Of Mulch, Compost, and Water Flow

posted on Apr 04, 2014 with comments

On Tuesday March 11th 2014, I finally closed on the house that I have been trying to buy for the past year. It has been a long and arduous journey just to get to this point. So much went wrong that that I went to the closing still convinced another shoe would fall. Even after all the paper work was signed I was sure something more could go wrong. But it didn’t. The house was, at last, mine.


In the wee hours of the next morning, I awoke in a deep panic. The purchase process had been so long because no bank would lend on the home. It’s a bit a of a fixer upper, to put it lightly. Foundational issues, bad wiring and plumbing, a leaky roof. The one terrifying me at that instant, as freezing rain fell in a light pitter patter, was the foundation.

Now, here, you might ask, “Daniel, why on Earth did you buy this place?” It’s a fair question. I wanted a house in town, but with enough land that I could build an urban homestead on it. I wanted to be close to Dandelion Village. I wanted a small house and a big lot. But mostly, I’d made the mistake of renting the house before buying it and I’d fallen in love with it. Despite all its flaws, it had become home.

I ended up paying more than it was worth. It was underwater and I didn’t feel like trying to compete with institutional buyers in a short sale. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to. But by the time we got to that point, I’d already been through two attempts at obtaining a mortgage. I’d been at it for over 8 months.  I had spoken to every kind of contractor on the planet. I knew what the home was worth, and I knew every single thing that was wrong with it. It was a long list. But, after all of that, I still wanted it. I ended up essentially paying for the land and 3 - 5 years worth of rent. Whether or not that’s what I’ve actually purchased remains to be seen.

The economics of the whole thing get better if I can start getting most of my food from the land right away. And so, I haven’t wasted time getting started on building the long dreamed of urban homestead. Before the closing, I had started laying down mulch as the foundation of four raised beds in the front yard. If things fell through and I ended up walking away, I figured I could just move the mulch onto Dandelion’s land. But closing went through and I forged ahead.

Mulch, then compost.
Mulch, then compost.

I’d originally purchased the mulch from Good Earth intending to lay it down in the side yard. Every time it rains the whole thing turns to a muddy slush that the dogs track all through the house. I was expecting the mulch to be something closer to wood chips. What I got was half way between finely ground mulch and compost. It was never going to work as mud prevention. I wound up ordering straight woodchips to use for the side yard and was left with 10 yards of composting mulch. Perfect for the raised beds I’d been planning.

I used the mulch to build the bed’s foundation and then I ordered a load of compost from Bloomington Speedway Mulch. I’d heard that Speedway’s compost was more nutritious than Good Earth’s. What arrived was not quite what I expected.  Instead of well aged, rich humus, I got a fairly light and dry powder that smelled strongly of shit and ammonia. It was almost raw manure and there was clearly too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Suddenly I was very glad I’d laid the foundation of the bed with mulch. The mulch would absorb much of the excess nitrogen and the two would combine and rot to form the perfect soil.

I decided to layer the two, lasagna bed style. On top of the foundation of mulch I put a solid layer of compost. Then a somewhat thinner layer of mulch, and a thinner layer of compost. Finally, a very thin layer of mulch, just enough to cover the surface. The beds wound up almost two feet high. They’ve settled quite a bit since then. I’m still a little worried that they’ll be a bit too nitrogen heavy and burn out the roots of my plants, but we’ll see.  Hopefully I reached the right balance of mulch and compost. Either way, next year they’re going to be amazingly fertile.

More of a swale, really.
More of a swale, really.

In the mean time, I’m was still fretting about the foundation. The house sits on the side of a steep east facing hill. There’s several acres worth of run off that flows down the hill, and right up against the west side of the house every time it rains. Much of it flows into the basement and gets pumped out by the sump pump. All of this puts pressure on the already bowing cinderblock basement wall. There’s a solid 2 cm crack running horizontally down a seam of the blocks right at the frost line. Directly west of the west wall is a particularly steep section of hill. Whenever it rains with any force at all a large puddle forms on the surface of the ground, right up against the west wall.

To alleviate some of this pressure, I dug a drainage trench directing the water out around the front of the house and down the hill. I’m not sure what I’m going to do over the long term. Visions of terraces, digging out the wall to in fill with gravel, and ponds in the front yard swim in my head. I’ll probably need to do some more research to figure out exactly what my options are.

The closing has acted as the starting gun. It released me from my long wait behind the gate and allowed me to act on dreams I’ve been nursing for over a year. I’m glad to be working and it’s wonderful to see my dreams begin to take shape. But man, do I have my work cut out for me.

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