Win a copy of The Prairie Homestead Cookbook this week in the Cooking Forum forum!
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
permaculture forums growies critters building homesteading energy monies kitchen purity ungarbage community wilderness fiber arts art permaculture artisans regional education skip experiences global resources the cider press projects digital market permies.com private forums all forums
this forum made possible by our volunteer staff, including ...
master stewards:
  • Nicole Alderman
  • r ranson
  • Anne Miller
  • Pearl Sutton
  • James Freyr
  • Mike Haasl
  • paul wheaton
  • Dave Burton
stewards:
  • Joylynn Hardesty
  • Jocelyn Campbell
  • Joseph Lofthouse
garden masters:
gardeners:
  • Carla Burke
  • Steve Thorn
  • Eric Hanson

Do you need to fertilize if you mulch

 
Posts: 20
Location: Portugal
8
purity forest garden bike
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
If you add the right green and brown mulch to your soil regularly do you need to add organic fertilizers?

i.e can we add the right mulch to break down in our food forests so that the soil gets the minerals that it needs or do we always need to add items to organic compost and fertilizers that includes things like bone, rocks dust, ash, egg shells so get all the trace elements that the plants need?

nobody adds mulch in a forest and the forest thrives....
 
master pollinator
Posts: 4634
1062
transportation cat duck trees rabbit books chicken woodworking
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
In a word...YES!

The problem with woody debris is, as it rots, it has to rob nitrogen from the soil in order to do that. Once the woody debris has been broken down, then it starts to give that nitrogen back to the soil in excess. This is why a hugel works so good, but also why hugels require wood that is very decayed. A hugel made out of fresh wood does not work that well because it would take several years for the wood to break down, robbing the plants above it from getting nitrogen. I might return the nitrogen after several years, but few people are willing to wait that long and consider the hugel a failure long before that. And this is assuming the hugel wood is not down so deep down that oxygen cannot get to it and thus break down the wood.

I run into this problem as a large scale farm when I clear forest into farmland. For the first 7 years after clearing my land my crops require copious amounts of nitrogen because the woody debris is robbing my crops of nitrogen, and I mean bad! But after 7 years it goes the other way and I can ease off the nitrogen and still achieve ample crop yields. In 14 years things rather level out and the shock of going from forest to field is over and things just level off.

In a forest this happens too. It thrives because it has been a forest for so long. The nitrogen is being robbed by the forest duff that falls to the floor (leaves, fallen trees, etc), but because previous years have been consumed and are now given back to the forest, it is neither a loss or gain and so the forest just churns along.

Since you are adding mulch that normally would not be there, you will need to add nitrogen for optimal plant health the first few years, none the latter years, and then plant depending after that. What a person has to realize is, plants are determined what the soil is. For instance, my soil is ideal for potatoes, but I like to grown corn and grass for my sheep. So that means adjusting my soil to grow what I want. I really should be growing potatoes!!

Now I say optimal health because it is not enough to kill your plants. A bigger concern for you might actually be the PH levels. Since PH controls nutrient intake, before even considering adding fertilizer, a person must ensure the PH is right. When I go from forest to field, the PH is often 5.2 requiring some 8800 pounds of lime to the acre!! I have to get that adjusted because without proper PH levels, my crops won't grow, or uptake the fertilizer. Depending on what you put down for mulch, you could be lowering your PH levels significantly.
 
Posts: 254
Location: Northern New Mexico, Latitude:35 degrees N, Elevation:6000'
13
forest garden fungi books bee solar greening the desert
  • Likes 10
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Elaine Ingham is teaching people that there is no need to add rock dust, bone, ash, etc...to the soil to get enough minerals and elements.  She is saying that all the minerals that plants need are already abundant in nearly all dirt/soil on the planet.  The simple thing to do is to get microbes back into the soil so that they can provide to the plants everything they need.  Compost and compost teas are the method of choice.  Then the mulch provides the food and cover for the microbes.

I used to go to the quarry and fill up 30 gallon trash cans with rock dust....LOL  Now I have a 15 gallon vortex compost tea brewer that I made a few years back.  The compost tea works, the rock dust didn't do anything special or noticeable that I was able to see.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1647
Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
588
forest garden rabbit tiny house books solar woodworking
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Travis, great answer!

My soil is scarce and poor. Since I'm building fertility & soil volume while still taking crops off the land, I need to add fertilizer along with my mulch. Eventually, though not in my lifetime, my soil will not need the constant additions of manure that it now does. And I need to adjust the pH regularly, even though lava soil itself contains plenty of calcium. In my lifetime, that calcium won't be available to the plants. And yes, I'm a big believer in soil health and microbes, but again there is a time factor to be considered. If I want to produce my own food within my lifetime, then I need to add soil amendments. Plain and true.

The added soil amendments, which include (if and when available) coral sand and bits, lava sand (our equivalent of rock dust), inoculated biochar, burnt crushed bone, slaughter waste, coffee grounds (I get it by the five gallon bucket), compost, manure, a tad of ocean water, plus any bio-waste ground up for mulch. These all not only help to support the soil microbes, but also improve my soil structure and volume, a major consideration for me.

So things depend a lot upon the soil one is working with. In my case, yes, I need to pay attention to N-P-K and pH even though I maintain a 1' to 3" mulch layer with most crops. I test my soil and make adjustments between each crop.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1029
Location: Nevada, Mo 64772
68
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I don't think you'd need anything but mulch here, but it would depend on what kind of mulch and how much.  Well, it also depends on what you are growing. Corn probably wouldn't do well for a few years because it needs so much nitrogen.
 
pollinator
Posts: 758
Location: 6a
210
hugelkultur dog forest garden trees woodworking
  • Likes 9
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
There is debate over this idea but most experts agree that the wood chips don't take nitrogen from below the surface if they are a surface cover.    Wood chips probably give more nitrogen than they take.   If you worry just add comfrey or another fast composting green matter.  Try not to use allopathic wood like Black Walnut.  My opinion, from observation, if you are doing chop and drop you shouldn't have any issues.   If you have really poor soil you may want to prep some areas with chips the year before planting, in my opinion.

My experience using woodchips is they are awesome and I don't use any fertilizer.

I will post a pic below.  This hugelkulture mound was put in this year with no fertilizer.
IMG_7832.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_7832.JPG]
IMG_7823.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_7823.JPG]
 
pollinator
Posts: 627
Location: Denmark 57N
136
fungi foraging trees cooking food preservation
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I find this subject very interesting logic tells me that you have to add trace minerals etc to cropped soil as you are constantly removing them with crops. In the forest example there is no net loss of produce, leaves and fruit fall to the floor or are eaten but the droppings and later the animals that ate them also fall to the floor and are returned to the system. So any trace minerals found in the soil down to the depth of the deepest roots are retained. But in any cropped system the traces that are present in the crop are removed, so logically it doesn't matter how many bugs you have in the soil there will be a net loss from the system of these minerals. Even if you use a composting toilet, never sell or give away any produce you'll still be losing them every time you need to relieve yourself off the property.  Whether the loss would be enough to be noticeable is debatable but surely any loss is a bad thing.
 
gardener
Posts: 2837
Location: Central Texas zone 8a
585
cattle chicken bee sheep
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
What i do, and it makes sense in my head, is to change mulches.

I start with grass since it will break down fast. This can be hay, lawn clippings, pulling and dropping weeds, whatever i have access to. As it starts decomposing i ad leaves. After that i plan to use wood chips.

Im basically adding slow, medium,  and fast mulches. The slower ones being the last application.
 
gardener
Posts: 1362
Location: Maine, zone 5
443
forest garden trees food preservation solar wood heat homestead
  • Likes 5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I find the right mulches to be more than sufficient.  The soil becomes absolutely gorgeous within just a few years.  Total humusy wonder!
 
Posts: 43
Location: Lowell, Massachusetts, USA
forest garden bee
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
No. Mulch is fertilizer. Soil tests can be a pain, so to decide what to add, observe the organisms that are doing well/poor. Concentrated fertilizer can be convenient. Mulch can create a hill, and things rolling down hills can be a problem. Wood chips are heavy, and can kill some plants by removing light. You will want strong upright plants if you spread mulch everywhere. They grow above the mulch. An alternative is to make piles or rows of mulch everywhere. You want to have roots growing near the mulch. Mulch has benefits, like water retention, and making a habitat.
 
Posts: 125
14
purity forest garden trees tiny house urban greening the desert
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I'm sure you guys already know this, but I'm posting this anyway.  The video is pretty conclusive!




 
Su Ba
pollinator
Posts: 1647
Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
588
forest garden rabbit tiny house books solar woodworking
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Interesting responses so far. So as with everything about permaculture, the answer is "It depends." What condition is the soil you are starting out with? What do you plan to grow and how much? Are we talking about annual veggie crops, hugel beds, or orchards? What do you use for mulch and how often is it applied? And what are your climate conditions?

on my own homestead, my soil fertility is poor. The soil volume is low. In most years I get excess rain that results in leaching. I'm downwind from an active volcano, thus my rain and air is constantly acidic. The temperature is steadily in the 60° to 80° F zone. I grow crops year around, thus removing food from the land for us to eat and sell. My livestock eat the grass and young stock is slaughtered or sold. Eggs are sold or eaten. Thus these are pressures on my homestead that I need to take into consideration. Plus the niggling time factor..... I'm old, so I can't afford to wait for years and years.

It also depends upon what one calls "fertilizer'. Commercial? Manure? Home blended? Compost-- home made or commercial? By the way, I don't use commercial fertilizer in my growing areas except for nursery stock for resale.

It depends upon what means as "mulch". Grass clippings? Autumn fallen leaves? Wood chips? In my own situation, my mulch consists of shredded bio material, anything and everything. My mulches also sometimes include shredded manure and homemade composts. I do not limit myself to a predominance of one or two types of materials.

As needed, I adjust the soil pH, but have to watch it carefully because I use so much organic material. I also use soil amendments as necessary to help with mineralization and trace elements. Working with young lava soil has proven to be quite an education.

I would think that in different climates, with different soil types, growing different "crops" I would need to use different methods,

One other factor........how much do you plan to harvest? Does getting a potful of beans and a few beets each month fit your needs? Or do you need to grow enough to supply your annual food needs plus extra for income? One of my friends is satisfied with getting a handful of veggies on his dinner plate each day. But I need about 10 times more production out of the same garden space in order to feed ourselves, our livestock, and give us income. Fertile soil is a must for me, but my friend doesn't need that.
 
gardener
Posts: 1556
Location: Los Angeles, CA
400
hugelkultur forest garden books urban chicken food preservation
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
It all depends upon what you are growing.

The OP mentions that forests do not fertilize, yet they are green and lush and fertile.  Yes and no.  In an old-growth forest, the trees may live 500 to 1500 years old.  Think about that ---- a beech tree or a redwood that lives for over 1000 years.  And in all that time, how many trees will replace it?  One.  But there are hundreds of plants that struggle and die in that same forest.  They never really thrive due to a lack of sunlight and fertility.

One mature tree eventually dies and one tree takes its place in the mature forest.  Hundreds of millions of seeds will come off that tree during its 1000 year lifespan, yet only one will ultimately replace it.  Millions of those seeds will sprout and die.  Thousands of those seeds will grow for a while before eventually dying.  Only one seed (on average) will mature to the size of the massive old tree it is replacing.

So how much fertility is necessary for that kind of system?  Ultimately, the mother tree most likely supplies the nutrition to the baby trees surrounding her, and ultimately one of those baby trees will replace her.  She will rot into the soil (perhaps thousands of tons of biomass slowly decomposing both above and below the soil).  That is all the fertility the replacement tree will need for the rest of its life.

A corn field, for example, is a completely different eco-system.  Perennials have completely different fertility needs than annuals.

1.  If you want vigorous growth from your annuals, you will need to find a way to get more N into your system --- either with N fixers or manure or both.

2.  If your annuals are pulling a lot of N from the soil, you'll need to find a way to replenish it.  Most grains are heavy feeders.  Even with a generous layer of mulch (wood chips or otherwise), the soil food web will not be able to replenish the N that a crop of corn or rice pulls from the soil.  You need animal integration, nitrogen fixers, and other strategies.

3.  If you want good sized fruit in your orchards, you'll need additional N to make that happen.  If you are content with what nature brings just with a heavy load of mulch, then you'll be OK, but you won't get large sized produce in significant quantities.  If you want a lot of big wonderful tomatoes, you're going to have to pee around the base of the vines.

4.  Its much easier to see plants fail in a garden than it is in a forest.  Plants are dying all over the place in the forest, but we just don't see that.  But in a garden, it's on display.  If the reason for the failure is a lack of adequate nutrition, then you'll need to remedy that.

I'm one of the biggest advocates for wood-chip mulch on this forum, but that doesn't stop me from aggressively composting, running my chickens through the system, and trying to use every oz. of urine that I generate to bring additional N into my garden system.
 
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

Marco Banks wrote:

The OP mentions that forests do not fertilize, yet they are green and lush and fertile.  Yes and no.  In an old-growth forest, the trees may live 500 to 1500 years old.  Think about that ---- a beech tree or a redwood that lives for over 1000 years.  And in all that time, how many trees will replace it?  One.  But there are hundreds of plants that struggle and die in that same forest.  They never really thrive due to a lack of sunlight and fertility.

One mature tree eventually dies and one tree takes its place in the mature forest.  Hundreds of millions of seeds will come off that tree during its 1000 year lifespan, yet only one will ultimately replace it.  Millions of those seeds will sprout and die.  Thousands of those seeds will grow for a while before eventually dying.  Only one seed (on average) will mature to the size of the massive old tree it is replacing.

So how much fertility is necessary for that kind of system?  Ultimately, the mother tree most likely supplies the nutrition to the baby trees surrounding her, and ultimately one of those baby trees will replace her.  She will rot into the soil (perhaps thousands of tons of biomass slowly decomposing both above and below the soil).  That is all the fertility the replacement tree will need for the rest of its life.

.



So a forest can maintan its massive biomass with no added fertilizer. That is pretty good.
The thng is that as a culture we treat this biomass as a waste when it comes in our own areas.
In the end most of the succesful permaculture homestead are succesful because they are IMPORTING
tons and tons of biomass from external sources. The thing is if we can grow much of our own biomass in site.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1877
Location: La Palma (Canary island) Zone 11
61
purity forest garden tiny house wofati bike solar
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Well, just seeing that mulch and animal food come from the same plants! Can it even be a better fertilizer if part of the mulch has gone through ruminant digestive track?

(copied from the mulch thread, as it fits better here!)

 
Posts: 127
Location: Newfoundland, Canada
3
solar woodworking
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Depends on what you are using for mulch. A forest grows on the recycling material that is already present. What is growing there needs what is already there.
In a garden we are introducing foreign plants that may or may not need something extra.
Mulching with many different materials will increase the possibility that the decomposition will release the needed material for the plants you introduce.

My mulches includes meadow clippings (all native plants in the area including mowing over tree seedlings) kelp (returns trace elements leached from the land) and compost (that's where any source of ash, egg shells, feathers, etc. etc. is turned to mulch)

Mulches, such as wood chips and straw, that contain a high ratio of one type of nutrient will upset the balance and cause poor plant growth.
 
Posts: 44
Location: Texas Zone 9
3
forest garden trees rabbit chicken food preservation bee medical herbs homestead
  • Likes 3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
If you use the right materials for mulch, no.  Some people have the mistaken idea that the mulch will rob the soil (and plants) of nitrogen as it breaks down.  If it is used as a mulch (i.e. a layer on top of the soil) instead of mixed into the soil, any nitrogen pull is negligible.  You want to make your mulch layer as thick as you can, even up to 12", and you want a mix of greens and browns.  A layer of compost at the bottom, a layer of ramial wood chips (small pieces of branches and leaves), and a layer of manure on top will give your food forest a really good basis of nutrients.
 
Posts: 110
Location: Lake Geneva, Switzerland, Europe
16
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
What if you use grass clippings? I love them for their weed smothering effect, and the way the soil looks underneath.
This system is used in Germany for growing vegetables at scale - the farm presented in the video below (sorry German only) has half of its acrage in grass, cut for mulching, added to cut green manure grown in situ, into which they plant different vegetables.
 
steward
Posts: 4787
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
1630
  • Likes 4
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I don't fertilize. Neither do I mulch. I grow plenty of weeds. They drop right where they grew, and provide fertility for next year's garden.
 
pollinator
Posts: 535
Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9-10, 60" rain/yr,
91
hugelkultur dog duck
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Xisca, your point seems right on to me. I don’t have ruminants, but putting mulch through animal systems also works with birds like my chickens and muscovies. I have mulched with straight woodchips and straw with good results, especially when running duck pond water over it after applying. I think it’s even better though to use woodchips or other mulch material as bird bedding and all around their run, then use it as mulch after breaking down, or set up your drainage to send any water running off the animal areas to gardens. I use my paths between hugels as humus catchment basins that are full of woody debris and topped with chips.  This can also be flipped up onto the hugels periodically as it breaks down to humus.
 
Posts: 22
Location: Portland, United States
3
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Chop N Drop for woody/perennial/bramble/multifunctional hedgerows.

For the vegetable garden, clover.  In humid climates, sources of cations (calcium!) and micronutrients (kelp!) which get washed out by precip.

Something I haven't seen mentioned (maybe I missed it): Mulch is only a nutrient problem if mix it into the *mineral* soil profile where your plants roots mostly live.  Mulch is typically high carbon, low nitrogen.  It should stay on the surface where it shades the soil, and enters the nutrient cycle on nature's terms (slowly, with the help of a healthy community of microbes, worms, etc.).  So you can mulch as much as works for you in vegetable gardens, but you have to be careful when you dig to honor the layers and avoid mixing them.  Mulch has other problems for veggies though like pesky mollusk/rodent habitats and labor-intensive weeding/sowing/planting.  I like to do mulch/compost piles between hoed veggie berms which also serve as walkways and storm-water catchment/infiltration, and then the plants grow their roots into pile as it suits them.  Many "cover crops" are designed to be turned into the soil for high-disturbance annual-focused agriculture, but introducing tilling I don't think is in the spirit of permaculture, except possibly as an acute remediation technique, and definitely not as a regular part of the agricultural process.

Cheers,

B
 
The permaculture playing cards make great stocking stuffers: http://richsoil.com/cards
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!