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

Our tropical homestead design explained. (part 1)

    I’d like to take the opportunity to layout the design of our property and explain a little about what we have done and where we are going with this project. My partner and I live on a typical, quarter acre lot, about ten miles from downtown Miami, Florida. We share this space with one cat, one dog, and a small flock of Indian Runner ducks. When started, the property consisted of a single family home, driveway access, a 12,000 gallon swimming  pool, a pool deck, a six foot privacy fence and not much else other than a few large trees.
Site design by Eric Vocke.
The intention:
    My vision for the property was for it to operate as a living machine, providing for much of our needs and producing most of it’s own inputs. It needed to except and recycle, most if not all, waste and provide a sanctuary to local flora and fauna.
Our goals:
    It is our hope to become as food self-reliant as possible while decreasing our waste and carbon footprint. A break down of our food self-sufficiency aspirations are as follows:
  • 75%-85% of our vegetable and staple needs met
  • 50 % of our fruit needs met
  • 100% medicinal herbs
  • 40% of our non-vegetable protein needs met. This would be derived from mushrooms, duck eggs and aquaculture production.
  • 100% honey
    Maximum diversity in the garden is a must. Emergency food and water (and hopefully power someday), should be maintained in the event of a hurricane or other disaster. As well as providing for our needs, the site should be a good example of urban permaculture and demonstrate what can be accomplished on an average urban/ suburban block of land.
    The garden is laid out using a system of zones and sectors. Zone one being the most intensive to zone five basically being an untended forest or otherwise, wild area.
The design layout:
    Starting with zone zero ( the house), we exit our back kitchen door onto the pool deck where we have located our zone one kitchen garden. This consists of sixty-five grow bags on top of pallets and builder blocks, out of duck reach. We have arranged them in a keyhole configuration for easy access. Another twenty bags make up a melon tunnel between the pond and shade house. The kitchen garden produces most of the things we use daily like, salad greens and culinary herbs. Directly beside the kitchen door is a 500-gallon rain water collection tank which supplies most of our drinking water.
Kitchen garden and newly started pond conversion. Photo: Mercedes Diaz
    Directly behind the kitchen garden, to the north, is a 12,000-gallon swimming pool converted to an aquaculture fish pond. Here we raise edible fish and aquatic plants. Duck manure fertilizes zooplankton and algae which in turn feed the fish, so our only input here is the pump electricity. A custom designed reed bed system filters and aerates the pond water. Read more about the pond conversion here.
Pond reed bed and deck. Photo by Mercedes Diaz.

 

Pond(33), duck area(44) and kitchen garden(29) layout. Design by Eric Vocke.
    There is a duck house behind the pond on the edge of zone one and two. This is a deep litter system that houses a small flock of Indian Runner ducks. Directly beside the coop is a duck yard and “duckuzzi”, which we use to fertigate part of the food forest along the north border.
Molly, Ginger and Summer relaxing in the pond. Photo: Mercedes Diaz

 

    Also, in zone one, to the east of the pond, is a three hundred and fifty square foot shade house. Here we raise our seedlings and house our bath tub worm bins. The north east corner of the property is devoted to compost. Here we mostly make and turn Berkeley compost piles. Beside the compost area is a banana circle which excepts any bulky material we cannot easily compost. We hope to be adding a dry compost toilet to this area very soon.
Shade house. Phot: Mercedes Diaz

 

    Heading clockwise from the compost area, we pass a bamboo hedge which we use for crafts and trellis building. The bamboo hedge also functions as a wind break as this is our storm wind sector. Next we pass a work shop/ storage shed with a 275-gallon rainwater collection tank. Continuing along the east side of the house is the zone two trellis container garden. This consists of about one hundred grow bags with a bamboo A-frame trellis. This is our main crop garden producing: beans, tomato, and cucumber in the dry season and beans and Asian gourds in the wet season. Here there is another 275-gallon rainwater collection tote.
    Finally, as you exit the backyard,  there is a small plant nursery where tree seedling are propagated.
Kitchen garden, pond, duck coop and shade house. Photo Eric Vocke

 

    The backyard centers around the pond. Zone one is intensely managed and all the elements; pond, kitchen garden, shade house, duck house and compost area are positioned so that there is a constant and harmonious interaction between elements. Waste from the kitchen is cycled through the compost, worm bins and ducks and returned to the garden. Vegetable starts are coming from the shade house, grown on compost, on a weekly basis. We harvest, and the feedback loop continues. Read more about how we cycle nutrient through the garden here.
    In part two of this article I will be explaining the rest of the garden including the food forest, micro mango orchard, and the zone two perennial container garden. Until next time.

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.