Monday, December 7, 2015

Mottainai: Rice Straw as Mulch

Wara ready and waiting in the garden.
When one of my fellow community garden members mentioned that a nearby rice farmer gave us wara (rice straw) for free, I jumped at the chance to get some. Farmers and gardeners alike have long said to me that wara makes good soil, and so I wasted no time in dashing over to get some.

Traditional rice harvesting practices cut the plants at the base and then hang them to dry on bamboo racks in the fields. Growers like Kazuto Hamma believe that sun-drying intensifies flavor and nutrition while also taking advantage of a naturally available energy source, which is why he and his sister, Erina, sun dry everything from tea to beans to shiitake. Once the rice is dried it is threshed, and the straw is again gathered in bundles, tied, and either hung or stood in groups of four to dry. Modern harvesters are reminiscent of a lawnmower in that finely chopped straw is spewed out behind and left on the field where it will be tilled in in preparation for the next growing season.

Wara laid snug around habotan (ornamental kale.)
Wara, like straw at home, comes relatively clean and seed free. The long, golden stems lie down flat on top of garden soil and don't get picked up easily by wind making it an excellent mulch. (For the record, I don't believe in bare soil.) They also take a fair amount of time to break down, which means they loiter well through winter rain, sun, and frost.

It also turns out that wara is jam-packed with silica, which helps plants develop strong stems and leaves as well as ward off disease and pests. As the wara breaks down (sheltering and feeding various beneficial creatures in, on, under, and around my garden in the meantime) and is ultimately buried in my no-till practices, that it gives up its silica meaning healthier plants and a better harvest.


bastish said...

"For the record, I don't believe in bare soil."

Believe me. It is out there. I have seen it with my own eyes!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

I hear you. I see it everywhere, and I just feel sick about it. I've heard all the arguments against it, but I'm not buying it. Some of them seem reasonable, but mostly only in the context of industrialized monoculture farming. The more and more I read, the more and more I see how happy the plants are with mulch, how rich the soil is underneath and how delicious the vegetables are, I give bare soil less credibility.