Sunday, May 27, 2012

Much Ado About Mulch: Why and How to Use it in Your Survival Orchard

I'm finally getting around to the post I promised on the role of mulch in an orchard. Exciting, no?

What, you don't think it's very exciting? Well, I disagree! By the end of this post, my goal is that you will be inspired and excited about the four main functions of mulch in an orchard setting.

So what's the big deal and why am I so worked up about mulch anyway?

1) Mulch holds in moisture.

You probably knew that already. Mulch can be a powerful ally in all parts of your garden, helping you lower your water bill and keeping your plants happy.

The trees and other plants in an orchard also appreciate a consistent moisture level. Our blueberries and pecans, for example, are water hogs. They need lots of moisture to thrive and at the moment, we happen to be in the middle of a drought. (It might not look like it in the photos that follow, but they were taken in back in early April.)  Mulch might the thing that insures my baby trees and bushes survive.

Note: you should NOT use wood mulch right up against the trunk of fruit and nut trees. It holds in too much moisture and can lead to bark problems. Plus, it makes things a little too cozy for rodent pests like voles. Michael Phillips suggests that you use pea gravel right up against the tree.

2) Mulch keeps weeds back.

Weeding is everyone's least favorite chore. Mulch keeps new weeds from sprouting and if it is done correctly, it can even smother weeds that are already established.

You have to, have to, have to keep weeds and grass back from your newly planted fruits and berries. Hubby Dear and I lost our newly planted raspberries last year because we let the weeds get out of control and they choked out the raspberries. Fruit trees do not like to have grass in their root zone. They much prefer mulch and a mixture of beneficial plants like comfrey.

Okay, so maybe my first two reasons to mulch aren't exactly news to most of you.           
The next two points are what made me such a strong proponent of mulch in our orchard.

3) Mulch can be a powerful tool for soil improvement.

Maybe you have perfect soil conditions in your yard to grow food galore. Well, I don't. Our house was constructed in 2006 and the front 2 acres of our 5 acre property were completely scraped clean of topsoil. The owners at the time didn't do much with the yard and it was taken over by whatever weeds can live in hard packed clay. We moved in a year later and have made many attempts to get grass to grow through that hard clay surface. We've trucked in many loads of topsoil, but that hasn't gotten us very far.

That's why I got so excited when I read about the transformative power of mulch on soil in Gaia's Garden. You can actually use a thick sheet mulch to turn poor soil into the richest, most fertile soil you could dream of. You can read more about this so-called "bomb proof sheet mulch" here. The overall health of my orchard plants will be improved by strategically mulching the areas around the trees. As we expand our orchard and the areas we mulch, the soil will gradually be restored

4) Ramial mulch is a haven for mycorrhizal fungi 

Almost any organic material can be used to block weeds, hold in moisture, and even improve your soil. But there is a certain kind of mulch that is best for your fruit and nut trees. Ramial mulch consists of chipped wood from hardwood trees or shrubs and only from the parts of the tree that are less than 2- 1/2 inches in diameter. These smaller branches and twigs are full of the materials that will nourish your orchard plantings and, importantly, harbor mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi live symbiotically in tree roots and are essential for tree health. If you want your trees to thrive naturally, you need to do everything you can to encourage the growth of these fungal partners.

The problem with ramial mulch is finding a source for it. We don't have trees and shrubs on our homestead that we can just chop down and chip up. And you can't just go to Lowe's or Home Depot and ask for a bag of ramial mulch. My parents, however, have a small vineyard and we were able to chip massive amounts of grape prunings and random bits of fallen branches from their woods. Of course these massive piles of vines and branches compacted down quite a bit when chipped, but it was a start.

The Method:

I came up with this method of orchard mulching as a kind of hybrid of sheet mulching and a general ring mulching around each fruit tree. I didn't do the whole "bomb proof" sheet mulch, but simplified it and used the materials we had on had.

Newly planted trees. The inner circle is filled with pea gravel

We planted our apple trees and placed a 2 inch deep layer of pea gravel in the immediate area around the tree.

Amendments to add to the soil

Then we gathered our materials for my makeshift sheet mulch: amendments to add to the soil - complete organic fertilizer, bonemeal, bloodmeal, humic acids, and azomite; a large pile of broken down cardboard boxes;

Nitrogenous matter! Fresh grass clippings

And a wheelbarrow full of fresh green lawn clippings.

1) We mowed and closely trimmed the grass (to be honest, mostly weeds!) in the area the day before we constructed the mulch.

2) We would have watered the area to help jumpstart decomposition, but thankfully Mother Nature took care of that for us.

Ground dusted with fertilizers

3) We sprinkled generous amounts of the various organic fertilizers and soil amendments around each tree. Ideally, you would do a soil test and know exactly what you need. We figured that we pretty much needed everything and just added what we had on hand.

In lieu of a garden fork, we used a shovel to poke holes in the ground

4) Then we poked holes all around in the area to be mulched. This will help moisture, amendments, and decomposing insects to move back and forth more easily.

Spreading the nitrogenous layer

5) Time for a layer of nitrogeneous material! The green grass clippings will add a punch of nitrogen and attract worms and other insects to work the soil. We also sprinkled in a bit of bloodmeal. We could have used rabbit droppings, chicken manure for this layer, also.

Fertilized and ready for the fun part

6) Time to lay down a layer of cardboard and water it well.

Cardboard in place

The cardboard is important because it is going to block the weeds and grass. We also used newspaper for this layer when we mulched our blueberries, but we found that cardboard tended to go farther since the newspaper must be spread in a layer that is at least 1/8-inch thick.

Note: if you do this on a windy day, you will find yourself chasing pieces of cardboard on a regular basis.

Water in it well

It is best to water it as you lay the cardboard down so that it will stay put. Make sure you are overlapping your cardboard or newspaper by about 6 inches to keep that pesky grass from creeping in.

More nitrogen

7) Add another thin layer of nitrogenous material.

A thick covering of mulch

8) This is where I diverged from the "bomb proof" mulch. I skipped a lot of the other layers that you would ideally put in place and simply added a very thick layer of my ramial mulch, covering the cardboard completely.

The completed apple trees. I also did the same thing with our blueberries and pecan trees 

Time will tell if the extra care I put into the mulching process will help the trees. The cardboard is already proving to be a very effective weed barrier. After the project was completed, I had some ramial mulch leftover, so I spread it in the area between a couple of the apple trees. My fungi should love me!


1.Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

2. The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's all his fault, I swear!

It's all Hubby Dear's fault.

I gave him explicit instructions as to the kind of poultry feed to buy. I buy the most "natural" brand available in our locale. It's made by Cargill, so it's not exactly local or organic, but at least it doesn't have added antibiotics like all the other chick starters the store carries.

Well, Hubby Dear managed to come home with the wrong kind of feed, so we had to go back the next day and exchange it. I was going to let him haul all 80 lb of feed by himself, but he casually mentioned that the store had baby turkeys when he was there the day before. Baby turkeys? I had to go check that out.

I had been thinking about adding turkeys to the mix on our homestead. In fact, I used part of my prepping budget this month to buy Storey's Guide to Raising Turkeys because I wanted to learn more about them. I hadn't cracked the book open yet.

Although I didn't know much about turkeys, I did know that I wanted to raise heritage breeds. A heritage breed is one that may not grow as fast as the kind preferred by factory farms but is one that would taste better and would (theoretically) be able to reproduce without AI.

And wouldn't you know it?  The farm store had two heritage breeds in stock along with the standard Broad-Breasted White turkeys.

Dang, those turkey poults (the technical term for a baby turkey) were cute. The kids loved them. And, even better, they were on sale for 25% off.


You can see where this is going, right? Just remember this is all his fault.


Red Bourbon (foreground) and Blue Slate turkey poults 

We came home with two Red Bourbon and two Blue Slate turkey poults. Since this was a complete impulse buy, we didn't have a brooder prepared and I didn't really know much about what I was getting into. I recalled that Harvey Ussery said in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock that turkey poults were really fragile. After we set up the brooder and released the poults into their new home, they surprised me by immediately trying to fly out. So much for delicate and fragile. We scrounged up some bird netting and taped it across the top of the brooder guard. That should keep them contained for a few weeks.

Chomp, chomp!

The way they are chowing down, though, we might be moving them sooner than later. We need long term plans for their housing, stat.

And there is the little issue of the Ancona ducks that are due to arrive next month.  <sheepish grin>

I might be suffering from Poultry Acquisition Disorder, but just remember, the turkeys are all Hubby Dear's fault!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Using Your Food Storage: The Little House Cookbook

One of the fun things we did on our mini-vacation to southwest Missouri was visit Laura Ingalls Wilder's house.

Laura Ingalls Wilder House
Mansfield, MO

It was a treat to tour the home Laura lived in when she wrote her famous "Little House" series of books. I was an obsessive fan of the "Little House" books as a child and only slightly less obsessive as an adult.

Needless to say I spent more than I probably should have in the museum bookstore. In my bag of Laura-themed paraphernalia, I came away with this.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories

I've always wanted to know how to prepare the foods mentioned in the books and all the iconic recipes are there. Now, however, I read The Little House Cookbook through the lens of preparedness and realized just how useful this it is.

  • The meals are simple, using staples from food storage, game from hunting, or produce from the garden. How do you make hasty pudding, jackrabbit stew, or stewed dried fruit? Now I know. One thing I appreciate is how simple all the recipes are. They use just a few ingredients and many of them come straight from our food storage. This is ideal from a preparedness point of view. 
  • Many of the meals were originally cooked over an open fire or fireplace. The recipes have been adapted to modern cooking appliances, but they could easily be turned back to the originals in a grid down or camping scenario. Just make sure you have the appropriate cast iron cookware. 
  • How about making things we usually buy? This book gives recipes for making vinegar from apple cores, rendering lard, and crafting hard cheese.   

This cookbook is so much fun for a Laura fan and it proved that I can find prepping related items anywhere, even on vacation!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

How to Make an Easy Dust Box for Chickens

There were two things that kept me away from keeping poultry for years: poop and parasites. I've had at least one child in diapers since the early '00s so I really didn't want to add yet more poop management to my daily duties. Thankfully, I found out about using deep litter in my chicken coop and it really minimizes the amount of work with manure.

That still leaves the parasite part, though. Chickens are prone to getting several varieties of lice and mites, as well as intestinal worms.

I don't do bugs. At all. To give you a sense of the depth of my phobia, my parents tease me about the time when I was a little girl and I cried when a butterfly came too near me. I still don't like butterflies.

I didn't make the jump into chicken keeping until I was able to resign myself to the fact that a) I would probably see bugs on them and b) I would have to do something about it.

Chickens naturally take dust baths as a way to get rid of external parasites. They throw themselves down in a dusty spot and roll around until they get dirt in all their nooks and crannies. Dust baths are very effective but even so, chickens can suffer from lice and mites. But then I learned a way to soup up my chickens' dust baths by providing them with a box filled with pest repellent materials. Here's how I did it.

I sent Hubby Dear to a big box pet store to buy the biggest litter box he could find. He certainly delivered.

A king-sized litter box fit for a 39 lb cat

This "jumbo" litter box is 34.5" x 19.5" x 10". Two chickens could bathe in here at the same time. The depth is the most critical dimension. You want all your bathing materials to stay in the box when the chickens do their thing. (Ever watched a chicken dust bathe? They can go kinda crazy.) 

Adding the first layer of peat moss 

You can fill your dust box with any number of materials. Harvey Ussery recommends peat moss, dried and sifted clay, and/or small amounts of wood ash.  I used peat moss (I always have some handy) plus some sand I had left over from another project. 

Food-grade DE. Do NOT use any other type of DE with your poultry. 

Now for the good stuff. You can add garden lime, food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE), or elemental sulfur powder to really sock it to those parasites. Remember to wear a good dust mask whenever you work with DE. It is really fine and you'll breathe it in and irritate your lungs. 

I should mention that Gail Damerow, author of Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, doesn't think you should use DE in dust boxes for parasite prevention. Chickens can be prone to respiratory problems and breathing in DE is not a good thing for anyone. Damerow thinks you should only use DE and other heavy-hitting anti-parasite products when there is an obvious infestation. Harvey Ussery, on the other hand, routinely uses a small amount of DE in his dust box. I decided to go Ussery's route and use DE as part of my dust box mix. 

I also mix a little DE in with my chickens' feed. Some people claim that feeding DE to poultry will serve as a natural dewormer. Gale Damerow has a negative opinion of that as well. She says that DE only works to kill worms, etc. when it is dry. Once it has made its way through the chicken's digestive tract, it is not dry and no longer has any of the microscopic cutting edges that serve to kill the bad guys. I still do it on the off chance that it will work!   

Peat, sand, and DE, ready to be mixed

After I mixed it all together, the dust box had about 5 inches of material inside it. I laboriously dragged the heavy and awkward box outside and placed it in a sunny part of the chickens' run. 

All done

After my chickens began spending more of their time outdoors instead of "cooped up", I went ahead and moved the dust box up into their coop. The behemoth does take up quite a bit of floor space, but that's not as much of a big deal now they are outside from dawn until dusk. The important thing is that the dust bath will remain dry so the chickens can bathe to their hearts' content no matter the weather.  


1.The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery
2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

Calling all poultry owners! Do you provide a dust box for your chickens? Do you use DE on a routine basis?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Comfrey: an Essential Plant for Preppers

Hubby Dear and our kidlets just returned from a road trip, the highlight of which was the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company's Spring Planting Festival. We weren't the only ones who trekked out to rural Missouri for the festival. As we were leaving, I took this photo of the line of cars waiting to get in.

Traffic Jam! 

I kid you not, the cars extended a mile down the gravel road.

The Planting Festival was definitely worth the dusty drive. I had several items that I wanted to find for sale among the vendors and I managed to get most of them. I was most excited about my new comfrey plants.

My three new comfrey plants waiting to be planted

I hadn't really heard of comfrey until I started learning more about permaculture and organic gardening. Comfrey is rather nondescript looking, but don't be fooled by its plain appearance. It is wonderful stuff and if you have any sort of garden space at all, you need to plant some. Here are a few of the reasons. 

Comfrey in the garden and orchard: 

-First of all, comfrey is a dynamic accumulator. It naturally pulls potassium, calcium, magnesium deep out of the ground and accumulates those elements in its tissues. If you compost comfrey leaves, you'll have an easy, sustainable way to add these nutrients to your garden.

-Comfrey makes an awesome mulch. It grows so vigorously that you can cut it back several times a year. You can then take the leaves and use them wherever you need mulch. It also acts as a living mulch and will suppress grass in the area around it.

-Comfrey's thick, powerful roots break up hard clay. That alone is enough to recommend it to me! It can dramatically improve soil just by its mere presence. Michael Phillips describes how the soil around comfrey plants will turn dark brown or even black with organic matter.

-Bees love comfrey blossoms. The blooms will attract all sorts of beneficial insects to your garden.

-Comfrey leaves make a powerful tonic for plants when brewed into a tea. The man I bought the comfrey from at the Planting Festival told me that he ferments the leaves and sprays the resulting tea on his plants whenever they need a pick-me-up. The results are dramatic.

-Fruit tree roots love comfrey for all of the reasons I've already listed, plus it assists the all-important mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi are an essential partner for fruit tree health.

- Comfrey is easy to propagate from root divisions. I only bought three comfrey plants, but they will multiply to many in just a few years. Whatever you do, make sure you choose the spot you plant your comfrey wisely. Chances are you will have a very difficult time getting rid of it once it is established!

In its new home around our "Jonafree" apple tree

Comfrey and Poultry: 

- Comfrey makes a wonderful poultry feed. It is very high in both protein and mineral content. Chickens will eat it, but apparently ducks and geese enjoy it even more.

- In addition to allowing his flock access to comfrey during the growing season, Harvey Ussery dries it and adds it to his flock's feed in the winter as a mineral supplement.

Have I sold you on comfrey yet? There's more. 

Medicinal uses for Comfrey: 

-The traditional name for comfrey, "knitbone", is a clue to its use in herbal medicine. Comfrey can be used to help heal cuts, pulled muscles, sprains, and even broken bones! There is a substance inside comfrey called allantoin that speeds up cell regeneration. The allantoin is what makes comfrey such a great plant tonic and it works on people, too.

-Comfrey has been used for centuries, but more recent scientific research has shown that comfrey can cause liver damage when taken internally. You can read more about that controversy here. To be safe, stick to external uses such as poultices or salves. Here's a recipe for a comfrey poultice.


Now you know why I was so excited that I finally got my hands on some comfrey plants! There's a rumor that I was so excited about my new plants that I sang a song about "Comfrey the Magical Plant" to the tune of "Beans, Beans, the Musicial Fruit", but I can't confirm that.  ;)


1. Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
2. The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips
3. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to Plant Blueberries

Blueberries have a reputation for being somewhat troublesome plants. The major issue is that they like acidic conditions and most of us do not have naturally acidic soil. No worries! If you plant blueberries correctly, you can give them exactly what they need and pave the way for bountiful harvests in the future.

I turned to my go-to book for all things fruit, The Holistic Orchard,for instruction. According to Michael Phillips, the first thing you have to do is dig a proper hole.

Hole-y cow!

As usual when you are planting fruit, you're going to dig a much larger hole than you probably think is necessary. This hole is about 3 feet across and 12 inches deep. We had three northern highbush-type blueberries ("Earliblue", "Bluecrop" and "Blueray" varieties) to plant and spaced them out five feet apart.

Now comes the fun part. And by fun part, I mean the really tedious but important part. Instead of adding back only the soil you just dug out, you are going to fill in the hole with materials that are going to nudge the pH of your soil in the acidic direction. Phillips recommends that you use 50% peat moss, 40% native soil, and 10% compost for a proper planting mixture.

A note about peat moss: the peat moss that you buy at a garden center is very dry and compressed.  It is better to moisten it ahead of time.

My peat moss has sprung a leak! 

Take the bale of peat moss and cut a hole in the top of the plastic. You can stick a hose down inside and fill the bale with water. It will hold A LOT of water. Let it sit for a couple of days to get thoroughly moistened.

Hubby Dear and I were perplexed as to the best way to insure that we got the proper amounts of soil, peat moss, and compost mixed throughout the planting hole. We ended up using a 5 gallon bucket as a measuring device and filled it up with the correct proportions of each of the ingredients. It took a long time, but it was a good way of mixing everything.

As you fill in your planting hole, you also need to sprinkle in some soil amendments. Every blueberry bush received 1 cup of rock phosphate, 1 cup of elemental sulfur, and 2 cups of greensand. The rock phosphate stimulates root growth and the greensand and sulfur will help with the iron uptake/pH concerns.

Greensand, elemental sulfur, and rock phosphate

We layered in buckets of the soil mixture, sprinkled in the amendments, and gently tucked in each plant.

Phew! Finally finished!

After we finished this project, I needed to be gently tucked into bed. Alas, my job was not done. Blueberries are one of those plants that need consistent moisture. Mulch will help keep moisture in the soil and also keep the weeds back.


And that's it! In a month, I will fertilize the blueberries with an organic fertilizer for acidic plants and repeat that again in the fall. In subsequent years, we will fertilize in the fall only. We planted gallon-sized blueberries that are already two years old. If all goes well, we will have our first crop of blueberries next year.