MULCH//A Not-so Exhaustive List
Here is the first in a new series MULCH// that goes in-depth on each cover material, what we know about using it from research we’ve done or experience on our own farms, and sometimes people to follow who use a particular method, at least in part. This is going to be collaborative. By ‘collaborative’ I mean, make sure to leave comments with your own experiences, so anyone looking at wrote cover material can get a better perspective. We’ll do our best to update this post with new information, insights, farms, everything mulch. Consider this a living document.
Keeping your soil covered is an essential part of no-till systems (though we will discuss alternative approaches like those of Namu Farm, Ace of Spades, and others). What that cover is, however, is entirely up to you in the context of your region, your resource-base, even your neighborhood, maybe your ideals (veganic growers may use something other than manure compost, et cetera). To expand the horizon for those interested in growing no-till, but don’t have decent access to compost, here is a not-so exhaustive list of cover material. If we’ve left any out, please let us know in the comments. As we post articles about each of these covers, we will link them so you can click on the cover material to learn more about it. I do not go into great detail here about the pros and cons of each—again, that will come later—I did add a suggestion on where to look for them.
Chances are that no matter where you are, you have access to one or more of the below.
Ramial Wood Chips - Generally, the young branches of hardwood trees and shrubs, but you may have to chip it yourself.
Wood chips - Hunt down a tree trimming service or call your local electric company. They have to pay to dump trimmings—offer to take them for free, or even pay them—hopefully, they will keep ‘em coming. Not working? You can always go to the dump and pick them up. Also, check lumber mills, though use of sawdust is a different story.
Sawdust - If you have lumber mills nearby, you likely have sawdust. Read up on using sawdust before you put down too much, but it can work really well in the paths. Exercize caution with this one.
Peat Moss - Peat moss can make a great cover material, especially for direct seeding, especially(x2) if you live near a peat bog. If you do not, you may have to weigh the environmental impact. We will discuss all this in later articles.
Coconut Cuir - I’m very curious to hear from anyone using this peat moss alternative as a cover material, but in theory it’s possible. especially in coconut-rich places.
Landscaper Mulch - Landscaping companies can be a great source for cover materials. Check local suppliers. Landscaper mulches are generally a blend of wood chips or bark with compost, but I’ve listed some specific ones below.
Living Mulch - Often a landscaper’s item, this is a mix between some woody material (usually bark mulch) and compost. Good for shrubs, bush habits, and flowers.
Bark Mulch - Bark mulch may not always be exclusively bark, but is a somewhat dense mulch that can work for paths. Find at landscaper supply companies.
Paper - Many packing supply companies—Uline—sell large rolls of packing paper that can be pushed out over your beds and planted into like plastic mulch. It will breakdown quickly, depending on the thickness, but also make a nice, albeit temporary, bio-degradable weed suppressant. Can also be used under compost applications, recommended for transplanting only.
Cardboard - Easily found behind furniture or appliance stores or anywhere that sells, distributes, or uses large, boxed items, (non-colored) cardboard can make a great cover. Note that removing the tape can be a bummer. Also, there may be glues you might not want in your soil, as well as inks. That said, the soil is a great way to recycle it.
Straw - A good way to track down straw is either Craigslist or go to your local extension agent and ask who sells straw locally. Always lean on this agency for tracking down local sources of cover material as they have a ton of resources and local connections.
Hay - Same as straw.
Cover Crops - There are innumerable ways to use cover crops and, honestly, we are just now scratching the surface. Cover crops will definitely get a good article—or ten—soon. Do not get these from your regular seed purveyor. Find a cover crop purveyor, because the price difference is ridiculous.
Compost - You can make your own compost, obviously, but if you need to order some supplemental compost, contact landscaper suppliers and talk to other farmers in the area. They should be able to direct you to someone locally.
Mushroom Compost - Certain strands of mushrooms grow on compost and, after fruiting, many substrates become good compost feedstock. This is something that you would get directly from a mushroom farmer or a distributor. There are some issues with it, though, which we will address at a later date.
Vermicast - I would not suggest vermicast as a cover material as you would go broke and there is some evidence anything more than 40% vermicast has negative effects on plants, but blended with other bio-covers could be highly beneficial.
Plastics - Plasticulture does have potential in the no-till world. Rolls and equipment can be purchased from most larger ag and tool supply companies.
Biodegradable Plastics - Ditto plasticulture - lot of potential in the no-till world. Rolls and equipment can be purchased from most larger ag and tool supply companies.
Silage Tarps - This cover material has all the potential in the world, possibly even removing the need for any other cover material entirely. Farmer’s Friend LLC sells these tarps, and so should your local ag supply (Southern States, for instance, carries them). Expect a more elaborate post about these soon.
Crops - One cover option, arguably the better for smaller-scale farms, is simply keeping the soil planted with cash crops. This is certainly a challenge in some climates, but a great goal—nothing will quite feed soil like photosynthesis. We assume know where to find seeds.
Manure - Straight manure... though it will always take some maturing (preferably composting to kill weed seeds), could be used to cover their beds. It’s possible. We will discuss this later on, but mainly you are going to need a stable or farm who you trust to supply you with this material. Not all manure is created equal.
Coffee Grounds - Why not coffee grounds? If you have a massive supply of this from a local coffee shop or roaster, perhaps they could be mixed with another material.
Spent Brewery Grains - I have no idea what the potential is for these, but if you do, holler at me. Obviously, you would get these from a brewery.
Brewery Filter Paper - I first heard of this from Urbavore Farm (podcast coming soon) in Andrew Mefferd’s book The No-till Farming Revolution. Very interesting potential between local farms and breweries.
Wool - A lot of sheep breeders have no use for their wool. That’s real. I think this could be an absolute mess on bed tops, but maybe as an initial smother material? In the paths? Check with local wool and sheep folks.
Leaves - So much potential in leaves. Check how Shawn Jadrnicek of Wild Hope Farm uses them among others. These can be acquired from your city, the dump, the side of the road in the Fall, even your own farm. Hopefully someone will bring them to you, otherwise hire a truck to make it worthwhile.
Clover - I’m not willing to say that this is even possible yet. I know people try to use clover in the paths, but my experience is that clover will creep into your beds. So get untreated (!) seed from any seed supplier, but really read up on this one. We will get deeper into it later on.
Perennial Cover Crops - if you our someone you know is planting into perennial cover crops on a commercial scale, holla’ for real. I know nothing I about this idea championed by people like Dr. Elaine Ingham, but I’m really interested.
Did I miss any? Will add any we missed as they come in. Also, will do articles about most of them in future weeks, so be on the lookout by following us on Instagram.
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