Start a Garden Using the Sheet Mulch Method

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Sheet mulching is a great way to get rid of grass and weeds without using chemicals. The process, also known as lasagna gardening and no-till gardening, allows you to easily add nutrients to the soil. It also attracts garden-helping critters such as worms.

Sheet mulching allows you to create a place for plants anywhere, without having to do a lot of difficult work. And fall is a great time to sheet mulch any area.

If you have a patch of lawn you’d prefer to use to grow food, for example, you can convert it into a little plot without digging up the sod. I have even read that you can use the sheet mulching technique on top of concrete. I have never tried this so I can’t vouch for it, but if you build up enough depth with enough organic matter, it is possible.

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How to Sheet Mulch in 4 Easy Steps

  1. Flatten down any grass or weeds that you have by mowing or “weed whacking” them. You don’t have to remove everything — you only have to flatten then down (but do remove large woody plants you don’t want to keep). This layer will eventually decompose and add nutrients to the ground. Don’t worry that the weeds will make your future garden weedy — they will break down completely. Once you’re done with this, wet the ground thoroughly to start the decomposition process. You may need to water for quite a while to ensure it’s really, really wet.
  2. Using a pitchfork, poke the ground to provide some aerating holes. If you know your soil might need an amendment, such as lime, now is the time to add it. This step is optional, but highly recommended.
  3. Add a grass and weed barrier (at least 3 sheets thick). Common barriers can include a layer of recycled cardboard or newspaper at least 3 sheets thick. If you are using cardboard, it may require quite a lot of material, depending on the size of the area you are sheet mulching. Really big boxes, like those that appliances come in, are particularly useful. If you are using boxes, make sure to remove any tape. If you don’t have access to enough boxes, you may want to purchase recycled cardboard in rolls from a paper supply company, use newspaper, ripped up old phone books or old wool carpet. All of these will break down eventually. Work around any plants you want to keep. Lay down your newspaper or cardboard and overlap it at the edges so there is no place weeds can poke through. Wet this layer thoroughly with a hose or sprinkler (or schedule your sheet mulching project for a day when there is heavy rain in the forecast) so it does not blow away, and the decomposition of this layer is encouraged.
  4. Lay down a thick layer of mulch and top off with compost. You can use wood chips, straw (don’t use hay because it contains seeds), pine needles, shredded paper, food scraps, an unfinished compost pile, tree prunings, leaves, or any combination of the above, for the mulch. Make this layer as deep as possible, at least 8 inches and as deep as 12-24 inches. Mix in some compost, manure, peat moss, or another soil amendment in with the mulch (optional), or you can do it in layers (hence the name lasagna gardening).

If you do want to use the layer method, you might want to alternate adding a thick layer of compost, then a layer of mulch, etc. Once your sheet mulch is in place, water it frequently and give it some time to decompose before using it, if possible. If you do this in the fall and don’t plan to plant until spring, you will find it nicely decomposed when you are ready for it, with a rich wonderful soil as the result.

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If you want to plant sooner, though, that is fine. Try to wait a few weeks, if possible, and then you can either cover it with a layer of soil and plant seeds or transplants right there, or dig down and make a hole in the sheet mulch where you want to put in larger plants, such as trees.

For more information, see Gardening without Work: For the Aging, Busy and Indolent by Ruth Stout and Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! by Patricia Lanza. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway also discusses this technique.

–Winnie Abramson writes the organic gardening and food blog Healthy Green Kitchen.

Photo Credit: Winnie Abramson

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