Practical Permaculture – Sheet Mulching

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“Sheet Mulch on Whitney Avenue Urban Farm” – Spring 2011 – Sheet mulching allows the gardener to plant almost immediately upon completion of the bed… Although this method has been around for years… It is currently experiencing a surge in popularity… Because of this I think it is important to take a moment… And reflect on my own experiences…

The dream of every permaculturist, is to cover every square inch of soil in cardboard; and start over from scratch. In fact, I used to have this dream myself. I have practiced this method extensively in a variety of conditions over the past few years. Although sheet mulching is effective 90% of the time, I have come across situations where I wish I would have gone another route. Sheet mulching looks great on paper, and it always sounds good to the folks doing the labor, but I have found in practice it can occasionally prove to be troublesome. This article is meant to address a few of those concerns.

For those unfamiliar with this practice – Newspaper, cardboard, or a combination of both are applied directly onto unprepared ground to smother weeds. Topsoil and/or organic material are then applied thickly on top of this layer, and the entire bed is then mulched. This is one of the quickest ways to install a garden, and get planting today. Sheet mulching is one method of a style of gardening known as no till gardening.

No till gardening is a style of gardening where the earth is not disturbed by tilling. It is instead nurtured from the surface up. The ideal behind this is that nature takes a great amount of time to build up the natural layers of soil, and these layers are typically best left alone. If you currently live on virgin rural ground, that may be the case. Urban environments on the other hand are typically recently disturbed and loaded with cheap fill. Layering in this type of soil is non-existent, often the only option is to build up. In which case, sheet mulching is often the only viable option… Just don’t kid yourself and pretend you are doing it to “preserve the integrity” of the soil… Your not kidding anyone…

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“Mining Bricks at The Garden Table” – Spring 2012 – This was one of the rare situations where I decided I wanted to remove all of the bricks… And I am glad I did… Compost was tilled into the rows and then the entire row was sheet mulched… The bricks I dug up were used in the borders of the beds…

Weeds and turf grass are another reason sheet mulching is commonly used. Ripping turf and pulling weeds are not the easiest of jobs, and 99% of the gardeners I have met would do anything to get out of doing them. And to be completely honest, this method is very effective at quickly eliminating weeds. The issue arises when you are dealing with very vigorous, perennial invasive weeds. Bindweed comes to mind, often crawling along the bottom of the cardboard until it finds an opening. The problem arises with removal of the now ten foot long root system, which in my personal experience is next to impossible.

Part of the allure of sheet mulching is the little fact that it not only kills the existing weeds, it will eventually biodegrade. Although this is mostly a good thing, many perennial invasive plant can lie dormant long enough for this cardboard layer to weaken. The result being a massive root system, twice as deep as it would have been if you just pulled the damn thing in the first place. My advice, is to deal with the invasive weeds before applying the sheet mulch.

Sheet mulching on a slope can also be problematic, and depending on the scale of the project; could be disastrous. Wet cardboard is surprisingly slippery, add a layer of mud and it is like ice. Any experienced contractor will tell you it is a bad idea to put fill on top of a sloped impervious surface. On a very large-scale, this is known as landslide. On the small-scale… Hmmm… Well… It’s still a landslide… Either way, it could be a liability. Slopes need to be handled differently than flat surfaces, the initial impenetrability of the cardboard is never accounted for. My advice, skip the sheet mulch when dealing with sloped surfaces.

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“Sheet Mulch at The Garden Table” – Spring 2012 – I sheet mulched this lot extensively… This part of the garden had extensive water issues for the better part of the first year… Sometimes it would get so filled up it would look like a pond… In the end I ended up putting holes through the cardboard throughout…

Speaking of impenetrability, I see photos of (and have even visited) gardens with fruit trees that have cardboard all the way up to the trunk. This is a bad idea, for at least a year after the cardboard is applied water absorption will be minimal at best. Trees utilize both the water found deep underground, and rain water accumulated at the surface. Cardboard and newspaper do not allow as much water to penetrate as one would think. Often, this newspaper is thickly covered in soil and mulch. Therefore, water must first saturate the layers of material above before it even touches the cardboard. Please, for the sake of your trees; don’t sheet mulch under your them.

Many garden pests also to love sheet mulching as it provides cover from prey, and facilitates burrowing. Slug tend to love this paper/cardboard layer, if you didn’t have a slug problem before the sheet mulch; there’s a pretty good chance you will have one after it. Earwigs and ants also seem to love a good layer of cardboard, I regularly find massive colonies that follow the cardboard around the garden, almost like they use the space underneath as a sort of super-highway. Raccoons eventually realize there is a smorgasbord [type of Scandinavian meal served buffet style] hiding under there, and the rest is history. It is important to remember that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but could pose problems when done in close proximity of your home.

In closing… Sheet mulching is an effective way to create a garden quickly, and cheaply. I will continue to use this method in the future, just a little more cautiously than in the past. Many of the issues I discussed will probably be the exception, as opposed to the rule of the garden. As with any type of construction project, even the problems with a one in a million chance of happening need to be addressed. The same goes with your garden, at least if it has been considered; you will not be caught with your pants down.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This website and all of the information presented within is provided for free by the author… Me… It is my sole opinion and is not representative of anyone other than myself… Although this website is free… I sell prints of my photography here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – or you can contact me directly with questions at – c.condello@hotmail.com – Although it isn’t a requirement… It helps…

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Practical Permaculture – The Art Of Weeds

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I used to consider pulling weeds tedious work, this was before I learned how to properly manage them. The weeds that are growing in your garden have a story to tell, it’s up to us to figure out how to translate what they are saying. I have found countless websites that focus on identification, but when it comes to the basic stuff “like how to pull them”, I find the internet to be lacking. Not many people realize how much thought can go into weeding a garden bed, yet alone how to pull weeds out of an entire vacant lot. This post will focus on weeds, what they mean, and how to pull them.

Weeds can tell you massive amounts of information relating to the land you are planning on working, you just have to know how to read the data growing in front of you. What you and I consider weeds, play an important role in reclaiming disturbed lands. Whether having evolved as a legume, replacing nitrogen where none existed, or creating quick shade to aid in the establishment of bio-diversity… All weeds have their place…

Permaculture isn’t really so much about weed eradication, the weeds are going to grow one way or another. The simple act of composting the weeds you pull instead of throwing them away is a basic permaculture principle, learning which ones to leave in the ground, and for how long is an art. Many weeds are perfectly acceptable when left in the ground, and often play a major role in the overall eco-system of your garden. A little bit of experience will tell you which ones have seed heads that when ripe, explode, sending seeds 20′ into your garden! Sometimes all the weeds need, is some selective pruning, and diligent dead heading before the end of August to stop the spread of new weeds.

As a gardener who had no money to invest, I found myself learning ways around… well.. anything that costs money… I have never really been able to afford soil samples on my own so I had to learn the natural indicator plants in order to get a mental map of what I was working with. Every vacant urban lot you come in contact with is “disturbed” land and will almost always shows drastic signs of this. Bind weed, Thistles, knotweed and grasses are all commonplace, what interests me is many of these weeds tell a story about your soil.

Bindweed – One of the most common exotic invasive I find in Wilkinsburg and the Pittsburgh region, this plant absolutely thrives in hard-pan clay. Bindweed can take years to effectively eliminate from a lot, owing to its ability to rampantly sprout from the roots, and the extremely long viability of its seeds lasting up to 20 years. Pull it or mow it and stay on top of it until you have choked it out. Bindweed can take years to eliminate from your garden but it is by no means impossible.

Dandelion – When they flourish, you have acidic soil.

Russian and Canada Thistle – I hate thistles due to the difficulty of removing them when they get to the size of a christmas tree, I have seen Canadian thistles 10 feet tall. Thistles absolutely love acidic soil and will usually only thrive in disturbed acidic soil, I find if you can neutralize the acid in the soil the thistles will disappear on their own.

Clovers – All – Sign of low nitrogen in your soil, the solution is as simple as leaving the clovers, when clover is present don’t remove it unless it is in the middle of a planned bed. When you remove it, bury it on site or compost it.

Pennycress – Highly alkaline soil

Yarrow – If you have this growing on your vacant lot, good for you. Our native versions of this plant are white and yellow and absolutely stunning when growing in a massive clump. Yarrows are one of the best indicators of potassium levels in your soils absolutely thriving in potassium deficient areas. Although I wouldn’t remove yarrow unless absolutely needed, it still is one of those plants that could help indicate fertilizer requirements for other plants.

Wild Strawberry – Fragaria sp. – I am not talking about the large, delicious strawberries we grow in our gardens but the little red strawberries growing in vacant lots that have little to no taste at all. Food wise the only use for these berries is survival but as an indicator for the acidity of your soil these guys are top-notch surviving in HIGHLY acidic soil. Neutralize the acid in your soil with a little lime and the strawberries will go away when they’re ready.

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This list could go on, but many other people have already done that… Go to Google… Type in “weeds as indicators” followed by your state… You will have so many lists it will make your head spin.

I do want to stress the importance of identifying weeds, and learning the deeper meaning of why they grow where they do, or why they thrive. Removal is the part of gardening most people hate, and to be honest with you as a gardener I would bet 75% of my job is removal. Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, relying more on finesse and technique than sheer force and strength. When working on an entire lot, break the whole thing into manageable squares on an imaginary grid, start by pulling or cutting the big stuff, then move on to the smaller things. I find if I remove as much material as possible during my initial clean-up then the smaller stuff is easier to focus on.

Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, if a weed is hard to pull your soil sucks, you need to add organic material to your existing soil structure and future weeds will pop right out of the ground. You see, weeds are not hard to pull when they are growing in healthy, alive, loose soil, it’s when they are growing in hard-pan clay that they break off at the ground, leaving the roots. When you grab a weed, grab it as close to the soil as you possibly can, you want to remove the entire root structure, not break it off at the surface of the soil. Pull the weed straight up and away from you to loosen it, then finish by pulling towards yourself, apply steady pressure and do not jerk or rip it from the ground, you want to steadily apply pressure freeing the weed from the ground. Some weeds require a little more work, don’t be afraid to break out a shovel and dig out a huge weed, just remember to remove as much of the soil from the roots as you possibly can to aid in disposal.

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Sometimes trees need to be removed, im not stupid, I love them but sometimes they are in the way. Everyone wants to chainsaw the thing off at the ground and either forget about it or dig it out. I had an old-timer tell me the right way to drop a tree, without ever touching an axe or chainsaw till after the tree was on the ground. The only tool he used was a shovel, and could drop any tree under 20 feet in under an hour. The secret is to use the weight of the top of the tree as your muscle, and dig the roots out while the tree is in tact. As you free the roots of the tree, it will eventually fall under its own weight, this way you drop the tree and remove the root ball all in one controlled drop.

Trees are a great source of nutrients and biomass, if you have access to a shredder than they should be utilized. Most of the nutrients that are readily available in a tree are focused in the top half of the tree, branches under a 1 1/2″ specifically. Branches of this size have the most cambium layer for the amount of overall biomass and should be shredded and applied fresh and allowed to de-compose in place, larger wood is either firewood or mulch. Certain trees and plants will tend to inhibit growth like artemisia and the common black walnut tree, these trees should be avoided in mulch at all costs.

One of the absolutely fastest ways to clear a bunch of weeds and create a bed, and my personal favorite method is sheet mulching. This method starts in a dumpster hunting newspaper or cardboard, the amount you need will vary but my rule of thumb is 12 layers of newspaper, or 1 layer of cardboard. Mow the area where you intend to put your bed, I like to line the outside of my beds in bricks so I place them around the newspaper. Now you want to bring in a whole bunch of compost, topsoil or whatever you have on hand. Depending on what you use you can most likely plant in it immediately, plan on building up your layers at the end of every year. Newspaper and cardboard are utilized because of their ability to decompose in place lasting long enough to smother out the weeds underneath.

by any means necessary – chriscondello

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