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

Food forest: A buyers guide

    A food forest is an assembly of plants, most of which are useful to human beings, that mimic the form and function of a native forest. The idea is that by partnering with nature, many of the tasks once fulfilled by the gardener or orchardist, or even chemist, are now taken up by natural elements. Fruit, vegetables, fiber, fungi, and timber can all be produced in one intensive space rather than multiple broad spaces. While at the same time providing habitat for local flora and fauna, cleaning the air and water, offering shelter, and building soil. By exploiting the multi layered aspect of a forest from canopy to root zone there is no longer the need to have the veggie garden separate from the orchard and the herb garden separate from the aquaculture pond, making food forests ideal for the backyard gardener looking for a little more self reliance.
    Over the last ten years or so the idea of edible landscaping, especially in the cities and suburbs, has become a trendy one. A whole cottage industry of edible landscape businesses has sprung up over the last decade. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of these companies adding “food forest” to their repertoire. I’ve even seen some market gardeners trying to get in on the action as a side gig. Undoubtably many of the people offering this service are doing wonderfully creative and thoughtful work, but I feel the need to air a word of caution here.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think any reason to plant a tree is a good one! And anything that gets families out of the house and more interested in ecology and self-reliance is a good thing. But from what I’ve been seeing as of late I feel the need to point out one important distinction: randomly throwing together a bunch of fruit trees and plants doesn’t a food forest make. Food forests plantings take careful design, consideration and planning. The interactions between elements in a food forest can be dynamic and complex yielding amazing fertility and satisfaction. Unfortunately, without careful planning and a little experience those interactions can quickly become dysfunctional. That’s not to say these systems can’t work themselves out over time, but it concerns me that enthusiastic land owners will become disillusioned before the system has a chance to balance itself out.
Urban food forest design by Eric Vocke
Here are a few tips that could help you when shopping around for someone to help you implement a food forest planting:
  1. Complete a PDC ( Permaculture Design Certificate) course. This isn’t essential,  but It will give you a base knowledge of the design principles and concepts at play.
  2. Look for a designer/ installer who has completed a PDC with a reputable teacher. Again, this isn’t essential, but it does show the person has put forth the effort to educate themselves. Alternatively, look for someone who has studied under a reputable food forest designer or agroforestry professional. If the potential candidate has both credentials all the better.
  3. Look for a designer/ installer who has their own personal food forest planting with some age to it. Again, not essential, there are a lot of great designers out there that don’t even own land; however, the experience of living with this kind of system on a daily basis offers a unique insight into how it will be used.
  4. Visit some food forests in your area. You will be surprised how many are around once you start looking, some going back generations even if the people on the land have never heard the term “food forest”.  You’ll find they often have themes depending on the person’s background, for example: Caribbean or Vietnamese. This can lend insight into your personal goals.
  5. Ask your potential designer/ installer for a plant list. This is a really fast way to weed out the inexperienced. An experienced designer will know the plants that are adapted to your climate. For example, if you live in the tropics and the person is recommending Olives and Pomegranate (Mediterranean species ), that probably isn’t a good sign. At the same time, clients often come to me wanting to grow species not adapted to their area because that is what they grew up eating. A good designer knows when to say no, even if it could potentially cost them the job.
  6. Ask if your designer is willing to provide you with a zone and sector map, as well as a final design drawing. This may be an extra expense, but it shows that the person has your long-term goals and happiness in mind. This will likely save you so much headache and money in the long run the cost will be negligible.
  7. Does your potential candidate complete an extensive walkthrough with you? In my design practice, I require a ninety-minute walkthrough consultation with perspective clients at a minimal fee before starting any projects with them.  This insures I have a good grasp on their goals, resources and limitations. It also includes thing like level of self-sufficiency, foods you eat the most, important medicinal plants, available time, aesthetic requirements, etc. Often what you think you want isn’t what is really important to you. A good designer can suss that out with you.
  8. Have fun! This should be an enjoyable process. Interview a few candidates then go with the person you click with the most and who seems most competent. Food forests are dynamic fluid systems that are constantly in flux. A casual approach and a little patience will increase your chances of long-term satisfaction. Remember a food forest must be allowed to demonstrate its evolution, as so you should.

 

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 ).