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Mulch Mulch Mulch

Apparently people like mulch!  This blog has seen a steady increase in hits since I posted the ‘free mulch’ tidbits several weeks ago.  So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to preach to the choir about some mulch benefits:

  • Mulch keeps the soil warmer
  • Mulch retains more water
  • Enough mulch naturally squelches weeds
  • Mulch adds more nutrients to soil, especially compacted soil
  • By adding more nutrients, mulch helps attract beneficial creepy crawlies – like worms & bugs
  • Worms & bugs help aerate the soil, making it less compacted
  • Less compacted soil is better for growing things
  • When we have things growing in our yards, we attract beneficial insects
  • Bees are beneficial insects/pollinators
  • We would do well to attract bees
  • So mulch, mulch, mulch!

That’s all for now folks!

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Poplar Suckers

The History

While putting the Tolman Guide together, we learned that poplar trees are great soil remediators. They take up toxins from soil, cleaning the soil. I already knew that sunflowers do the same thing, and in ten years sunflowers, when planted on a brownfield, will clean the land. What I didn’t know, and was sad to learn this year, was that poplars are not ideal for urban spaces.

In fact, the poplar tree can be so prolific as to act like a weed. Because of the compaction and density of houses, poplar trees don’t grow like they would in open country, and the trees (according to three arborists, 2 certified) are weaker and prone to falling as they get older. My husband and I were quite disappointed to learn this because we had been quite pleased with the very quick shade they brought. Several of the ‘suckers’ shot up 6+ feet, some reaching 15 feet, in about 18 months!

It started with the neighbor wanting to cut down his ‘problem’ tree. He hired a tree guy (not a certified arborist) to cut down this tree he thought would impact his foundation in 40 years. This was the summer of 2007. The tree is directly on the property line, and we wanted the shade and did not want to pay this shady tree guy, so we instructed him to leave ‘our’ tree alone. Shortly after half of the tree was felled, we began noticing these weedy things in our yard. The ‘weeds’ followed the root line of the felled tree. This summer, 2008, we consulted our Audubon book and learned our prolific weeds were indeed white poplar. These suckers, as they are called, kept popping up in odd and annoying places, and they were getting more difficult to mow over; so we called in the professionals.

We had three arborists come out. Two are certified by the ISA. The low-ball bid (the first, non-certified) quoted $300 to remove all the trees. There were about a half dozen. The second, $600, and we’d get the wood chips they would make on-site. The third (Green Options) quoted $2000 but offered a home remedy. All agreed we were addressing the problem at an early, preventive stage.

The Remedy

James Kinder of Green Options saw our plight and suggested we do it ourselves. Being in the infancy of the problem, he instructed us as follows:

  1. Cut all tall (tree-like, not weed-like) suckers
  2. Within one-half hour of cutting, saturate fresh trunk with vegetable oil

The trees take big gulps of oxygen trying to survive after being cut, and by dousing them with oil, you effectively suffocate the tree preventing it from spreading.

Next, you have to take care of the weed-like suckers. Kinder gave us a homemade recipe for weed-killer. He told us that Roundup is actually based on a similar (or the same) base as vinegar, it just has all the unnecessary stuff added.

Homemade Weed Killer Recipe

  • 1-gallon white-distilled vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dye-free liquid soap (like dish soap)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  1. Add all ingredients in a pan
  2. Boil
  3. Put in a spray bottle
  4. Spray on plants while hot

Next, cover the severely affected area with newspaper, then add 90% weed-free topsoil. The area should be ready for planting in about 6 months.

The Results

We noticed results with the weed killer within a few hours, most noticeably 24 hours after application. You spray the leaves of the sucker, and within a day the sucker begins to wilt. Some plants come up easily, some do not. We ordered 4 cubic yards of screened, weed-free topsoil. We covered the area, about 15′ long and 3′ wide, with newspaper, a few sheets thick throughout. Then we shoveled the dirt onto the newspapers. Then the rains came. We’ll catch up in 6 months and see how well it worked. Kinder instructed us that the few suckers that will remain should then be easy to pull up by the roots.

It’s important to remember that all ingredients are found in the kitchen. Most people have vinegar and vegetable oil on-hand. I didn’t ask what properties sea salt added over iodized salt but would conjecture the lack of iodine. Some grass was killed, but we buried the rest in soil anyway. This process is green, but do be mindful of the smell of the hot vinegar concoction; I have not had levels tested for toxicity.

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The Urban Homestead

A lot dealing with sustainability answers the question, “How can I do for myself?” A major component of sustainability is keeping things local, and what’s more local than supplying for yourself from your place on this earth? Whether it be an apartment, a small house with a small yard, or a farmhouse, a new book breaks it down in simple ideas for the Average American.

The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficiency (review and blog) examines this question in a simple, easy-to-read format. It’s what we did with the Tolman Guide, it but makes the techy stuff easier to swallow. In The Urban Homestead you will find easy to understand tips for making your own cleaning products, how-to-compost and what to look for, and even a lengthy section on fermentation and storing food.

I will admit, I was a bit envious when I read it. The thought, “We did this first!” kept screaming through my head. But, they did it in a manner that’s easier to understand, and they hit many highlights of living in the city.

A must-read for any person who wants to live closer to the land in the city.

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A word about soil

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about soil, what makes good soil, and why urban soil is so different than rural soil. First, it’s important to understand the components of soil and how healthy soil differs from soil in the built environment. Second, we need to know what an impervious surface is and how it differs from pervious surfaces. Third, we can now make the connections to urban environments and the importance of public transportation.

Healthy Soil

What does healthy soil look like? Healthy soil is full of microbial action and drainage. Healthy soil has bugs and worms that tunnel through allowing plants to breath underground and giving water a place to go. Healthy soil with healthy vegetation soaks up water from rain or other water events and draws it down first into their root systems and then further filters water down to the water table, eventually replenishing ground water supplies.

Impervious Surfaces and Why They Are Bad

Impervious surfaces prevent water from adequately soaking into the ground. Impervious surfaces can be compacted soil (urban soil), pavement, asphalt, housing with standard roofs, or even grass. Anything that prevents water from properly filtering into the soil to nourish plants and animals that live below the ground is an impervious surface.

“A raindrop is like a miniature water bomb: it hits the ground at 20 miles per hour. When raindrops hit bare soil, water can splash soil up to 6 feet away, carry particles away, and drop sediment into drainageways. Wind also dislodges, moves, and transports soil particles. We need that topsoil; it nourishes our food and allows us to live, but it can take almost 1,000 years to be created (Oregon Association of Conservation Districts 2007). In Portland specifically, composted soil can be made in a week (Plantea 1998).” [As quoted in The Tolman Guide to Green Living in Portland, first page Soil Section.]

Additionally, living in places with a lot of impervious surfaces makes that place more vulnerable to floods. When watersheds are prevented from doing their job, managing water naturally, floods are a bigger risk. The water from water events still needs to find someplace to go, and with impervious surfaces that place is usually a parking lot, which leads to the street and sidewalk, or even your basement.

Linking It Back to Place

I live in an urban environment, so it’s important for me to be aware of how my actions affect the environment around me. Likewise, when we learn how we can live in our urban environment full of compacted soil and impervious surfaces, we have more knowledge to make better choices. If, for example, we rely on public transit more than our personal cars, we lessen demand on the roads. Each bus here in Portland helps keep about 256 cars off the road. Imagine 1 bus for every 250 cars and think of how much less air pollution and ground pollution we would have if we improved that ratio. Now, consider what would happen when we plant with native plants in our yards, we use natural methods to help water go where it needs to go – in the ground, further reducing risk of flood and improving the environment in which we live.

I hope this basic run-through of why healthy soil is important helps with our general understanding of how place has a direct affect on our local ecology. Please email me with questions, further reading, or any thing else!