Organic matter gardening

The following article was published in the Bellingen Courier Sun June 2017

Recently I wrote an article in that journalistic legend – our very own Bellingen Courier Sun, about how organic matter is essential to the viability of forests, farms and civilization. Basically, we either stop losing organic matter from our soils, or become comfortable with the idea of our own extinction. The full article can be accessed at


There are some reasons why a good place to be building organic matter is in our own back yards:

  1. The people who should be fixing the problem aren’t. Government and farmers are way behind the pace. We could spend all day discussing why, or just get on with it ourselves.
  2. We might need the cheap food. We’re living in interesting times – staring at a future of environmental degradation causing economic failure, expressed both as slow decline and a series of shocks.
  3. Home grown organic food beats the pants off anything you get in the supermarket for quality and health.
  4. If we don’t look after our back yard, then do we really belong here?


How to build up organic matter can be done in a hundred different ways. The following are principles, not rules:


  • Bare soil is rapidly degraded. I don’t grow in bare soil, except as seedlings in nursery trays. I plant good sized seedlings into veggie gardens of thick mulch. To start off with, you might have to import mulch. Straw is expensive and doesn’t last long. Woodchip waste from tree loppers is cheap and long lasting.
  • Over time, you can grow your own mulch as soft plants like lemon grass, vetiver grass, fine leaved lomandra, banana, pigeon pea, sugar cane tops and a hundred other sources, including crop wastes.
  • Make a bit of a mess. Let lawns grow a bit longer between cutting cycles. Generally allow vegetation to grow, die, lie around and enrich the soil.
  • Stack plants. Grass is a terrible companion for any crop. Try ground covers of herbs, sweet potato, etc. Try compatible overstorey plants too. Many crops in this climate don’t need or even like full sun.
  • Import organic matter in the form of mulch, compost, manure etc. while it’s still undervalued and when establishing an edible garden. Don’t export any organic matter.
  • Some of the most pedantic gardening dogma you’ll come across regards correct composting methods. Don’t worry about it and just do whatever works for you. I put anything organic into big olive barrels with the bottoms cut out. They are slow to compost – up to two years, but are easy. The drums are buried 15cm to keep rats out and the bottom 30cm of material is woodchips, to avoid anaerobic smell.
  • Keep woody stuff on site. Get it chipped, or drag it into an out of the way damp place and let it rot.
  • Use weeds. Some can be used as mulch when not seeding, or seeding weeds thrown under shady trees where they won’t sprout. Some can be soaked in your council green bin and tipped back onto the garden when they’ve decomposed. Some can be smothered by sheet mulch or shaded out over time. Some can just be left alone, building up the soil without causing any measurable harm to the planet. Pull them up and another weed will jump in, trying to fix up the damage to the earths crust that you just caused. Often the best approach is to thank nature for trying to help us, and get out of its way.