The Magic of Sheet Mulch

If you could do something now to save yourself a lot of garden toil in the spring, would you be interested?  I know; it’s getting cold out and the holidays are approaching.  Who wants to think about preparing a garden for next year? Bear with me.  This is very cool and comparatively easy.

If you’ve ever wanted to convert lawn (or weeds) to garden bed, this article is for you. Depending on size, it can be done in an hour or a day.  Then you ignore it for months while magic happens underground.  Come Spring, you’ll have dark, rich, fabulous soil just waiting for your favorite plants.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy digging in the hard clay soil we are blessed with here in North Carolina.  Tilling is not necessary and not good for the soil structure, either.  You’ll need compost anyway, to mix in and nourish the soil, so you may as well skip the digging and the tilling and let this method do all the hard work for you!  If I can find a way around hard labor, I’m all over it.  That’s why I was so excited, albeit a little skeptical, when I first heard about sheet mulching, but I’ve done it myself several times and it works – I promise!  Also sometimes called lasagna gardening or sheet composting, sheet mulching is a technique used in permaculture and sustainable agriculture.

Here’s what you’ll need to have on hand:

  • A stack of newspaper – non-glossy pages – or cardboard sheets or disassembled boxes – enough to cover the area you’ve chosen to a thickness of a quarter inch, allowing for generous overlapping.
  • Compost or manure – bulk, bagged or partially decomposed organic matter of your own making.
  • Mulch – your choice, but sufficient to cover the area to a thickness of three inches at least.  I like triple shredded, hardwood mulch.

I took a series of photos this year to show the evolution of the process in a client’s garden. In our situation, due to scheduling challenges (translation: my clients travel and have lots more fun than should be legal!), we started in May instead of in the fall.  I was confident we’d have the same success, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to prove it.  Here’s where we began:

On the day before the sheet mulching, water the area well unless there’s been a good rain recently.

On Sheet Mulch day, here are the steps:

  • Clip short whatever is growing there and leave it in place.  The clipping keeps things neat and level but most importantly, the clippings are a good first meal for the organisms that are going to do all the work for you ever the next few months.
  • Cover the area with newspapers and/or cardboard. This will block sun and prevent germination of weed seeds. You’ll definitely want to wet this layer to keep things in place – believe me, the sight of your sheet mulch materials gliding down the street on a breeze will be very discouraging.

  • Spread the compost/manure/organic matter 3-6 inches thick. This step is very forgiving; spread it as level as you can but don’t obsess. Wet this layer thoroughly.

  • Next, cover with at least three inches of mulch. This will make your work area attractive, but mulch is much more than just a pretty face. It’s great insulation; it conserves water and is an effective weed block which gives you a second layer of protection against weed germination.

That’s it; you are free to go!  Water your new mulched area through the next few months if precipitation is lacking. The organisms need water to do their best work. Within three or four months, the foundation you’ve laid will have transformed itself into the most fertile, earthworm rich garden soil you’ve ever used – and you made that happen without using even one chemical and without the need for ibuprofen, to boot.  Pat yourself on the back for that – it’s not a small thing – feel good about it!

When planting time comes, you’ll be ready.  All you’ll need is the plants, and putting them in the ground will be as easy as potting a house plant. Speaking of feeling good about something – wait until you watch your garden grow!  Your plants will do well the first season but they and the soil will continue to improve as long as you add organic matter  once or twice a year.  My practice is to add compost in the spring, mulch in the fall.

I’ll be posting more photos to show how this garden grows; we’re just getting it planted now and have been delighted with the easy digging and the quality of the soil.  I’ve only seen a few pieces of the cardboard around the edges and they were barely recognizable – lots of wonderful decomposition has taken place under the surface.   Weeds?  What weeds?

Stay tuned for more from this garden!

This entry was posted in digging, earthworms, Garden, Lasagna gardening, mulch, permaculture, Sheet Composting, Sheet Mulch, Sheet Mulching, soil structure, sustainable agriculture, tilling, Weeds and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Magic of Sheet Mulch

  1. GirlSprout says:

    I love doing this. I first read about it before it was called lasagna gardening, but the book I read didn’t mention wetting the bottom layer. Good to know.

  2. Brenda says:

    This is a fantastic option. I have used it on a smaller scale to start new beds, laying on a 6 inch or more, layer of compost and for the first year, planting annuals. Will look forward to seeing this garden progress.

  3. Rosario Lamb says:

    The first thing to say about sheet mulching is that it saves a great deal of labor, and a great deal of water, while dispensing with material that normally goes into landfill. Thus mulching also saves money for public authorities, and produces an excellent soil. Another appeal is that the system is tool-free and suppresses all weeds: ivy, onion and spear twitch, kikuyu and buffalo grass, docks, dandelions, oxalis, onion-weed and even blackberries. Before starting, plant any large trees or shrubs from the nursery as usual.

  4. If this is your first sheet mulch, start small. Sheet mulch gobbles up a tremendous amount of organic matter—the roughly 2 cubic yards held by a full-sized pickup truck will cover about 50 square feet. But don’t scrimp. It’s much better to blanket a small area thoroughly than to spread the mulch too thin to smother weeds or feed the soil properly. Choose a site that’s not more than 200 square feet, in the proper location for the intended plants, and preferably near the house. Remember your zones: Deeply mulched beds will soon be covered with a riot of plant life, and you want these awesomely productive areas right outside your door, to easily tend or to admire the many avian and insect visitors.

  5. Troy Gray says:

    Unfortunately, some tenacious weeds can be introduced when sheet mulching, giving you some occasional weeding to do, so for some people, a proper compost pile can be less work in the long run. Also, if you already have slugs, you’ll probably have more when you build a lasagna garden. They love the stuff. That’s one reason why I put my sheet mulched vegetable garden in a sunny, hot spot and don’t over water, but a few often seem to show up anyway.

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