Saturday, June 7, 2008

Leave the Leaves

Here in rural Utah (where I currently live), I've been fortunate enough to find work that I can both enjoy and learn from. A short description of my job would be: mulcher. But that really doesn't explain exactly what I'm up to. Yes, I'm mulching (moving tons of organic matter onto an orchard to soak up water and create better soil), but I'm also observing the land, keeping out cows, setting up rainwater harvesting earthworks, and maintaining irrigation lines. Yet, if I want to tell somebody what I do for a living these days, I tell them I'm a mulcher.

The fine art of mulching has been a gift of mine for quite some time. I can remember being a child and sweeping up buckets and buckets of leaves from the patio of my family's Tucson home. My dad would put a 55-gallon plastic garbage bin, a broom, and a dust pan in front of me -- time to pick up the leaves. My older brother, Randy, helped with this activity also. We hated it. Damned trees just never seemed to stop dropping their leaves.

If picking up the dead stuff wasn't bad enough, the weekends often found Randy and I waking up to the sound of clippers next to our bedroom window. My dad was at it again. Clip, clip, clip -- trimming the trees. He was a man possessed. There was no stopping him. It was always one of those, "Aw, man" moments. When my bro and I heard those falling branches, we groaned, "Awwww, man!" It's funny how close that remark is to "amen." Yet we felt anything but blessed to be assigned the arduous task of sweeping up the sea of fallen branches on those weekend mornings.

Well, this wasn't exactly mulching. Our assignment was to pick up the organic matter and throw it away in the garbage or alley. The patio was to be licked clean by the tongues of our hard work. As kids, this was really hard work. So sometimes my bro and I wouldn't pick the leaves up as we were supposed to. We'd take a shortcut. The worst part of the job was scraping out the fallen leaves inside the planters. Sometimes we'd skip this part and let the leaves rot away. If my dad wasn't looking, we'd even push the leaves from the patio into the planters, hiding them in the shrubbery -- sort of like cleaning your room by shoving everything under the bed.

I didn't realize until years later when I took my first Permaculture Design course that -- in our unwillingness to pick up the leaves -- we were unwittingly mulching the soil. I learned in my Permaculture education that it's beneficial to "leave the leaves" (especially in a desert like Tucson), rather than scraping them up and throwing them away. Any mulch -- leaves, bark, woodchips, straw -- left on the soil will perform multiple beneficial functions:

(1) Shade the soil, preventing moisture loss

(2) Provide an environment for living organisms (such as worms and bacteria and fungi) to thrive, contributing to soil enrichment

(3) Over time, mulch will break down (by way of the above mentioned organisms) and its nutrients will be available for plant use

(4) A living sponge is formed which soaks up water, rather than letting it runoff

When I heard this, it made sense. That's how nature works, right? And that's what permaculture is all about: imitating nature.

When I learned about the wonderful attributes of mulch, I couldn't help but think about those hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of garbage bins full of leaves that I helped haul away to the trash as a kid. What if my bro and I had left the leaves in the planters? How much rich soil would have built up over time? How much water would have been conserved? How much time did we waste on picking up leaves when we could have been wasting our time playing video games? (Kidding, of course.)

So there was one of the great epiphanies of my life: leave the leaves. And, after that Permaculture course, I became an ardent mulcher. I began to see all landscaping and yard maintenance crews as the enemies of mulch. It was their job, after all, to haul every dead, fallen thing away -- out of sight, out of mind -- for their clients. The whole idea seemed insane to me. They were throwing away gold (as my friend and fellow mulcher, Lyman, says).

And now here I am, years later, mulching and building the soil of an orchard just as nature does it. Truckload after truckload of organic matter we haul: wood chips, straw bales, hay, pine needles, and anything else we can scrounge up. In a year or two, there will be rich, moist, dark soil where the mulch now sits, teeming with insects and soil organisms. The trees will be happy, thanks to the mulchers.

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