Friday, November 18, 2011

Making mulch

One of the many issues we struggle with growing plants in the hills of the Lockyer Valley, is retaining nutrients where we want them. This is natural sandstone country, so we don't always have a thick layer of topsoil. In fact if you're not careful, it can suck the moisture out of the soil very quickly. Without a plentiful supply of mulch it would be RIP for our garden!

There are many plants you can grow for mulch purposes, but we have a few outstanding performers worth noting. Two in particular were gifted to us as "cuttings", so what better way to start than with free plants. At the time they were given, we had no idea how useful they would become.

I wrote about mulching our new banana plants with lemon grass recently, which happens to be one of our favourite plants to use for mulching. It grows in a big clump which you can divide every year if you want to - but let me warn you, they're neither easy to dig up or to divide!

Lemon grass and an artichoke!

Here is one of our lemon grass clumps, a few days after a hair cut. Look at that new growth reaching for the sky. Lemon grass really loves this kind of treatment - they languish slowly, looking all the more disheveled when their brown skirts don't get trimmed. We tend to cut ours in late spring (after they've flowered) mostly because the leaves are partially dry, but also because the seed heads make good mulch also. To date, none of our clumps have reseeded themselves.

What I particularly love about using lemon grass as a mulch however, is the lovely fragrance they give off once they're freshly cut in the late afternoon. They've had all day to warm up the lemony scent and once cut and laid, you'll walk past them again and again just to catch a whiff! But that's not the only wonderful performer we use as a mulch...

Re shooting!

This is a Canna Lily and is easily divided by the underground rhizome. The one above was recently cut for mulch and is already growing more leaves. I have found the more you cut them back, the fatter the stem you get! These really grow very quickly and it's just as well too, because once you cut them, they break down very quickly. In fact, you better like where you plant your Canna Lilies because they're very difficult to remove permanently, short of using chemicals that is.

Young Papaya or otherwise known as Paw-paw
planted this year

They will pop up from the smallest amount of rhizome left in the soil afterwards, like what happened when I thought I had cleared a spot for a much anticipated Paw-Paw (above) but then the Canna's started to rise from the ground. I tried cutting them back continually, but the more I did the fatter the stalks got. Here is a better picture of how close the Canna Lily's are growing to the Paw-Paw.

Surrounded by Canna Lilies

These were a little too close for comfort, as they were impeding air flow and with the rising temperatures it caused mould to form on the Paw-Paw leaves. Not a problem though, as I couldn't have a closer supply of mulch (ready to chop and drop) if I tried! You can see some of the leaves on the ground already and how they've browned. This Paw-Paw will need more than that to keep it happy though. If you want to know more about growing Paw-Paws, try visiting Tropical Permaculture Gardens on growing Papayas.

This is the first time I've tried growing Paw-paws (or papayas) and I'm told this particular variety it's a hermaphrodite, meaning it is self-fertile. Most Paw-paws grow separate male and female trees, so we'll have to see how mine performs.

There is another mulch plant we grow here, and that's a Pigeon pea Tree. It has the benefit of sequestering nitrogen from the air and does absolute wonders for poor soil. Most of the trees we have, we plant near fruit trees and do an annual chop and drop. But with a little strategic planning, nature can do the work for you!

Pigeon Pea (left) Persimmon (right)

This one was planted next to a Persimmon, to be a wind break, but we weren't expecting it to droop over the retaining wall the way it has. It drops it's leaves right on top of the garden we have underneath.

growing under the retaining wall

This is a Dwarf Bamboo and it doesn't seem to mind the dappled shade the pigeon tree provides during the day, or the mulch it drops. Quite an accidental arrangement but gives us plenty of ideas for the rest of our slopes!

The Pigeon Pea in the photo is actually getting a little old and probably could use a heavy cut back. Pruning encourages leaf growth which means extra mulch, but you should plan to replace your trees after a few years. You won't have a problem with seeds as they are prolific producers of them. Which reminds me, I need to plant a few more this year.

Now as I mentioned at the very beginning, there are many plants you can grow for the purposes of producing mulch. I thought Permaculture Pathways (or Sonya more specifically) did an excellent job describing other varieties and the benefits of growing your own mulch.

Nutrient cycling with mulch

Growing your own mulch

It should bear mentioning that the Cana Lily Sonya refers to (or the Arrowroot) is a different variety to the one I have. In fact, mine is the flowering variety and while the bright orange flowers are very pretty, they're quite poisonous. Not a problem if you're just using them for mulching purposes though.

Does anyone else have success growing their own mulch?


  1. In our area, the leaves drop from trees and the wise ones use this as mulch. I would say that when I encouraged living mulch with our clover this summer, I grew my own green manure that I used for mulch (or encouraged it to proliferate anyway) but I haven't grown mulch on purpose. We use what we have on hand already and with the seasons up here in the North.
    Your Cana Lily acts exactly like comfrey does here. I meant to mention this in the other comment. Comfrey grows wild here and if you try to kill it, it just won't die. The more you mistreat it, the more it spreads.
    I would say that it might need a similar environment to what we have here-more lush and wet-it grows in sunshine or partial shade and withstands heatwaves very well. We do not water it but we have ample rain and humidity. Our soil retains water pretty well plus we planted it around the drip line of trees so I think that the trees roots help bring water to the comfrey too.
    That might be why yours died out-not enough moisture. Try again but be careful what you wish for-seriously:) LOL

  2. Hmm.. I thought I posted a comment here earlier today. I'll regroup my thoughts and repost. I came back to tell you that after reading your post, a friend came by to visit and brought me a Canna Lily root! Strange coincidence:)

    We use maple leaves or other leaves in the fall gardening season. Though I didn't plant the grass, we use clippings during spring and summer. Living mulch is my favorite now- clover as we talked about before somewhere. I'll buy seeds for next years garden I think. It worked out great.

  3. You did post earlier, but for some reason it went straight into the blogger spam folder. It's never done that before. The mysteries of cyber space!

    They've now been published in the order you posted them. :)

    Will your cana root survive in the ground during winter, and reshoot in spring, or will you have to dig them up over winter and plant them back in spring? Great score by the way, Cana's make for excellent fast growing mulch material. What a considerate friend.

    I'm prepared to live with the perils of comfrey, as the minerals they produce are what we lack in our soils. I also want to use it as edging for our ramps on the slopes. It should stop grass and weed seeds from travelling down hill, plus when they die back in winter, they'll feed the plants on the slope.

    Or at least that's the plan, LOL.

    I was actually thinking the perennials your garden needs, will be much different to ours. Your's will be more in tune with the Northern Hemisphere, thriving with the winter freeze and then the spring thaw. Those kinds of perennials would probably hate it in the muggy heat we get during summer, LOL.

    The trick is finding just the right location, and they may just survive. My Chammomile has decided to die off after doing so well during winter and spring. The heat just cooked it, even when it's in the shade.

    It's probably why we can grow tropical plants with ease, but absolutely suck at many kinds of herbs. The bizarre thing is, we can also get frosts during winter. Go figure, LOL. ;)

  4. Hi Chris
    No, alot of bulbs have to be pulled out during winter and kept cool and dry here. The lily is one of those. Dahlias are another. I know there are more but I haven't looked too far into them. I don't really need all that extra work so I have focused on those that don't need to be removed every fall-tulips, iris, day lily.

    I said Cana but I wonder now if its a Calla. I have to ask my friend again. Yes, it was very generous of her.

    Comfrey is great-I wouldn't trade it for anything else. But alot of people don't like it because its so hard to get rid of. Thats how we got ours-somebody wanted to get rid of theirs so we dug them up.

    Your chamomile dying has me stumped. Mine can tolerate alot though heatwaves seem to be unwelcome by them. If my herb garden wasn't overgrown and I bothered to water them twice a day, they would of been alright out in the hot direct sun. But I couldn't get to them under the current conditions of my herb garden.

    Yet they reseeded so we will never have a lack of it. Do you think yours has had a chance to reseed?

  5. Sorry for the delay in replying, it's just that time of year. Everything is bottle-necking before the close of the year, especially with school.

    Are jonquils also ones which can stay in the ground over winter? Or am I thinking snowbells? I can't blame you for wanting less work, as your harvest time is intensive just before the first snow arrives.

    Great news about the Chammomile though! The recent rains have come to the rescue. It was dying from the centre, so I thought it was a goner. The buds on the flowers were starting to brown off too.

    I thought it wouldn't matter if I brought water to it, so I didn't. The rain proved me wrong though, because it's coming back to life. I'm really happy about that. :)


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