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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 Christa on August 26, 2018 at 11:45

It's very informative to read the views of some of our BLFers, it has reminded me of the other mulches that I had forgotten about in our garden.  The gravel on weed-mat, the recycled concrete rubble.

As Dianne mentioned - shaking up the mulch to loosen it after first giving the soil some boost with nutrients and also moisture underneath. 

We have used our old pieces of carpet (natural threads) on the ground behind our shed etc where weeds can take over.  We have used old felt on the ground, and funnily enough I have used tin cans to put on a new weed or any new onion grass that dares show it's face.

Does anyone or has anyone used old cotton clothing or any non-synthetic used clothing on the ground.  We have used old hessian bags around trees often with mulch in them and on them. Old woolen blankets have been used as well in certain areas.  We have refrained from using strong chemicals in our daily life.

I suppose it comes from the saying "if it was once alive and growing" you can recycle it. 

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on August 26, 2018 at 8:09

Interesting use of weed mat, Dave. I made the mistake of expecting it to do a permanent job. It was still there years later when it was pulled up complete with several inches of soil on top and a thick growth of weeds. 

Comment by Dianne Caswell on August 26, 2018 at 8:05

Great Blog Christa. Our property is Clay, Clay and more Clay.

When we first moved in it was very difficult to garden, so we planed some garden beds, much the same as our yard is now, put either a brick edge around or large rocks. We then filled these areas in with Lantana soil, we were lucky back then 40 years ago Lantana soil was easy to come by. Then we used a commercial Poultry fertilizer and mixed through.

We have always had a compost Bin and have always been able to make a good fine compost but this was saved for making our own potting mix. Now we have a bigger Compost bin so use the Compost in the Vegetable Gardens. For Mulch we used Grass Clippings collected from anyone who didn't want them waiting for them to break down before using. It was then dug into the soil. Before Sugar Cane Mulch became available we used Lucerne Bales but I was allergic to it so was thankful when we were able to purchase the SC.

We Mulch twice a year, making sure that the soil is as moist as possible before laying. We also scatter Sudden Impact and Seamungus over the soil prior to laying. We do not put the SC Mulch down in biscuits but pull it apart so as the water can penetrate into the soil better, we apply around a 15cm layer.

As for our pots of which we grow many Citrus and Herbs in successfully, we put a good layer of medium Coconut Bark (like you buy at B Stores in the plastic square blocks or Mark when he has them). We find these work very well holding on to the moisture for a long time. 

Comment by Dave Riley on August 26, 2018 at 1:15

A large portion of our property is under stone mulch. That means I don't mow at all, just whipper snip in a few spots. While there is weed mat below the stone layer it has been a great solution to the brutal mowing lifestyle.

The stones have been down 8 years and I'm only just now considering a top up.

My neighbor kindly cuts my nature strip as he too is a mower man pro.

Among perennials, stones are an excellent mulch. Mind you our sandy soil ensures no water sits atop the stones -- cheap blue metal/road base.

The use of stones is very Mediterranean, especially Italy. I think this is partly why so many migrants from there laid down so much concrete when they established their home gardens in Australia.

That said, I'd like to give the thumbs up for weed mat -- not so much as  a permanent fixture, but as a means to cover ground  not planted out.

At the school garden we inherited a huge wide roll of the stuff and it is so versatile for covering beds when not in use or killing off a large section of weeds. Just weigh it down on top.  Never put other biodegradable mulch on top of it as the mat  has a limited effectiveness against serious weed growth. Landscapers use it for a quick fix, I'm sure but it is no long term solution.

Under stones, though, I think it's magic -- despite the fact that it too will rot away into plastic fibres over time. But compared to the effort and energy outlay required for mowing and other weeding tasks I swear by the combo.

But for garden beds the one true dictum is mulch, mulch ... with any stuff that rots away.

[Nonetheless if you are desperate, laying the weedmat over a bed and planting  seedlings through it will work --and with care, you'll get a few years and seasons out of the mat. but you won't be adding more biodegradable material with the mat in situ. It does stand up to  sunshine very well even if it looks ugly --and i find it performs better as a weed suppressant if it isn't covered with a biodegradable mulch.]

I have access to a huge pile of woodchips at the school and while I try to use it in the garden there, it can be problematical mulch despite the new embrace of the stuff in the US. I suspect that one of the problems here is that so much eucalypt, melaleuca, etc may go into wood chip mulching  that it isn't so soil friendly. So while it may initially suppress weeds it doesn't quickly merge kindly with the soil life.

Over weedmat -- such as for walkways  -- you are lucky to get 18 months out of woodchips before cellulose break-down sets in and the weeds return keenly.I prefer to whipper snip the walk areas rather than go to the effort of carting and spreading more wood chips.

My electric line trimmer and I do a quick job of whip snippery.

That said --and to celebrate a passion -- "Vetiver mulch lasts longer than straw mulch, after 114 days, decomposition loss for vetiver was 39% and 75% for straw." I understand that Vetiver can last a year ontop of soil. As roof thatching, for instance, it can last 3 years. In situ V mulch also serves as an organic pesticide/fungicide/virocide...And, did I tell you? : you can grow & harvest it (maybe 3 times/year) yourself.

When I find out thru my own experiments I'll let you know how much Vetiver you'd  need to grow to keep so many square metres of soil mulched for a year under SE Qld conditions.

Comment by Andrew Cumberland on August 25, 2018 at 22:51

I'm guilty of buying sugar cane mulch.  I just can't compost quick enough in my tiny yard.  I bought a shredder/mulcher but it's crap and doesn't really do the job.  Having said that, no green material leaves my yard.  It's either composted or the larger bits burned, with some planning, it goes in the pizza oven and cooks my dinner for free or is just used to make ash which is added to the compost.  Lawn clippings go into the compost only - as mulch they repel way too much water.  

Comment by Christa on August 25, 2018 at 19:54

Dave,  Once our fruit trees in the wicking bins grow a bit taller, they will need to be pruned more to keep them manageable, we will have some mulch from them.  One thing I have noticed is that our weed growth is not as bad with less nut grass, the beneficial weeds are still here, chickweed etc.   Our banana plants will give us some mulch and I am looking at using forest fines around the trees and softer mulch in our vegie beds.  We have heaps of worms under the mulch, but it is so dry here, almost 3 empty water tanks.   Maybe I will start laying down our excess newspapers and cardboard again. 

Elaine,  You mention Biochar use,  I was adding some each time under the mulch, so I will look into that again.  We also buy cheap organic compost bags at Bunnies when we go past the shop.  I just wish we could see the benefits in the tree growth.  

Comment by Dave Riley on August 25, 2018 at 18:59

I have relied on grass clippings dropped off by professional mower peeps.

Cheap. Price: $zero.

it does break down quickly and supply runs out in the cooler months.That means I currently suffer from the absence of mulch on the beds.

I have weeds, for instance.

So I'm  growing my own supply with the conscious Vetiver plantings.I'm not mulch self-sufficient yet, of course, but that' my aim.

I've used many options for mulch in the past from collections around the neighborhood, to the fact that nothing leaves the property in way of cut or pulled herbage. Very little paper or cardboard is allowed to escape.

Just shows you how greedy soil can be.

 However, in your case Christa, why add more? Maybe you do have a mulch problem?  So long as the plants grow well enough and do it year in and year out (and the weeds stay away)...maybe it is time to simply recycle what you grow back to the soil and forget about imports...and just routinely allow whatever you have to hand rot away.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on August 25, 2018 at 17:44

Oh boy - I can relate to trailer-loads of this and that; heaving this, hauling that. The sweat! Great de-tox ;-)

I used to have a Bolens mulching mower and found after a while I had to remove some clippings as the grass grew so thick and this mostly on the Council's footpath.

There's no such thing as 'too much mulch' but there is such a thing as 'spending too much money'. Been there, done that. You can never make enough compost just using kitchen scraps and if you have chooks (I never have) there won't be much over anyway.

I buy compost as I buy aged cow manure. Used to pick up various manures personally. The Labradors loved it! That is physically beyond me these days, so Searle's it is.

Where does it go? Into the soil via the microbes. It is never-ending. Though using Biochar may help to keep the organic matter around, jury is out on that one.

In all the reading I have done on Biodynamics, no one so far has mentioned what they do with kitchen scraps. Plenty of talk about putting the BD preps into compost heaps which sounds as though they do it annually rather than on-going. No one has spoken of adding organic matter to the soil. I figure they must do so but since I've only read rather than made any practical Biodynamic enquiry, there are many questions and few answers.

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GrowVetiver

Vetiver grass helps to stabilise soil and protects it against erosion.  It can protect against pests and weeds. Vetiver is also used as animal feed. (Wiki.)

GrowVetiver is a plant nursery run by Dave & Keir Riley that harvests and grows Vetiver grass for local community applications and use. It is based in Beachmere, just north of Brisbane, Australia.


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