The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Newspaper mulch

A rising storm lifted a chunk of paper mulch out of the garden and flung it across the yard to batter against the side of a towering propane tank.

My mother and brother looked up in alarm as the mulch knocked loose a cable, releasing fuel into the darkening afternoon.  Then...a crack of thunder...a flash of lightning...and suddenly the tank was ablaze.

"We're going to die!" Joey howled as he pushed my mother behind him to shelter her from the wall of flame.  Mom ran one way, Joey the other, as the inevitable explosion shook the farm.

Then I woke up.  What, you don't dream about the possible dangers of your mulch choices?

Wood chips on top of paper mulchMy mulch nightmare was brought on by Daddy's explanation that he always weighs down his newspaper mulch with something to keep it from blowing away.  Sure enough, when we got back from our trip, an uncharacteristic wind had whipped through our farm and blown around about a tenth of the paper mulch.  In contrast, last year's partially decomposed junk mail and cardboard was still in place, suggesting a long term solution to the blowing paper problem.  For now, I just dribbled a bit of composted wood chip mulch on top of the newspaper to hold it in place and stave off those terrifying mulch nightmares.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for use in tractors since it never spills or fills with poop.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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First of all, in caravans and trailers over here, gas tanks are kept in (ventilated) enclosures to prevent things like this. Leaving a gas tank exposed outside where something can knock off or break the gas hose fits in the 'what were they thinking' category.

Secondly, I wonder about how healthy printing inks are? I know a lot of them are based on vegetable (soy) oil, but the few safety data sheets that I was able to find also mention mineral oils and other stuff. And then there are of course the pigments. Some toxic ones (lead white, cadmium yellow) have been banned, but you might want to check out what is still in them. A lot of pigments are minerals that do not degrade, although they might be soluble in water and drain away.

Given the amount energy, trees and chemicals used to create paper, I think it might be better to recycle it as paper rather than use it as mulch. (I realize that this is easier in a densely populated area. Our waste paper is collected every other week)

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Apr 21 13:45:27 2010

Oh no! Now I'm going to have more mulch nightmares. :-)

We don't actually have a propane tank --- I think it was in the dream for dramatic tension. I'm glad to hear that if we did, my family wouldn't be immolated.

Your points about the inks are very well taken. Most people who use newspaper/paper in the garden just use the black print sections, not color. I should be better about that!

I'm the on the fence about recycling, which I know sounds a bit crazy for a cruncy treehugger like me. In many ways, it seems to function in our society as a way to make people feel better about consuming far more than we should. ("It's okay that I drink all of my water out of one cup plastic bottles, because the bottles can be recycled!") In many cases, municipalities don't even recycle the waste they collect for recycling because recycling often costs too much. Instead, recyclables end up the landfill, but we feel better and go on consuming.

I haven't looked into the specifics of paper recycling, so maybe it makes more sense. But we'd have to drive about an hour and a half to drop of our recyclables, which is a big incentive to find another purpose for them on the farm. In the city, you're probably right that it would make more sense to recycle the paper.

Comment by anna Wed Apr 21 14:30:30 2010

Luckily, propane tanks are hard to break. And even when punctured, they do not burst into flames! Last year, the tv show mythbusters tackled the myth from a James Bond movie that a handgun could explode a propane tank, without incinerating James in the process. Luckily, a 9 mm handgun didn't even punture a propane tank at close range. A high-powered rifle like a M1 Garand can punture it, but the only thing you get is a lot of cold propane vapor. Even incendiary rounds didn't make it explode, if memory serves (hint: lots of propane, no oxygen). They had to strap a block of C4 to the tank to make it go boom!

I'd be more worried about a gas leak inside the house/trailer caused by a damaged hose or pipe. Propane is heavier than air, so it will pool on the floor and can give "interesting" effects if it comes into contact with an ignition source. While not really a thermobaric bomb, it probably won't leave much of your house either! Generally a substance is added to (normally odorless) propane and natural gas. So you'll smell a gas leak before it becomes dangerous.

In my house (as is common here), all the gas lines are soldered metal tubing, which aren't easily damaged. But caravans and trailers usually have a flexible rubber hose leading from the tanks to the inside. These hoses will deteriorate over time and are a source of leaks.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Apr 21 17:16:00 2010
I think that TV really likes explosions for the same reason my dream included one --- very dramatic. I seem to remember reading somewhere that cars are immensely unlikely to explode, but that all of the car explosions on TV have made people think the cars will explode. So they struggle out of wrecked vehicles and injure themselves when they'd have been better off staying put.
Comment by anna Wed Apr 21 19:08:24 2010

While it is possible for a car to burn out due to a gasoline leak, it won't explode. (At least not without a generous helping of explosives!)

Liquid gasoline doesn't burn. It has to be vaporized first. And while it will vaporize at room temperature and pressure, it doesn't do so very well. When spilt gasoline comes into contact with hot engine parts and an ignition source (e.g. sparking battery leads), it can start a fire. But to create an explosion with gasoline you'd have to vaporize a lot of it, mix it with air and provide an ignition source. That doesn't happen very easily. (explosives will help with all three, though :-) ) An Otto cycle engine has atomize the fuel into tiny droplets, and then heat the gas/air mixture considerably (by compressing it) and provide a spark at the right time to get it to burn.

If gasoline still makes you feel uneasy, you should go for diesel fuel or plant oil. Because that will basically not vaporize at room temperature and pressure. (technically more correct would be to say that the partial pressure of diesel or plant oil in air in standard conditions is too low to make a flammable mixture)

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Apr 22 01:44:44 2010

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