One Straw Revolution: Part Three
Graham R. Cooper
Get huge quantities of straw, over several years, to decompose in the soil, and there’s a good chance that your revolution has been all to the good: soil that’s well-aerated, rich in organic matter, moisture retentive, and alive with an unimaginably rich diversity of microbial life.
You’ve got to build up soil carbon to improve your soil, and, just as crucial, to capture carbon and reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. All that brown, dead plant material. And mulch can be one vital tool in the arsenal.
Thirty years ago I hoped, in vain, that New Zealand as a whole would adopt an organic philosophy. (I wrote about that in ‘Part Two’*). As for us, we’ve essentially stayed in the organic camp. Along the way though, we’ve gained from insights to be had from kindred philosophies: biodynamics, permaculture, regenerative and bio-intensive farming.
At the heart of it, no matter which way you choose to go, you’ve got to restore a rich diversity of life to the soil.
Thirty years ago, as a newby to the homesteading way of life, I gave wheat straw – many bales of it – an impossible task (as described in ‘Part One’**); laid on freshly rotary hoed soil that until then had been under pasture for many years, I told it to take a leading role in producing a good crop of potatoes.
The microorganisms had a field day (excuse the pun), expending their energies rapidly decomposing the chopped up pasture species. The wheat straw, very slow to break down under the best of conditions, just sat there on the surface like a poorly woven carpet, doing its bit to help keep the heavy clay soils damp, cold and compacted.
Somewhat surprisingly, looking back, we persevered with wheat or barley straw mulch on the home garden for a number of years after that initial debacle. And over a span of years, Fukuoka’s ‘One Straw Revolution’ (see ‘Part One’), did partially come to fruition for us personally, in the harvesting of an abundance of vigorous, healthy vegetables. Straw had played its part in suppressing weeds, protecting bare earth, retaining soil moisture, soil aeration, feeding microorganisms, and, as a consequence of all that, improving soil structure and fertility.
However, we became increasingly frustrated with its slow rate of decomposition. Spread, in autumn, over the bare earth after the vegetable crops had been harvested. it didn’t break down much over winter. Come the following spring and planting time, there’d still be this straw mat to contend with.
We started to look locally for an alternative that was readily available and not too pricey. One that was easier to spread, covered the ground well, and allowed for good aeration. A mulch whose considerable decomposition by the following spring would have improved soil structure and fed microorganisms. Microorganisms that would, in turn, release nutrients to feed plant roots.
We can’t remember which year we switched to pea straw, but we’re glad we did. It’s a great vegetable garden mulch. The vines are soft and wriggly; they fluff up when you spread a slab taken from a bale. Unlike wheat or barley straw, they soon darken, and don’t remain a lightish-coloured, sun-reflecting carpet that can keep the soil too cool and damp.
The price and the quantity we get hasn’t gone up for several years: thirty bales at $5.00 each. That gives us enough left over to cover the vegetable garden paths as well. Money well spent.
Another autumn, another ritual spreading of the mulch. Year in, year out, we continue to increase the fertility of our soil, and its ability to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And mulch has an important part to play.
To anyone out there who has their own soil revolution underway: “Good on ya, mate!”
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.