We would like to announce that we are now running a whole heap of short workshops focussing on the essential skills of food gardening. Topics include making compost, caring for chooks and a whole heap of other fun things!
Dates and details are in the link below. We hope to see more of you here soon!
Compost vs mulch
Last post, I wrote about some of the finer points of successful composting. Compost is a great addition to your soil and is vital for making good seedlings. Still, making enough compost to regularly apply to your soil (as many books suggest) is often difficult, requiring excessive amounts of time and materials. If you have added lots of organic matter into your soil and you are happy with the state of it, I do not think compost is regularly required (though it’s still a good idea to use a decent handful in the planting hole before planting out seedlings). However, for kick-starting a new garden with poor soil (or no soil as is the case for my new garden), you might initially bring in large amounts of compost or manures. Avoid “garden mixes” unless you are on clay as they have too much sand in them. If any readers have an entrepreneurial bent, a specially-made soil full of clay (rather than sand) would be a hit in the Blue Mountains!
Assuming your soil is good, here’s what I recommend, and what I do in my zone 1 garden. Make compost exclusively for seedlings and compost tea. For the rest of your garden, make chook mulch!
How to make chook mulch
1. If you have any spare land or lawn that just never gets used on your property, let the grass grow tall (rather than mowing it) and sow it with a “forage seed mix” that you can buy from rural supply shops. If you don’t have one of these places nearby, the grain in a poultry seed mix works just as well. If you don’t have spare space to grow grass and weeds you might try a few other things:
- Ask your neighbours for their grass clipping and weeds.
- Find a nearby vacant block and ask if you can maintain it.
- Look around. I recently found a place locally that the council mower men stash grass clippings which could be used for this same purpose.
Why grow your own mulch crops? A few words about plant diversity and plant health:
Unless you’re growing your own grasses and weeds to use in chook mulch, you’ll probably be buying it in the form of straw. Most straw is baled from fields of single crops like wheat, lucerne etc. All of those things are good but the real magic comes from having a diversity of plants in your mulch. Why? Different plants contain different essential elements that other plants require. Let’s use comfrey for an example. Comfrey contains: silica (to build cell walls); nitrogen (to promote leaf growth); magnesium (many uses including making other elements accessible to the plant); calcium (cell wall development and general growth); potassium (to help promote flowering and fruiting; and iron (which allows the plant to photosynthesise and transpire).
The goal is to get as many of the essential elements plants need from the soil, into your mulch, and back into your garden. Here is a link to a list of plants you can grow that will help you create great mulch. These types of plants are called “dynamic accumulators”. As well as comfrey, some other common accumulators include carrot, parsley, and borage. These guys are great for bringing in beneficial insects too. Get to know them. They’re some of your best friends in the garden!
Grow lots of dynamic accumulators so you can feed them to your chooks, along with your weeds and grasses. That will ensure that the finished product is a feast of essential minerals for your garden.
OK, so now you’ve got your mulch crop sorted…back to making chook mulch!
2. Get chooks and make a straw yard (a chook pen that you can throw straw into and collect it again later).
3. Now cut an armful (I use a 60 litre bin) of grass/forage crops/weeds every other day and give it to the chooks.
Buying a hand sickle or a “Kama” knife from Green Harvest here, will make this job (and many others) ten times easier.
Throw all your weeds in there too. This reduces the amount of grain you need to give to the chooks (I have found about 20% less), and they’ll eat the bits they like (including all the weed seeds) and kick around the grasses/weeds they don’t want to eat so they never has a chance to re-root.
5. Now you have mulch for free, which is also covered in manure! While teaching my most recent permaculture course I was asked if the fresh chicken manure in the mulch would harm the plants. If the fresh manure was dug into the soil, yes it may burn the roots of the plants. Recall from last article that if fresh organic matter is added above the soil, it slowly breaks down over time. We are just adding the mulch on top of the soil so it is of absolutely no harm. In fact, you can’t regularly buy mulch as good as this anywhere!
6. Apply chook mulch to your garden in a layer of approximately 15cm. Don’t skimp- sprinkling it on isn’t enough to work its magic.