Thursday, July 1, 2010

dirt in places you can't even imagine

i borrowed the urban homestead from the library. some of the content was stuff i already know/have, but it contained a few inspirational gems that really got me thinking about what i want to do and where i would like to go with my own sub-"urban homestead." one particularly nice underlying factor is that the authors/blog owners live in L.A., California. They are zone 10, while I am zone 8a and colder, but their ideas work for areas prone to droughts and extreme and extended heat.

They have five "essential projects."

  • build a compost bin
  • vermiculture - a worm compost bin
  • "mulch your yard"
  • build a raised bed
  • build a self-watering container

I've already built my rolling compost bin and im not sure im ready for a worming bin. building a raised bed is out of my budget right now and i havent had good luck with container gardening. it's been my experience that in the summer, when most stuff looks like death anyway, you need the ground and lots of mulch to keep the soil as cool as possible. pots and containers turn into little dirt ovens regardless of constant watering. or you can shuffle them around to shadier parts during the day but that's just a pain.

While thumbing through I found their page on Lawn Facts - lawns require 2 to 4 times more water than shrubs and trees, the average home owner spends more than 40 hours mowing the lawn. Ive had my own conflicting ideas about what to do with my own 1/4 acre backyard. I want to put in native buffalo grass but then i like it in it's feral, overgrown state. Then i hit this paragraph.

Kids and dogs are often held up as reason why any decent family would keep a
lawn in their yard. The truth is...that kids love hunting for food in vegetable gardens...and playing in little pockets of wildness....Kids and dogs alike benefit from the sensory stimulation provided by permaculteral yard. A lawn is a flat void. A little jungle is a whole world to explore.
That was the sticking point. As it stands, the boys dont play much in the back yard, despite much effort on my part. It just doesnt hold their interest. They prefer going to parks where there are other kids or paved areas where they can ride bikes. In the spring it has some cooler weather weeds that die back in the hotter summer, only to then be replaced with grass burrs - horrible spikey seed that have microscopic reverse spines that hurt just as much being pulled out as they do when you step on them. All those weeds, especially the grass burrs, are a sign the soil is extremely devoid to nutrients. Even if we had money to sod it with buffalo grass, it would require truckloads of mulch and topsoil to create a medium the grass could grow on successfully.

It's one of those weird moments when all signs point to a certain outcome, but you just didnt realise it until it's given a name. I've already made the conclusion I will probably have to take a year off to build up the soil after having a less than stellar year with the summer garden and focus on vital landscaping projects. I've also been trying to kill back bermuda grass in the front of the house, a yard so small and exposed to the hot western sun, mowing is tedious to the point of utterly annoying.

So yes, I'm going to "mulch the yard." In one fell swoop I can: get rid of the useless patches of invasive grass (i dont have sidewalks but i do have devilstrips), build the soil for future garden beds, and create a surface the boys might actually play on. Who knew doing one thing would solve all those problems.

And best part, i can do it on the cheap. I'm lucky enough to live 1.2 miles from a free, constantly refreshed, pile of native and partially composted wood chips and 4 miles from a horse stable where i can get unfinished horse manure. in theory, you should never used uncomposted herbivore manure - unless it's rabbit poop and just the poop as urine in bedding will burn - because the nitrogen overload burn up plants. but if what you want to burn and kill is weeds, then it fits the bill. it's called lasagna mulching. first on is a layer of compost/composted manure, than a compostable weed barrier - newspaper, cardboard, cotton sheets or towels, then you put more layers of mulch and compostable material on top. I also live next door to a business which will give me their cardboard boxes (lower the trash bill). And one of the employees said i could borrow his pickup truck to bring in mulch. The only cost to me will be time, which i have plenty of for at least one more year, and gas.

I put this into into affect yesterday.

This is the south side of my house. Ive got a black berry in the foreground and towards the back, there is a blueberry bush with some heirloom tomato plants. You can see the patches of grass taking over and bare dirt from some spring peas that died back in the heat.

I threw down a car load of raw horse manure over a particularly pernition patch of bermuda grass and then put mulch over that.

Four hours and six or seven trips to the wood chip pile and one trip to the stables - which was only possible due to weather cooled by two days of rain and an overcast morning. Here is the finished product:

The wood chips go to the property line and it feels very pleasant to walk on the soft ground. After this breaks down some more i will probably put a week barrier down to put down more mulch and inundation of leaves that blow down the street in the fall.