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!