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ARE WE MULCH JUNKIES? AND HOW MUCH IS IT COSTING US? YOU CAN’T HAVE TOO MUCH.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch is what we hear from some of the best gardeners.  Whether it be the slow natural way as in the forest (what drops and rots from above) or the introduced mulch to speed up the forest floor.  As we only have 2 large poinciana trees on our block of land, and they only have very fine leaves and tiny twigs that fall most of the time in winter, we have to supplement.

My mother-in-law Gardener, who gardened here first, used grass mulch from the grass catcher. It was spread out on the ground to dry and then used thickly on as much shaded ground as possible. This worked well for her and broke down into the soil well. Now that was 20 years ago, and Mum did that for all her gardening years (approx. 40 odd years on this block). She just buried all her scraps in the yard and bought 1 big bag of organic extra per year after the chooks became too much to handle.

We moved here around 1998, and our initial mulches many years ago was spent mushroom bags, which could be classed as compost but we used heaps of them on top of the ground and in beds to liven up the soil as well as grass clippings. We must have lugged in about 8 trailer loads ($25 per trailer) stacked with spent mushroom bags which was from the mushroom place down the road. You see this is a dark sandy based soil here which does not hold water well at all and I do not like bare soil.

This mushroom stuff broke down too quick, and we started to buy bales of organic sugarcane mulch, the ones wrapped in blue string.  We toted in large trailer loads of the stuff, 30 bales at a time, and once used a big round bale of sugarcane mulch which seemed to make a huge mess as we rolled it out.  This laying down of mulch happened mainly around September each year for about 10 years.  We also use a mechanical mulcher to take care of our prunings etc.   Our food garden area covers about 250sqm and it is covered by many wicking bins.

Now before that time, we did not know much better, and purchased trailer loads and small truck loads of premium garden soil with added manure and compost from the fellow just down the road from us. I’ve lost count of the loads that we have shoveled out of trailers.   Then we ordered a few loads of well-aged horse manure from Tim, with some Lucerne mulch a few hundred dollars worth. Later we trialed about 3 or 4 bags of bamboo mulch, which was excellent with good moisture retention, but too expensive. 

Then last year, on our trip to sugarcane country at Rocky Point, they had some compressed pea straw, which was also a great mulch but broke down quite fast, and little pea plants came up here and there and we noticed that the local mice enjoyed it as well as they nibbled away at the bags.

Now in the last month or so, we did another trip with the trailer for a load of compressed sugar cane mulch which was priced well at $3 a bag (50 covering about 10sqm ea). We topped the trailer with about 10 compressed pea straw bales as well.

Now I have just sat down and the thought came to my mind- ARE WE MULCH JUNKIES?

About 5 years ago, we all started to have back problems and mowing the yard became a big chore, so we purchased a ride-on zero turn mower which did not need a catcher as it mulched back on the grass-NO GRASS CLIPPINGS.  We have used self-mulching mowers for about 10 years prior to that.

WHERE DOES IT GO?  Does anyone else have a mulch problem?

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Comment by Dave Riley on September 10, 2018 at 11:15

Yes. In the school garden we have raised beds with walls and that rig doesn't suit Vetiver. That's why i planted out the maze. A kid friendly labyrinth that doubles as a mulch resource.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on September 10, 2018 at 1:06

Yes I get what you're saying Dave. For you it works mainly because you have in-ground beds.

Most of my garden is in enclosed wicking beds and Vetiver cannot perform its best function for me. Though I have some plants in-ground, I found letting the Vetiver grow rampant meant it was encroaching on walking space; perhaps had I trimmed it often it would not have grown so wide. That makes a rod for my own back though - the care-free garden could become a minor monster needing frequent attention. At this stage I'm looking to simplify gardening so however marvellous Vetiver is - and I am blown away by its advantages in agriculture - for me it is not a real option. For the younger, stronger more agile gardener, it's well worth the investment in time and space.

One thing I have found with encroaching decrepitude is that I need a new approach to gardening if I am to continue to harvest some food from the garden. I love gardening, but need to review what I am doing and growing on a regular basis and stop doing whatever-it-is that is taking my time and most importantly, my energy.

Our new neighbours decided in their wisdom that they needed privacy and erected a metal fence entirely at their expense. What's happened now is that behind the Dragon Fruit is an area which will heat up and radiate heat to the back of the Dragon Fruit which already are sun-burned on their front side. So I am contemplating planting a Vetiver or Lemon Grass hedge in front of the fence to cool it down. But I need to be able to cut into the Vetiver to stop it expanding so much that it's a pest. Whoever said their garden was 'done'!

Comment by Dave Riley on September 9, 2018 at 22:36

Well, I don't know for sure as I'm still a Vetiver newbie in that I'm still an apprentice.

But I have learnt a few key things thus far:

  • Plant your Vetiver in rows or hedges & not as standalone single plant clumps. That way you get more use out of the plant and it's easier to trim and shape. I spent over a year planting V in single positions about the place which only served to obscure its functional utility when growing with more purpose.
  • The irony is that Vetiver when under a few tillers in growth is easy to divide. You dig up the clump and divide it, then sew a single tiller in the space you just vacated.
  • Vetiver can and should be trimmed to shape and for harvest. You can slice it for mulch pretty close to the ground without killing the plant. Given that in our sub tropical climate it will grow just under 2 metres in height, you'll get a lot of mulch from a single row of  plants at least a couple of times per year. We're talking serious mulch making by growing
  • The neglected sheer brilliance of using Vetiver as a bed border is my current experimental obssession. Not only does the V keep weeds or chooks or dogs out of your vegetables  but it sets up a biotic pump that offers hydrology and ecological support advantages while preventing run off from your bed.V also enriches your garden soil without  stealing nutrients. That's my hypothesis anyway -- as I'm not there yet. I'm working at it as I have hundreds of Vetiver running hither and yon in hedge criss-cross lines bordering my beds
  • I think the knack with Vetiver is to harvest it aggressively for mulch, rather than let it grow big and uncut. I plant  Vetiver slips around 20 cm apart for this purpose and envisage that i will indeed be mulch sustainable  by Christmas...maybe even by late November. That is if we get the rains. In my template, the hedges are occupying and surrounding the edges of the beds and any unwanted growth will simply be cut back and harvested for mulch.
  • Ironically, I find designing with Vetiver an easy business of plant out, trim and/or pull out and replant. The tradition is to plant Vetiver hedges BEFORE you plant your crop -- but it is still easy to run hedge lines as you proceed or improvise because the trick with Vetiver is to stimulate extended root growth by soaking tillers in water for up to a month.I've grown-on Lemon Grass like this, but Vetiver responds extremely well to having its root ends immersed.I've also grown bamboo -- horror oh horror!(never again!) -- but the more you engage with Vetiver, the deeper becomes the partnership you get with the plant.

Since there are 10,000 different species of grasses worldwide here's  a good review of 'other potential Vetivers' among the  fam: LINK.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on September 9, 2018 at 21:30

One thing about Vetiver which prompted me to have most of mine removed (thank you Dave) is that the clumps just keep getting wider and wider. Cut off the top to harvest, fine. Regardless, the clump takes up more and more space.

Lemon Grass does need to be refreshed by re-rooting a piece and removing the dead clump. But therein lies its ease of use for me. It is more or less self-limiting in width and you can replant either in the same spot of somewhere else. It does not make as much mulch as the Vetiver; I doubt I could grow all my mulch requirements anyway on a standard suburban block. I have black sugarcane and once whirred up through the mulcher, makes good topping but since I've got 3-4 plants, not much mulch comes once a year. Sugar Cane is more of a screen than a mulch-provider.

Not sure how well Lomandra would tolerate cutting. I have grown it and it does well on the DBay waterfront gardens but I've not used it for mulch. Grow it in a box and see how you go.

Comment by Rob Walter on September 9, 2018 at 20:15

Interesting stuff, Dave. I quite like that lemongrass has to be replaced after a few years, as that emphasises its ease of removal. I'm gardening on Brisbane clay and builders rubble, so deep roots are not especially important to me. For something permanent, I'm considering lomandras, which have the advantage of being a native and producing divinely scented inflorescences in spring. Of course they only produce a fraction of the greenery, but they are the sort of thing you can plant in a low-maintenance rental property or even on council land and get away with it.

Comment by Dave Riley on September 9, 2018 at 18:21

Digging up Vetiver at around 10-15 tillers seems to be the standard for ease of management. After that it  is sure to get harder.

I've dug up my Vetiver many times...

We dug up an old clump pf Vetiver at Elaines' place nicely with a shovel and (long) crowbar following suggested protocol So much easier than I expected..LINK

No big hole to fret about. Just slice therough the top of the root mass.

Of course if you are harvesting all of the root ball for oil processing -- that's another story. You have 2 metres deep to mine.

I used to use a lot of Lemon Grass in and about but it...

  • dies off a little  in Winter
  • doesn't live so long
  • isn't as thick or as dense as Vetiver: so there is much less leaf mass  to harvest
  • doesn't recover as quickly after being shown.
  • nor does it grow as fast
  • Vertiver grows much better in my sandy soil than does the Lemon Grass which seems to prefer boggy ground.

I asked the bio-engineering pros about Lemon Grass 'vis-à-vis' Vetiver and the consensual problem was that it has to be replaced after a few years. Whereas a Vetiver hedge keeps on giving.

But Vetiver is used in conjunction with V and many  specialists offer both plants for usage. In Spain& Portugal  especially.

I'm growing the tall Lemon Grass -- East Indian Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) -- along with Vetiver at the school garden so I'll be able to compare.

Vetiver

Comment by Rob Walter on September 9, 2018 at 16:05

My reservation about vetiver is that I believe it's a pain to dig out. Lemongrass, on the other hand, can be levered out with a fork with minimal effort. That's important to me because I'm a renter and because I tend to change my mind about where things should be.

I planted sugar cane a few years ago with a view to using the leaves for mulch and the juice for ginger beer, but it turned out to be too hard to extract the juice and removing the plants left two holes about half a metre deep, which is a long way down in heavy clay.

I find if I chop the lemongrass and then mow over the top of it, then mix it in with grass clippings I get a really nice texture that allows moisture to pass.

Comment by Christa on September 8, 2018 at 9:04

It is a dilemma, that is why I stopped to think about what we are doing. But one thing comes to mind, we are getting less able to do heavy work and have to pay to have our heavy work done.  Mulching at this stage helps to maintain our garden and reap some rewards.   

The vetiver grass we have planted will not be enough at this stage.  Maybe Elaine has the answer, just enjoy our garden and what it costs us.   

We see neighbouring backyards flattened by dozers to enable more living quarters with minimal gardening space. One thing for sure the dozers  won't be getting all of our plantings, as they are in big wicking bins and can be carted off to another location or new owner. 

Thanks for your opinions and thoughts and ideas, you are a good mob of helpful gardeners.

Comment by Jeff Kiehne on September 8, 2018 at 8:37

All our neighbors have green bins and are 400 sq m blocks not sure what they are putting in them i compost all our green waste plus some from 2 other residents  and after 12 months have nothing to show but a small pile of compost   $83.92 per year for a green bin  that is a big waste of money.

 and greenhouse gases from all those trucks picking up.

Comment by Andrew Cumberland on September 7, 2018 at 0:27

I get by with a few bails of sugarcane per annum but as everyone my yard is very tiny.  Most green material around my yard goes to compost.  

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