Mulching with Seashells

I know it’s been a while since my last post – travelling, visiting friends back home and generally taking a break from farming/gardening has kept me from the typed page and, more specifically, information for the terroir-tracing blogosphere.  But now, on vacation at my parents’ beach house with them on the Outer Banks of N.C., I have both topic and time to report.

Two-year-old Vern's Brown Turkey

Ocracoke Island, N.C., is rather known for its fig population; grown here since the 1700’s, most old-time islanders have a few sitting in their backyards, fig preserves are among the most rampant of local fare and nearly every local church and restaurant recipe book contains a recipe for Ocracoke Island Fig Cake (with a Buttermilk Glaze).

Last winter while on vacation for the Christmas holiday with family and friends here at the beach house, I brought with me a Vern’s Brown Turkey fig tree that I had purchased from a local plant nursery in Asheville.  Figs are best transplanted in the late fall/early winter when they are dormant.  And so my fig tree has been in place for nearly one year and produced one fig over the summer (so I’m told) that became a local snack for a local bird.

But my spirits continue to press on and I’m trying to take care of the tree the best I can in hopes that one day, I’ll be able to whip up my own backyard fig cake.  And one of the ways I’m caring for the fig tree is by mulching.

Mulch has come to mean so much more to me than when I was younger and dump-truck-loads on the side of the highway boasting chips and slivers of wood and bark was all I thought of as ‘mulch’.  But mulch encompasses so much more; from wood and sawdust, to cardboard or newspaper, to uprooted weeds or mown grass, to broken pottery to leaves and pine needles, to even plastic.  And out here on the island the most prevalent, handy and useful mulch item is seashells.  Clams, mussels, oysters and a host of other sea-dwelling creatures retire their shells all the time, and they can be easily found on the beach, on the shores of the Pamlico Sound, even in the woods and on paved parking lots in the middle of the island (flooding tides are a norm here on Ocracoke, where tropical storms and hurricanes are known to ravage through, mostly from August to October).

Seashells offer calcium in the form of calcium carbonate and are a fairly balanced (if low source of) fertilizer, offering about 1.5-1-.5 (N-P-K).  They can be crushed for a more uniform appearance and duty, or left in broken bigger chunks; I chose to leave mine larger because a) it’s a perennial fruit tree that I’m mulching and will therefore benefit from a longer, slower, constant release of minerals, and b) because of the inherent sandy-ness of the soil, anything to weight it down will help hold moisture and ground better (whereas, if I was mulching with seashells on clay soil, I’d want to chip them up as much as I could and maybe even mix them in so as to offer more aeration to the clumpy, heavy clay).

Fig trees do so well on the island because they can thrive in the sandy soil conditions, like a bit of winter chill but prefer the more moderated climate of a coastal location and the naturally more alkaline offerings of an area surrounded by mineral-rich seawater and seashells (I’ve also read that powdered or crushed seashells can be a substitute for lime in the garden as they raise and moderate a higher pH level).

Depending on the weather extremes between now and the next time I visit the island I may have to reapply the mulch or do some refreshing to it, and probably over the winter or some time next year I’ll have to do my first pruning job on the tree – mainly cutting off any new growth that threatens to grow towards the inside of the tree or one of two branches that may rub up against each other.  But for the most part, there won’t be a lot to do except wait and have patience; and perhaps explore some of the many options for keeping pesky and hungry birds at bay (or, Sound :).

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