There is one thing that above all else has helped us in the creation of our garden over the past few years. Mulch. It is the single most effective way to eliminate competition from grass and other unwanted plants when young trees and shrubs are developing. It also helps to keep the soil moist in dry spells and many types of mulch feed the soil as they break down. Our aim is to create a forest garden, a place with many useful trees, shrubs, groundcovers and vines growing together, mimicking natural woodland. As the years progress the need for mulching will be less and less. The natural leaf litter and the shade cast by the growing plants will eliminate the need for most types of mulch. But for now it is essential.
Espaliered apple trees mulched with cardboard and wood-chips.
To date, our most used mulch is cardboard boxes. We have brought home many hundreds of them from the local supermarket to flatten and lay around the bases of newly planted whips and shrubs. They last for up to half a year, especially if you cover them with a second layer of something like grass-clippings, leaf mould or straw. As a result of our twice a year cardboard applications all our trees and shrubs have developed with phenomenal speed and are now looking spectacular in their second or third year in our garden. We have also covered whole areas of land with cardboard boxes and applied soil and seeds on top of them to get more flowers and less couch-grass and nettles growing.
Cardboard and grass-clippings around trees and shrubs.
Around our many bamboos we like to mulch with an ancient plant called horsetail, by most considered a weed but in our eyes a most useful plant for providing silica to the bamboos, as well as being a useful herb for treating many health conditions. We chop it up roughly and sprinkle all around the base.
Around some plants prone to slug-damage we like to mulch with sheep’s wool and crushed eggshells in spring. This combination makes for a rather effective protection and as it disintegrates, feeds the plants with many beneficial nutrients.
Our neighbours give us all their grass clippings and hedge prunings and we use them for mulch on top of cardboard around soft fruit bushes and some trees. Coniferous prunings can be very useful for plants that like acid conditions and we have created a good spot for blueberries by adding woody mulches to an area every year since we moved in.
In our experience mulch is the answer to almost any problem in a developing forest garden. We started out nearly four years ago by putting down permeable plastic to large areas of the garden, leaving it in place for half a year and ending up with a largely plant free area to plant all our groundcovers into. Now we have lovely swathes of mint, oregano and many flowers filling the garden in summer.
New grass plantation, ready for straw mulch.
Another very successful mulch application was putting down organic barley straw all across our vegetable beds over winter last year. It practically cleared the beds of nettles, silver weed and creeping buttercups. Remaining roots were easy to remove in the spring.
Thanks to our many diverse mulches all our plants have developed into healthy, beautiful specimens in a very short time and at the moment we are enjoying the sparkling, colourful beauty of autumn in the garden.