Adding occasional outside inputs keeps the soil recovery going here at EEC Forest Stewardship. This is organic mulch from a vetted source- proper decomposition timing, weed seed free guarantee, and strictly bark composition. This mulch is a weed suppressant and ground cover, mainly for our trees, and their roots near the surface of the ground. We’re also reinforcing weed prevention and moisture retention for perennials in established beds like our herb spiral and keyhole garden. Mulch is a great way to keep soil and plant roots cool and moist, also insulating the ground from extreme temperature changes. Intact forests produce most of their own mulch and compost, along with the contributions of all the other life contributing within the forest floor, from beetles and mycelia to elk and forest grouse.
Because human development alters the forest composition, though removal of the canopy, compression on roads, and the desire for a clean cut lawn, forest debris is lost as an alarming rate. Here in Western Washington, where a once vibrant temperate rainforest evolved within the environment for thousands of years, the landscape relies on a thickly carpeted forest floor to protect against erosion and provides banking of long term fertility to grow healthy trees and diverse understory ecology. Our panhandle has seen the worst of erosion and compaction from vehicles, so we are focused on that area with mulching to renew topsoil for the long term health of some beautiful trees still surviving on the edge. We’re also putting up physical barriers near the bases of these trees to prevent further compaction and erosion. In future, we’ll also plant more understory companions to strengthen the landscape’s adaptation. Already, the roots of this Douglas Fir and Big Leaf Maple, pictured below, are getting some much needed support to their root structure.
We’ve layered the mulch with some well aged sheep manure and straw to add additional nutrients for the soil. It’s a great way to spread biomass where it’s needed most in rebuilding a thriving forest floor. Leaves are the natural builders of fertility, but people see that debris as litter, and want it cleaned up. This is a tragedy for the forest, as over time, compaction of the roots due to a loss of topsoil will kill the trees. Stressed trees are vulnerable to diseases, which hastens the decline of a tree. Leaf blowers add insult to injury, blowing hot air on the exposed roots and drying out soil which then blows away with the leaves and grass cuttings to expose even more of a tree’s delicate root structure. What should you do? Leave the leaves and grass clippings around the trees! And MULCH! By tending your forest floor in this way, you retain the nutrients, biomass, and organic breakdown process of the living soil, which in tern, offers a balanced soil composition for all the other important, often unseen tree allies, like beneficial insects which will predate upon pests to protect the tree.
Mycological support, which I’ve mentioned in other blogs, can only thrive in decomposition. Without the leaves there to breakdown, the decomposition stalls, and bacteria has to work harder, often developing into infection for the tree. Take a walk in any healthy forest and you’ll feel your feet sink into the soft loam under the leaves. In The Ho Rainforest on our peninsula, many feet of debris lay beneath the canopy. hundreds of years of trees shedding needles, branches, and some fallen trees turned into nurse logs cultivate the health of a forest and allow each tree to mature fully into a giant old growth masterpiece- though you rarely find them in high traffic areas due to compaction.
I know of two accessible hikes where you can find a truly old growth tree right on the trail. Above is a picture of one, a Douglas Fir on West Fork Foss River Trail. This giant is on the edge of the footpath, within a mile of the start of this hike. It’s a great tree to see, and as you take a moment to appreciate the size and age of this wonderful elder, look up to see why this tree stands today. Most stand alone old growth trees found in an otherwise clearcut forest were left because they were already damaged in a way which compromises their timber value, thus making the task of felling them a loss in revenue. The Foss River tree is missing it’s top, common in left behind old growth trees in our region. Other evidence, like this standing dead snag below, show the evidence of a missing top, perhaps already infected with a bracket fungus, and showing signs of heart wood rot 100 years ago when still alive. These are natural ways a tree can fail in time, but cannot be prevented with mulching.
Erosion and root exposure caused by human activity is preventable, both with mulching, and giving a tree more space at it’s base for debris. With enough duff protecting the tree, compaction and erosion will be eliminated all together, allowing a long, healthy life for the tree, and a future forest, if left to seed and grow new young trees, to help restore the ecology of our temperate rainforest home. Bank woody debris around any trees you tend, keep the leaf litter, branches, needles, and twigs to build up future rooting space for a growing network of water retention, mineral exchange, and living soil full of everything a healthy forest needs. With a forward thinking vision of soil production through decomposition, and the help of our fungal friend who break down wood into soil, our forest ecology around the world will thrive.