Monday, June 5, 2017

Mulching land

Buying mulch gets expensive to cover acreage, but it's also, somewhat unnecessary. As land can grow plenty of plants to substitute for mulch. It's the only way we've been able to build soil and protect it from drying out - by growing our own mulch.

Of course, it's not always easy to do, if you live in extremes like we do. So I recommend starting with some hardy plants, which will continue growing through extremes.

I'll share the ones I grow here soon, but first, a trip down memory lane...

Winter 2014

Three years ago, I shared a proposal for a Landscape Rework, we intended to pursue. The picture above, shows just how emancipated this landscape was. We built a swale to hold water, and divert it away from the house, lower down the slope. Unfortunately, rain was only sporadic.

Without water most of the time, we had problems growing vegetation in this area. It was on both clay and sandstone, with very little topsoil.

 Winter 2014

And  where we intended planting a row of native trees, along the walkway, there was a drop off, down hill. So retaining water, was going to be a challenge. It all had to come from the swale, and what moisture we could keep on the flat land, as long as possible.

So perhaps it was a tad ambitious to consider what we wanted to develop it into...

Winter 2014 - swale (right) walkway (left)

Did I mention this is also a north facing slope (south facing, for the Northern Hemisphere)? Crappy soil, little rainfall, and also receives sun, year round.

This has been the most challenging aspect of our land to develop. I've killed a lot of plants in this area, learning what would work, and what wouldn't. By the way, those pear trees have to go. I learned they're not flowering, because they're not getting enough chill hours. I'll try relocating them, down a shady, winter, gully.

Three years later though, this is what that same landscape, looks like...

 Winter 2017

What is growing here, is designed to survive these sorts of conditions. So plant selection was key. Secondarily, most of these plants growing, were designed as chop and drop, mulching material. I had to out-number the trees I wanted to establish 3:1, with mulching plants.

I still don't have enough mulching plants in this area, which is why I only have one tree which managed to survive...

Winter 2017 - Tuckeroo, front (right)

Also known as, Cupaniopsis anacardioides, the Tuckeroo is simply an amazing tree! Not only are it's fruits beneficial to local birds, but it hosts many butterflies and caterpillars as well.

Tuckeroo, is grown as a street tree and car-park landscaping plant, in urban areas, because it seems to cope with extremes. It can grow in clay too, which is why it hasn't died here. Unlike the native acacia trees I planted, which I thought would do well, but melted the first season.

Winter 2017

I've cut back the Lemon Grass (front, right) and Old-man Saltbush (front, left), and mulched the walkway with their leaves. This benefits the Tuckeroo tree, as it's protecting the soil from drying out, plus feeds it too. As it breaks down, it will help create more topsoil.

I've been doing this for three growing seasons now, but I don't nearly have enough mulching plants in this area yet. I'm working on it, through propagating more plants.

Winter 2017 - before the Lemon Grass (rear) was trimmed

In the foreground, is another Lemon Grass, which isn't doing nearly as well as the one, in the background. It's still alive, but I may need to add some additional inputs to resuscitate it.

The soil on this side, is more sandstone than clay, so roots cannot penetrate real deep. I have to focus my efforts, on building deeper topsoil, by adding more mulching material on top. I'm hoping this struggling Lemon Grass will pull through.

I find Lemon Grass can survive on little water, but it does need a year to get it's roots down, first. So watering in the first summer, will see it through to surviving only on rainfall. It's a really fast grower, and the smell of lemon is wonderful, when you cut it as mulch.

Atriplex nummularia

This is the Old-Man Saltbush I was referring to earlier. It's another mainstay as material for mulching, and easy to propagate. It's much hardier than the Lemon Grass, requiring even less water. But it breaks down quicker, because it's less fibrous - at least if you prune it regularly. It can develop more woody material, if you let it grow naturally.

I find when I start pruning Old-Man Saltbush, I have to continue doing so. As it will get top heavy and fall over. When left to grow naturally however, the branches will cross one another, and hold up the plant.

Old-Man Saltbush is used as a fodder plant for ruminants too - although it's recommended as an additional food source, rather than the only one provided. As too much is not beneficial either.

Lemon Scented - Pelargonium citronellum

Another plant I use for chop and drop material, which can survive in this area, is the Lemon scented Pelargonium. But any variety of Pelargonium will do.

I also have an Oak-Leaf Pelargonium, and two flowering varieties. But the Lemon Scented Pelargonium, is by far, the most vigorous grower. Which makes it good for mulching material. It's really easy to propagate as well.

This mulching plant, breaks down the quickest of all, so it's best to grow this plant en mass. A plant or two, won't last very long, once the mulch is on the ground. Especially during summer.

The common rosemary bush, is another survivor, in this area. I grow it more for bee food, and as seasoning for roast. It doesn't grow very quickly to be a mulching plant, but when I do give an annual haircut, I mulch the ground around it. The branches, take a long time to break down, and it's the only care this shrub will get.

It survives on natural rainfall, otherwise. So if you're looking for a die hard, bee-food shrub, you can't go past the common rosemary. This is growing in clay, so you know it's got to be tough. You've got to have some plants which aren't cut back to the ground, to make the area still look lush.

Broken down

This is an area I mulched previously, with a mixture of the Pelargonium and wood material, from a native plant which died. You can see the Pelargonium has all but disappeared, and the woody material is left behind. In my experience, it's good to mix up your mulching materials. Have one that breaks down quickly, but also have woody material.

Otherwise you end up with the above, bare patches. I relied too heavily on the Pelargonium, and now I have exposed soil. This is why I need more mulching plants. I don't have enough to go around yet.

But as I make progress in this area, it has improved, incrementally. The more I increase my chop and drop plants, the better this area is getting.

Coffee Grounds, around a Jade Plant

My strategy has been, to grow as much mulching material as we can, and propagate more. But failing to have enough growing on site, it helps if you can bring other forms of mulching material in.

Considering it's a waste resource at my husband's work, we use a lot of spent coffee grounds. It's relatively clean, grows healthy bacteria when it's kept moist, and just adds another layer of "something", that otherwise wouldn't be there.

We've tried free horse manure, collected from other properties, but it brought a lot of running weed grasses with it. So we don't do that any more. Thankfully, we have the humble weed, as yet another prolific resource, I'm constantly using as mulch.

April 2017

Take this healthy patch of weeds, for example, happily growing away. They're right where I need them to be. Populating an old vegetable bed, we've always had problems with. We had to improve the soil, in a major way to get anything edible to grow.

I'll share the details about that project, in another post, but it's a terrific example of how I use what nature has already provided, to mulch the ground.

April 2017

I pulled all those grasses and weeds, set them aside, and after amending the bed, put them back on top, as a thick layer of mulch.

Why buy mulch, when my land is already producing an abundance of foliage, I have to do something with anyway? Even if it's not particularly uniform, and contains seeds, it just provides another generation of mulch I can pull as mulch, later on.

June 2017

The above photo, has given a month for the grass to dry out. It's applied thickly, suppressing weeds for the most part, and more importantly, keeping moisture in the soil.

In this new garden bed, I've had to remember it's important to plant mulch plants, along with edibles - because mulch eventually breaks down, and needs replacing.


Next to the Paw-Paw tree, in this new bed, I've planted Queensland Arrowroot. It grows from a tough tuber, so it can handle periods without moisture, very well. I've used some of it's foliage already, to mulch the Paw-Paw.

It propagates easily, by dividing the tubers which multiply underground. I'm working on building up my number of clumps, by spreading them around the yard.


The Queensland Arrowroot (Canna Edulis) has very attractive foliage, and I use it to shade annuals in my garden bed too. Which is where this particular clump, is located. So it's not just a mulch plant - it's a shade and windbreak structure as well. Interesting fact: the tubers of this variety, are edible as well.

I haven't multiplied mine enough, to be able to eat them. The tubers are more valuable, as propagation material. I want plenty of mulch material, ready to drop - so the goal is to increase the number of chop and drop plants, before I experiment with eating.

 Yellow King Humbert

I've also used the regular flowering, Canna Lily (non edible) as mulch too. It's extremely hardy, probably more so than the Queensland Arrowroot. Plus it has the advantage of being able to spread, by seed as well. 

The flowering Canna Lily, puts a lot of energy into flowering though, at the expense of foliage. So it's not as plentiful as the Queensland Arrowroot, as a mulching material. But it makes up for it, by spreading seed readily. Once you put a clump in, you'll always have more popping up somewhere.

Which just proves, having multiple varieties of plants growing for mulch, covers a lot of bases. If you only stick with one or two varieties, your options are more limited.

Chrysopogon zizanioides

Another plant, I would love to have more experience with, is Vetiver Grass. I've managed to keep it alive in pots, so I can multiply them - but in the field, is proving hard to establish a clump. I suspect it's a lack of water during establishment, because I don't always have the water to spare.

Once Vetiver Grass, gets it's tenacious roots down, however (some have been found to go down, 3 metres) it will be a reliable supply of mulching material. I'm hoping my latest plantings (above) do well. These are planted on the edge of a swale, near the mulberry tree. They survived the heatwave, so let's hope if the frost nips them, they'll come back.

I've read Vetiver is sensitive to shade, so I only have to worry about that during winter, when the sun drops behind the trees. But so far, so good. It seems to be getting enough sun.


What doesn't mind the shade of the mulberry, and is actually planted under it's canopy, is bamboo. Can you notice it, amongst all that grass? Some gardening advice, recommends removing completing plants, such as grass and weeds, from establishing plants, in order for them to grow.

That advice doesn't work in my location, however. As establishing plants are more in danger of dying from a lack of moisture, than competing plants. It might take them longer to grow with competition, but all those other plants are providing a means to cover the soil, and retain moisture.

This is the Multiplex variety of bamboo (Bambusa Multiplex) which grows up to 5 metres tall. Mine won't make it that high though, as it will be periodically slashed for mulching the mulberry and swale. I have a row of 3 bamboo (along with the Vetiver Grass) to help in that endeavour.

Artemisia absinthium (Wormwood)

An underrated candidate for mulching material, is the humble Wormwood. This herbaceous shrub, grows super fast, and actually benefits from regular pruning.

It's a lot like Lavender and Rosemary - if not trimmed regularly, it grows too woody and dies. But it's a true survivor and easily propagates. A lot of these scented, plants I place near the chicken coops to grow as well. As it deters insects. Maybe not completely, but it helps.

Native mat-rush or basket grass

There are many more plants I've used, which I've failed to mention too. Like Lomandra Longifolia (above) and Dianella Revoluta, which is a flax lily. But they are more slower growing, requiring a trim every two years - so cannot be relied upon, regularly. I also use Pigeon Pea, Acacia and Leucaena trees, for woody materials, as well.

I have a fun, follow-up post, recounting the growth of several plants, I've kept alive over the years, due to mulching with what grows on our land.

To summarise briefly though:

  • Choose a variety of mulching plants, that will grow in extremes

  • Plant en mass and chop regularly

  • Grow enough, to always keep your soil covered

  • Use pulled weeds, grass, and imported (clean) waste products, before buying mulch in. This will save A LOT of money.

Do you have a favourite mulching plant, which features in your garden? 


  1. Hi Chris, Thanks for your notes on mulching. It is something I struggle with here also, as our garden is still in establishment stages. I have arrowroot, pigeon pea, wormwood and leucaena but had not thought of saltbush which I will look into. Many thanks, am inspired to go take cuttings of the wormwood tomorrow.

    1. Sounds like you have all the makings of success on the boards already barb. But it's great to learn of those few plants we haven't considered yet. I know you can buy seed of the Saltbush I mentioned, if you cannot locate the seedlings. I had to order mine in from NSW. I'd offer you some, but I've just started propagating again, and they haven't put down roots yet. If you can't find any, later on, I can probably give you some. :)

  2. Hi Chris. I have a small garden with a few things that I use as mulch and you've already mentioned. I also use the overhanging plants from the neighbours yards and any fallen branches(usually occurring on bin day as the garbo man tends to knock quite a few limbs off on his way up our street) from the street trees. I keep them in a drying pile and after a week or so I put them through my little mulcher. I have a bamboo growing through the fence from the neighbours and quite a bit of this gets use on the garden. Bamboo also drops a lot of leaf little which is a good source of mulch for around small seedlings. I'm still buying the odd bale of sugar cane hay from a local farmer, bot nowhere near as much as I used to.

    1. Borrowing from surrounding landscapes, is a great way to source mulching material as well. I'm glad you mentioned it. I also think if you live in an area with plentiful supplies of mulch (such as sugar cane) it becomes more cost effective to use it in your garden. Because it's often sold direct from the farm, and therefore, costs less.

      We use to have a Mushroom farm that sold spent mushroom compost in our area. It was extremely cost effective to buy, because it was their waste material they would otherwise have to throw out. But the Lockyer Valley Floods hit them in 2011, and they never reopened. Sad for them, and sad for our garden. But local inputs of clean waste material, can be very cost effective when it's available.

  3. Hello Chris,

    I have really enjoyed reading this post.

    Our of frustration I have started looking into permaculture principles to implement around our 2 1/2 acre block of land. The problem with this area is that it has very little rainfall per year and it makes it very difficult to grow almost anything, except saltbush...that grows very well lol! Good to read it can be useful.

    I would love to start practicing some different methods I have read about recently, and am very pleased that you have explained some of the plants I could use for mulch. I have some of the ones you mention growing already so will branch out and plant more. We have sandy soil and I am hoping to transform the soil into something I can grow food better with. At the moment I am finding that growing veggies in wicking barrels is more successful than in raised beds or the ground.

    Thank you for your help and advise, it couldn't have come at a better time.

    Happy gardening,


    1. Hi Tania. Your landscape would be more challenging to garden than mine. Evaporation would be higher, and you have the sand, draining moisture and nutrients away. I think you're doing a fantastic job, with the strategies you've adopted. But as my husband always says: we're doing the right things, we just have to do more of them.

      The more land you own, the more you have to up the scale and this is where permaculture design really helps. You can focus on a specific area and determine everything it needs. You've found, like I have in the past few years, that shade cloth is everything. But I've learned that I need to plant those hardy mulching plants around my shade area to improve the climate inside, even more. Plus I get another place to grow mulching plants!

      So I don't think you can go wrong experimenting with permaculture principles. Your system can only get better. I wish you all the best, as I know how hard it is to work with extremes. But you can make it even better. It's amazing the transformation that can happen. :)

  4. Chris, I was reading your post and was going to ask if you had Queensland arrowroot growing but when I scrolled down I read that you do. It goes crazy here and we never water it so it has to rely on rainfall. I have a number of lemongrass plants too that do well...both the West Indian and East Indian varieties. I think we first bought our wormwood plant when we were in a herb club back in the 1970s so it has been around for a long time and must like being neglected as well. LOL!

    1. Arrowroot is great stuff Chel, I just need more of it. I've got 3 clumps right now, and need about 20, lol. ;)

      Terrific history with your wormwood. I had no idea, they could live that long. They are underrated in modern gardening trends though. But have proven their vigor and beauty, without question. I love the silver-grey foliage, and now can only hope mine live as long as yours have!

    2. Chris does wormwood smell like curry powder? I was given a plant and told it was a curry plant. It is a shrub that has those silver grey small leaves.

    3. Hi Jane, I have a curry plant too, and I know why you may think this is wormwood. They sort of look the same. Only wormwood has softer, thiner leaves. Curry plant definitely smells like curry, and has thicker leaves. But their silver-grey, colours, look similar. I hope that helps.

  5. Another good post, Chris. I love the way you use what the land provides to repair the land, plus how much you think about what you're doing. The average gardener just doesn't 'observe and interact' like this. So many times, when I've explained or suggested a permaculture concept to someone, I've seen the lightbulb moment dawn.

    I have wormwood....I mulch it to use as a layer in the bottom of the chook coop...under their roosting perches and in the nestbox, hoping it'll do what's it claimed to do and repel insects.

    My favourite mulch material is New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia). It has self-seeded and taken off here after the wet summer and autumn we had. Its stems are brittle, so it's easy to pull up and distribute elsewhere. I've piled it up around the bases of my fruit tress like you do. In some spots it's dropped seed and now I have a living mulch. Can you grow it up there?

    I'm really getting a sense of the slope of your land from your wonder you need to do so much to hold up the water flows.

    1. Thanks Bev. Wormwood is great, placed in the chicken coop, isn't it. I find lavender and rosemary works well too. Smells great! We also get the New Zealand Spinach here. I eat it in spring, when it's got tender, new leaves. The heat, or lack of rain, tends to make it more tougher though. I have clumps of it growing sporadically, and will pull it for mulching if it's nearby. You're lucky to have so much as a natural resource on your land.

      Definitely slopes here! Most of our work has been building retaining walls, and diverting water so it doesn't become a problem in the areas we use. The plants helps keep the soil in place, and improves the water holding capacity of the soil. But I'd really like more plants up hill. We just have to work with the seasons, and keep plugging away. :)

  6. I'm very impressed with this area actually. The fact that you describe it as difficult makes it even more impressive. We have very different problems up here. Decent soil , good water and snow but weeds swallow it all up. Mulching helps alot on areas we want to cultivate but chop and drop as far as weeds go is time sensitive, i.e. when a weed sets seeds. Our equivelent would be leaves, which we colloct in the fall. Thats saved us alot of money on mulch.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience in the Northern Hemisphere, Linda. We often experience different challenges - but no less, challenging. I think the autumn leaves would make great mulch, and soil improver, in general.

      When the rains arrive in spring/summer, we become overrun with weeds too. But I think our evaporation is higher, so they die back again, fairly quickly. They have a short lifespan, in other words. But they still set seed. Short of poisoning, I'm not sure I could keep them at bay, lol. I'm hoping to thwart the weeds through competition, with my perennial edible plants.


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