Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sheet Mulch

So its time for us to actually start that whole gardening thing. We spent some time talking, dreaming, scheming about it about 2 weeks ago, and now we are finally getting it to action.

We decided to put in 4 framed beds out back - each is 8'x3' and made out of reclaimed lumber we got from the Benton Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Jason worked this week getting the frames built, and we are going to spend some time this weekend turning the ground and starting to get things ready for seeds.

Upon digging into the yard (thanks to our landlady who is OK with this!) we found that the soil is mostly clay. This is great when we are talking about making plasters or cob, but for gardening it worried us a bit, hence the framed beds so we can import some other materials without having to till up the whole yard.

We looked into ways to get ahold of good soil. This included all kinds of ideas from going to the woods and getting some to purchasing it at a local store. We decided hauling soil seemed pretty energy inefficient and labor intensive, and discovered the route of buying soil would put us out over $200 minimum (ouch). So Jason got on the horn and started researching other options.

What he landed on was sheet mulching. This was an idea he'd originally had, but rejected because he did not think it was feasible for immediate planting. Sheet mulching is an incredible soil-building technique, especially if you have 6 months to let it break down. Fortunately, Jason pursued this idea deeply enough to discover that it is possible to plant almost immediately if one takes certain steps.

Lets take a moment and talk about what sheet mulching actually is. It is rooted in the concept that tilling is actually not beneficial for sustainable gardening (or agriculture for that matter) in that it will initially promote plant growth, but in the long run leeches nutrients out of the soil and leaves in barren (anybody remember the dust bowl?). It is essentially composting in place. To do this we are going to:
  • Trim the grass short, leaving it in place.
  • Covering the grass with newspaper and cardboard to prevent grass growth.
  • Layering on top of the paper and cardboard from the bottom up, these four layers: partially composted goat manure and straw from a local farm, completed compost from the local municipality, straw, and dead leaves.
The net result is a striated combination of materials that will break down into fluffy, humus-rich, healthy soil. This process would have been best started back in October of last year. Of course last October Jason was living in a tent at an earth-building worksite, and I was watching football and drinking beer in Flagstaff. So, we are starting a bit behind, but developing a plan for being able move forward nonetheless.

While Jason builds his 5-layer dip of poop and other organic material in the backyard, I have been saving old containers to get our starts going. The plan is to get the sheet mulch up and decomposing while the plants get rolling indoors. Stay tuned for an article on starting plants as well as updates on the backyard beds. We are slated to get our plants into the ground on April 15, thus turning tax day into happy-gardening-fun-plant-dirt-day.

We must certainly give a nod to Toby Hemenway, author of "Gaia's Garden" for inspiration, ideas, plans, and instruction.


  1. Where do you guys live?? Planting in April must be a warmer climate. We have to wait until Mother's Day up here.

  2. We are in Corvallis, OR. We could probably plant now if we set up some thermal mass and frost cloth, but we want the sheet mulch to break down before we use it.