A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Grass Clippings and Leaves for Fertilizer/Mulch

A Sustainable Approach to Building Soil Using Local-Materials

photo: Muhammad Sajjad
Turning over a new leaf
Leaves, grass clippings and other yard "waste" make excellent fertilizer for garden soil. We have been demonstrating this at the Sharing Gardens with vegetable yields in the tons (2012 Harvest Totals). My husband Chris also demonstrated a great increase in fertility using yard "waste" on his 5-acre farm in the high-desert country NE of Mt. Shasta, California (back in the 1980's - '90's). Within a short amount of time, using only leaves and grass clippings, alfalfa-powder that he collected from the floor of a pellet mill nearby, and a modest amount of goat and chicken manure from his own livestock, Chris turned volcanic soil, the consistency of beach-sand, into a garden that inspired Organic Gardening Magazine to write an article about him called "Defying the Odds on a High-Desert Oasis" (March 1991). Chris' gardens were so bounteous and beautiful that his farm was nicknamed "Findhorn West!"

Feed your worms and other "micro-livestock" directly in the soil!
We have already written several posts that go into great detail about the simple methods we use at the Sharing Gardens, using local materials, to increase fertility (links below). In essence, our method is to feed the soil with leaves, lawn-clippings, spoiled hay and vegetable scraps, weeds and the plants we pull at the end of the season to feed the "micro-livestock" (worms, bacteria and other "composters"). As these garden-partners eat their way through the yard and garden "waste" we provide for them, they fertilize the soil with their manure and create minute tunnels that keep the ground from compacting.

Organic Matter, the "The First Amendment"
As our dear friend, James Cassidy (professor of Soil Science at Oregon State University) likes to say about soil health, no matter what challenges you are facing, the answer is always "add organic matter!"

Here is a step-by-step guide to one of the methods we use at the Sharing Gardens to increase the fertility and tilth of the soil using a lot of grass clippings combined with dry leaves.

Two to three weeks before planting in a bed, spread a layer of leaves and grass clippings and till them in.

1. Thinly distribute dry leaves over the surface of your grass. You want there to be more grass clippings than leaves in your final mix. It'll be much easier to do with dry leaves saved from the previous Fall.
Maple and fruit trees have thinnest leaves that break down quickest. Avoid walnut leaves as they will make your soil toxic to your seedlings. Oak and other thicker leaves work fine -- just mix in more grass clippings than with thinner leaves.

2. Run the mower over the leaves/lawn, using a catcher-bag to collect them. Set mower at a higher setting. Sometimes you may have to lift and lower mower to avoid stalling.
3. Distribute them about 1" - 2" thick in garden beds. You can till first, or lay the grass/leaves out and then till them in.

4. Till grass/leaf combo into the soil passing over the bed two to four times to work them in well.
5. Worms and soil organisms will decompose them enough in 2-3 weeks for you to begin transplanting.
6. Stand back and watch your vegetables grow!
You don't have to spend lots of money on soil amendments, to yield beautiful results!
Note: if you use plain, fresh grass clippings (no leaves), they can be quite hot, if laid on thick. If used as a mulch around plants, be sure they don't actually touch the stems or leaves of the plants.
John mulches lettuce and broccoli using fresh grass-clippings.
Other related posts from the Sharing Gardens:
Preparing Garden Beds - One Low-Tech Way

Hay-Bale Compost

More on Mulch

Mulch We Love, and Why 

Benefits of Deep Mulching

CLICK HERE for article (from your Organic Garden) about using leaves to build healthy soil.

Raking grass - a local resource.
But could it really be so simple? 
In the beginning (if you are starting with a new garden site), or even as you transition from using commercially available soil amendments, you may need to use a pre-mixed, organic fertilizer, or concentrated materials applied judiciously, in addition to leaves, grass clippings etc. For example, in the first years of the Alpine, and Monroe Sharing Gardens we used rabbit and llama manure (dried and sifted as part of our nursery/potting mix, or worked into the hole with transplants.) We used an all-purpose, organic fertilizer in this same way, along with some kelp powder (for minerals and micro-nutrients). At times we have also used fish, or seaweed liquid concentrates as a "foliar feeder" (diluted with water and sprayed on plants when they showed signs of mineral depletion or stress.) But our primary methods of maximizing the fertility of our soil have been through mulching deeply using locally available "waste products": Leaves, grass clippings and spoiled hay (wet or moldy hay that can no longer be used as feed or bedding for livestock).

Volunteers sharing in the harvest. Now that's local!
Taking local food production to a new level
One hot topic these days is "eating local".  A "locavore" is someone who endeavors to eat foods grown or produced within a certain radius (for example, 100 miles). There are many reasons a person might choose to eat more "locally" but one common reason is to live lighter on the planet by reducing the amount of fuel needed to transport food. While this is an important piece of the puzzle, it's also important to go a step further to look also at where the fertilizers and other soil amendments come from. Even if the food you eat travels less than 100 miles, if the soil was fertilized with products that came from half-way around the world, this radically increases the "carbon footprint."  Many of these soil amendments also involve aggressive mining, or extraction methods that are environmentally damaging and threaten the delicate balance of life. Many of the sources for these materials are in increasingly shorter supply, making the long-term use of them unsustainable. Also, for people who choose to eat a vegan, or vegetarian diet, their use in growing vegetables is undesirable (ex: feather-meal, bonemeal and other slaughter-house by-products).

Don't treat your soil like "dirt".
As an overall philosophy, we feel it is better to work with nature and cooperate with the processes of soil-building and fertility that have evolved over eons, than to assume the role of a soil magician, concocting potions and powders, mixes and methods that can be complicated, costly and often disruptive to the health of your soil. The good news is that most, if not all of these products can be supplemented, and eventually replaced by resources that are local, renewable and sustainable: leaves, lawn clippings, kelp concentrates (powder and liquid) and modest amounts of animal manure.

Finding local sources
If you don't live in an area that will deliver leaves, or you don't have a site big enough to warrant a full dump-truck load deposited, here are some other ideas:
  • Offer to rake your neighbors leaves in exchange for using them in your garden.
  • Approach your neighbors about bringing you their bags of leaves.
  • Organize a "leaf co-op" where a group of gardening friends rake and share the leaves they gather.
  • Organize your local scout troop, or 4-H, or youth group to spend a few Saturdays in a row raking leaves in the neighborhood. You can offer this service 'by donation' and collect funds for the youth group's other activities.
  • Put an add on 'Craig's List' requesting leaves.
  • Set up a site at the local dump or transfer station.
Collection station Chris set up at the local dump in Mt Shasta, CA (1980's).
This last solution is one that my husband Chris, implemented quite successfully at his previous farm. At that time, yard "waste" was a real issue as it took up valuable space at the land-fill and meant that they would have to close and find new places to dump the community's refuse. Also, in many rural areas, instead of paying dump-fees, many people gather their leaves and burn them which not only deprives the soil of these valuable nutrients but adds to air pollution as well. Chris made an arrangement with the dump's manager whereby he set up a chain-link enclosure as a collection-site for yard waste and had a separate area for nursery pots and flats. Whenever the enclosure was full, Chris would get a call from the manager, and go pick up the load.

We're all just kids in the garden!
Whenever we write one of these "how-to" posts we try to add a couple of caveats: One is that, there are just about as many different ways to grow a garden as there are gardeners and this is just our way. Two: Gardening is a very dynamic process; each garden site is different, and each year the same garden site is different due to the weather and other shifting conditions. So, while these methods reflect what we're doing these days, check back in another year and see if we've evolved it further!

Herbicide Contamination in Manure, Compost and Grass Clippings?

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  1. Thanks for telling me about your site! I have 3 comments.

    (1) A short time ago I read about the tropical jungle and the thick layer of rich black soil that they found, in the jungle, where there were ancient agricultural civilizations.
    When we were in Central America, the present-day inhabitants often would slash and burn to clear the land. They were quite proud that with a machete and a box of matches they could take a large area of virginal, old-growth, ‘useless jungle’ and turn it into a nice cornfield. One slight problem that they hadn't quite worked out was that, for some reason this lush virginal, old-growth, useless jungle. Had very thin topsoil. So, within a very few years nothing would grow in their newly made slash and burn field that was now, just red clay. But, no worries. They'd just make another one next door. Of course, the fish in the river, all died when it turned to chocolate milk from the top soil leaving.
    A friend who had lived down there for many years, pointed out that unless the locals evolved into a creature that can live by eating red clay, that they need to get much smarter very soon, are there will be no food source within 1000 miles.
    So, as I was saying, I think that (http://www.sciencenews.org had an article recently about the rich black soil found in the Amazon delta that the archaeologists, not having green thumbs, assumed was a natural feature of ancient forests. However, recently it has been pointed out that on the contrary, the Amazon delta is not very fertile as found. Even the seemingly virgin forest.
    The incredibly rich black soil was man-made in ancient times where, as a rule, large ancient cities grew their food. Modern man does not know how to make the soil, but curiosity has got a lot of people trying to reinvent it. Sounds like they need to come to Oregon and talk to you guys. I don't remember which issue it was that I saw, but I did a Google for
    ancient rich soil was man made
    And got lots of good hits.
    The name a few. It seems to my non-'green thumb' mind that they are talking about exactly the same thing you are, and I think you would enjoy wasting some time reading the articles.

  2. (2) Costa Rica has a huge percentage of its land devoted to national parks. Many of them are virgin tropical forest. In those virgin forests, our experience was that the streams ran clear and beautiful. However, in the 70s many Costa Ricans tried to get rich off the fast food industry and its desire for lean beef. So they slashed and burned to make pasture to raise the beef, but the erosion was absolutely unbelievable. The rivers look like chocolate malts, where previously they look like the crystal clear water of a millionaire's swimming pool. Anyway, you get the idea.
    When we were there in the 80s, there were lots of gringos down there trying to help. Unfortunately, most of them had no clue what they were doing and would really screw up the ecology. This would devastate the local economy, but no sweat for the gringo. They would just go home and turn in their doctoral thesis about how bright they were. How much they help these poor ignorant tropical people. The group that we thought did the best job, would go in and harvest a few of the commercially valuable large medium and small tropical trees for timber. Carefully leaving behind the trees that created various cash crops. This did not destroy the canopy, and so the rain was broken down and did not hit the ground directly. More light got through to the forest floor, but not too much. Since there was a very diverse cash crop selection, the resident earned money all year round from something or other. If there was some sort of catastrophe that affected one or two crops, he or she had many other crops to get money from to get through the dry spell. But they did not clear-cut. If this technology, which is clearly thousands of years old, can be reinvented, to make the soil more suitable, it would seem like a lifesaver for the indigenous people, and the planet as a whole. I think one article mentioned that the ancient super soil, actually grew about a centimeter a year. Where the modern technology soil eroded away at a much faster rate, and a negative balance.

  3. (3) Google the Turkish city of Efes
    When we were there, we were told that it became the Paris, New York, or London of its day, because it was located on a beautiful natural harbor that was perfectly situated for people sailing in the area, who needed to wait for seasonal winds to change.

    The only problem was that there were no tree huggers around and they cut down the surrounding forests for fuel or timber or just because they could. And the erosion filled in the huge, beautiful, natural harbor. The ruins are now miles from the nearest water. Their farms in the area where the harbor used to be. Unlike Rome which continued to be useful for thousands of years, the ruins at Efes, are locked at a snapshot in time thousands of years ago, when quite suddenly the harbor was no longer useful. The city died very quickly. Will the last one out please turn out the lights?
    Clearly the work that you guys have demonstrated profound competency at should be encouraged and shared. But the big chemical and fertilizer industry can't trap people into paying their life savings. Like patented seeds. So, don't expect much support from industry or government. But I doubt that you did. It seems to me that the Internet is a wonderful way to disseminate extremely valuable ideas like this at very low cost to you, and very great benefit to the world. Keep up the good work. I need to get back to work. But this was fun.

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  5. That is a fantastic idea. We always toss all of our leaves. They will certainly be better put to use as mulch though. I have a feeling that this will be our year for excellent gardening. Let's hope this helps! http://www.mossrock.com.au/mulch-range

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