Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mulch Mania

Last fall, my friend Russ, proprietor of LA Farm Hands, helped me eliminate the grass and create a deep layer of mulch under some of my front high-density orchard. Doing so led to more directed watering with less waste, lots of healthy growth on my peaches and nectarine trees, and less work for me—no mowing or weeding! This year, I wanted to complete the process under all of the stone fruit. I documented the process to share how to turn a lawn into a productive orchard.

Here, you can see the side we completed last year and part of what we would work on this year. If you have been following the development of my orchard, you can see the trees have grown very robustly this year; they're just beginning to color for autumn. The line of native stone divides the cleanly mulched side from the patchy, gopher-riddled grass (I just cannot inspire myself to keep up on lawns).

The only materials we needed to buy were drip attachments to convert inefficient sprayers into drip lines. Other than that, everything was free. We had a tree company drop off free mulch in front of our place; tree care companies often offer free mulch because it is cheaper to give it away than pay to dump it in the landfills. Our friend with horses and mules loaded Russ's truck with hot, not composted, manure. Both Russ and I had been collecting cardboard for the last few months in preparation, and the only tools we needed were standard household items: shovels, rakes, pitchforks, a weed-whacker, and a hose with a sprayer attachment.

Before starting to move any material, we began by mowing and in some places weed-whacking the lawn, capping sprinkler heads that we were abandoning, and setting up boxes for the drip lines. We also cut lines in the turf where we planned to create new edges.


We moved stones from the old edges and set them in place where we wanted them. Then, the smelly work began, spreading the hot manure ("One turd thick," according to Russ) all over the grass we wanted to kill.

Once the manure was spread where we wanted it, we sprayed it down with water, encouraging it to heat up and kill the grass underneath it. After the annoyingly tedious job of removing the tape from our collected boxes, we spread the cardboard all over the two areas and sprayed the cardboard down with water to help it begin its own process of breaking down.

Russ and completed the prepping, manuring, and cardboarding the first day. On the second, we brought in a reinforcement, my friend and summer garden intern, Jen. She shoveled mulch all morning long. We moved barrows of it to the orchard and spread it thickly—at least 4 inches thick, thicker in some places. Though it will compress quickly, the thick layer acts like an insulating blanket, holding the water in the soil and the weeds out.

After we spread the mulch over both areas, Russ ran the drip lines to exactly where we wanted them to go. As the trees grow more, we'll move the drip line to be right at the edge of the canopy of the trees. In other words, if one was looking down on the tree from above, the drip line should be directly under the circumference of the tree's branches. It should be at the actual "drip line." Once they were in place, we covered them in mulch. We sprayed the entire surface one more time. And with that, we were finished.


Robert Brenchley said...

Hard slog, but it should be effective. I mulch like mad, but I've never used cardboard under it.

the good soup said...

This is a good reminder for me, Christina, that a thorough sheet mulch saves much weeding down the track! Also, just a little tip I've learnt from my cardboard wetting days. I generally fill a wheelbarrow full with water and add the cardboard to it to soak, before laying it down. Helps with the overall wetting process.

Stefaneener said...

I like the idea, but our Bermuda Grass means it wouldn't really work. It would kill everything else, though, so that's a plus. I tried to get tree company mulch the other day and still probably will. Your trees are fortunate.

Christina said...

Robert: The cardboard is to help against our very aggressive creeping grass that we use in lawns around here. It makes a real difference.

TGS: Great suggestion! Next year, we'll be sheet mulching under the subtropical trees (citrus, guavas, etc) in the back yard. I'll try this suggestion out then.

Stefaneener: We have Bermuda grass here, too. The sheet mulching we did last year killed about 99% of it, and the few remaining viable stolens that pushed blades of grass up were easy to pull up because the rest of their "family" was dead, so they weren't connected to a mat. I monitored the part we did last year every month or so, and pulled up whatever I found, and by mid-summer, I didn't have any more Bermuda sprouts coming up.

Karin H said...

A great article! I work for a NFP called Greening Australia and would love to use one of your photos in an article with tips about plastic free gardening. We would clearly credit A Thinking Stomach in the caption and link to this post. Would that be okay with you?

Christina said...

@Karin H: I'm sorry for the delay in responding. Yes, you may use the photo as long as you cite and link back. Thank you!