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leaf mulch

Posted by Josh Willis 
leaf mulch
May 15, 2020 03:53AM
Here's a home grower question, please. I'm "stuck" up here in MA for the foreseeable future -- New Englanders, how do you do this never ending cool weather???! winking smiley While I'm up here, I'm helping my brother with his 5 fruit trees (~2-3 years old).

As others have noted, sourcing hardwood chips isn't always straight forward those of us w/o chippers. Also, the arborists that I've talked to indicate their truckloads tend to be ~80% softwood, rather than the other way around. And those trucks are BIG; dump one of those, and we might use it for a decade.

So what's a home fruit grower to do?

What about leaf mulch? This has become readily more available for home gardeners, via pick up or drop off services by the yard...and it's "black gold" reputation has been earned in flower gardens that I've seen. Of course, fruit trees are a different kettle of fish (too many metaphors?). I looked up the carbon:nitrogen ratio, which at 50:1, seems in the realm of ramial hardwood. And it's assured to be of hardwood origin, leaf that it may be...so a bit closer to that deciduous forest ecosystem we're aiming for. Of course, leaf mulch will last much less long, only a season or so -- but that may be less of a concern with 5 trees. My main concern would be sanitation/hygeine...? Oh, and also that I know a lot less than y'all smiling smiley Curious to know your thoughts and advice in this regard.

Hope everyone is staying safe and sound and weathering the changing economy.

Zone 7a in West-Central MD

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/15/2020 07:06PM by Michael Phillips.
Re: leaf mulch
October 11, 2020 07:50PM
I guess I'm on a hay roll today, sorry, pun very much intended, because this is my third endorsement in a row, and all in this understory management rabbit hole. We mulch our apple trees with hay wherever possible, down the whole row, not just in a circle under the canopy, and we love the results, so there's another option for you. From a nutrition and weed control standpoint, I would have no problem using leaf mulch if I could get enough of it for our acreage, but I'm not sure about your sanitation question, assuming you're talking about deciduous trees perhaps hosting some of the bacterial and fungal species that might cause issues in apple trees. My gut would be not to worry about it at all, and just go for building up your soil with mulch and encouraging the soil web menagerie. Particularly because you are dealing with this on such a small scale, even if your leaf mulch did contain undesirable spores, et al, I don't think you're going to be doing a lot to tip the pathogen scales off the charts. I might do more research if I was applying the mulch down long rows at fairly close spacing over a large acreage, since then you might be inoculating a vast area with potential undesirables. But someone with a less mushy science background can weigh in -- it may be a complete non-issue, though surely there is some overlap of potentially pathogenic species between apple trees and deciduous hardwoods. The only commonalities with apples I can think of off the top of my head are rosebushes being particularly susceptible to Erwinia, the bacteria that cause fireblight, and cedar trees playing host to cedar apple rust.

Brittany Kordick

Kordick Family Farm
Westfield, NC
Zone 7a
Re: leaf mulch
October 13, 2020 11:04PM
I think leaf mulch is an excellent material Josh, and I would second Brittany's nod to hay. We use both along with many others including wood. I like to lay down a mat of leaves and hay first as this does a number on competition right away, then use heavier material like chips, bark, twigs (including coarse cuttings from coppicing) to weigh the works down. This may also be a good segue into what it means to use resources. Not only is it financially savvy, but ecologically responsible to source what you have, be that local or what you have on your own land. It also makes sense to use as many different components you can in your mulches. This will without question deliver a greater variety of nutrients and structure. The problem I see is that systems (or specific solutions) in the orchard get mimicked because they appear in publication or become popular by other means. Worse, they become the sexy new thing without diligent enough scrutiny. Most of these have merit, like the aforementioned wood chips. These ramial hardwood chips make perfect sense, but its constituents are easily replicated in hundreds of other species. Few communities have a good supply of hardwood chips for instance, and most will wind up as heating fuel in the future. The chips you get won't be ramial anything, they will be whatever the mill decides to throw in the hammer mill. Look instead at what you have on site and in your community. This should all be intuitive- find a decent overall c-n ratio if you can but what you are really looking for is addressing a few basic issues- weed or sod suppression, building organic matter, and delivering nutrients. Leaves are nearly unbeatable at smothering competition. Hay, grass clippings, and other herbaceous detritus breaks down quickly and supplies nutrients. Chips and bark breaks down slow, weights the above down nicely and increases micorrhizal activity. All too often I see excellent mulch or composting material sitting wastefully on a client's landscape while they buy pristine and homogenized piles of pretty mulches. Most small scale farmers and homesteaders can do most of their fertilizing and mulching for next to nothing with on farm or local materials. Unfortunately the larger the scale of the enterprise, the quicker this little blessing falls apart. Ecological methods are the first casualty of large scale agriculture.
Re: leaf mulch
October 26, 2020 09:10PM
This is an interesting thread for a lot of reasons. Of the many different rabbit holes I've gone this year - compost and biochar are two of them. I have to agree with Todd that all too often you see perfectly materials sitting idly by while folks buy expensive - and often poorly made - composts. While I used to insist that compost (versus no compost) is always the best option - I no longer feel that way. Churn and burn composts are generally not very good for anything. Composts differ widely in terms of their quality in part due to the inputs and in part due to the process. A lot of the commercial composts I have seen this year are pretty poor. I am not sure if its due to demand or just laziness, but I am not going to pay $60/yd for junk. Which brought me to making my own. Compost is not hard to make. It takes time, a decent understanding of the process (or objective your after), quality inputs, and patience. That said, you can make your own high quality composts pretty easily and cheaply, once you get the basic equipment and inputs. What I am driving towards is that I am not a fan of "just" any input. Not just leaves, just ramial mulch, just food scraps, etc. Its all integral to the end product - and process - and (IMO) needs to be put together to work best. This year (actually just last Friday) I made a compost pile that was comprised of soil, lime, raw wood chips, composted wood chips+manure, manure, and spent mushroom substrate. I layered this in 6" layers in a very deliberate manner because I needed the ingredients to come together on their own since I had no desire to turn it. I don't want a thermophilic compost, but one that gets only to 120-130F (at most), since the majority of your beneficial soil biome don't survive above those temps. I want to preserve the natural soil biota to the greatest degree. I know I won't kill off weed seeds or pathogens at those temps, and I am ok with that. I can see adding hay or leaf mulch to this mix as long as one is cognizant of the C:N ratios needed to ensure the carbonaceous material breaks down, but not too rapidly. If the pile burns out (high N) it will stall and not finish off. Too low of an N and it won't get started properly. I would especially value the leaf mulch for the biota and fertility components. Ditto for hay but moreso if I needed good C or Si levels. In essence, the way I have approached it, is that with compost in a holistic setting, we are trying to recreate the decomposition process in the humus layer (more on this at the end). Soil, finely decomposed plant/animal material, coarser plant/animal material, etc. with biota (soil food web) assisting the process all the way. Of course, this is different for different ecosystems, so for an apple orchard we are seeking a more neutral (from a pH standpoint) material at the end. Whether you build a compost pile as I did or layer the materials in the orchard row, below the trees, or between trees - you are after the process. There was an interesting article recently that basically restated some older conversation about how humus is not a substance (as we are often taught in school) but a process. Even though we end up with a substance, it is the forces we are after acting on those substances. There is a balance between forces that ensures that the processes do not either become heavy (etheric) or too much light (astral). Either way you end up with something other than what you were aiming for. So pay attention to the processes as much as the substances. Lastly, biochar is the perfect addition to any compost and something you can also make quite cheaply. Once the compost has transformed - and it lasts forever. It can mediate soil moisture - both too much and not enough. Provide a home for the soil food web, nutrients, and as a carbon sink. Todd was spot on: "Ecological methods are the first casualty of large scale agriculture." Think ecologically and about the processes as much about the inputs or the end results. In the end, you'll get exactly what's needed for wherever you are.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: leaf mulch
October 28, 2020 04:10PM
My bigger point form the previous post is that we need to be thinking of not only of the orchard floor, the mulch or composts we use, but also the layers and the edges at all levels - which is where all life exists - is critical to this overall process of shepherding a resilient orchard ecosystem forward. This is not new - Michael has been writing and preaching this for years. I think he even wrote a few books. But still we often seem to be reductively thinking of an orchard or farm as a jigsaw puzzle. When we really look deeply into the soul of the farm we "see" everything is connected to everything else. We can't change one thing without affecting - for better or worse - everything else. The simplicity of a holistic orchard or farm is found in its complexity and interconnections. Yes, we need to do A or B - I do it, you do it, even clairsentient cows do it - each year for specific reasons, but we need to be aware of what we're doing in a broader context and that we're not just treating for scab (for example), we're affecting a whole host of other potentially beneficial fungi, as well. Ditto for using composts, mulches, cover crops, etc.

"The point instead is that you see these principles at work everywhere and that you are guided to really differentiate clairsentiently in nature according to truth."

"The right distribution of forest, orchards, shrubs, and meadows with a certain natural mushroom culture is so much the essence of good farming that you can really achieve more for a farm even if you have to reduce arable land somewhat." Rudolf Steiner, Lecture 7, Agriculture Course

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
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