This weekend I took advantage of the gorgeous sunshine and direct-sowed some spring crops – peas, lettuce, spinach, radish, and kale – in the lovely raised beds of our house-sitting home. Thinking ahead to our move in May (ish), I’m also creating a summer garden space on our land with the sheet mulching technique.
Sheet mulching is a way to create an instant garden by deeply layering organic materials. If you have a large backyard, imagine turning a corner of your lawn into a space to grow food! On our land, we will most likely plow a piece of earth in the fall for next year’s planting, but this summer sheet mulching will create an immediate growing space, with no tilling.
Sheet mulching is very similar to making lasagna – layer, layer, layer. In fact, some folks call this the “lasagna method.” It can be done with a wide variety of organic materials, some of which are likely available for free or cheap: straw, hay, leaves, wood chips, manure, compost, food scraps, cardboard, newspaper, or grass clippings. If you’re a visual learner, you might enjoy referencing Toby Hemenway’s diagram of sheet mulching here.
So here’s how it works:
1) Get yourself some big old piles of organic matter! We bought a huge straw bale, but were able to source free horse manure and amazing finished compost from the local university farm. Many years ago, I sheet mulched a garden over the course of several months so I never had huge piles like these; I just added leaves, food scraps, manure, etc. as I acquired it.
2) Lay down cardboard (remove the tape!) or newspaper as a base layer to smother any weeds. If you want to add any soil amendments (lime, rock dust, kelp meal), put these in direct contact with the soil, before laying down the cardboard. Wet this layer.
3) Layer your organic materials, watering as you go. Since we don’t have water out on the land yet, I decided to really model lasagna and do many smaller layers of straw alternating with horse manure. Rain will help wet the straw, and my thinking is that the horse manure will more readily decompose the straw if added in thin layers. Some people prefer a 12-18″ layer of straw/leaves/hay followed by a thin layer of manure. Do what works for you!
4) Continue working in this manner until you create a VERY thick layer of materials. Remember that it will break down over time and will shrink considerably!
5) To finish, add a layer that you will plant into, such as a finished compost. Make it thick – around 2-3 inches is great. Top off the pile with straw, sawdust, leaves, or wood chips – something that will hold moisture and prohibit weeds. I will be direct seeding many summer crops, so my personal preference is to let the plants grow to a few inches height before adding the final layer.
6) Now you are ready to plant directly into your new garden. Before long, your pile of straw and manure will turn into rich, dark soil, and the cardboard will break down, allowing roots to penetrate the soil below!
** Want to see how this sheet mulch pile turned into amazing soil? Check out this post!
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