By: Scott Sherman
Published: 1993-01-01

When I visited Jamaica a couple years ago I learned that farmers in south St. Elizabeth Parish were growing a good crop of scallions. What was unique is that they relied on rainfall in an area that is normally too dry for intensive vegetable production without irrigation. In fact, they were growing tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, green beans etc. where traditionally yam, cassava, tree crops and a few drought tolerant legumes predominated. Working with the Jamaica Agricultural Foundation and the University of Florida, Mac and Pat Davis set out to study this indigenous system of growing vegetables in a guinea grass mulch. The following is based on their two part study of scallion production.

Rainfall averages 125 cm (50 inches) annually during two brief periods in the spring and fall. In addition warm temperatures and high winds combine to rapidly dry the soil after the rains. Farmers have found that mulching with guinea grass (Panicum maximum) not only conserves moisture, but offers other benefits as well.

In the study, all critical steps (i. e. mulching, planting, cultivation, and harvest) were carried out by local farmers in accordance with local practices. Replicated plots were all treated identically (weeded, mulched with a layer of guinea grass and planted) except that after planting the mulch cover was removed from half the plots. Undisturbed fallow plots were left adjacent to each replication for comparison purposes.

Plots mulched with Guinea grass were found to have significantly lower soil temperatures than the un-mulched plots. [Ed: Based on a graph in the article, afternoon soil temperatures appear to have averaged about 4°C less with mulch.]

Mulched plots maintained a significantly higher soil moisture content than unmulched or fallow plots. As the dry season progressed and moisture became limiting, growth rates in the mulched plots were superior to those of the un-mulched plots (leaf counts were 40% higher at first harvest).

Guinea grass mulch also greatly reduced the amount of weeds (weed counts being up to five times as great in the un-mulched plots). Plots were harvested five times. Total yields, marketable yields, and mean bulb diameters were all greater in the mulched plots than the un-mulched. Over the course of the experiment, mulched plots produced 75% more bulbs than un-mulched plots.

According to Mac, the mulch system is used by all the farmers in the area and no vegetable production is attempted without it. In addition to providing mulch for the principle crops, the grass is also an important part of the crop rotation, serving as a cover crop and sometimes as food for animals. While most farmers keep part of their land in grass and part in vegetable production, farmers with very small farms purchase the grass needed for mulch while those with larger farms grow extra for sale.

The second study focused more on soils, which in the area are well-structured, red or brown bauxitic loams with high aluminum content and near neutral pH. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, this study showed a strong correlation between mulching practices and extractable soil phosphorus.

This finely tuned system appears to be well adapted to growing scallions and other vegetables in that climate. The Davis’s believe that similar grassmulch systems could be adapted to other dry areas. Guinea grass seems to be a particularly good mulch because it easily reseeds itself, produces a lot of biomass, dries down quickly and decomposes slowly. While preparing mulch requires extra labor, less time is spent in weeding, watering etc.

Might such a system allow farmers in other dry areas to intensively produce certain vegetables where they may not otherwise be grown? The author believes so. Such a system would not only increase the farmers’ profit potential over traditional crops in a region, but also provide a means for improving the nutritional status of a community. Mac suggests “the best approach would be to begin on a small scale with subsistence garden plots until farmers become familiar with the technique and some marketing infrastructure can be developed.”

We would be interested to hear if any of our readers have run across similar systems? Gene Purvis, now working in Costa Rica, says that he used a grass mulch system in Panama. Normally his garden took daily watering. He reduced the time of each watering AND reduced the frequency to two times a week by running poly pipe with small holes drilled in it under a cover of chopped paragua grass. He said that any tough, slow decomposing grass, when cut dry, would work well. Rice hulls worked well. Chopping the grass had several advantages.