simply added wood chips, straw, chicken yard, compost, and any organic material (mulch) he could find, to his garden beds.
When he purchased his home in Sequim, he had a well on his land but that it could not produce enough water to water his fruit trees and gardens. Wondering how he was going to do this he felt called to look at the forest on his property. There tall trees grew high into the sky without wells, irrigation and drip line. How? He raked the soil around the trees: decaying leaves created a moist, rich compost around the trees which watered existing trees and allowed new life to flourish around them.
Paul began experimenting adding wood chips to his orchard and gardens. He found that every year his harvest became more abundant. Trees and plants had the moisture they needed to survive droughts; weeds, having to fight through layers of organic material, were easier to pull. This added material has built up like money in a bank account. Having repeatedly spread the chips through his garden effectively created new layers of rich soil. When he plants a new bed, he claims he only needs to water once. There is enough moisture in the soil for plants to grow after the initial first (and last) watering.
This is our goal too. Eventually we want to move away from irrigation when the soil is so rich and balanced that, like a forest, our gardens become self-regulating. Leaf Garden, one of my favorite gardens, is well on its way there. As Masanobu Fukuoka wrote in One Straw Revolution,
“If nature is left to itself, fertility increases. Organic remains of plants and animals accumulate and are decomposed on the surface by bacteria and fungi. With the movement of rainwater, the nutrients are taken deep into the soil to become food for microorganisms, earthworms, and other small animals. Plant roots reach to the lower soil strata and draw the nutrients back up to the surface.”
We ambitiously opened up land for new beds this spring. The land used to be goat pasture. It was covered with blackberries until the goats mowed through it all. The risk of blackberries returning is a likelihood so we need pioneer crops: vegetables tough enough to hold their own against the powerful pollinator.
First we planted fruit trees to do their part in bringing water to the surface. Next we laid burlap down in the rows where we planted. After that we added horse manure in rows. We started this a few months ago so the manure had time to cool. The past two weeks we planted potatoes directly in the composting manure and layered it with straw (and chicken yard in some areas). Other beds patiently await winter squash starts. Potatoes and winter squash are excellent first year bed crops. They are tough enough to hold their own against or overwhelm competing weeds. The burlap, horse manure and straw will all decompose over time creating a new layer of rich, organic soil.
When we give back to Nature, she returns our offering a hundred-fold. Minor example: I remember landscaping a bed last fall which had been overrun by weeds. There were a few baby kale who were struggling to survive. I covered the area around them with burlap to smother the weeds and added wood chips around the kale. I am still harvesting leaves from these kale now. They are some of the finest, lushest ones I know of on the farm! My weekly routine consists of heavy mulching fruit/nut trees with wood chips knowing in the long run these trees will bless us with harvests for years ahead.
Mulching can become an intuitive process. I have learned blueberries will take all the woodchips and straw I can give them. Newly planted, vulnerable vegetable starts will accept some chips around them but don’t wish to be smothered. While we can consult advice from experts and texts, we shouldn’t let it impede or paralyze experimentation. Ultimately giving gardening–like life–our best shot offers the bountiful blessings of experience, wisdom, and the joy of an expanded awareness of Nature.
“Back to Eden” is an inspiring film. You can watch it here for free!