Monday, April 15, 2013

Living Mulch for Containers

The little riot of green, a.k.a. living mulch, in one of my pots on the balcony.
The same inspiration - spring, packets of seeds for sale everywhere, and the current flow of work at the farm here in Tokyo - that led me to see my egg carton in a new way, led me to read this article by Ari LeVaux in a different light. LeVaux wrote about a beautifully simple idea she had for old seeds: mix them together, spread them on the garden bed in fall, rake them in, and then as they sprout in spring and the rest of the seasons eat them as you need room for new plants. Brilliant. And exactly the kind of thing I've been wanting to hear.

At our farm the standard practice is to use a black plastic mulch that gets laid down by a heavy machine. It works well as a means to heat up the soil in cooler weather, keep down weeds, and retain moisture. But its plastic, requires fuel to be made and applied, and gets trashed at the end of the season. My farmers put it down for me each season after they till in whatever organic stuff I've spread on the soil. I see the appeal, but this year I'm opting out. The farm has grown and my farmers are crazy busy. The plastic and the fuel to make it and lay it out are expensive, and I don't want to cause them undue expense. They would never complain or deny it to me, but I still worry about it. And it's time to find an alternative.

These past years I've also done a fair bit of book reviewing for Permaculture Magazine and reading on my own about farming and gardening. The consistent message is that soil does best when left to its own devices. If I don't till, then the matrix that lives there only gets stronger and healthier. This in turn gives me healthier vegetables, herbs, and flowers, which makes them less susceptible to pests and disease. If I feed this matrix periodically with things like urine, leaves, straw, and my very own compost, it builds up, literally and figuratively, even more. (My garden beds where I've put some of these techniques into practice sit a full ten inches higher than the surrounding land.) If I grow a diversity of plants rather than a monoculture, this gives them an even further boost as pollinators and predators have a place to live and eat while pests and disease have less of an opportunity to settle in and wipe out a crop.

Ok, there's the philosophy. I dug out my old seeds and dumped them all in a jar, per LeVaux's advice. It's not fall, but who cares? They're seeds. I'm a farmer-type. There's open dirt in my garden. I set it next to my compost bucket headed to the farm the next day.

Then I set about repotting a few balcony plants. I'm scaling back pretty severely this year as we will be moving in March, but there are a few old friends and favorites I'm keeping around. As I filled the pots and gently patted down the fresh dirt, the seed jar caught my eye. "Open dirt," my farmer-self thought. Why not?

I opened the jar, sprinkled a handful of seeds over the surface of the soil in the pot, covered it over with a layer of dirt, and gave everybody a drink of water. Experiment underway.

Flash forward three weeks. The seeds have sprouted in a little riot of green that fills my heart with pleasure. Shungiku, scarlet runner beans, daizu, beets, and komatsuna are just a few of the things reaching for the sun at the moment. I'm not sure yet if it's the cosmos or the dill seeds that have sprouted, so I'll have to wait to report on that. Meanwhile, my mouth is watering.

How this will exactly play out once I start eating I don't know. Will I scatter more seeds? Will I just leave it be? How big will I let the seedlings get? Excellent questions all.

My advice so far, though, is to do it. Seriously, why not? For those that don't have a garden, this is a nice solution for old seeds and pots that dry out quickly. Mix in some legumes, i.e. peas, beans, daizu, sweet peas, etc., that will offer up some nitrogen to the soil and their companion plants. Herbs, greens, vegetables, and flowers are all fine. The worst that happens is you get a riot of green and color that could be mostly edible. (Don't eat the sweet peas, please.) Mulch away!


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