Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mulch Much?

Recently, I've been out in the garden beds and have been looking at the condition of my soil. I'm getting ready to put in the spring garden and have been looking at what I have. I have been working to build my soil for the past several years. What I started with was, well, garbage. Not the kind you compost, the kind you add compost to! I bought some of this "garden mix" from a local dirt/rock/soil company. I forget now how many cubic yards of material we brought in, but it was at least 3 truckloads on their dump truck.

They dumped it on the street and we had to wheelbarrow it to the back yard. I was sorely disappointed in the look, texture and feel of it once it got here. It was obviously NOT the same stuff that had been on display at the office when I ordered. It was a 50/50 blend of sand and "organic materials." It was supposed to be a mixture of rice hulls, composted forest products (that's trees, right?) and food processing waste like brewery waste. I think what I got was actually about 75% sand and 25% rice hulls. I couldn't identify or even locate anything else in it. But, I was out of money and didn't really have a choice.

So I've been amending this stuff for years. I've dug in a dozen pickup truck loads of horse manure, bales and bales of straw, the leaves of several years, household scrap waste and my own compost. I think we've produced about 250 gallons of compost in the past three years which translates to about 3 inches of compost over the garden.

Two years ago, I covered one of the beds in wood chips from my friend the arborist. It's that bed I'm most impressed with.

Of the "big 3" beds, the ones that run along the back wall of my yard, I put the chips only on the top one. They are all 3 feet deep and about 75 feet long and they are tiered in three-foot lifts. The bottom one is my workhorse. In that one, since it's the easiest to get to, I grow most of my short-term annuals. Since I can reach this one to work in it from the ground, it is the most manicured of the the three. I have to climb up for the others so they don't get quite as much TLC as this one does.

I mulched this one and the second one with straw over the past several growing seasons. They do really well and the soil is rich and black and smells wonderfully fresh. I get really good production out of these two, even if they are growing corn, a heavy feeder.

The top one is harder to get to, harder to lift the compost to, harder to do anything with. This one I put in about a 6-inch layer of wood chips. It has never been the most productive bed, but it's not bad. While I was up there yesterday digging into the chips to find the soil, I noticed some things that have me pretty excited about this year's gardens.

First, the chips have mellowed to a wonderful, silver color that goes well with the gray cinder block wall behind it. Second, there are only about 3 inches of chips left. Since they don't blow away when we have our wind storms, I know something else did something to them. As I dug into the bed, I found out what that was.

It's compost.

Yep, those silly chips have gone and added about 2 inches of compost to the top of the soil. They have rotted right down to a rich, dark brown loam that looks and smells like premium compost. I like that. I didn't have to turn it, add stuff to it, or add nitrogen to the soil to cover the nitrogen loss required to decompose the wood. I'm assuming the local bacteria took the necessary nitrogen from the atmosphere to accomplish that.

And worms. There are earthworms and roly-poly's and other tiny livestock at work and living there. Those are good signs. Since we don't have naturally occurring earthworms in the desert, I'm wondering where they came from, but I'm not complaining. Earthworms are ALWAYS a good sight.

The soil is also moist down to about 8 inches. Not wet, but moist. This is particularly interesting to me since I've not watered this bed for about 3 months. (That's forever in desert time.) The lower beds are moist, too, but not quite as deep and I water those since I've got things growing in them. Another benefit of using wood chips as a mulch.

I'm pretty excited to find these things in this bed. They are all unexpected and all great. Since I'm putting in giant sunflowers along the back, several rows of several varieties of corn in the middle and squash and cucumbers interspersed with nasturtiums along the front, I'm very pleased to find the soil in such good condition.

Here's looking forward to a good spring growing season.

What's the status of your garden this year?

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