What a Difference Mulch Makes

Two years ago friend sheet-mulched her very hard, dry dirt yard using cardboard and newspaper topped with  very large chunk free wood chips. Last year into this were planted a scattering of California native plants. Most of them have thrived, even surviving a frost and many 100F + days. These have been minimally watered. This week in March, after very low seasonal rainfall, we set off to plant more natives. What we found under the mulch was amazing. That light brown dirt was now moist, worm-filled soil. Under what was left of the cardboard were beautiful fungal hyphae breaking down the under layer of bark chunks into a fine surface compost. The shovel slide through the newspaper and into the ground making for very easy digging. The soil smelled good and felt alive.

Then we wanted to enlarge the planting area past the mulched area, and it was as if we were digging on  another property. The shovel barely entered the dirt, and then hit hardpan within an inch of the surface. We had to chop and scrape holes to plant in. Once we did, we heavily sheet mulched around the plants. 

Both of these areas, separated by a foot, have had the same rainfall and temperatures, but the mere existence of a thick layer of sheet mulch caused moisture and coolness to be retained, caused protection from hard rain, frost, high heat and dryness, compaction and wind. Just this easy combination of waste materials – wood chips and cardboard – made an incredible change in the soil structure and water retention.

Last summer when the outside temperature was in the 90’s we dug into a pile of bark chips. On the top the wood was almost hot. Three inches down, it was cool and moist even though it hadn’t rained for months. A difference of night and day. This summer I’ll obtain a compost thermometer and take readings. 

Leaving the soil bare is like going out in all weather unclothed. Your skin will burn and you’ll become dehydrated in summer; you’ll freeze and also become dehydrated in the cold. In heavy rain and hail you will try to protect yourself by becoming as small a target as possible. Although the soil isn’t cowering, it is being pounded down and de-oxygenated under the onslaught of weather. With no air in the topsoil water runs off rather than sinks in. Soil bakes and there is no microbial life in the desert of the uncovered topsoil. The soil freezes and frosts, and microbes are killed; the moisture in the soil evaporating with the coming of spring. All of this damage is preventable by the application of several layers of mulch, or sheet mulch. You wouldn’t think of being outside for a long time in harsh weather without clothing, so protect your soil the way nature intends, with a carpet of organic matter.

The cardboard had gone on top of weeds. No additives were used in planting, such as gypsum, fertilizer or compost. Watering is done on an as-needed basis with a hose.  I am always thrilled and awe-struck when, over and over again, I see proof of what simple soil conservation efforts have on soil building. 

California poppies seeds had been planted in the planting holes the year before, and their seeds have rooted in the bark mulch. Their roots will hold the mulch together and also help change it into soil, as poppies are colonizers helping repair disturbed soil. For the price of a packet of seeds, our friend now has the beginnings of a wildflower meadow filling out the spaces between native flowering plants. 

Good soil begins the food chain, beginning from what science can so far tell from microscopic mycrobes and ending in this property at least perhaps at the nesting red tailed hawk in the nearest tree, or perhaps the largest local predator, the coyote. Meanwhile the butterflies and other native insects, and all the song birds, will be on display for our friend’s enjoyment.

The sheet mulching will continue on over the slope, and as we plant we mix in pieces of old wood, we plant in shallow depressions in the ground to capture moisture and coolness, we dig a small fishscale swale above the plant to capture flowing water, and we sheet mulch heavily. It will be fascinating to keep checking that poor dirt as it regains microbial and fungal life simply through the protection of sheet mulch.

Projects for the New Year

Take on one project this year that will help improve the earth. Just one. If you can manage more, fantastic. However make sure that you are fully mindful of all aspects of your project so that is it done as well as it can be.

For instance, decide to use greywater. If you can physically and legally connect your household non-toilet water pipes to a water composting system and use it to irrigate plants, then do so. If piping is impossible, then hand-carry the dishwater, shower water, bath water and cooking water out and dump it on your plants as often as you can. Make a smoothie for yourself, then clean the blender by filling it with water, blending it, and pouring that nutrient-rich residual around your plants. Yet that is not enough. Use environmentally friendly soaps. Be aware of the plastic content and chemical treatments for fireproofing or insecticide of the clothes you are washing. Plastic is in synthetic fleece, in microdermal skin treatments, in polyester bedding. You don’t have to not use greywater if you are washing synthetic fabric, but you should be mindful of what you buying. Avoid microbeads. Avoid glitter and mosquito-proofed outerwear. Choose your purchases with open eyes, thereby reducing your usage of these toxins. Build good soil to help clean the toxins from the water. 

Compost. At the very least, use blender compost.    That means, take a handful of soft kitchen scraps, put them into a blender, fill with water, process, and pour the very liquidy mixture around your plants. Don’t throw away any food scraps, egg shells, leftovers, sour milk, moldy refrigerator mysteries, paper towels, tissues, paper napkins, cotton Q-tips, cotton balls, cotton dental floss, hair, or anything biodegradable. If you can’t blend it up and pour it onto the earth as fertilizer, then dig a small hole and bury it, or make a pile and compost it, or layer it in a raised bed or in a lasagna garden. What leaves your house in the form of trash should only be recyclables and undecompostable items. Your garbage disposal should be rarely used if ever. Put this raw fertilizer into the ground, not into the dump. Be mindful of what you are buying and whether it can be composted or not. 

Plant trees. If you are in an area with too much rainfall, you need the trees to take up the water, hold the soil and buffer the onslaught of the weather. If you are in a dry area you need trees to shade the ground, to capture ambient moisture and rain it down, to cover the hard earth with leaves. All areas need perches for animals. All areas need the oxygen supplied by the trees converting carbon dioxide gasses. All areas need reforestation with natives that thrive in indiginous locations. Be mindful of what kind of landscape you are planting. If you choose non-native trees that offer no food for animals and harm the native flora, then you are not helping. In San Diego, if you plant eucalyptus, ficus, Washingtonia palm trees, Brazilian or California peppers (not from California, but Peru), or many of the sterile fruitless versions of ornamental trees, you are taking away from the landscape rather than adding to it. I can’t begin to count how many neighborhoods I’ve been in with old plantings of ornamental plants and trees, and the area is so sterile of animals that they are like wastelands. Only survivor crows and sparrows (and loose cats) can be seen. Instead, areas with native trees are rich in many species of birds, and the insect population is under control as well. Water use is low, pollinator habitat is high, and the neighborhood feels alive and well, especially if the cats are safely tucking inside where they belong, as mine are.

Recycle. I am constantly stunned to see recyclable bottles and cans thrown into regular waste. The percentage of what is recycled that actually processed is low, too. So choose glass over plastic. We bought camping utensil sets to carry with us, refuse straws, and this year I’ll work on bringing containers for leftovers when we eat out rather than take a clamshell plastic container or Styrofoam one. I already wrap banana peels, leftover pastries, apple cores, and whatever is biodegradable in a paper napkin, bring it home and compost it. If you have a plastic water bottle, soda can, glass bottle, or anything recyclable, please put it in the appropriate container. Recycling has been around since I was a schoolgirl, and I can’t believe everyone still doesn’t do it.

Switch makeup. My daughter is particularly good at finding vegan, Fair Trade and non-GMO skin care products for reasonable prices. Neither of us use many cosmetics, but the lip and cheek color, eye color and moisturizers we use, as well as our daily soaps, are ethically and environmentally sourced. Why rub harsh chemicals into your eyes and mouth? The choices grow every day, and the prices lower all the time. Do your homework. Be mindful of what you pick up in the store. Remember that what you put on your skin is also washed down the sink and into the water table, or into your greywater. Support the businesses who have ethical business practices. This goes for men, too. Shaving cream, after shaves, toner, scent, hair products, etc. Your skin will be healthier for the change.

Shop local. Pick one or two local businesses that you know practice sustainable, ethical and conscientious business practices, who give back to their community, and give them all of your support. Buy from them, advertise for them, befriend them, give them moral support. Rate them highly on Yelp, Google, or other rating systems. Watch out for them to be sure that they can succeed. Work for them if possible. Adopt them so that they have success.

Go animal and dairy free at least one day a week. I cannot go into the scope of the damage to the environment and the horror of the treatment of food animals here. Dare yourself to find out for yourself. Read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Find out what happens to cows and their calves in dairies, and the heartbreaking lowing of the cows -always kept pregnant to produce milk- as their young are hauled shrieking away to be slaughtered for veal. If you think that fish and shellfish somehow have no nerves or instincts, then think again. Lobsters who are by nature competitive being held in freshwater tanks, their claws bound, among their competition, starved, and then boiled alive. If you shrug and turn away from the suffering from others, then perhaps you should analyze your food sources more. You condone practices if you support them with your wallet. So set aside a meatless and dairy-free day once a week. If  the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. The UN  has said that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from the worst effects of climate change because of the heavy environmental impact of raising livestock. Not to mention the health benefits that come from a plant-based diet; diabetes, cancer, hypertension, high blood pressure and so much more is rooted in diet. Make a Meatless Monday, or a Vegan Wednesday, or whatever, and avoid pouring cheese sauce all over some steamed veggies and calling it a good meal.  Have a curry, a Turkish Eggplant Stew, a dairy free mushroom stroganoff, spring rolls, veggie lasagna, heavenly steamed eggplant, a portobello sandwich, stir-fry, bean and avocado burritos, try some non-GMO meat substitutes like those from Gardein (particularly their fish!) (no product placement, just a recommendation), or make your own seitan. Make your own vegan butter. Let your body and the environment have a break for a day.

Help Out. Choose a local charity, or a needy neighbor, and provide what they need. Don’t just give them what you want to get rid of , or what you think they should have. Often people just need reassurance or a friend to talk to, or possible solutions, or a hand for a day. Donate what your charity needs, and if that is money then do it. Help with a fundraiser. Volunteer your time. Do something to truly help someone else out, without asking for praise or cosmic bonus points in return. Don’t be a pain; be a blessing. Volunteering and helping out make you feel worthwhile and surrounds you with like-minded people who can become your friends.

 I have found many of my closest friends through volunteering.  Be aware of large, nation- or world-wide charities who use most of your donations for salaries and infrastructure, and very little on what they are supposed to be supporting.  Don’t let the big names fool you. Use your money to help honest charities in your area, or by just sending money to people who need it, anonymously.

Whatever you choose to do, do it mindfully. Pay attention to the details, to where products come from, to the business practices of the charities and stores you support, to how animals and people are treated in the making of the products, of what is in what you handle every day. You don’t have to, nor can you, take on the world’s problems, but you can focus on one thing and stick with it; make it part of your day-to-day until it is habit. Then move to a second choice. What you do, what you buy, what you say and how you spend your time cause ripples across the earth, and being mindful of your influence will send out help rather than harm.

Happy New Year. Be healthy. Be kind. Be happy. You matter.

Inspiring Successful Earth-saving Projects

We can help the planet re-vegetate and reverse climate change. Here are three large projects that have had success and one which is still in the making because it is so vast. Watch these and be inspired, be hopeful, and plant native trees where you live:

Africa’s Great Green Wall:

China’s Loess Plateau:

Jordan’s Greening the Desert:


In drylands there is a noticeable lack of trees. This situation is kind of a Catch-22. The hotter and drier it is, the less water there is in the ground to provide for plants that can attain height, and the more the leaves of the existing trees must adapt (become smaller) to prevent transpiration and sunburn. Yet the very lack of trees and their extensive root systems, and the shade and habitat they create, and the transpiration that allows humidity to keep the air moist for pollen to survive, is one of the causes of desertification.

So how do we stop this cycle?

First, work on a manageable area. If you have a large property, then start on the area closest to your home or where you need water the most, or where water settles. As in the Annie Lamont title, Bird by Bird, you work on a piece a little at a time.

  1. Put in earthworks to harvest rainwater. Simple swales or rain catchment basins, perpendicular to the water flow and on contour with your property, will harvest hundreds of gallons of water each rain. You can do them with tractors, you can do them with shovels, you can do small ones with trowels above small plants. Just do them.
  2. Bury organic matter: hugelkultur. Do you have old wood laying around? Palm trees that are growing and being a fire hazard? Old untreated lumber full of nails? Branches? All of this can be layered into the ground. Bury organic matter downhill from your swales. If you cannot bury, then pound sticks vertically into the ground. The important thing is that you are adding organic material back into your depleted soil. It will hold rainwater, it will activate soil microbes and fungi, it will open oxygen and nutrient channels, it will sequester carbon and make it available to the plants. Our soil is mostly just dead dirt. By layering organic material with dirt you are doing what nature does, but at an accelerated pace. If your soil is unmanageable, or you can’t dig, then layer on top of the soil. Its called, among other things, lasagne gardening. Lay out newspaper, top it with fresh grass clippings or other greens, top that with dried grass clippings, dried leaves or other ‘brown’ materials, and depending upon what you want to plant in this, you can top it with mulch or with a layer of good compost and then mulch. Then plant in it! You create soil on top of the ground.
  3. Mulch and sheet mulch! Protect your soil from the heat and wind, and from pounding rain. A thin layer of bark will actually heat up and accelerate the evaporation process: add several inches of mulch to the ground. Better yet, sheet mulch by laying cardboard and/or newspaper directly on top of the weeds and layering an inch or more of mulch on top. This can be free mulch from landscapers, old weeds, grass clippings, animal bedding, softwood cuttings… just cover the soil to keep it moist and protected.  Thick mulching alone will help keep some humidity in the air and begin soil processes, as well as reduce evaporation by reflected heat that comes from bare earth or gravel
  4. Plant native plants. They thrive in our soil. Grow trees that filter the sun and don’t like a lot of water, such as palo verde, or those that take minimal additional water such as desert willow, California redbud, valley oak, or others. Grow tall bushes such as toyon, lemonadeberry, sugarbush, quailbush, ceanothusor others. Use these wonderful plants to invite in birds,butterflies, lizards and other wildlife that will begin pollination and help activate the soil.
  5. Design your garden for what you want to grow besides natives. Fruit trees? Vegetables? Ornamentals? They can be arranged in your mulched area in guilds to grow cooperatively. 
  6. Grow shade. Fast-growing trees and shrubs are invaluable for protecting – ‘nurserying in’ – less hardy plants. Acacia and cassia are both nitrogen-fixers and will grow quickly to shade your plants, can be cut for green waste in the fall and also attract pollinators. Moringa is completely edible and is also an excellent chop-and-drop tree. There are many others. You need to protect what you plant from the harsh summer sunlight, and using sacrificial trees and shrubs is the most productive way to do it.
  7. Protect your tree trunks from scorching by growing light vines up them, such as beans or small squash.

Once you have done this process in one area, then move on to the next, like a patchwork quilt. These areas should all be planted in accordance with a larger plan that covers your entire property, so that you plant what you want in the best possible place. However, the earthworks, hugelkultur and mulching can be done everywhere.  By following these guidelines, and working one small area at a time, you’ll have success, have trees, shade, food and be helping reverse desertification, one plot at a time.

Mallards in May

Every year our two wild mallards linger in our chemical-free pond.  They mate, Mrs. Mallard disappears for awhile, returns with very small ducklings and… they all die within days. Why? She hasn’t been a great mama. She runs them around too much, doesn’t preen them or give them time to eat. So this year when she showed up with four ducklings I didn’t even want to take photos of them. Who knows how many she began with? But these ducklings were a little older and larger than other batches had been. And they survived. They weren’t eaten by the bullfrogs in the pond, or snatched by birds, or neglected by mama. We put out wild game bird food to help them along, but Mrs. Mallard has taught them how to dabble for vegetation (they eat mostly greens).The ducklings make a ‘weep-weep’ sound when they are asking for food. One day she repeatedly dove and came up under them, and then swam underwater to the other side of the pond and back: she was teaching them how to swim underwater! Now these babies have lost their downy feathers and are growing in their primaries. They’ll be off soon, hopefully to return. Mr. Mallard has been keeping an eye on Mrs. Mallard; he sometimes pushes the babies out of the way of the food, for which we chastise him greatly. His breeding plumage is holding so if the young fly off soon, he might try for a second mating this season. Meanwhile, Mama Mallard looks pretty smug. 

Over 97% of California’s wetlands are completely gone, and what’s left is compromised by roads, pollution and management. Those billions of animals and trillions of insects which depended upon those wetlands have mostly died off, or make do with chlorinated water from the billions of swimming pools and bird baths they can find. The wildlife you see is a tiny remnant of what should be here.

To have a pond with rain water or well water in it, cleaned by fish and plants rather than chemicals, is to have a haven for wildlife. Good water is diverse with life, just as good soil is, and instead of drinking wet chemicals animals can drink water that is imbued with nutrients. The thousands of insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, marsupials and birds that use our pond are healthy because the water is not chlorinated. If you can put any size of pond – even in barrels – using rainwater and cleaned by plants and fish, you’ll be doing wildlife and yourself a service.

And here’s our ducklings dabbling for greens this morning: 

Six Years of Permaculture

In February, 2011, I signed the contract with Roger Boddaert to create a permaculture food forest. The goals at that time were to stop the erosion on the property, to create a wildlife habitat, and to grow food, medicine, native plants, building materials, herbs and ornamentals in a sane way: no chemicals. So the journey began, and it hasn’t been easy. Nor did I at that time know that the garden would evolve into Finch Frolic Garden and my business would be education. 

In preparing for a talk about our garden, Miranda and I worked on before and after photos. The garden this April, 2017, is stunning, with blooming wisteria, fruit trees, red bud, roses, angel-wing jasmine, iris, and so much more. Best of all Mrs. Mallard has brought her annual flock of ducklings from wherever she nests, and the four babies are still alive and thriving after a week! So I thought I’d share the incredible difference between what had been, and what is now. All done with low water use, no fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, additives or supplements. Come visit when you can!  Slideshow images change in ten seconds:

Creating Rain with Canopy

Even if we don’t receive a lot of rain in drylands, we might have fog, sprinkles and other degrees of ambient moisture. This moisture can burn off with reflected heat from hard-packed earth, from gravel and hardscape, and from buildings.  It is too irregular and thin to make the use of mist nets feasible.  However, a much better way to collect that moisture and turn it into rain is the method nature uses: trees.  The layers of a plant guild are designed to capture, soften and sink rainwater, so why not just let them do it? Many trees are dying due to heat, low water table, lack of rainfall and dry air. Replacing them with native and drought-tolerant trees is essential to help put the brakes on desertification.

Please take five minutes, follow this link and listen and have a walk with me into Finch Frolic Garden as this 5-year-old canopy collects moisture and turns it into rain:

Plant a tree!

Year of the Gopher

They'll eat tasty above-ground plants, too.

They’ll eat tasty above-ground plants, too.

This year should have been dubbed The Year of the Gopher.  Every year brings an increase (and decrease) in some element in nature.  There are big earwig years, painted bug years, cabbage moth years, just as there seem to be good and bad years for certain crops.  This year seems to be a big one for gophers.

Pocket gophers are native to Southern California, and have their special roles to play in the landscape. They aerate, their tunnels are homes to lots of other animals and insects such as Pacific Chorus frogs, toads and lizards.  They are food for snakes, raptors and even greater egrets.  Their tunnels allow rainwater to penetrate the soil.  And, like any of us, if offered really tasty specialty food they’ll go for it.

Cute little guy.

Cute little guy.

Gopher tunnels are prime real estate.  As explained in a past post, it takes a considerable amount of energy for gophers to dig tunnels, and if you kill them, new gophers reoccupy the tunnels from surrounding property.  They are territorial and so the young are always looking for opportunities to have their own tunnel system.

Methods we’ve been using to train our gophers have been challenged this year by the desperation of our gophers, caused no doubt by the changing weather and growth patterns.  In our kitchen garden we’ve lost a lot of veggies this spring.

We don’t trap and kill here, so we work with animals because this is their home and habitat.  Permaculture isn’t about taking over an area to the loss of everything that usually lives there, its about working with nature and learning from it.  So the reason our kitchen garden has been attacked is that we didn’t prepare well enough to live with the gophers.  The only way to keep plants safe is to have boundaries around root balls.  Trees we plant in gopher cages, but vegetables -not so much.

So Miranda and I decided to bury 24″ tall 1/4″ wire around the garden.

The north side oddly revealed no gopher tunnels.

The north side oddly revealed no gopher tunnels.

These tasks always sound so easy!  Trenching through clay in the heat of early summer has been a challenge.  Gopher tunnels dug for food collection are within the first 18″ of dirt, and their nests are down to about 24″.

Gopher nesting material about nine inches under the ground. This is in such hard dirt that I have to use a pick on it.

Gopher nesting material about nine inches under the ground. This is in such hard dirt that I have to use a pick on it.

We pulled back sheet mulch on the pathways and found incredible fungal activity, loads of worms and moisture.

Peeling back sheet mulch that was only six months old showed lots of fungal activity already.

Peeling back sheet mulch that was only six months old showed lots of fungal activity already.

Newspaper being consumed by fungus and turned into soil.

Newspaper being consumed by fungus and turned into soil.

A great lump of fungal hyphae, if I may say so myself.

A great lump of fungal hyphae, if I may say so myself.

While trenching we found gopher tunnels into the garden, and often would find dirt in the trench under the holes as the gopher backfilled, trying to make a new dirt tunnel across the channel.

The east side we thought would be the most difficult, with the dirt rock-hard at the corner. We thought that until we began the fourth trench. Yikes!

The east side we thought would be the most difficult, with the dirt rock-hard at the corner. We thought that until we began the fourth trench. Yikes!


Along one active area I buried the wire, but also wanted to retard the invasion of Bermuda grass.  Along with the wire I buried a couple of pieces of scrap 3/4″ plywood to make a physical boundry for the grass, and these happen to be right where a gopher tunnel  was.  The next morning I was in the garden and I heard a strange thumping sound, and finally realized that it was coming from underground where the wood was buried.  The gopher was trying to get through the new wooden fence and wire!

We’ve buried wire around three sides (40′ long by 20 – 24″ deep), and are slaving away at the last trench where the most gopher activity is.

Burying the wire, shoving some rotten fruit into the gopher tunnel entrances and refilling.

Burying the wire, shoving some rotten fruit into the gopher tunnel entrances and refilling.

As we’re working, we’re also using a spade to collapse gopher tunnels from the back out, and using the smucky water (this batch is made from onion peels and bits leftover from pickling whole onions) to ruin those tunnels.  We’re herding the gopher out of the garden and fertilizing at the same time.

We’ve a couple more bouts left to go before finishing; my partially numb hands are ready to be done with it.  Narrow trenches in heavy clay right next to a fence aren’t easy to work in, which slows the process down a lot.  Knowing that we’re being true to what we believe in, to not trap and kill in our garden, makes it all worth the work.  The gopher is welcome to all the weed roots it wants elsewhere.

Polyculture In A Veggie Bed

7-22-13 106Polyculture is, obviously, the opposite of monoculture, but in permaculture (a lot of -cultures here) it means more than that.  The best way to plant in polyculture is to follow the guidelines for a plant guild .  A plant guild is how plants arrange themselves in nature so that each fulfills a niche.  The variety of plants aren’t competing for the same nutrients and are delivering something other plants need; i.e. shade, nutrients, root exudates, leaf drop, soil in-roads via deep tap roots, etc.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.


When planting veggies here at Finch Frolic Garden I often mix up a handful of vegetable, herb and flower seeds that fulfill the plant guild guidelines and plant them all in one area.  They come up in a mix of heights, colors, shapes and scents to fool bugs.  The result is like a miniature forest.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

However that sort of wild designed planting has its drawbacks.  Harvesting is more time consuming (although more fun, like a treasure-hunt).  Many people find peace in looking at rows of vegetables, and peace is valuable.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

You can plant polyculture in rows as well.  Just plant each row with a different member of the plant guild, and you’ll achieve a similar effect with insect confusion, and with nutrient conservation.

In this small, slightly sunken bed (we are in drylands so we plant concave to catch water), we planted rows of three kinds of potatoes, two kinds of shallots, a row each of bush beans, fava beans, parsnips, radish and carrots.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

We covered the bed with a light mulch made from dried dwarf cattail stems.  This sat lightly on the soil and yet allowed light and water penetration, giving the seedlings protection from birds and larger bugs.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

The garden a couple months later.  Because we had a warm and rainless February (usually our wettest month), our brassicas headed up rather than produced roots and only a few parsnips and carrots germinated.  However our nitrogen-fixing favas and beans are great, our ‘mining’ potatoes are doing beautifully and the shallots are filling out well.IMG_8621

Every plant accumulates nutrition from the air and soil, and when that plant dies it delivers that nutrition to the topsoil.  In the case of roots, when they die it is immediate hugelkultur. Without humans, plants drop leaves, fruit and seeds on the ground, where animals will nibble on them or haul them away but leave juice, shells and poo behind.  When the plant dies, it dies in place and gives back to the topsoil. When we harvest from a plant we are removing that much nutrition from the soil.  So when the plants are through producing, we cut the plants at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground, and add the tops back to the soil.  By burying kitchen scraps in vegetable beds you are adding back the sugars and other nutrients you’ve taken away with the harvest.  It becomes a worm feast.  Depending upon your climate and how warm your soil is, the scraps will take different lengths of time to decompose.  Here in San Diego, a handful of food scraps buried in January is just about gone by February.  No fertilizer needed!


Using Pathways For Rain Catchment

Here in the drylands of San Diego we need to be especially sure to catch whatever rain may fall. Building good soil is vital for the entire planet because humans are going through decent topsoil like nobody’s business.  Here at Finch Frolic Garden we’ve sheet mulched around trees to replicate decades of leaf drop, and on pathways to block weeds, prevent compaction and create good soil for shallow plant roots.  We’ve also continued making our pathways work more for us by burying wood (hugelkultur) in the paths themselves.  Most of our soil here is heavy clay, so creating drainage for roots is imperative. In sandy soils, creating more fungal activity to hold together the particles to retain water is important. We also need to store rain water when we get it, but not drown the roots of plants. This all can be accomplished by burying wood, the older the better.

Miranda and I have worked on many pathways, but for a few months this year the garden was given a huge boost forward with the help of Noel, a permaculture student and future farmer, who can move mountains in an afternoon with just a shovel.

The chosen pathways had these features: they were perpendicular to water flow, or were between trees that needed supplemental drainage, food and water access, and/or were where rainwater could be redirected.  Eventually we’d like to do all the pathways like this but because of time, labor and materials we worked where it was most needed.

An area that becomes flooded when we have a deluge.

An area that becomes flooded when we have a deluge.

The existing sheet mulch was pulled aside.  Sections of the pathways were dug up (Noel’s work was very neat; my work is usually much less so).  Wood was laid in the hole, and layered back with the dirt.

The pathway dug up and wood being layered. The nice, neat hole is Noel's doing, not mine.

The pathway dug up and wood being layered. The nice, neat hole is Noel’s doing, not mine.

Notice I said dirt, not soil.  We don’t want to disturb good soil because we’d be killing microbes and destroying fungal networks.  Dirt is another story; it needs amendment.  As we’ve already buried all of our old wood, we timed these pathway ‘hugels’ to coincide with some appropriate tree removal.

You can be creative when cutting trees and make a chair! Watch out for sap on your pants, though.

You can be creative when cutting trees and make a chair! Watch out for sap on your pants, though.

Trees were cut down and some climbing roses pruned back out of the pathway, and the green ‘waste’ was used in the nearby pathways.

This euphorbia was only sucking up water and not giving back anything, so it and its friends had to go. This one had a marking like an eye on it, and I was glad to see it go... as it was seeing me!

This euphorbia was only sucking up water and not giving back anything, so it and its friends had to go. This one had a marking like an eye on it, and I was glad to see it go… as it was seeing me!

Old palm fronds went in as well.  No need to create additional work – good planning means stacking functions and saving labor.

The first layer of wood is covered with dirt, and then another layer added.

The first layer of wood is covered with dirt, and then another layer added.

After the wood was layered back with the dirt, the area was newly sheet mulched.  Although the pathways are slightly higher, after another good rain (whenever that will happen) they’ll sink down and be level.  They are certainly walkable and drivable as is.  Although the wood is green, it isn’t in direct contact with plant roots so there won’t be a nitrogen exchange as it ages.  When it does age it will become a sponge for rainwater and fantastic food for a huge section of the underground food chain, members of which create good soil which then feeds the surrounding plants.  Tree roots will head towards these pantries under the paths for food.  Rain overflow that normally puddles in these areas will penetrate the soil and soak in, even before the wood ages because of the air pockets around the organic material.

The best part about this, is that once it is done you don’t have to do it again in that place.  Let the soil microbes take it from there.  Every time you have extra wood or cuttings, dig a hole and bury it.  You’ve just repurposed green waste, kept organics out of the landfill, activated your soil, fed your plants, gave an important purpose to the clearing of unwanted green material, and made your labor extremely valuable for years to come.  Oh, and took a little exercise as well.  Gardening and dancing are the two top exercises for keeping away dementia, so dig those hugels and then dance on them!

Burying wood and other organic materials (anything that breaks down into various components) is what nature does, only nature has a different time schedule than humans do.  It takes sometimes hundreds of years for a fallen tree to decompose enough to create soil.  That’s great because so many creatures need that decomposing wood.  However for our purposes, and to help fix the unbelievable damage we’ve done to the earth by scraping away, poisoning and otherwise depleting the topsoil, burying wood hastens soil reparation for use in our timeline.

Another pathway is hard clay and isn’t on the top of my priority list to use for burying wood.  However it does repel water due to compaction and because rainwater is so valuable I want to make this pathway work for me by catching rain.  I’ve recommended to clients to turn their pathways into walkable (or even driveable) rain catchment areas by digging level-bottomed swales.

Digging gentle swales along a pathway can turn it into a rain catchment system. Make your paths work for you!

Digging gentle swales along a pathway can turn it into a rain catchment system. Make your paths work for you!

A swale is a ditch with a level bottom to harvest water rather than channel water.  However many pathways are on slopes or are uneven.  So instead of trying to make the whole pathway a swale in an established garden, just look at the pathway and identify areas where the land has portions of level areas.  Then dig slight swales in those pathways. Don’t dig deeply, you only have to gently shape the pathway into a concave shape with a level bottom.  The swales don’t need to connect.  You can cover the pathway and swales with bark mulch and they will still function for harvesting rain and still be walkable.

Mulching over the top makes the pathway even and still functional for rain catchment.

Mulching over the top makes the pathway even and still functional for rain catchment.

If the pathways transect a very steep slope, you don’t want to harvest too much water on them so as not to undermine the integrity of your slope.  This is a swale calculator if you have a large property on a steep slope.

So up-value your pathways by hugelkulturing them, and sheet-mulching on top.  Whatever your soil, adding organics and mulching are the two best things to do to save water and build soil.  And save the planet, so good going!