When we talk about plantain mulching, we need to understand that organic matter is essential for plantain cultivation . External sources of mulch can consist of elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum), which is rich in potassium, or cassava peelings, wood shavings, palm bunch refuse, dried weeds, kitchen refuse, and so on.
Collecting and transporting mulch are expensive in time and labor. The most convenient source consists of plants growing inside the plantain fields if they produce a great deal of organic matter without competing with the plantains.
Mulch itself is a layer of organic material, such as hay, cut grass or bagasse which is placed on the surface of the soil in order to conserve moisture in the soil, to hold down weeds, and eventually to improve the soil structure and fertility. Mulching is one of nature’s methods for treating soil in the forest and can be imitated by the skillful farmer.
Suitable mulch material can be obtained from trees which were slashed when the fields were cleared and which are growing again; or from a deep-rooted legume shrub called Flemingia congesta or F. macrophylla. F. congesta is seed drilled in the middle of the 3 m plantain alley. It can be difficult to establish, but from the second year onwards it grows vigorously. It can reach a height of approximately 2.5 to 3 m if left unpruned, but in the field it is cut back 4 times a year to a height of about 1.5 m.
The pruning’s are spread over the soil. Flemingia is not fertilized as it benefits from fixed nitrogen and leached fertilizers applied to the plantains. Grass growing between the plantains is not suitable as a mulch source because it competes with the plantains.
Organic matter is essential for plantain cultivation if the field is to be very productive for a long time. A high level of organic matter in the soil is beneficial because it stimulates root development, improves soil drainage, de- creases soil temperature fluctuations, and increases soil porosity and biological life.
Organic matter decays under the influence of microorganisms in the soil, heavy rainfall and high soil temperature. The amount of organic matter will gradually decrease once the field has been cleared and cause a decrease in yield. Therefore newly established plantains which receive only fertilizer will produce a high yield only in the first year. In the second year the yield will drop because the organic matter will have decomposed.
Read Also: Managing the Fallow Period in Plantains
To compensate for this continuous decrease in the amount of organic matter, the field needs mulch from plants and / or manure from animals. There are many sources of mulch. It can be either carried into the field or produced between the plants; but to be effective, it should cover the soil completely.
Once the field is mulched, weeds are controlled and the topsoil is protected against heavy rainfall and intense sun- shine. Poultry, pigs and cows produce suitable manure which is applied only at the base of the mat.
Advantages of Plantain Mulching
Plants that are mulched are protected from harsh temperatures including plantains / bananas. The mulch keeps the soil cooler. This is especially helpful in hot climates. The mulch stops the hot, drying sun and winds from penetrating the soil and thus conserves soil moisture and coolness. The layer of mulch also protects the soil from erosion, caused by wind and heavy rains.
Mulching helps soil fertility. Mulch materials contain minerals and plant nutrients. Rains wash some nutrients from the mulch into the soil. When the mulch rots down into the soil, the soil’s structure is improved and plant nutrients are added to improve the fertility of the soil.
Mulching can save the farmer time and labour. A mulched garden will have very few weeds, especially if the mulch is applied before the weeds get a start. The mulch also keeps the soil loose, and thus reduces the need for cultivation.
Crops such as tomatoes, melons and cucumbers are especially benefited by mulch. The mulch stops soil from coming in contact with the fruit and leaves, thus reducing fruit rot and fungus disease. Soil that is mulched will not allow mud to splash leaves of crop plants which are susceptible to leaf fungus diseases.
Low lying soils, that are usually wet, should not be mulched. These soils are likely to harbour fungus diseases which thrive in humid and moist conditions.
How to mulch
Mulches can be applied at three different times–before the seed is planted, after the plants or seeds are planted, and after the plants are growing.
The mulch should be rayed over the soil without mixing it into the soil. It should be applied thick enough to prevent the growth of weeds.
A finely shreded mulch is easier to work with, especially around young seedlings or transplants. A heavy, coarse material, such as hay, if not applied carefully, will break the leaves off young transplants and seedlings. A material such as bagasse, rice trash, peanut hulls, chopped grass, leaves and cow manure makes fine mulch.
To mulch a newly sowed seed bed, the mulch should be loose and thin over the row of seeds and more thickly compacted over the spaces between the rows of seeds.
Young seedlings should be allowed to become well established and hardened before mulching. Mulching young seedlings is likely to cause dampening-off fungus disease. This fungus causes young seedlings to rot at the soil line.
When using mulches such as saw dust or bagasse, a nitrogen deficiency may occur. This would cause the plants to be unable to take up nitrogen nutrients from the soil. This is only temporary and can be quickly corrected by applying some nitrogen fertilizer, chicken manure or manure tea.
Read Also: Recommended Plantain’s Climatic Requirememt
Many mulching materials can be commonly found in Jamaica. These include the following:
Saw dust, wood shavings, bagasse, guinea grass, bahima grass, rice straw, rice hulls, bamboo leaves, cocoa shells, peanut hulls, banana trash, cow manure, pig manure, stable litter.
The experienced farmer can identify many others which will be available to him.
Mulching is a simple, time and labour saving gardening method. It makes use of local resources and waste materials. If the common mulch materials, such as grass, sawdust etc., are not available, materials such as newspaper can be used very effectively. The farmer’s imagination is the only limit. Organic materials that will eventually rot and enrich the soil are best.
The real beauty of mulch, besides conserving water, is the labour saving advantage. A crop that is mulched will require much less weeding and cultivating.
Mulching presents another method which the farmer can make use of for providing better growing conditions for his crops, and at the same time save himself labour.