Step Three: Using Biomass, Composting and Maintaining Good Soil Health
The soil in your garden is one of the most precious resources at your disposal and it is important to take care of it. Soil has been formed over a long, long period of time and yet can be destroyed in a very short time by mismanagement. One of the most important things to remember when transitioning to a permaculture way of life is that you are trying to work as part of a system that can endure through time and meet your own needs while still maintaining a natural balance.
Plants take nutrients and water from the topsoil in which they grow. An organic garden closes the loop by making sure that plants give back, completing the cycle and replenishing the soil. In practical terms, this means composting, using mulches and making liquid feeds. You will find more information on each of these below, since mastering these techniques is key to creating a productive garden, which will be the centerpiece of a new permaculture way of life. The plant material generated in your garden is called biomass. Biomass is not a waste product but a useful resource that can be used in the following ways to improve your garden.
Having a compost heap or a compost bin is essential for any organic gardener. No matter how large or small your space, there will be a composting system that is right for you. A large heap could be the right option for a large garden (this is a cold composting system), hot composting bins can work in a range of scenarios, and even the smallest growing space could have a small wormery (a composting bin where worms help to create a high-quality soil improver). A compost tumbler can help to speed up the composting process and can also work well in smaller spaces.
The key to a good compost is to mix it up – add equal quantities of green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) materials and make sure they are well combined and broken up. Biomass from the garden will form the bulk of most composts, while household waste such as vegetable kitchen scraps, cardboard and paper can also be added, reducing your impact on the environment by reducing household waste and keeping things out of landfill.
Not all biomass from your garden should head straight for the compost heap. Some biomass will come in handy as mulch around your edible garden. It is important to consider the right mulch for the right plants. Wood shrubs and trees can cope with a heavy organic mulch such as bark or wood chips, while smaller herbaceous plants may find that sort of mulch detrimental, as it pulls nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes. Nitrogen loving crops such as brassicas will benefit from a quick-composting green mulch of, for example, grass clippings. Comfrey leaves make an excellent mulch and many other leaves are also useful simply chopped and dropped. Any raked leaves from trees should be placed in a separate heap for a couple of years to create a valuable material known as leaf mould – one of the best mulches there is. Many leaves can simply be left where they fall to enrich the soil where they lie over time. Layers of mulch materials can be used to make new ‘lasagna’ style beds for your garden – a subject which we will discuss in more depth in a future part of this series.
A third way to use biomass is in liquid feeds that are rich in the key plant nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Comfrey ‘tea’ is a good option. You can also simply place unwanted plants or ‘weeds’ into a bucket of water and allow them to decompose. Leaf teas make a stink but they will help feed your growing garden. Consider the fact that ‘weeds’ can often be amongst the most useful plants in your garden.
Stay Tuned for the Next Post in this Series…
Post by Elizabeth Waddington
Elizabeth Waddington lives with her husband and her dog on a sustainable smallholding in Scotland. She is a green living consultant and freelance writer with a particular interest in permaculture and organic growing.