Kobe Mulch: Artisanal, Local, Sustainable
The refined estates of the Santa Barbara area are set to become the latest beneficiary of the Kobe Mulch craze that’s suddenly sweeping America. Modeled on Japan’s famed Kobe Beef, Kobe Mulch is an artisanal mulch that’s produced from specially selected wood chips and subjected to a series of complex, labor-intensive treatments that make it both the most sought-after and the most costly mulch in the world. And Kobe Mulch is also revolutionizing local farming practices as well as helping to save the environment.
MULCH PRIMER. For the benefit of the non-gardener, it will help to know that mulch is a layer of organic material, usually some type of wood chips or bark, that is spread on the surface of the soil to conserve moisture, discourage the growth of weeds, and protect the soil from erosion and extremes of temperature. Mulch is in common use in modern sustainable gardens, and in fact is considered a basic element of the contemporary sustainable landscape. Conventional mulch is often derived from wood chips created during tree trimming operations, or from minimally processed bark that is a by-product of the lumber industry.
THE KOBE DIFFERENCE. Kobe Mulch differs from conventional mulch in several ways. It comes from special feedstock, the chipped wood of the once-rare Hoki Pine (Pinus retrofractus Dougl.), a native of southern Japan. The wood of the Hoki Pine offers several advantages over the random materials used to produce ordinary mulch. Hoki wood is more durable, has a more open grain structure which provides better insulation (“loft” in the terminology of mulching science), and it has superior marbling and color. But that’s just the beginning. It’s the special treatment that turns Hoki wood into the sought-after Kobe Mulch. More on that later.
THE HOKI REVOLUTION. The Hoki Pine, an endangered species in its native habitat, grows with astonishing speed in Southern California, and is drought tolerant, pest-free, and very easy to grow. It has been the source of garden mulch in Japan at least since the reign of Emperor Jimmu (585-503 BCE). But until very recently the Hoki pine was unknown in the Western world. A consortium of horticultural professionals quietly began to import it to California in the early 2000s. Extensive plantations of Hoki, as the growers refer to it, quickly took hold in the remote Santa Ynez and Cuyama Valleys, replacing failed ostrich farms with a zero-impact crop that has turned out to be a big moneymaker for the growers. In fact, some ag experts anticipate that by 2020 Hoki production will surpass that of strawberries, Santa Barbara County’s leading crop. Hoki is also resistant to the increased summer heat that is expected to occur as a result of global warming. Currently, growers are developing localized cultivars of Hoki that are even faster growing and better adapted to local climates. Because of its speedy metabolism, a Hoki Pine seedling can grow to 40 feet tall and be ready for harvest in 2 to 3 years, a growth rate unheard of in tree crops until now. And this can be done with no fertilizers, no pesticides, and no supplemental irrigation beyond normal rainfall. In fact, the Hoki requires virtually no care at all between the time is it planted and when it’s harvested. A boon to labor-challenged farmers and a genuine benefit to the environment, the Hoki has quietly become the darling of local agriculture.
Steve Claymore, third-generation landowner in the Buellton area of the Santa Ynez Valley, has been growing 1,200 acres of Hoki for nearly 10 years now. “We’ve been blown away by this plant.” says Claymore. “After struggling with Pinot Noir and other wine grapes, row crops, buffalo, corn mazes, and those disastrous ostriches, we feel we’ve finally come up with a way to make our land profitable while helping to save the environment at the same time.” Claymore is not the only one who’s wild about Hoki. In fact, last year local Hoki growers formed the SBHPA, the Santa Barbara Hoki Producers Association, to promote and further develop the crop. Environmentalists like the Hoki too, citing its drought tolerance, friendliness to wildlife, and resemblance to local native vegetation. All in all, Hoki is poised to transform agricultural practices in Santa Barbara County and beyond.
ANCIENT MULCH CRAFT. But that’s only the beginning of the story. Once the wood from the Hoki Pine is harvested, the real work of crafting Kobe Mulch begins. Turning Hoki into Kobe is a labor-intensive 2- to 3-year process that calls on the best skills of highly trained artisans. Santa Barbara’s Kobe Mulch producers underwent a rigorous 2-year long traditional training regimen in Japan, living in a mountaintop hermitage in the remote Kanagawa Prefecture and studying under the aging masters of the craft. There are currently only 7 certified Kobe Mulch artisans in the United States, and 3 of them are based in Santa Barbara County. Artisans adopt traditional Japanese names, giving up their American ones. (For security reasons, they must remain anonymous.)
Much of the process of Kobe Mulch making is never divulged to outsiders, and the craftsmen who come through the Kanagawa training are sworn to secrecy on penalty of death. But this much is known: the harvested Hoki wood is first chipped by hand, using special Japanese santoku knives made from high carbon steel in the venerated Honyaki knife-making tradition. Chipping a Hoki tree for Kobe production can require the work of 3 or more artisans over a 4-month period. Before moving on to the other steps in Kobe Mulch production and eventually becoming an “honored adept” Kobe maker, the trainee must spend a full year just chipping wood. The angle of the cuts, the speed at which they are made, and even the clothing worn by the artisans, everything is considered critical to the eventual quality of the product.
The chipped wood is then soaked for six weeks in a bath of sake lees, vegan rennet, and the specially-aged urine of the Hokkaido mountain goat (Altonantus reflexus Fujuki) This raises the grain and imparts certain qualities to the wood. At this critical stage, timing and temperature are closely monitored. Once the soaking process is completed, the wood is sun-dried on a southeast-facing sandy loam slope of 12 to 18 degrees pitch; this must be done between the vernal equinox and Labor Day when weather conditions are favorable.
Next comes the most critical, and most laborious, phase of production. The chips are individually hand-rubbed five times per day, seven days a week, to stimulate the production of lignins and develop the unique grain structure that is the hallmark of genuine Kobe Mulch. Two of the rubbings must be done in the middle of the night, resulting in little sleep for the craftsmen during this critical period. In the traditional method, wheat-free tamari sauce and organic wasabi powder are massaged into the chips at this stage. But the safety risks involved with such intensive contact with the potent wasabi as well as concerns about the high sodium content of the end product have led local producers to modify the process for the American market. They use a proprietary compound that reportedly includes Alma Rosa Chardonnay, fermented cherimoya skins, and toasted walnut oil.
After 9 weeks of massaging and ageing, the Kobe Mulch is ready for the final stage of production: the seasoning period that will take up the remainder of the long process of making Kobe Mulch. Not much is known about this phase, and it is done under tight security.
The finished mulch is hand-packaged in small bags of 400-thread count hemp batiste and stacked on pallets for eventual delivery to customers. Because of its high value, the location of the stored mulch is a closely guarded secret, and delivery is done in unmarked vehicles.
THE SANTA BARBARA ANGLE. It wasn’t by chance that the Kobe Mulch industry came to the Santa Barbara area. Early on, growers and producers saw a potential market for their pricey product in the rambling estates of Montecito, Hope Ranch, and other local enclaves of wealthy gardening enthusiasts. At a stunning $500 per square foot (including professional installation), Kobe Mulch isn’t for the ordinary gardener. “We looked at potential markets up and down the West Coast, and concluded that Santa Barbara was THE place for this product,” says Cuyama Valley farmer and SBHPA President Tom Chipman, “And of course we’re happy to be part of the growing re-localization movement. We’d rather ship to East Valley Road than to the East Coast or elsewhere. We love making the product available to our neighbors, the wealthy celebrities and disgraced corporate CEOs of the local area.” Local author and amateur gardener T.C. Boyle is rumored to be a big customer, and truckloads of Kobe Mulch have been spotted entering the palatial estate of Oprah Winfrey in recent months.
IMITATORS. As with any popular product, genuine Kobe Mulch has its imitators. Non-certified producers have been known to use commercially available stainless steel knives to chip the Hoki wood, to substitute cheap soy, palm, or other oils for the walnut oil that is essential to the rubbing process, and even to skip the critical midnight massages. Each nugget of genuine Kobe Mulch is stamped with the ancient seal of the traditional Japanese producers, which can only be applied to material that is produced by trained masters.
USER RESPONSE. Local users are delighted with Kobe Mulch. They report larger flower production, fewer pest problems, and better feng shui among the benefits of using the pricey ground covering. Kobe aficionados reportedly become virtual addicts of the product and have been known to take out lawns, fill in swimming pools, and even demolish guest houses and outbuildings to create more space for their beloved mulch.
USING KOBE MULCH. Kobe is hand-applied like any other mulch: three to four inches thick over the entire planted area. Once it’s in place, there’s no care needed, other than maintaining an even cover. The mulch will last for a year or longer, depending on the amount of watering and rainfall the area receives.
WHERE TO GET KOBE MULCH. Kobe Mulch is currently only available direct from the producers. For more information, go to http://owendell.com/kobe