Three unconventional mulching techniques to build soil fast.

    Soil loss in the tropics is fast! Soil losses of up to 500 tons per hectare*, per year can occur as a result of deforestation and bad land management practices. Even in the home garden soils are often sandy and leached of most of its organic matter. Fortunately, decomposition in the tropics is also fast. The breakdown of organic matter is rapid; and with the rampant growth during the rainy season, facilitating soil creation can be achieved relatively quickly.
    Here are a few of my preferred techniques for building soil quickly that may seem a little unusual to the conventional farmer or gardener, but are nonetheless very effective.
A forest grows on a fallen forest. Photo by Eric Vocke
Bulk mulching:
   What i like to call “bulk mulching”, sometimes referred to as “rough mulching”, is the practice of using large, chunky, relatively unprocessed pieces of organic matter like tree limbs, stumps, and banana stalks laid out on the ground to break down in situ. This technique is meant to closely resemble what happens in a forest.
    People often ask me whether this is the same thing as using chipped wood mulch. My experience is that using whole pieces of wood material achieves a much different result. In fact, when I get wood chip mulch from local arborists, I often ask for the tree limbs and stumps that were too large to put through the power chipper. Wood chips make great mulch, but they break down quickly. Whole pieces of wood, particularly hard wood, break down slowly, allowing time for more long term, slow feeding, beneficial fungi to work at them. As these larger pieces of material breakdown, they become like little condominiums for all kinds of soil creatures from microorganisms and fungi to wood lice and millipedes.
    Another benefit is that when large pieces of wood root, they become very spongy and waterlogged. I like to think of it as a slow release irrigation system. Once completely broken down, they make a very fine humus, resembling espresso coffee grounds. This humus layer helps keep the top soil damp, even in dry periods. Additionally, humic acid leaching into the soil helps dissolve rock and minerals, making them available to plants. The key to using this kind of material is that it makes good contact with the soil, allowing the fungi to quickly start the decomposition cycle. I often line my garden beds with woody material and shredded banana stalks, completely sheeting the ground. Depending on the diameter of the material, I like to cut pieces about 12 -18 inches in length. Next, I come back and put in pockets of compost and insert seedlings and seeds.
    Ernst Götsch’s Syntropic agroforestry system is a well known example of this technique. After hard pruning trees and bananas, he neatly arranges the material shoulder to shoulder, lining his garden path ways and beds. Geoff Lawton has adopted a similar technique, lining the pathway edges of his food forest with bulky material laid-out on contour. The latter technique has the added advantage of acting as a snag for organic material and slows overland water flow. Large pieces could even be inoculated with gourmet mushrooms.
Instant garden beds:
    This technique is simple, straightforward and quick. First, organic material like kitchen food scraps are laid out on the ground; no need to worry about weeds or grass. Next, a layer of manure is laid down. This is followed by a thick light-proof layer like cardboard or paper. This light-proof layer will help block sun to weed seeds, smother the grass and trap moisture, especially if the material is soaked in water or worm tea first. The layers in between and below the cardboard become a favorite place for earthworms to occupy.
    Next, the paper is topped with a thick layer of mulch 12” -18” ( 30-45 cm). Usually this is pasture slashing, straw or hay. I like to use manured duck bedding from our duck pen.
    To plant: a small “nest“ is hollowed out in the mulch and a few holes are punched in the paper layer. A large, double handful of compost is then placed in the hollow in the mulch. Lastly, a plant seedling or seeds are placed in the nest.
    The nice thing about this method is that this sort of “lasagna layering” can be repeated over and over until you’ve built up a raised bed of deep, fertile soil.  Just continue adding material on top.
Pit gardening:
        This is by far my favorite. It consist of a pit dug in the ground with the spoils piled around the rim to form a donut like mound. Around this are planted species of plants that like moisture and are heavy feeders. Banana, papaya, coconut, squash, sweet potato, taro, etc. Then the pit is filled with rough mulch and manure. The pit stays moist for months, especially if you line the bottom with logs, and the plants feed centrally saving space and stacking functions. And since there is little light penetration, little to no weeds grow. It’s rather satisfying to throw big chunky awkward yard debris in the pit. Items that would have taken hours to chop up or haul off. It also keeps the biomass out of landfills. Palm fronds, tree branches, weeds, card board, urine ( in moderation ), coconuts etc. are all suitable materials. I’ve even heard of people throwing in tin cans for iron. Bananas grown in this manner grow like weeds and outpreform all our other clumps, especially in the dry season. These gardens are more intended for the tropics but could be adapted for other climates. In dryer climates, grey water can be directed to these pits.
     The edges can be dressed up a bit with ground cover like sweet potato for a tidier look. Eventually, you are left with a deep pit of extremely fertile soil that can  be harvested or planted with a long term fruit or rainforest tree.
    The great thing about these three methods are that they are straightforward, use readily available materials and don’t require any machinery or special technical knowledge. By mimicking nature, we can build soil quickly and start the process to recovering one of our most precious resources.
links:
Geoff Lawton talks mulch and chop & drop in a food forest: https://youtu.be/mHoW92qT03s
Geoff’s instant garden explained: https://youtu.be/S5wgHQtxgJw
Ernst Götsch Syntropic technique: https://youtu.be/gSPNRu4ZPvE
See the author’s technique in action here
* “Permiculture A Designers’ Manual” by Bill Mollison

The Tao of Musa

      Banana is one of the most popular fruits in the world. And for good reason, it appeals to our primate souls. You could say we evolved alongside fruits like banana and mango. Many botanists and anthropologists would argue these plants had us do their bidding, helping them to disseminate all over the world. And it’s not just humans. Everything from insects to birds, marsupials to bats love bananas.
      Banana is in my top three favorite fruits by far. I’m not talking about the artificially ripened, cardboard things you get in the grocery store. Those are the Cavendish variety of banana and likely the only banana most people know. They are grown ubiquitously in mono-cultures all over the tropics because they are thick skinned and ship well. They are picked green, shipped thousands of miles, ripened with ethylene, and have practically no flavor compared to most of the 70 other banana varieties.
      My love of the banana plant doesn’t stop at the fruit either. In my opinion the banana plant is one of the most important and useful plants of the tropics, up there with the likes of bamboo and the coconut palm. It may even be one of the keys the saving the forests of the tropics, and reversing some of the effects of climate change.
“Brazilian” an acid banana. Photo Eric Vocke

 

       The banana plant is a herbaceous plant, not a tree, in the Musaceae family. The underground part of the banana plant is commonly referred to as the corm. From the corm grows a pseudostem, or flowering stalk, made up of tightly wound leaves. After fruiting the stalk dies back and the corm sends out another shoot, or sucker. In cultivation after a stalk has fruited it is generally cut down to allow room for the next generation of stalks. Banana plants are propagated for the most part by vegetative reproduction. A portion of the corm is removed and becomes the base for a clone of the original plant.
Parts of the banana plant. Illustration Eric Vocke

 

       The focus of this article is to explore the myriad ways the humble banana plant is useful and multifunctional.
       First up on the list is the all important face stuffing. As I touched on above, there are about seventy varieties of banana with something for everyone. There are dessert bananas like Mysore and Ice Cream ( Blue Java), cooking bananas and plantains, and acid bananas like the Brazilian. Some are dwarf. Some are variegated. There are red, yellow, and green fruit. And the fruit can be eaten ripe or cooked unripe. The flowers and inner part of the stem are commonly used in Indian and Indochinese cuisine. The leaves are used to wrap food like tamales in Central America. In South East Asian banana leaf wraps are used for steaming or grilling rice dishes, fish, and desserts. In Polynesian culture meat and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaf before being buried in pits of smoldering coals for slow cooking. The leaves of banana can even be used as a kind of natural plate.
          Pioneering and soil building. This is the area where the banana plant is underutilized but has the most potential. Dense plantings of Musa shade out and help get over stubborn tropical grasses when attempting to kickstart a natural succession from prairie to forest. As the forest species get established the banana’s great biomass can be dropped down to nurture the young trees. Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Gotsch often uses banana stalks to quickly build soil and to fertilize fledgling trees when pioneering new forest plantings in his Syntropic system.
Banana stalks laid out on contour and pinned up with bamboo stakes. Over time terraces form. Illustration Eric Vocke
     In areas with enough rainfall, banana plants can be planted on contour on slopes for stabilizing eroding soils. The cut stems of the plants can be laid out and pinned up on contour to help trap mulch and build soil, supporting young trees planted behind. In addition, water logged trunks of banana laid out around plantings or lining pathways act as a kind of slow release irrigation.
            If I had my current garden to do over again the first thing I probably would have done is plant every square inch with banana and nitrogen fixing trees to quickly shade out the grass and start a mulch source going. As I was ready to plant my fruit trees I could then drop down some select banana plants and plant my trees into a nest of nurturing banana mulch.
             The great biomass of Musa functions as a significant carbon sink. At harvest, banana plants (with root mass) provide about 25 tons per hectare*. With significant draw down of atmospheric carbon and the increase in oxygen production broad acre banana polycultures become a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. Additionally, these plantings increase rainfall down wind and help cool the air through evapotranspiration. This biomass can also be a significant source of organic material for biogas production.
 
             Banana plants produce fast growing and nutritious fodder for domestic animals like cattle and goats. We use shredded banana suckers to feed our compost worms and ducks on our urban homestead.
              Pit gardens like banana circles are a convenient way to dispose of gray water, rough mulch material, and manure while producing food. Musa leaves make a handy roof thatch and can be used to glee small ponds.
Banana circle. Photo Eric Vocke
              In Japan high end traditional garments are made from banana fiber.
              Banana clumps provide habitat as well. In our garden every banana stalk, we have a lot, has a tree frog or two living in the folds of it’s leaves. Their chorus rings out in the night from stand to stand. The flowers are a significant source of forage for bees and they are a host plant to moths like the giant leopard moth  (Hypercompe scribonia). The cut stalks rotting on the ground are a denizen of earth worms, wood lice, and countless micro organisms.
Tree frog at home in the folds of a banana leaf. Photo Eric Vocke
Lastly, banana plants make an extremely attractive landscape plant and provide some windbreak protection. Nothing says tropical garden like the banana plant.
Flowering Orinoco plant. Photo Eric Vocke
These are just a few of my favorite qualities of and uses for the banana plant. There’s sure to be a part two to this article as my love affair with Musa continues.
The author with over 60 pounds of chemical free Namwah banana. Photo Mercedes Diaz

 

References:
* [ Penn, J., New Scientist 20 May ‘85 ( from Permaculture a designers’ manual by Bill Mollison)].
links:
https://youtu.be/LyzTz98VlAE( Making banana fiber cloth ).
https://youtu.be/C7h-JbaJjn4 ( Pioneering with banana ).
https://youtu.be/S41pbU_Ddvs ( Cooking Banana ).
https://instagram.com/p/BlsjVmglqiL/ ( Banana mulch in the garden ).

Waste not: Productive waste streams and nutrient cycling

        I would love to sit here and tell you about my wonderful zero waste household and about how transitioning to a totally closed loop lifestyle was really fast and effortless. But the fact of the matter is that simple isn’t true. I’m making this distinction right up front because I want you all to realize that transitioning to a waste free lifestyle is a process.
That being said, we have substantially cut down the amount of waste that we produce, or rather that we allow to leave our property I should say. You see everything produces waste. The question is rather can that waste be put to productive use? If the answer to that question is no, that thing must be eliminated. Just to be up front we still do produce some single use plastic waste. But these are wastes products we are trying to gradually eliminate as we find alternatives or go without. It is possible to eliminate these things but the point of this article is less about how we cut down on our waste but rather how we channel most of our waste into what I call “productive streams”.
    First off let’s define one thing so that we know exactly what it is we are dealing with. Anything in surplus not put to productive use, no matter how benign, becomes a pollutant. Often this occurs in the form of misplaced energy. Let’s take for instance animal manure. Every farmer and gardener knows this can be a precious resource that can produce results of spectacular fertility when growing food. On the other hand having chicken shit piling up to ones knees can produce serious problems. In that example the waste resource, chicken manure, wasn’t being put to productive use. Even a surplus of good advice can overcrowd ones mind when making an important decision.
    To simplify things most of our waste falls into one of two categories, that which can be absorbed back into our system, and that which cannot. The following concerns itself with the former. All our organic waste is directed back to the system and at living resources. Food scraps, manures, cardboard, yard debris, even non-synthetic textiles. If it has lived before, it can live again!
All organic waste is directed to one of the following seven productive waste streams. It should be noted here that these are dynamic systems, and that like all good permaculture elements there is a fair amount of redundancy which ensures success.
  1. Compost worm bins.
  2. 18 day Berkeley compost piles.
  3. Black soldier fly bin.
  4. Pit gardens ( banana circles, papaya circles, coconut circles, etc.)
  5. Diverse sheet mulch.
  6. Compost toilet.
  7. Ducks and aquaculture.
Let’s take them one by one:
Compost worm bins
   This is the preferred destination for most of our kitchen scraps. In fact, our worm bins are intentionally located right next to the kitchen garden on the way to the duck coop so we pass them every morning. They receive all our vegetable peelings and such from the night before. As the name says, these are bins that house compost worms, not earthworms! This is an important distinction to make. If you dig up some earthworms from your yard and chuck them in a bin they will likely die. Our bins consist of some old bath tubs on blocks under the tables in our hoop house. You can use any receptacle you like. I prefer the tubs because they already have a drain, they’re are durable and they’re not made of plastic. We don’t put any citrus, meat, or members of the Allium family ( onions, garlic, etc.) in the bins. We do put manured duck bedding and chopped up banana stalks as the base. When we water our seedlings, the excess water falls through the tables and passes through the bin picking up all kinds of nutrients and beneficial bacteria. We collect this nutrient rich water in a tray placed under the drain in the bottom of the tub. This is our main high potassium liquid fertilizer. And the sticky black castings are garden gold.
Compost worms. Photo Mercedes Diaz

 

18 day Berkeley compost piles.
    This is the Great White of the garden! It will eat anything; fish heads, manure, urine, weeds, yard cuttings, even road kill if you have the stomach for it. I composted an iguana once. The key is keeping the temperatures above 131 f. I like to keep mine between 131 f and 149 f ( 55c to 65c ) for as long as possible. At those temperatures, most weed seeds and pathogens are killed. When i first started gardening I read all kinds of books on compost. They mostly just tell you all the things you can’t put in to compost. I’m here to say that is BS! I put whatever i can scrape together in them and it all comes out the same. In fact the more diverse the ingredients the higher the quality compost comes out. I like this method because I start with a cubic yard of material and end up with a cubic yard of compost, more or less. With a cold compost pile, you might lose 80 percent of the volume of the pile and it could take four to six months to breakdown. This method consists of constructing the pile, letting it sit for four days, and then turning the pile every other day for two weeks.
Compost worm bins under potting benches. Photo Eric Vocke
Black soldier fly bin.
    This bin is basically just a very large repurposed tote with drain holes in the bottom. There are two spa hoses that lead into a bucket outside the bin. When the BSF larvae are ready to pupate, they will make their way up the hose into the bucket where we harvest them for our ducks and fish. The larvae are extremely high in protein and fat and allow us to cut our feed costs while converting waste food into eggs and fish. We put things like lush fruit, spoiled meat, manure, and bones in here. BSF larvae are very efficient at dispatching waste as they eat ten times their body weight in a day.
Pit gardening. Photo Mercedes Diaz

 

Pit gardening.
    This is by far my favorite. It consists of a pit dug in the ground with the spoils piled around the rim to form a donut like mound. Around this are planted species of plant that like moisture and are heavy feeders such as banana, papaya, coconut, squash, sweet potato, taro, etc. The pit is filled with rough mulch and manure. It stays moist for months, especially if you line the bottom with logs. The plants feed centrally saving space and stacking functions. And since there is little light penetration little to no weeds grow. It’s very satisfying to throw big chunky awkward yard debris in the pit. In particular, stuff that would have taken hours to chop up or haul off. And it keeps that organic material out of landfills. We throw in palm fronds, tree branches, junk mail, card board, citrus peels, urine, and cat litter! I’ve even heard of people throwing in tin cans for iron. Our bananas grown in this manner grow like weeds and outpreform all our other clumps, especially in the dry season. These gardens are more intended for the tropics but can be adapted for other climates.
Banana circle. Photo Eric Vocke
Diverse sheet mulch:
    This method is a no brainer and was the preferred method of composting for Bill Mollison. Throw your food scraps, manure, whatever you have on the ground, cover with cardboard, and mulch over with a high carbon mulch. You can add amendments like seaweed, rock dust, blood and bone meal. Then sit back and relax. Ive been doing this method for years, it works great, and I’ve never had a problem with vermin. In the tropics, where i live, organic matter breaks down almost as soon as it hits the ground. The dark moist layer cake that forms is a preferred place for worms and Mycelium.
Garden abundance! Photo Eric Vocke
Compost toilet
    The most popular compost toilet system for small properties is the lovable loo. It consists of a box with a toilet seat and lid with a bucket inside. After making a deposit, you chuck in a few handfuls of high carbon material like saw dust. Ideally, you would have a urine diverter, this prevents liquids from mixing with solids which is what causes bad smells. Also, the urine is an ideal liquid high nitrogen fertilizer when diluted. We not only use urine as our main fertilizer but also to kickstart out compost. There are lots of compost toilet designs out there and they all work just fine.
    If you really want to up your game to the next level there is the biogas digester. Unfortunately, we are not able to have a digester on this property.
Ducks and aquaculture.
    Poultry are the great converters. They can turn weeds, insects, even ruminant manures, incredibly, into eggs and meat while producing high phosphorus fertilizer. Ducks, geese, chickens they all have specific functions they can preform. We have a small flock of Indian runner ducks and couldn’t be happier with the breed.
    Any other bits and pieces such as green cuttings ( sweet potato vine, comfrey ) and black soldier fly larvae, go to the fish. I even sometimes rinse the duck bowls out in the pond and the fish gobble up all the leftover bits of grain. The ducks also fertilize the pond, feeding zooplankton and phytoplankton. The aquatic plants, algae, and snails go back to the ducks. For details on our 12,000 gallon swimming pool conversion to aquaculture fish pond, go here
Photo Mercedes Diaz

 

     All of these systems work because they are positioned in relation to their function. They have to be convenient or you won’t use them. Don’t put you worm bin on the other side of your property if it will receive daily food scraps.
    The Japanese have a turm, Satoyama, which can refer to a place but also an approach to agriculture. One of the concepts of Satoyama is that human beings are a part of the local ecosystem. People in Satoyama villages have been living sustainably for millennia. If we want to live a ethical and sustainable lifestyle there is only one thing we must do and that is to put back more than we take. Managing ones waste streams is the first step in that direction.
Links:
Geoff Lawton explains worm bin here
Eric Vocke making a Berkeley compost here
Geoff Lawton & compost chickens here
Mercedes Diaz here
Eric Vocke here