The Power of Mulch on Heavy Clay and the Human Soul

Every soil can benefit from the use of mulch or an organic covering on top of them.
When I first arrived at East Fort Worth Montessori Academy, the alley to the chicken coop is sandwiched between the building and the sloping hillside that feeds the alley with a downpour of water. The soil in the alley has cracks and quickly absorbs and holds water, a good indication of a good heavy clay soil.

The first rain showed the signs of a good mucky clay.

To alleviate the issue, we decided to obtain some free mulch and spread it over the soil. A good three inches will do the trick. The transformation after is unbelievable. A place that was once a trap to walk through can become functional once again.


In the years of using mulch, the pattern emerges that the soil that feeds us needs more organic matter and love. It’s truly a universal solution to build soil and ourselves. Reflecting on the theme of this blog, to cultivate ourselves we must take care of the elements that nurture and feed our body and soul, the soil and all the life within it. The result is a mirror image of ourselves in nature. The soil is now ready for cultivation and growth.¬†

Soil Building: Cover Cropping at East Fort Worth Montessori

It was October of 2010 at East Fort Worth Montessori and the necessary steps to build a productive and beautiful landscape began to unfold.

The landscape was ripe for development and teaching. The children were learning about soil erosion and the decomposition of rocks and minerals. We walk past it everyday and barely realize the changes that occur around us in our environments. The earth is living and breathing. Look around for a moment and you’ll see the massive amounts of erosion and soil depletion that’s occurring.

I digress.

The Assessment
Our assessment began on a hillside that was speeding up the process of soil erosion. To slow the process down, we followed a few simple steps to slow water down, create a habitat for soil microorganisms and plants, and cover cropping.
1. Rock barrier
2. Mulch
3. Cover Crop

The Barrier
To slow down the flow of water, we dug a small trench along the hill and placed rocks in the trench in Octoboer of 2011. This would effectively slow down water and allow it to seep into the soil an water our plants. It would also hold back larger debri and slow down the process of erosion.

Mulch It
We had a small amount of compost. Instead of removing all the big chunks in it, we broadcasted the soil and chunks on the hillside shortly after we built the barrier. In my opinion, the big pieces provide a good habitat for the FBI, fungi, bacteria and insects. The modern perspective is to bury plants with fine compost. We often forget that soil has a complex structure that has a good mix of plant appendages and dying organisms.

Cover Crop
Red Clover is a good nitrogen fixing crop that is also edible. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for all living organisms. This element is necessary for our genetic makeup in our DNA, amino acids and proteins. In plants, Nitrogen is in chlorophyll, the plant organ that captures the energy of the sun. Many people may see it as a weed but it’s a great way to build soil and prevent erosion. We spread the seeds in November of 2011 and the progress has amazing. The clover went to seed, became mulch, and we can re-broadcast if necessary for the Fall season of 2012.

Progress – March 6, 2012

The Amazing Progress on 6th Ave

This is the front  yard when we first moved to Ft Worth. My room mate mowed it a few times and I finally began the process of terraforming it to an edible landscape.

At the time, I was driving a BMW 328i, a four door coupe or sedan, and I had to haul soil in 20 gallon containers. Yes, that’s right. I moved soil in a BMW.

The Process
I didn’t do a great job at documenting anything, but this is the best picture I could find. We


placed cardboard over the grass to choke it out and layered 2 to 3 inches of soil above that. On top of the soil, we placed a good 3 to 5 inches of wood chip mulch to protect the soil from the harmful effects of the sun, wind, and rain. Yes, I said rain. Soil is dense and will slowly absorb water. Rainfall here in Texas falls down hard in good quantities. With too much rain, the good soil flows away. Mulch, on the other hand, is less dense (it takes up more volume with less mass. density = mass/volume). Once the rain hits the mulch it’s taken the hit for the soil and the water can percolate down with the force of gravity. Rinse and repeat the process of cardboard, soil, mulch until the entire area is covered.

An alternative method is just use cardboard and mulch. If you leave it alone for a good season or two, the cardboard will decompose and hopefully have taken out the grass that was there.

Planting is easy. Push the mulch aside and put a seed in the soil or transplant a plant into the soil. If you didn’t put soil above the cardboard, you can punch a hole through and plant into the soil below. Compost can be added to the hole punching method to add some beneficial bacteria and nutrients. Once you plant the seeds or the plants give them a nice dose of H2O and . .

Wait a Little While
Watering is reduced when you use mulch. After planting the seeds and watering, I usually let the plants germinate on their own. If it’s exceptionally hot, I usually wait 4 to 6 days and check the moisture of the soil around the seeds. How do you check the moisture? Use your sense of touch or stick your finger in the soil.

Harvest Time

This garden was ridiculously easy. Our harvest was more than any of us could eat. Yes, in the picture my roommate, Sara, has a bucket full of cucumbers. We had plenty of them before that as well. So much so that I got sick of cucumbers.

Cucumber Bucket from the Front Yard

Even in the heat of July and August, the garden is still pumping out produce. We’ve had neighbors walk buy and count the melons for us on multiple occasions (I think the count is 12).

In the meantime, we’ve prepared the other half of the yard and are beginning to make plans for some more perennial plants. A peach tree has gone into the ground, and the current thoughts are flowers, delicious herbs, and Fall veggies.

The only thing missing is a Food is Free sign to get the melon counters to get a hold of us, or maybe a workshop sign to get them to join our little operation. I’m not sure yet, but we’ll keep posting all the good things.