I have been helping a friend set up a permaculture system in his yard. He’s put in some apple and cherry trees, black and red raspberries this spring. I helped him plant a blueberry bush last fall. The yard is getting its basic tree structure in place.
We are still dealing with weeds though, especially in part of the back yard where he wants to put the garden. It’s a steep slope that is far to steep to till, or else the whole thing would slosh down the road with the first heavy rain. Worse, before it was clear cut about two years ago, it was a mess of blackberry, mint, rosebush, wild sweet pea, young sassafras and oaks, Canadian thistle, and poison ivy. These are trying to take the place back now.
It’s a battle for sure; a matter of mind, with consistent, carefully thought out actions since, between the steepness of the slope, the ferociousness of the weeds, and a lack of time to devote to the project, brute force might not be the most effective move.
I’ve listed the design requirements as:
- only 3-6 hours of maintenance twice to three times a year aside from harvesting.
- to be completely no-till because the hill is so steep.
- because it is no-till it will need lots of mulch for fertility, moisture retention, and weed eradication. So the system, if it is to be self sustaining, will need to produce a lot of mulch. If not, small amounts of mulch can be brought in from somewhere else.
- Needs to be productive. He’s interested in food, not so much aesthetic effects.
Plan A to get rid of the weeds was cover crops. We cut down the weeds (scant at this time) for mulch, and sow a cover crop in this mulch to choke out the weeds to create fertility, making it easier to grow a lush cover crop to choke out more weeds etc.
Unfortunately plan A backfired with the weeds choking out the cover crop because I couldn’t make it over to his place often enough to keep cutting down the cover crop and weeds to get a new cover crop going. Scratch plan A.
Plan B, which we just executed a couple days ago, was to carbon bomb the place, by mulching heavily with leaves, holding down the leaves with a layer of hay. He rounded up enough leaves from his neighbors and anywhere else he could find them. I provided a small round bale of hay.
To apply, I started by mowing the standing brush with my scythe. Then we spilled leaves all over, making a six inch to one foot thick layer of leaves, finishing with spreading the hay on top. Once the round bale was shrunk down to the size we could easily lift it, we simply rolled it out like a carpet over the leaves. I would show a picture, but unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me to take one. Take my word that it looked very nice when we finished though.
The effect of this ‘Carbon Bomb’ is that all the carbon in the leaves needs nitrogen to break down. They will pull this nitrogen out of the ground beneath them, leaving little, if any, for the plants underneath to grow. Also, the mulch blocks out the sun, which we all know plants need to grow.
I have seen this effect on other gardens when people zealously pour the leaves on, thinking they will get amazing fertility next year, but really zilch fertility next year because even the nutrients that were there before are all bound up to break down the leaves. I’m trying to use this negative effect to my benefit.
In spring, we will rake the leaves up, then put them back down, re-covering plants that try to grow through, putting new leaves from on top in contact with the ground to suck more nitrogen. Eventually we will plant a cover crop of legumes, since they can make their own nitrogen, and once these can establish root systems without weed competition, we’ll start to plant the plants we want. Planting in polycultures so the plants take care of each other to a large degree, the whole place should become a productive, self sustaining system, aside from a little leaves applied every fall in problem spots.
Of course, the garden will be producing for just him, and he won’t need all that space for food production. Not wanting to leave bare space, wanting to make mulch, I’ll include lots of large mulch plants like Comfrey in the design. If they are at the top of the hill, their nutrients will flow down. But we might try arranging them in semicircles below patches of potatoes so when the potatoes are dug, the Comfrey will make sort of a barrier to block the dirt from washing down the hill; and keep the dirt in place because the mulched leaves that will lay on top of the dirt will keep the rain from hitting directly.
I don’t plan that he will cut the mulch plants once a month like I do. They will just be there and grow as much as they want to every year. Besides that, more edible plants that we’ll include in the polycultures will also serve for mulch and nutrient accumulation. Between all these, I think the garden can be largely self mulching.
The project shows promise. I’ll keep you posted on how it grows.