The magic of mulching

Sweet potato plant popping up from under the thick layer of mulch.

Sweet potato plant popping up from under the thick layer of mulch.

The weather is beginning to get hot and dry again, although the northeast monsoon season isn’t supposed to be over just yet. However, I’m anticipating those horrible dry months when the soil dries out quite thoroughly and the lawn dies, and we have to make sure our precious plants are watered a few times a day.

This is compared to parts of the garden that I rarely water, like the sweet potato patch that surrounds the marrow vine. That is a mostly unmonitored part of our garden that has plants I consider to be established. It’s a patch surrounded on three sides by trees that provide both shade and one thing that I forgot to consider – mulch in the form of fallen leaves.

I already know that the leaves of the peacock trees are good fodder for compost. They are small and break down within a week or two, and are rather abundant in supply in our garden.

Yes, it looks scarily messy and overgrown, but those sweet potato vines are shading the ground mightily well, surrounded by trees on three sides. None of them are watered by us. You can call this a natural system based on nature.

Yes, it looks scarily messy and overgrown, but those sweet potato vines are shading the ground mightily well, surrounded by trees on three sides. None of them are watered by us. You can call this a natural system based on nature. The marrow vine starts somewhere in the middle, to the right. You can’t tell because it was such a hefty plant that my trellis collapsed!

Then there is the jambu or water apple tree. Those leaves are thicker and more waxy, and take a really long time to break down. I used to try to run them over with the lawn mower to break the leaves into smaller pieces so that they would decompose faster. However, what I didn’t consider was that having such a thick, slow to decompose layer of such a material could be a good thing.

The whole idea of having a layer of mulch is to provide a protective layer from the heat of the sun that both slows down evaporation and keeps the soil cooler. I didn’t realise that beneath the sweet potato leaves was such a layer of mulch built from leaves from both sets of trees. What I suspect has happened is that the peacock tree leaves decomposed quickly to feed the soil while the jambu tree leaves provided the protective layer. This has resulted in an abundance of sweet potato vines that, together with the mulch, has probably helped the marrow vine, which has been the most productive ever! We used to harvest about three marrows per vine in our past experience when there was no mulch whatsoever. This time, we’ve harvested about fifteen fruits (we lost actual count).

Another whopper of a marrow growing.

Another whopper of a marrow growing. With fruits like this, wouldn’t you be willing to live with the overgrown looking patch? :-P

So I think this is a system that works – tall plants to provide shade and mulch material, together with ground cover plants that are dense and close to the ground. Needless to say, I’ll look into other plant combinations, just for the joy of learning more!

© 2017 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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A closer look at Permaculture

The term “permaculture” is a mash-up of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” or just “culture”. It was first conceptualised in the 1970s by Australian, Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren.

woodrow-book

I love this book! It inspired me.

As you may or may not know, one of my initial experiences with permaculture was reading the book “The Permaculture Home Garden” by Linda Woodrow. It’s a useful and inspirational book that lives up to its title – as in it explains how you can implement permaculture practices in your garden. The only issue was, like many books, it was written based on a different area of the world, and many of the plants were unfamiliar to me, except in name. However, it fired up my imagination and I wanted to learn more.

So I continued in my search to understand this intriguing concept. Along the way, I realised that there were many interpretations of it – in extreme cases, going back to nature and living in hippie communities or living as off the grid as possible in rural settings. That’s become a pretty stereotypical perception of permaculture.

Then there are more “intellectual” permaculturists, who like to know how everything works and are more inclined towards engineering things like aquaponics or hydroponics, or constructing wicking or self-watering beds. They may also be very concerned about details like soil composition, how to compost and all kinds of scientific nitty-gritty things.

To make it more confusing, people who use back-to-nature methods like using woodchips in the Back to Eden method, or companion planting refer to these as “permaculture”.

The thing is, permaculture is so wide-ranging that it could be any of the above. Just as in religion, splinter groups abound when people choose to use the parts that they like, can use or that make sense to them, but still use the overall term to describe what they’re doing. So I got pretty confused and lost along the way.

Well, the best thing to do in situations like this is to get down to the basics, and this meant learning more about Bill Mollison, who started it all. Sadly, Mollison passed away just a couple of months ago, leaving the permaculture world in mourning at the loss of the “Father of Permaculture”. However, there is a lot of information to be found online, and I found many videos of him teaching, visiting other countries and lots more. I think I will catching up on these for a while!

A guild of beans, kangkong, corn and marrow vine. The marrow outlasted them all!

A guild of beans, kangkong, corn and marrow vine. The marrow outlasted them all!

What I did learn was that Mollison created the three ethical principles of permaculture: care of the earth; care of people; and return of surplus to Earth and people. He came up with these because he saw things changing for the worse around him and knew that not taking action would have devastating results on the environment, our food production, and our survival in the long run. He also felt that doing things like conducting rallies and protests wouldn’t be effective fast enough, so he took a page from Ghandi’s book and decided to be the change he wanted to see – he began the permaculture movement to change peoples’ minds and to work with nature. And if we go by how nature works – weeds grow like crazy because they are plants that have found the most suitable conditions for them to grow, but being plants we had not planned for, are unwanted by us. However, this just shows that putting the right plants in the right conditions will allow them to grow well.

And this is what permaculture seeks to do – work with nature to create abundance. It may not look pretty if you’re going for the food forest approach, but it sure can yield a lot of fruits and vegetables!

I’m still working on making the bits and pieces come into focus, but I respect the idea of working with nature and I feel we need to change the way we approach growing edible food, especially commercially. We should be more careful of how we treat our planet, because we have to keep living on it. Anyway, I’ve already tried doing things the neat and controlled way, only to find that plants grow however they wish to. And about a year of iffy health and insufficient time has let the garden grow pretty wild, so you could say I’ve gone from one extreme to the other. Rather than fight with the plants, I want to work with them. So, perhaps permaculture is the thing for me.

With that in mind, I’ll be doing a permaculture design course. After all, my dad always said that if you’re going to do something, do it properly. In this case, it’s learning from the right teachers. I’ll just say that 2017 is going to be an interesting year as our garden will likely go through some interesting changes. My ultimate dream is to have a food producing garden that is also a habitat for local fauna and beneficial critters.

Does that sound too idealistic to you? Here, take a look at this video on Britain’s oldest forest garden:

These are the books mentioned in the video:
The Permaculture Garden” by Graham Bell
The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World” by Graham Bell

Or if you really want to get serious, just get the permaculture “bible”, “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual” by Bill Mollison. Note that this one is not for the faint of heart – it’s a textbook!

You can also take a look at this free resource from Geoff Lawton called The Permaculture Circle, where you will find a selection of videos and more to whet your appetite.

A dream doesn’t have to remain a dream – even if we can’t fulfil the entire vision, there are still parts that can be achieved. I think it’s worth trying, especially when it’s good for nature and the environment.

© 2016 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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Critters in the garden today

I had a nice time in the garden today with the company of a few visitors as I worked…

The Oriental garden lizards make me laugh because they find the most interesting places to sun themselves!

The Oriental garden lizards make me laugh because they find the most interesting places to sun themselves!

The female sunbird searching for nectar among the heliconia flowers.

The female sunbird searching for nectar among the heliconia flowers.

The male sunbird with his bold black bib.

The male sunbird with his bold black bib.

Remember the baby dove I discovered last New Year's day? Here it is, all grown up!

Remember the baby dove I discovered last New Year’s day? Here it is, all grown up!

Uncommon visitors in our garden, some pigeons dropped by after the rain stopped in the afternoon.

Uncommon visitors in our garden, some pigeons dropped by after the rain stopped in the afternoon.

A brown grasshopper decided to munch on the Chinese kale. I decided it needed to go away...

A brown grasshopper decided to munch on the Chinese kale. I decided it needed to go away…

It makes me happy to see the growing diversity of creatures in our garden because it means our garden is a place that attracts them. Of course, I’m not thrilled about the grasshoppers (I saw a bigger one, too) or the pigeons (for health reasons), but grasshoppers are food for birds, so I will accept them as long as they don’t ravage our plants; the pigeons will be discouraged from staying. As I discovered, they didn’t like being photographed – or maybe they thought I was going to do a different kind of shooting – and they flew off.

I haven’t been able to get photos yet, but it looks like secret squirrel has friends or family that it’s introducing to the neighbourhood! I really hope they don’t become a nuisance to those of us who are growing edibles for our families, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to co-exist.

And if you want to look back at the speckled dove when we first found it, go here.

© 2016 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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Accidental composting

Have you ever discovered something by accident?

I did some weeding several months back. Instead of throwing the plants into one of my messy compost piles, I put them into a black garbage bag, because these were plants I consider a big nuisance and wanted to get them out of the garden. Well, I remember that it started raining and I abandoned the bag while I went for cover. The bag stayed in the same place, in sun and rain for a few weeks, until I told myself that I really should have thrown it out sooner. By this time, though, some of my not so favourite weeds had started growing out of the bag, and on looking inside, I found some pretty nice compost! Can you believe it took those weeds just a few weeks to break down all by themselves, with no help from me, into gardening black gold?

Nice, crumbly black compost made from just leaving the plant matter in the black garbage bag for a few weeks!

Nice, crumbly black compost made from just leaving the plant matter in the black garbage bag for a few weeks!

Talk about an “Eureka!” moment…

© 2016 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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