We live in a dry climate where evaporation exceeds precipitation in the warm months and sublimation occurs on very cold days in the Winter months. We can count on receiving 9” of annual rain and hope for something more on the order of 13” if we can get it.

Given that information Mulching becomes the most essential life giving technique we can employ. The soil here is registered with the USDA as Ritzville Silt Loam but the loam (microbial matter  enherant in the mix) is long gone as a result of over cropping, over grazing, disruption, compaction – all things that happened before we got here.

As I’ve said in past posts the property suffered from years of neglect and maltreatment. Most of the trees were in bad shape or on their way to dying. The 300’ well & pump had been overtaxed by former residents attempting to keep the lawn green with extensive underground irrigation system (of which we’re still unearthing and throwing on the aluminum pile).




The lawn is gone. Replaced by repeated layers of 2” deep straw mulch, the area has grown from just under ¼ acre in the orchard to 3 acres with continued expansion. Will arrived full time in 2009 and brought in two 30’ loads of wheat straw (6 Ton each) and starting in 2012 we have amped up sourcing and putting down 10 loads of straw (60 ton), and two loads of wood chips. The straw has been both free and cheap – we take only rotted or low quality straw unusable for animal bedding and the chips are free as well. The picture shows the condition of the “lawn” we let go prior to beginning the mulching program. Kyle Chamberlain stacks the first rock talus garland of the property.


Ruth Stout spoke to this subject about the importance of mulching, known as the “Mulch Queen” she wrote a number of books about her work, Gardening Without Work, I’ve Always Done It My Way, and How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, No-Work Garden among them. She grew up in Connecticut a cool temperate climate unlike ours and we are grateful for her insights which are keenly applicable to dry climates in particular.

Digging straw (or any heavy carbon element) into the soil – as in tilling – kills not only the earth worms, arthropods, and beneficial nematodes and Mycorrhizal but creates a nitrogen deficiency in the soil. Sure, you can add manure to “boost” your nitrogen back up for that initial dose to nitrogen hungry plants but you’ve still taken out all the beneficial living systems from the area who now have to find their way back to your cultivated soil. Not very smart in my opinion. If you’re overwhelmed by heavy clay soils as they are in the south this would be the one time I would employ tilling in and from there – leave the tilling to big ag and go on to using Ruth’s ideas.

Why no constant tilling, plowing, harrowing? From the soil’s perspective: every time we disturb the soil surface we are promoting the growth of weeds especially in soil that is deficient in real nutrients and elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, boron, calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese…) Geoff Lawton explains that it is possible to have as many as 2000 viable weed seeds in one square meter. When you have an area this large, with soil this degraded and multiple necessary projects ongoing the last thing you want to do to yourself is start down the road to bad design – meaning setting yourself up for massive inputs of resources (time, fuel, money, labor).

There is a very real reason why I don’t pander to the individuals and institutions who promote “annuals only farming” at the expense of Polycultures and perennials which I would like to explain at the end of this article.


Soil erosion and haboobs being one of them as this picture shows from the end of the driveway

Incredible view of impending wall of dust from driveway

Carefully mulching the top of  the soil adds nitrogen over time. Timing is critical as to when that happens in dry climates. You look for Rain Events and rain seasons as a design for success. When we mulch over 4” deep, the water underneath is protected from the drying effects of wind and summer sun, but that level of mulch also inhibits any precip from entering. We did a deep mulching in the late spring of 2012 to preserve whatever moisture the soil had, then into the fall we raked back excess straw and allowed the winter precipitation to penetrate down to the soil. Now the soil and straw have been hydrated so the next round of 2” straw goes down to catch the last rains of the spring and act as a desiccation barrier going into the summer. This continues to be repeated as we extend outward to enlarge the area and soil building efforts.

Positive results from mulching:

Keeps roots cool

Retains soil moisture

Promotes habitat for beneficial Insects and animals

Tiger SalamanderBull Snake

Promotes ongoing fungal activity

Suppresses first succession weeds (Russian thistle, puncture vine, knapweeds, skeleton weed, Koshia in our area).

Inhibits weed seeds from germinating from the above group and promotes more helpful individuals such as: Dandelion, Salsify, Lactuca serriola, mustards, Yarrow, milkweed, mullein, and other edible medicinal second succession plants.

Reduces compaction

Slows and stops wind and water erosion

Unexpected benefits emerge in the spring and fall when we find mushrooms fruiting in the micro climates where we have combined topography & windbreaks such as these:

Mushroom and DandilionPoplar Mushrooms











Mushroom and dandilion 2

Nitrogen / bacteria dominated soils devoid of important micro nutrients inspire weeds to thrive and do little for orchard and other perennial trees and shrubs. The lilacs on the property stand alone in their indifference to fungal activity and as evidenced were the most numerous species on the property in 2009. They are well adapted to the calcareous based bacterial dominated soil found here at that time.

The most recent area we’ve undertaken is to the north east side of the property where a number of outbuildings provide the function of wind break, shade and yes mulch. This particular slope is taking advantage of the water shed above it – south and east that our “neighbor” farms in dry wheat. It’s our job to capture whatever water flows towards us at right angles to the contours and run-off from the county road.

The outbuildings have metal roofs and gutters from which the water will be directed into hand dug mini swales and planted to nitrogen fixers first: black locust, buffalo berry, lupines, Siberian pea shrubs, cover crops and later smaller orchard trees and edible shrubs etc.

To prepare this area we left it alone for 4 years cutting down only the weeds on the NO list by chop and drop and pulling. We let the cheat grass grow and die over time along with the wave of yarrow, dandelions, salsify and alfalfa, chopping and dropping those as well and this is what it looks like on the left. In the interim we moved the junk out of the school house and this area & set the compost mixture of grass and wood chips harvested from town.

First years


The mix is dumped in piles and left to the elements for one year. The weeds and cheat grass are pulled up and set on top, the wood chips raked over the area 3” deep and already wet. Final layer of straw is applied on top to the depth of 2” during the rain season in winter.

wood chip mulch


Working with weed, straw and barck mulch


Now we wait.

Next the nitrogen fixers get planted this fall that we’ve been growing in pots in our nursery and are stored in the school house for winter. All of the great 2nd succession weeds will be encouraged to grow and comfrey will be added to assist in bio-dynamic accumulation. The gutters will continue to provide extra precipitation levels in addition to rainfall to increase the level of moisture in the soil and promote fungal activity.

We move on to other endeavors.


Climate change, peak oil, depletion of ancient aquifers, desertification, soil erosion and Central Banks are a reality. The physical laws of thermodynamics, of which we are held to on this planet; tell us there is no such thing as a free lunch. The resource buffet from which we have been gorging ourselves on, as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by the Watt’s engine (1776) and discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 is about over.

The Death Grip of the Rothschild dynasty, who now have a central bank in all but three countries in the world will play out as the economics of liberal capitalism come face to face with the laws of physics. Up to now we have allowed ourselves to pretend laws of physics don’t in fact govern us, other than gravity and have given little thought to how all these things (clothing, tools, technology, communications, food, fuel, etc.) end up in our homes.

We buy them of course. That’s how they get there. Buy is an Economic term as in buying time, time is money, money doesn’t grow on trees.

TV and Chair

When we buy all this stuff we grow the GDP.  All economists, corporations, shareholders, stock markets, and politicians know that by growing the GDP we grow the economy and everybody prospers except for two problems: resources are being depleted at a faster rate of return (ROI) than they are being replaced and capital interest weighs in heavily. In a centralized system (now the global economy) all extra money funnels up. I call it the Walmart effect whereby local monies and businesses vanish into a giant sucking sound and are whisked off by this tornadic force into the hands of the Walton family. http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/06/03/report-walmarts-billionaire-waltons-give-almost-none-of-own-cash-to-family-foundation/ countless other corporations and too big to fail banksters.

Liberal capitalism works as long as everyone but the very few at the top are willing to go into debt to keep it going.

Here’s how we’ve chosen to view the energy audit for mulching rather than tilling.

 2 acres tilled:

Till the soil, add amendments. Fuel and time (initially) is low

Cover crop. Fuel, seeds, time…more input

Now the soil is disturbed and thousands of weeds sprout.

Mow the weeds. Fuel, time and labor.

Turn the cover crop under. Fuel, time, labor

Plant desirables.

Now you’re caught in an ongoing cycle of tilling, weeding, tilling, weeding, overuse of water resources, fuel and time.

 2 Acres mulched:

Mulch the soil according to design over period of three years

Manual pulling of first succession weeds or chop and drop before coming to seed.

Promotion of second succession of weeds, chop and drop to add nitrogen

Time & Design replace large outputs of fuel and water.


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