Munching on Mulching

Mulching with banana leavesIn natural farming, Mulch is a layer of dry or wet natural material (leaves, grass, twigs, branches, vegetable-fruit waste etc) that covers the ground around a crop. Anything that decomposes could be used as mulch. With more knowledge of a plant’s requirement, one could choose a material best suitable as mulch for that plant.

The activity of mulching is probably the one thing that Sustainable Farming practices take very seriously and Organic Farming overlooks in general. Fr.V, who guides us, even goes to the extent of saying success and failure of a Sustainable Farmer is very closely linked to right mulching.

Some basic benefits of mulching:

  • Maintains soil wetness reducing the quantity of water needed for irrigation.
  • Prevents sunlight from directly hitting the ground thereby preventing the hardening of the soil and protecting and nourishing micro organisms underneath.
  • Roots of plants love wetness and darkness while their leaves love warmth and sunlight.
  • Mulching covers the roots and reduces the temperature surrounding the newly planted seeds and saplings without blocking sunlight for the sprouts and leaves
  • Mulching material decomposes and provide nutrition to the plants .
  • Live mulching (mix of fast growing plants that are planted around the main crops) is an excellent way to rejuvenate arid land or fill areas that we don’t have plans to cultivate.

We’ve had a lot of fun in our mulching experiences. One time, to mulch a trench full of tree saplings, Ragu and a pal literally climbed two hillocks to fetch a tractor load of corn cob waste. He wouldn’t have gone in the first place if he’d known about the hillocks. A few days later, the trench was full of corn-lings that made the trench look like a green carpet. And in a few months we got more than a hundered baby corns and later, another hundred or so mature corns. What we thought as dead mulch had become a live and thriving crop! Couldn’t have gotten that kind of yield even with corn as a main crop and all the planning and expenses that go with it. Ragu, his mouth full always, was so glad he hiked.

While any natural material like plantain or coconut residues or cut grass could be used for mulching, what can be used in a particular farm depends on what is easily and abundantly available near by. In the initial phase when there was not much vegetation in our farm, we hauled plantain trees harvested and thrown away in our neighbours’ farms (they didn’t realise they were throwing away gold 🙂 It cost us Rs.400 per tractor-load of plantain (banana) trees which was enough to mulch 150ft by 2ft by 2ft trench in which we had planted tree saplings. Plantain is a great mulching material as its trunk inherently has a lot of moisture and takes over a month to decompose. We also used corn stems and the weeds.

After hauling around 30 tractor loads of plantain trees that covered a mere 2 acres, we realised that we can not afford the transportation costs for the whole farm. Live mulching was the other obvious choice. A mix of seeds from 5 main groups of Legumes, Grains, Spices, Oil seeds and Fodder plants that grow locally are great for live mulching. Once they grow over three or four feet, they can simply be broken very easily in the middle or at the base to allow sunlight to the main crops. They’ll grow again from the stem and broken twigs can be added as another layer of mulch.

Tips for mulching:

  • Use the leaves, branches, twigs etc of any bushes, plants and trees already grown in the farm on their own.
  • Go around the neighbourhood and find out natural material in nearby farms and factories (like coir), that they do not need.
  • It is best to unload such material in a distributed fashion around the farm so that it is easy for the labourers.
  • If no suitable mulching material is available, plant fast growing crops a few weeks in advance by scattering the seeds in areas where the main crops would be planted later.
  • It is ok to have a thick layer of mulch (upto 4 cm when compressed) for all seeds. Do not pile up the mulching material around the crop but scatter them around in multiple layers.
  • If you have a large area to cover and not much material available, Spot Mulching where the ground just around the sapling is covered may be a good idea.
  • It is best to use women laborers to apply the mulching. It is a delicate task and asking men to do it usually results in many mistakes.
  • For some tender plants like greens and carrots, it is good to lift the mulch and make way around the plant once the sprouting happens.

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