Friday, October 15, 2010

How to Teach an Old Hen New Clucks

So maybe that's not exactly how the saying goes, but what can I say? I'm a chicken freak.

After much hand-wringing and a "where-to-begin" mentality in starting this permaculture conversion, I succumbed to an aspect of my personality that's been either help or hindrance when it comes to starting a project. More specifically it involves the various purchases I make towards that end. Depending on the desirable or undesirable outcome I refer to it either as the "karmically correct" purchase, or the "it was on sale" excuse. Only time will tell if this particular action was help, hindrance, or maybe even a bit of both.

The other day I went to Oak Lawn Garden Center. I had intended to look around and ask about special ordering some stuff for next season, but instead drove drive off with four fruit trees (two apples and two pears).  It really wasn't my fault that such an impulse buy occurred. I mean, could I help it that the "50% off all trees" sign was so conveniently placed about 100 yards away from the parking lot and around the corner from the privacy fence? At any rate, knowing that it was better to plant trees in the fall rather than spring, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get that first fruit tree guild started. Okay, that first FOUR guilds started. Was it my fault they had four desirable trees instead of just one? Don't judge me!

So I've been spending the past several days with a shovel and a steady supply of Tylenol as I try to dig through the absolute worst "soil" I have ever seen. I put the quotations around word soil because there really isn't any. Less than 1/4" of topsoil that is a light, sickly brown. Immediately underneath that? Pure clay that is so compacted there is quite literally no evidence of earthworm activity. Not one single air pocket. It takes me an average of 9 hours and about fifty two uses of the F word to get the hole dug. As I do get the trees in the ground, I'm employing sheet mulching, a method of building soil from nothing. I am trying this for the first time under the guidance of the book Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway.

Sheet mulching is a beautiful simple way to build soil where there is none. I thought I'd give you a quick run-down with some photos of how this is done.

The most time consuming part is getting the materials together.

You will need:
  • Enough cardboard to cover the area, making sure each piece will overlap by six inches. Remove any tape or staples.
  • Water to the site
  • "Green" manure such as grass clipping or old produce
  • Finished compost enough to cover about 1 inch of your area
  • Bulk mulch such as straw or hay. Bark mulch can be used, but keep in mind the woodier the mulch, the longer it will take to break down. Traditional wood bark mulch will take years to create soil.
  • Optional: Bark "pretty" mulch if you have picky neighbors, or desire the more polished look after the good stuff's been put down.
Unless the ground is moist from rain, you'll need to give it a really good soak first and let it sit overnight. Ideally you want the soil to have a "damp sponge" consistency throughout. Then you'll start building your sheet mulch almost like a lasagna. Layer as follows, making sure to water each layer until dampened all the way through.

  1. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water.
  2. Cardboard, overlapped by about six inches to keep the weeds from growing through the edges. There must be no open areas for light to penetrate. Water.
  3. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water
  4. Bulk mulch, about 2" thick. Water as you go, because you'll be surprised at how much it would take to water all the way through a finished layer.
  5. Finished compost, 1" - 2." If you don't plan on planting the area right away, you can get away with adding soil at a 1:1 ratio. Water
  6. Either more bulk mulch or your "pretty" bark mulch. I chose the pretty bark because it's...well...pretty.
Now when I plant the jonquil bulbs around the trunk of the trees (they are great deer deterrents and happen to be my favorite flower) all I have to do is dig through the bark mulch to get to the compost layer beneath. Will it work? I have no idea. Ask me next spring. On to the next project!


  1. Quickie update: Though I didn't get around to planting the jonquils this year, I did manage to get 3 out of the 4 trees in the ground. I had to stop because as the weather began to cool I knew I had to get my second project underway, which is creating a winter hen house in the greenhouse. As it continues to get colder I'll be blogging more on that little slice of accomplishment peppered with injuries, lessons on safety and many many drops of "the F bomb!"

  2. Are you putting the chicken tractor in the hoop house ?

  3. Actually I didn't. I created a coop within the house itself. I must say, I'm pretty pleased with it! Definitely need to get some more pictures of it and get them posted. I have 5 birds in it now, and they are quite happily turning my compost for me!