Have you ever tried to kill your grass (without chemicals) in order to start a garden? Grass is very resilient…it might be slowed for a few weeks, but it bounces back stronger than ever, thwarting your efforts to replace it with edible options. If you succumb to using chemicals, they’ll kill the soil microbes so necessary to growing nutrient-dense foods, not to mention the risk of residual toxins remaining in the soil and ending up in your food.
In permaculture, there’s a time-tested method to quickly begin a garden called Sheet Mulching that works with nature to enhance soil structure and health.
Sheet mulching is a gardening technique that suppresses weeds and builds fertile soil. Thick layers of organic matter are placed on the ground lasagna style. The layers are then left to decompose ultimately creating a rich planting medium that’s terrific for vegetable gardens and landscape planting beds. This simple method saves time and energy (no tilling!), suppresses weeds, increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, feeds the microbes in the soil, improves plant vigor and health. It helps moderate soil temperatures, keeping the root zone cooler in summer and insulated in winter. It also helps protect our waterways, turning the soil into a living biofilter that removes pollutants from water.
Last November, we sheet mulched the majority of a front lawn in North Logan. Come spring, the soil was transformed. As a demo, I picked up a shovel and tried to penetrate the adjacent lawn, making perhaps an inch of progress. When I placed the shovel over the sheet mulched bed, adding very little pressure, the blade rapidly sunk to the hilt. And the soil had transformed from a dull, lifeless gray, to a rich deep 70%-chocolate-bar color.
How do you do it? Quite simply, you mow the grass or weeds to a short height leaving the clippings in place. Next, lay down a barrier layer of cardboard or 8-10 sheets of newspaper and wet them thoroughly. Now you can get creative with layers of browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen), depending on what you have available. And there’s no right or wrong formula here! For browns (carbon), try wood chips, dry leaves, chemical-free sawdust, straw or spoiled hay, stable bedding, pine needles, coffee grounds, peat, coir (aka coconut peat), shredded paper. For greens (nitrogen), you’ll want manure (rabbit, goat, duck, sheep, chicken, cow, horse or any other), lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, chop and drop comfrey, compost tea, or worm castings. Use a nice looking top layer—say wood chips or straw—and you’re done! For step-by-step detailed instructions, scoop up our fact sheet HERE!
You can plant in the bed immediately, or let it simmer for a bit. Just move aside the mulching materials to create a planting pocket. Poke a hole in the barrier layer (newspapers or cardboard) so roots can penetrate. Add compost and planting soil and plant your seed or start.
There are a few places NOT to sheet mulch, such as on a steep slope or overly windy area! If you have chickens with access to your sheet mulched bed, they’ll shred, turn, and toss your mulch everywhere…which is great when that’s your desire, but not so nice when you’d like a tidy sheet mulched bed. Also, keep sheet mulch away from tree trunks and the crown of perennial shrubs which need to breathe.