Sheet Mulching

Sheet mulching is a great way to prepare a new garden site. Typically, the soil is laboriously dug and tilled, rocks and roots are pried up and hauled away, tenacious perennial  weeds are battled with little success, and the whole process in repeated again next year, as the soil has returned to its previous concrete like state. Instead, we can take a page from God’s design manual. In the natural world, we don’t see expanses of bare soil, or tillers turning up the soil. Instead, a thick layer of mulch, gradually grading into topsoil, blankets the land. This layer holds water and nutrients, nurtures beneficial soil life, and protects the soil from wild temperature swings. It also works against “weeds,” God’s reset mechanism, which quickly colonize bare soil and restart the mulching process. We can gain all these benefits, and save a lot of work, by sheet mulching a garden.

In its most basic form, sheet mulching is a laying down a weed barrier, topped by a foot of any decomposable matter. The weed barrier can be cardboard or newspaper sections, depending on how ferocious the weeds are, and how large the site is. To get better results faster, however, a good mix of high nitrogen and high carbon mulches should be used, rather like building a large flat compost pile, for better decomposition. The weed barrier should cover the whole area, paths as well as beds, so that weeds can’t infiltrate from the edges. The best time to build a sheet mulch garden is in the fall. Come spring, the mulch has decomposed enough to be planted. And then you will never have to dig again; just put on a little more mulch occasionally, and pull up any weeds which sprout on top (they will be easy to pull from loose mulch.)

Sheet mulching is especially great for establishing perennial food ecosystems, which are a main focus of Permaculture.

Of course, nothing is perfect. For intensive, wide row salad production, biointensive or double dug beds, amended with plenty of compost, are a better way to go. And bare earth will heat up faster in the spring (though it will also cool off faster in the fall.)

Though we will have more than one style of garden on our site, sheet mulching will take up the bulk of the area.

Notes from the meeting of August 22nd

This meeting was held on our farm site in Lakewood. Due to a number of factors, we were unable to get any sheet mulching done. However, were were able to talk over a lot of things, and we will hopefully get the sheet mulching done next time. (This time the truck which was supposed to be delivering wood chips broke down, and we got a call to that effect about fifteen minutes before the meeting was due to start. But they think they can get it to us by next week. )

A schematic plan for the land was drawn up and debated. I will be posting this, but I have decided to refine it a little first.  Its main feature was the arrangement of the orchard so as to leave sufficient solar access for a self-heating greenhouse.

For those who might not know, sheet mulching means laying down a layer of overlapping cardboard, which smothers weeds, and then piling on about a foot of mulch. A blend of high nitrogen and high carbon materials are used, so it is rather like composting in place. It eliminates all digging, and a lot of weeding, watering, and fertilizing. However, even though we are using this method for our first garden on this site, we will have a few other types for comparison. This especially since some members at previous meetings have expressed an interest in other styles, among them waffle gardens and Biointensive/ French intensive.

Among the points discussed were the following:

It is very important to use crop rotation. To do this, we will have to section off various types of crops, though we can still use companion planting, as suggested at a previous meeting.

We can take advantage of the land slope to grow both water loving and dry tolerant crops. Among other things, corn was suggested for the higher land.

We will use Open Pollinated (OP) crops only for community plantings, but hybrids can be used on member’s individual plots. All Heirlooms are OPs, but not all OPs are heirlooms. New OPs are being breed all the time, by small companies and individual plant breeders; they will be the heirlooms of tomorrow. OP means that a strain is not hybridized or GMO, and will come true from seed.

The fence is in worse shape than we thought, and will require large amounts of work, and potentially quite a bit of money, to get it back into shape. However, the funds might be able to be generated by building and selling beehives. We will see.

A member suggested putting composting worms in any compost piles. I think this is a good idea.

Among the crops suggested, besides all the standard vegetables, were corn, potatoes, strawberries, melons, and grapes.

We could grow rare heirloom corns, thus saving valuable genetics from extinction.

We will use key-hole beds. These are rather hard to visualize or describe; you can find images online. They save on path space, look interesting, and can function as sun traps . .  or the reverse.

We will put in some sitting areas out in the field.

Here is a link to my earlier post on Permaculture, which influences the emerging layout of the land.