The Great Hay Stack

Goa, India. Latitude 15N.
Come the end of the annual monsoon, all eyes turn to the rice paddies, watching for the ripening of the grain. Spirits have been dampened by some unseasonal rains, bringing anguish about the state of the crop. This year, after a heavy monsoon that lingered a little past it’s welcome, the harvest finally came a little later, too.

Yesterday's banana circle is today's banana haystack
Yesterday’s banana circle is today’s banana haystack

The fields in front of our home are a mix of both cultivated rice paddies and fallow fields of wild grasses.

Each year, we undertake the big job of harvesting as much as we can of the organic matter that the fields have to offer.

In the cultivated fields, after the rice is machine harvested, a large amount of cut stalk remains on the ground. We just need to collect it.

The fallow fields provide an abundance of wild grasses. Those require more effort. We need to cut before we collect. Cutting is done by hand.

We usually spend about 6 days doing this, with 2 to 3 people. Work is spaced out over a good month-long period from approx mid-October to mid-November, or a bit later depending on the weather. This year we went a little mad and collected a whole lot more over about 10 days.

Collecting the rice stalks  and wild grasses. It's a race to get them stocked before the big burn off.
Collecting the rice stalks and wild grasses. It’s a race to get them stocked before the big burn off.

It’s a pretty big job. Why on earth would we do this? And why do 10 days when 6 gives enough?

We’ve found that these 6 to 10 days of hard work reap multiple year-round benefits. Here are some of them:

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

We’ve been following our mantra for a few years now and it’s been worth every effort for what it’s added to our soil in terms of fertility and moisture holding capacity. The benefits begin immediately. Straight after applying a thick layer of mulch, moisture in the soil can no longer evaporate so quickly. We find ourselves needing to water only once in five days or less throughout the winter months and beyond, instead of the usual practice around us of watering daily, or even more. This provides enormous savings in both water and labour. Moisture is available to the plants in a consistent manner, instead of an erratic dry/wet/dry pattern.

As the mulch begins to break down and is eaten by the various soil life – worms, termites, micro and macroorganisms including fungi – it creates an in situ source of fertility and overall good health for our garden beds and plants.

Application of a thick mulch (from 6 inches to a foot, depending on location) will pretty much serve our mulching needs for the year. Top-up materials will be available in the stacked reserves. We can never have too much mulch.

Young plants under a protective blanket of mulch.
Young plants under a protective blanket of mulch.


Our land is long and thin, with cultivated and fallow rice fields along one entire edge. The residue biomass left over after the rice is harvested is burnt off by different people and if we don’t clear a fire break, we’re at risk from fire damage to land & property.

Carbon & Pollution

As the fields burn, not only does a precious resource go up in smoke but all of that carbon and pollution is released into the air creating a health and environmental hazard. If we don’t collect it, it will be burnt, that’s guaranteed.

There’s been much coverage of the pollution problems in the Punjab and Delhi. A lot of the responses have been that “farmers must stop burning”. In addition to this being a polluting practice it’s also not good for a farmer’s soil wealth. Lacking the appropriate tools and holistic systems to justify stopping, how/why will they? We want to get a closer look at this problem and better understand how things might be able to be done differently.

Wasted resources gone up in smoke.
Wasted resources gone up in smoke.

Intense Labour

What could be considered as hard work is easier for some and impossible for others. This is the most physically demanding task we have for the year. The workout can be considered another yield to this process. Give your gym membership a rest….

On Undesired Seeds

One concern is the high seed count in the wild grasses.

We’ve selected the rice stalk remains, of which there is little seed left, to mulch the Kitchen Garden beds that we don’t want to add any weeding work to.

The seedy wild grasses are being stacked in the centre of the banana circles where the seeds don’t have the desirable conditions to germinate as it’s too shady. As new materials are stacked in the banana circles they crush any that may have germinated. Yesterday’s Banana Circles are today’s Banana Haystacks.

More of the seedy wild grasses will be stacked in the paths where any seeds that might germinate will be trampled by footsteps.

Some will go into our “edimental” (ornamental-edible) garden where the chickens range and happily scratch up and eat the dry seeds and new sprouts. The mulch also provides a great environment for so many beneficial critters that help the overall biodiversity of the garden. Those critters in turn also provide extra free-range food for our chickens who are happily fertilising the garden whilst they’re at it.

The last of the wild grasses will be stacked in the chicken coop area in front of the house where the chickens gradually break it down and manure it, creating quality compost that can in turn be used in the kitchen garden. This deep litter system also serves to absorb any odours that would usually be present where there is chicken poop, and provides a cooler, entertaining environment for the girls (our feathery ones), where they love to sunbathe, forage and scratch about.

The deep litter system is an important element for our poultry and the Kitchen Garden and Food Forest's soil & fertility needs.
The deep litter system is an important element for our poultry and the Kitchen Garden and Food Forest’s soil & fertility needs.

On Pests

We’re often asked about snails, slugs and snakes. Luckily, we don’t really have snails and slugs as pests in our area. We do see some miniscule varieties of snails under the mulch and the very occasional slug, although these do no damage and cannot be considered a pest at all. We may not have snails and slugs, but we do have monkeys….that’s another story, though.

As for snakes, they don’t tend to regard haystacks, mulch or leaf litter as habitat. They would be more likely to be found in piles of wood or stones.

Haystacking Skills

One thing we need to really brush up on is some serious haystacking skills. These kinds of basic functional skills are being lost by the day. It’s a shame to have to reinvent the wheel without a few key tips and tricks to build upon.

Another great thing is that haystacking appears to be contagious. We have had a little competition so to speak from a neighbour this year, for the first time, who was keen to bring in mulch, too. No worries. There’s plenty for all at this time, and we hope to see this important resource become more valued.

The process is so beneficial for all of the reasons above and we’ll definitely continue doing this again next year if resources and situation allow it.

The fields that we harvest from are not ours, but provide an opportunistic wealth of biomass which so far, no one much seems to want or value. Our focus is still to grow as much biomass on our own land as we can, to create a self sustaining biomass loop.

Can you see opportunities that might otherwise go wasted, to get more biomass onto your land?

Rosie and Peter have regenerated a piece of degraded land in Goa, India, to become an abundant and productive Kitchen Garden and Food Forest which thrives as part of a sustainable and resilient ecosystem. The garden serves our own food needs, provides a surplus for friends, and serves for demonstration & education, and research and development purposes. We are actively involved in awareness and outreach to individuals and organisations who wish to participate in every aspect of local food security.



4 thoughts on “The Great Hay Stack

  1. I live in a suburban area and go around collecting many bags of leaves in autumn that people rake up and leave out for trash. I had an explosion of slugs the first year I did it, but the next year as I continued collecting leaves there were hardly any. I think it is because centipedes also thrived under all the mulch and ate the slugs. I’m hoping now that something will come along now and eat all my aphids.

  2. I’ve been a mulch fanatic since Ruth Stout’s book, Make Mine Mulch came out. In Ohio, I used the edge of a field (20 feet wide), to garden. The farmer laughed because everybody knew organic doesn’t work. The ground was so hard, I couldn’t get a shoved in it (new steel, jumped up and down on the shovel, almost broke the blade, and no, there were no rocks, the clay got that hard from being tilled wet). I went to the town dump and brought back truckloads of leaves, one to a bed, 3 feet wide, 20 long. I had to plant in the leaves.

    It was a flood year. Half of his wheat yellowed and died. His garden died. Mine thrived. I saw him out by it in the rain shaking his head at the jungle and trying to figure out why. I went out, and showed him with a pitchfork. I lifted some leaves. A mat of roots were just above the water level. I was still picking peas in July, and no slugs because they had to come near the surface or drown, and birds picked them off. He went to his father and asked if he could take a patch of ground, a hundred acres, and try this organic business. The bank said no. He went on the road driving truck, his wife got her old job back as legal secretary, and they bought a farm on shares rental property, then pay it off in a balloon payment) from an old man who made them sign a paper the farm would not be subdivided. They’re farming full-time, though not 100% organic, and all of the family is healthier.

    Now I’m heading for home, Arizona. Down there, we trench plant to keep plants healthy and out of the sun. A variation of that folks which did before the Spanish invaded was to plant rows of mesquite, then plant gardens between them. Food, sweets, firewood, and a lot of fertilizer (nitrogen) comes from mesquite. For mulch, I want to try Persian clover. It likes the heat and some drought. Native Seed Savers have a lot of drought tolerant plants on sale. God bless, Happy New Year.

    1. Great to read your comment, Rednig. Mulch really can save the world, right? :-)
      I wonder how Mesquite might cope with our torrential 4month, 3000mm rains. Some drylands species cope suprisingly well, others give up at the mere hint of humidity.

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