Mulching and Meaning

Over lunch this week, the watercooler talk turned to leaf mulch. I promise, it was more interesting than it sounds. But let me give you some background: that morning, we’d been staking out ground at Tiny Tree Herb Farm for a new garden plot in a rough and sunny corner by the barn, thick with weeds and knotty grass.

The land pitched firmly towards this low corner – good for ambling down from the driveway with your thumbs hooked in your beltloops. But more of a challenge for a garden design. The field had seen some grazing under previous owners, and so it was pocked with divots, the ground rippling underfoot like a moonscape. This isn’t always a bad thing: hoof marks can form tiny micro-climates, catching water and nestling germinating seeds away from the wind. But overgrazing can deplete and compact the soil, limiting flora diversity and allowing shallow-rooted weeds to proliferate.

First-stage planning underway for the new garden site at Tiny Tree Herb Farm.

A key objective in permaculture is to facilitate energy flow – in nature, when energy is cycled, living systems thrive. From a design perspective, the aim is to capture energies that move naturally through a site, and to divert them into productive “cycles” that effectively increase the amount of energy that’s available to use. Think of sun, or rainwater – necessary inputs, but also ones that can pass through a system and quickly exit, largely untapped, and sometimes to negative effect if their appearance is brief and intense.

Heavy rains left to run over sloped ground, for example, can erode the soil and wash out garden beds. In our Water Systems class this week, we’d looked at supporting energy flow with the use of a swale, a ditch and mound dug to contour on sloping ground that captures water and holds it at level so it can infiltrate the soil. At Tiny Tree, which slopes grandly towards marshy beds of juncus at the low end of the property, we’d noticed drier patches and different plant species forming rough bands across parts of the growing area.

From left to right – wheelbarrows leaned against the barn in advance of garden sheet-mulching; performing “cigar testing” to determine soil texture; an A-frame level being used to flag contour lines at Tiny Tree Herb Farm.

The farm has a pumphouse and subsurface piping that collects water at the wet end of the property and moves it back uphill. Swales seemed like a promising option for reducing the reliance on this system. Using A-frame levels and a soil moisture meter, we flagged the contour lines and plotted out the rough path of a swale that would hold the water for absorption and redirect it from saturated areas of the land to drier ridges.

But back to leaf mulch: another simple example of effective energy cycling is gathering fallen leaves in and around your site for use as mulch or compost. Just above our fledgling garden bed was a big pile of the stuff, well broken down and sparkling black from under a tarp. With last week’s urban site visits still at top of mind, the discussion turned to trying for the same at home, where gathering leaves from the street could turn up the exotic detritus of the city: plastic lids, rubber balloons, cigarette butts. The wild-haired remains of a troll doll. It makes for an interesting sociological inquiry, but it’s also an annoyance and a time-suck that demands patience and careful composting techniques to deal with the contamination.

Early drafts of my permaculture base map, showing the place I live and the existing gardens around it. Base maps can be used as a template for future planning. The map version to the left shows my analysis of the zones around my house – an important exercise when trying to figure out planting and placements.

From here our conversation moved to the idea of purity – to the reflexive desire that our inputs be “clean” and untainted, so that our gardens are “clean”, so that our food is “clean”, and so on. Of course, beyond the most practical level this instinct is in good part a product of privilege: to have the option, if we’re buying food, to choose the more expensive organic; to look past the shadow parts of society that we find discomfiting; to summon the energy and find the leisure time to work towards an imagined pure ideal.

Alexis Shotwell has written a book, Against Purity, in which she examines the problematic side of this thinking. Shotwell says, “The responsibilities and the benefits of harm are not evenly distributed; people are being hurt and killed so that some North Americans have cheaper clothing, or cheaper gas, or cheaper food,” and that this is owing in part to “an obsession with being personally shielded from poison and violence.” Tough stuff. But it bears thinking about. In part, I think, this idea is bound up in a conflation of curated consumption with virtue – in the notion that if we eat “pure” food, and breathe “pure” air, that we will somehow be purer ourselves.

Before starting work on the site of our proposed garden plot at Tiny Tree Herb Farm, we took soil samples from different areas at the location. The jars here contain the soil, together with water and detergent, shaken and left to settle for several days. The result is a rough but helpful visual indicator of the distribution of sand, silt, and clay in the soil.

But “pure” food and “pure” air don’t exist. This is the world we inhabit. And we know from Traditional Chinese Medicine that healthy cycles can’t function without both light and dark – in fact, that one can’t exist without the other. There is value to interrogating the shadow parts of ourselves and our society.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t work towards regenerative solutions and a “cleaner” world. Picking through the litter in our leaf mulch can help remind us of our imperfections and of how we live in this world. In can serve as a motivating force. But there is a moral component, too: as Shotwell says, “[P]eople who benefit from relative privilege […] have more responsibility to not let those dynamics stay invisible.” Permaculture, with its traditionally white and male intelligentsia, is not immune from this exclusionary force.

Maybe it’s worth returning again to the permaculture maxim that “the problem is the solution”. Permaculturists talk about the process of transition, recognizing that some use of unsustainable means is necessary as we seek to move from present reality towards a resilient, regenerative future. Purity politics is hostile to this gentle acknowledgement, imposing an unattainable metric of judgement for ourselves and others.

Perhaps we can allow our impurity to be a liberating force, the perfection contained in our imperfection. Shotwell again: “I started to think more about forgiveness—being easier on myself and others—as a politically and personally generative stance. Part of that is not giving up on working on things even when I mess up, which I do, a lot […] it’s not possible to do everything, or to do anything perfectly, but that we can still do our best.”

Progress on our garden bed at Tiny Tree Herb Farm over the course of an afternoon. After roughly staking out the garden beds, we started the sheet-mulching process. Although this can be a “no dig” method, we decided to start by disturbing some of the thick grass and weeds at the site, before adding a layer of manure on top and topping with cardboard and heavy paper as a weed barrier. Compost and mulch still need to be added above. Although it doesn’t look like it, I promise that the camera was only out briefly and I was helping with the digging too!

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.