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Pampering Our Earth

Zhou Miao Fei
Translated by Yan En

Spring is here! The Melbourne in early October sees shining sun for one moment and drizzling rain the next, and several gusts of wind in between. The locals proudly say, “We have four seasons in a day.” That shows the changeable nature of the weather in Melbourne. Whether it is humor or arrogance, it is because of the clear seasonal distinction that Melbourne has a wide variety of flowers and plants. During springtime, narcissus, cherry blossom, wisteria, photinia, azalea, and countless other flowers are blooming every where. All the bare woods from the winter are now budding with new green shoots. In Taiwan, it is the end of the hot summer moving into autumn.

Having spent many years in New Zealand and Australia, I enjoy natural sceneries the most. I always hope that Taiwan would have such a clean and beautiful environment as well. I often think: In Taiwan it is like springtime throughout the year with a rich ecology. Why not establish it as a garden island? Through detailed observation, I realize that in New Zealand and Australia, the preservation of soil and water is already deeply rooted in the minds of the people. It has become a part of the people’s lives. They will not expose the soil bare and let it get beaten up by the sun and rain. They will mulch the soil surface with thick organic materials to protect the soil and to conserve water. They also plant drought tolerant plants to beautify the environment and to purify the air. Mulching the soil is simple and cheap with numerous benefits. It is a must in gardening and organic farming. Taiwan has started to promote permaculture and encourage sustainability. Can we implement mulching – this method of loving and protecting our earth, and promote it as part of the practices of environmental protection?

Every time I go back to Taiwan, I would pay attention to the ecological environment. I notice that all the soil in the city is left bare and naked under the trees, in the parks, schools and public areas. The soil quality is barren and infertile with little plants that are barely alive. Once the traffic passes by, the dust whirls up and fills the air. What a frightening sight! If you have time, take a trowel to a park, dig in one of the corners. You’ll find that there is no dark brown, soft, fertile soil and there is not much microorganism in the soil. All is quiet and dead, only yellow soil and rocks. I suppose most people don’t know that soil is alive. The fauna, flora and microorganisms in the soil nourish all the living beings on earth. We pack the produce from the soil in bags and bury them in the ground. We don’t return the nutrients back to the earth. We are slowly killing our soil, gradually depriving it of its life force.

To restore soil’s vitality, mulching is one of the fundamental solutions. Mulching is simply to protect the soil by covering the soil with thick organic materials – under the trees, in the gardens, empty fields, even our flower pots at home – cover the soil around the plants. What benefits does it bring?

First of all, mulching the soil can reduce evaporation from 10% up to 50%, therefore reducing water wastage. Mulching can also prevent heat or cold impact, thus protecting the plant roots from damage by extremely cold or hot temperature. Mulching can cut off wind and rain to protect the soil from losing its elements, and to prevent the raindrops from hitting the soil and pressing the soil into a hardened layer. It helps the water to flow evenly into the soil and reach the roots.

Some time after you have mulched the soil, the decomposed organic matter such as leaves and saw dust will enrich the soil with nutrients. The soil will be more aerating with better water penetration. It increases the growth of tiny living beings in the soil such as earthworms and microorganisms. They in turn will further break down organic materials, turning them into nutrients that can be absorbed by the plants. Eventually even hard and solid clay can become loose and soft soil of good quality.

Therefore organic mulch can provide loose soil and complete nutrients. The plants will be healthy with less disease. The produce will be more nutritious and delicious. As the mulch can prevent the splashing of rainwater, it will reduce direct contact of the microorganisms in the soil with the veggie leaves and fruits, thus reducing spotting and rotting. The plants will be in better form.

Mulch can also suppress weed growth. Even if there are weeds growing, they can be easily plucked out. Since mulch can suppress weeds, it can reduce the use of herbicides. Pesticides are not needed too as the plants are healthy. This is beneficial for our health as we can avoid ingesting toxic food leading to poisoning by toxic chemicals. It is also beneficial for the environment as it prevents groundwater contamination.

Everyone can make use of the organic materials from home, garden and surrounding environment as mulch materials, thus reducing garbage and benefit the environment. Schools, parks, safety island, and roadsides – these are places where you can mulch to beautify the surroundings and reduce dust, turning the area into a clean and beautiful city.

Now that we know so many benefits of mulching, then what are the materials? They can be simply categorized as non-organic materials and organic materials.

Non-organic materials include black plastic bags, tar paper, aluminum foil, rocks, sand, etc. They can suppress weeds, prevent evaporation, insulate, and beautify the garden. But they cannot break down green wastes.

Organic materials refer to plants that have once lived – whether fresh, dried or decomposed.

Slightly water the leaves and let them decompose naturally. Few months later they will turn into fertile soil rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Mixed loosely with grass clippings and manure compost – this is the best mulching material.

Weeds, plants that have passed their flowering season, all sorts of garden green wastes can be chopped up and used as mulch. It’s even better to mix with finely chopped twigs and branches. If you know any veggie seller, you can ask for green wastes such as cabbages, cauliflowers, carrot leaves, etc. There are lots of mandarin peels during the winter. Dry them on the balcony and use as mulch, or mixed directly with soil. They will become compost few months later – rich mulch materials.

Animal manure should be decomposed fully and then mixed with other materials, e.g. saw dust and leaves.

Straw, wheat-straw, sugarcane stalks are excellent mulch materials. They break down slowly and release the nutrients gradually – very suitable for plants. Their loose characteristic allows air and water to reach the plants, and they block off the wind and sun. They protect the plants from root rot and other fungus diseases.

Coconut husks and wood chips compressed into small blocks preserve moisture, and are aesthetic and long-lasting. The growing medium for aquatic grass, seaweed, and mushrooms are excellent mulch materials. Pine leaves and pine tree barks are very beautiful. They are suitable for plants preferring acidity, e.g. azalea, camellia, photinia, and strawberry. Comfrey is an amazing plant. It is rich in potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B12. When used as mulch, it is an excellent food for plants.

Besides the dried or decomposed materials mentioned above, grow some small flowers or grass among the plants. This helps beautify the surroundings and the tiny plants are an excellent protection for soil as living mulch. They prevent the wind and sun, and conserve water. Their roots loosen the soil. When they decompose they fertilize the soil. They provide a sanctuary for the tiny living beings in the soil. After their flowering season, they can be slashed and chopped up for mulching; nothing is wasted.

After talking so much about the benefits of mulching and mulch materials, one more thing is lacking – the spirit of experimenting. You can start collecting materials from your surroundings. Return the nutrients from the soil back to the earth. Perhaps you only have a few pots of plants at home. You may mulch the soil around the plant or grow some tiny flowering plants to cover the soil. If you have a small plot of land, use some straw or sugarcane pulp as mulch. Grow some tiny flowers and grass in between the plants. If they get too dense, slash and use them as mulch again. You will find that your soil becomes more and more fertile, and the plants are stronger and happier. If you have a big plot of land, apply the same principles mentioned above. But I’m sure you will know more than I do. So please tell me your secrets. Enough talk, let’s get moving and pamper our soil together – let’s build a more beautiful world for our next generation!

Original article is published in Nov 2005 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (Taiwan)