Mulching

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Mulching is an important technique in caring for our soils, it can be carried out in a variety of ways that are often adapted to local soil conditions and availability of materials. The previous blog spoke about multiple issues within our current agricultural practices and mulching is one of the solutions that can be applied to both rebuild and retain the health of our soils. It can also help reduce the amount of weeding that needs to be done, it’s a win-win!

In permaculture we are always aiming to mimic nature as closely as possible, especially when it comes to land based design and practice. It is therefore best to mulch when nature mulches, in autumn. When the trees drop their leaves in autumn and the plants die back they leave a natural mulch on the soil. This mulch has multiple functions; the foliage slowly breaks down over time adding nutrients to the soil; the cover protects the soil from wind and rain erosion as well as keeping heat in; the cover also helps to lock moisture in. As mentioned in the previous blog, soil in the UK naturally needs to be covered for all of these reasons and leaving soil bare increases the risk of erosion. You will also find that bare soil becomes quickly covered with weeds as it tries to protect itself. If kept bare for long periods of time erosion is inevitable. Mulch can help to protect as well as restore, build and maintain soils.

So how do I mulch?

There are multiple ways to mulch however the premise for each method is the same. The soil is covered in at least one layer of organic matter that works to fulfil three functions. Adding nutrients to the soil, locking in moisture (preventing runoff) and weed suppression. There are four different types of mulches, organic matter mulches, non-organic mulches, living mulches and green manures. While it is best to mulch in the autumn you may also want or need to do this at different times of year. It is worth bearing in mind that while mulching can lock in moisture and help retain heat it will take longer for the warmth of the sun to reach the soil, which might not be desirable, especially in springtime. The weight/number of layers you need will depend on what you are growing and the time of year that you are mulching. Heavier mulches are useful for perennials however annuals will often require a lighter mulch. Charles Dowding recommends using completely finished compost on his annual no-dig beds as it is light and doesn't attract slugs or snails. However, if you're leaving an annual bed fallow for a season or over winter you might want to use a heavier mulch that will break down before you want to replant. 

Organic Matter Mulches

Probably the most common form of mulching that you will see are mulches using organic matter. There are a variety of different combinations that can be used and people often get very creative with available materials and layering techniques. As with many things, observation, experimentation and experience will go a long way in creating a perfect mulch for your soil.

A good starting point is to think about what your soil needs and the plants that you are planning on growing. For example, you may have a soil that is low in potassium, in which case you might want to use ash for one of your layers. It’s also a good to use materials that are easily available to you. For example, if you have lots of easily accessible cardboard waste it can be used as a weed suppressant. A very simple example of mulching would be cardboard covered in wood chip. A more elaborate approach might include a layer of compost, ash, newspaper and wood chip. 

It is worth noting however that cardboard, newspaper and wood-chip might contain unwelcome guests, such as toxic glues, inks based on genetically modified plants and diseases. As with anything, it is important to be aware of the source of the product you are using as well as taking into account what is available to you. The solution you come up with may not be as perfect as you would like, but aiming to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of the permaculture ethics will help you make the best decision you can. 

Non-organic matter mulches

You may  also choose to opt for non-organic mulches such as mypex, which is a semi-permeable membrane that suppresses weeds while letting moisture through. Personally, I am not a fan of this material as the fabric is made from energy intensive plastic and has a habit of fraying. However, it is useful and it may be the most appropriate material depending on your situation. For example, market gardeners may find it useful and necessary to keep perennial fruit bushes weed free. If you do opt for this type of ground cover the best way to cut it is with a blow lamp which seals the edges of the fabric at the same time as cutting; using scissors is more difficult and often results in strands of plastic in the soil. It is also important that the plastic is maintained and not allowed to embed in the soil, it is a nightmare to pull out!

Another common non-organic mulch option is old carpet fabric. As most carpets are now made from Polypropylene this type of mulch does have the potential to cause problems. While it could be useful in the short term, over long periods of time the fabric disintegrates and ends up in little pieces within the soil. If you do choose to use carpet for mulch (or especially to line ponds) it would be better to source pure wool carpet and dispose of plastic based carpet at your local recycling centre.

 

Green Manure

Green manures can be a great solution for mulching and feeding as they are dug back into the soil immediately. They are usually sown in Autumn and dug into the soil the following spring however they can also be used during intervals between crops in the summer season. They have an obvious disadvantage of disturbing the top layer of soil so if you’re a ‘no-digger’ other mulches might be a better solution. Green manures can be mulched over with organic and non-organic mulches however they will take time to kill so you need to assess whether the type of green manure you are using is suitable for your gardening practice and time frame. 

 

Living  Mulches

Living mulches are plant mulches that often have the added properties of improving the soil structure and attracting beneficial insects. In contrast to green manures, these mulches are left to grow in a way that is beneficial for the main crop. They can be grown both underneath crops or between crops. For example, at my allotment I am currently growing clover on the paths between the beds as a mulch. Each time I weed I use shears to cut the surrounding clover and lay the clover on-top of the newly weeded bed to cover the exposed soil. It has the advantage of suppressing the couch grass while providing flowers for the bees and nutrients for the soil. 

The risk with using green manures and living mulches is that they can be a haven for slugs and snails. I have certainly noticed many of them in my clover patches, they’re not causing too much bother for now, but it’s something to consider. 

 

Whichever type of mulching is most suitable for your needs will depend on the area, crop and time you have to manage the land. Hopefully this blog has provided some useful information that will inspire you get creative with mulching and look after this precious resource that we all rely upon. If you are already using mulches or decide to experiment after reading this post we would love to see photos, hear about your solutions and experiences. You can contact us via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., through the contact form, or via social media (facebook, twitter and instagram). Happy mulching!

 

written by Sarah Davenport

Save our Soils

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Soil is one of the most important resources on the planet and yet we've not been looking after it well of late. Here in the UK we lose around 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil each year due to wind and rain erosion. The UK government recently announced that some parts of the UK are thought to be just 30-40 years away from the eradication of soil fertility. (See Guardian, Defra and BBC links below).  

 

One of the main reasons for this decline in fertility is tilling, ploughing, the application of pesticides and  herbicides and large scale monoculture farming. Additionally, when the soil gets washed away, nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilisers end up in our rivers and lakes causing a process called eutrophication. This is basically when too many nutrients end up in a water system causing algal populations to boom, resulting in the depletion of oxygen in the water, harming aquatic plant and animal life. 

 
UK sea after 2014 floods
Photograph taken by Dundee Satellite Receiving Station
 

The image above shows the coast of the South of England in February 2014. Horrifyingly, the brown colour around the coastline was the topsoil washed away after heavy rainfall. While soil is a renewable resource, it takes a very long time to build up.  Rock minerals are one of the main components of soil and depending on the rock type it can take from 100-500 years to form just one inch of this vital resource. Looking after our soils is vital if we want to maintain biodiversity and ensure a food supply for future generations.

Elderflower Cordial

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I think we can say that summer has officially started now the elderflowers are in full bloom. The elder is one of Britians native trees and the elderflower it produces has many uses, including making a refreshing summer cordial. 

Elderflower will take a couple of days to infuse however it’s really easy to make and worth the wait. The flowers are blooming now (early June) so you need to get out there quick, though if you do happen to miss them you’ll be able to reap the rewards of the berries at the end of the summer. If you are picking elderflowers now do remember to leave some as even if you are not planning to eat the berries later in the season, the birds will.

 
Photograph by Sarah Davenport
 

Also, if you don’t have the time to make elderflower cordial, or just don't want too much sugar, the flowers can be used on their own in a tea or infused in a vinegar for salads. Elderflower cordial can also be used to add flavour to white wine or paired with soda water for a refreshing sparkling summers drink.   

Taking stock

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Icy stone familyWe've become so used to devouring large quantities of food at this time of year that it's hard to connect with the idea of seasonal shortages - but that's what the midwinter solstice essentially announces. These end-of-year feasts, until fairly recently, celebrated the return of the sun - the lengthening of the day and the shortening of shadows. After this date, the darkest night is over, but the depth of winter is still to come. From this point our ancestors faced a time when there was little food available outside, a period when they had to rely heavily on their stores, using them carefully and keeping the best seed for sowing and animals for breeding in the year ahead. These days we give over most of the responsibility for that to the supermarkets - a convenient arrangement, but ultimately a risky one.

 

Permaculture encourages to keep our stores closer, where we can be more in control of them, either in our own gardens, or at least in our towns and villages. Gardening is more work for us certainly, but offers us much more resilience too. People queueing for food outside empty shops in New Orleans should have taught us that, but no, it seems we didn't get the message.

 

One of the secrets of nature's success (and a permaculture principle) is having  'many elements for each important function' - to have many different grazers, pollinators, photosynthesisers and so on. For us it means having several ways of meeting our needs for food, water, warmth, etc. giving us more options should our usual supply run dry. That doesn't mean we all need to grow all our own food (permaculture was never about 'self-sufficiency'), but knowing that we could (if we had to), along with having access to fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, that gives a sense of security that money could never buy.

 

18 important reasons to plant trees

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Sheep sheltering from the sun under trees It's autumn and many trees are putting on a beautiful show of colour for us, so I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate all the other things that trees do for us - just in case you still need to be convinced that planting trees is a good idea! I offer a few good reasons here (can you think of any more?). Remember that most of the trees we’re enjoying today were planted for us by our ancestors. Now it's our turn.

 

1. Trees make oxygen. Okay, I’m starting with the obvious ones, but without the miracle of photosynthesis we would not be here at all. It’s important to remember though that trees and plants need us just as much, to replenish atmospheric carbon dioxide.

 

2. Trees sequester carbon. I’m sure we all appreciate the importance of that right now, but throughout the history of Life on Earth, the ability of photosynthesisers to take carbon out of the air and reduce greenhouse gases has kept the global temperature ‘just right’, despite our sun increasing in temperature by around 25%.

 

3. Trees shade us from the hot sun. Yes, I know it rarely gets that hot in Britain, but there are still days when we seek out shade and trees provide it well. Grazing animals, when they have access to trees, always seek out their shelter too.

 

4. Trees shelter us from the rain. They shelter everything else beneath their canopy too, including, and especially, the soil. In woodlands their leaf fall provides a carpet that slows water before it hits the soil itself, allowing it to percolate in rather than run off.

 

5. Trees slow water run-off. Where we do find run off (from fields or hard surfaces), trees can slow it and again allow it to percolate down into the soil. The root buttresses of trees act like mini dams that catch water –and the slower the run off, the less chance there is of flooding occurring downstream.

Wakelyns Agroforestry Farm

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Hazel with weatAs promised in my most recent blog about agroforestry, I’m now going to introduce you to what I understand to be the finest example of alley cropping in Britain. The home of Prof. Martin Wolfe, Wakelyns Farm, sits close to the Norfolk / Suffolk border, tucked away down some little lanes. Martin moved there in 1994 and began the establishment of an experimental organic silvoarable (trees with arable crops) system. They chose a place well out of the way because they weren’t sure if it would work or not, but 23 years on that is no longer in doubt. The farm covers 22½ hectares (approx. 55 acres) and is divided into four different systems. Common to all of them are rows of trees running north-south, spaced around 12 metres apart – a distance initially set for the convenience of machinery, but later realised to also be just about optimum for the benefits to the crops at this latitude.

 

Two of the four systems utilise double rows of Hazel and Willow, both of which are coppiced on a cycle (the Willows every 2 years and the Hazels every 5 years). The double rows ensure that when one row is cut down to the base, it has an adjacent row that still provides shelter to the crops in the alleys. The Hazel and Willow are both used primarily as biomass crops to provide heat on the farm. The crops in the alleys are rotated, with Wheat and Oats the main grain crops currently. Squashes are also grown, followed by clover and a ley grass mixture. Careful measurements are made of yields. One interesting figure is something called the Land Equivalent Ratio (LER). The LER of Hazel with Wheat is 1.3. What that means is that if you grew the same yields of Wheat and Hazel separately as monocultures, you would need 30% more land.

Agroforestry to the rescue!

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Soil washing off a ploughed field and clogging up road drains

A field of grain ripening in the summer sun is a familiar sight, the promise of food on the table, a symbol of our ingenuity in conquering nature. And yet if we return to that field in the winter we’ll see a very different picture. I live in a little valley close to the coast in Devon. We’re surrounded by mixed farming, some pasture grazing, some arable, and when it rains in the winter the stream that passes our cottage turns brown with the soil being washed off the bare fields.

 

A significant part of the problem is the ploughing of hillsides, which are extremely vulnerable to erosion –the niche that the ancestors of modern grains naturally inhabited was relatively flat valley floors where water moves much more slowly. This problem was exacerbated when we switched from pulling ploughs with animals to using tractors. Animals can plough on contour, creating a series of mini ditches across the slope that catch rain and allow it time to soak in. Erosion then was fairly minimal. Tractors, by contrast, cannot plough on contour on slopes beyond a certain angle, because they tip over, often killing the drivers. They do however have much more power, so instead they plough up and down the slope – a process that requires vastly more energy to perform – they climb the hill hundreds of times instead of just once – but they don’t tip over. In doing so they create channels that run from the top of the hill to the bottom, which direct water straight down the slope, allowing it to pick up speed and carry much more soil away. Around here we see very little soil left on the tops of ploughed hillsides, something that’s really obvious from a distance on the chalk downs. We really shouldn't be ploughing slopes, but what can we do? Whether we’re designed to eat grains or not, we certainly seem, for the moment at least, to be addicted to them. We’re not going to stop ploughing anytime soon, so how can we make things better?

 

I have one word for you. AGROFORESTRY.

Design Your Permaculture Livelihood

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Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 89 (Autumn 2016)
Filling in a skills tree

Teacher, author and consultant, Aranya, shares his advice on how to join the permaculture economy

More than half of us in Britain it seems are unhappy in our jobs and yet most don’t do anything about it.[i]  Discovering permaculture though can be the catalyst for us to start considering how we might make that transition to the more positive-impact lifestyle we aspire to. At first it may seem that the only available permaculture livelihoods are as a teacher or food grower, but these are just the more visible ‘front end’ of a wide network of interdependencies. While teaching and writing are my passion, I currently still manage my own websites, do my own accounts and convene some of my own courses. I gained those skills out of necessity, but would love to be able to call on them from within the permaculture community to free up my time for the things I’m more interested in. So this article shares some ideas and reflections in the hope it will help bring more of you into the permaculture economy.

Permaculture Your Body

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Paleo diet BanksyOriginally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 91 (Spring 2017)

Aranya considers how we might apply a permaculture design approach to the one place we spend our entire life in – our body.

At its essence, permaculture is about meeting our needs, but it does this mostly indirectly, by guiding us in shaping the landscape around us. I wondered, couldn’t we also apply permaculture thinking to looking after our bodies directly?

 

As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in learning about my health. I ran competitively as a teen and into my twenties, something that led me to explore numerous ideas about improving my fitness. Then I began to experiment with my diet, which led me to discover gardening.  Later, when Permaculture came along, it offered me a whole new set of tools in the garden and connected me into a network of inspiring people. That was twenty years ago, but it’s only been in the last five that I began to ponder my own body from a permaculture perspective. I asked myself the question “what has this thing I inhabit, my physical body, evolved to do?” How can I ‘work with my own nature’?

What Robin Dunbar taught us

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LichenIt emerged this week that the symbiotic relationship we've long understood lichens to be is a little more complex than was previously thought. In addition to the fungi and the algae or cyanobacteria (simply put, the former contributes a structured moist environment and the latter photosynthesises sugars from sunlight), yeasts have now been discovered living close to the surface. It's believed their function is to help fend off predators and repel microbes. This news adds another layer to an already fine example of cooperation that I've been sharing on my permaculture courses for a long time now. It is of course just one of a multitude of examples found throughout nature. All multicellular organisms, including our own human body, are clear evidence that working together is a better long-term strategy than going it alone. Our social tendencies express this too on a scale beyond the individual, but our modern society has put us in contact with more strangers than perhaps any time before in our history, bringing with it much mistrust and fear.

Our ancestors of course understood the security value of living in groups, but there's a point where size does matter. This is what Robin Dunbar taught us - that when groups get beyond 150 or so there are more people than we have enough time to have regular contact with and it's that interaction time that builds trust. So if you have more than 150 friends on facebook, well, if you're like me, many of them are still strangers aren't they? They may share interests with us, but those occasional virtual interactions don't bond us in the same way as those we enjoy face to face.

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