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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The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Long-Term Maintenance

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“The Garden Table” – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This is my last project… Not so much a guerrilla garden as we have a ten-year lease on the property… But urban none the less… No budget… All recycled and salvaged materials…

Long Term Maintenance

This post is part of a larger body of work titled ”The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook”. For the introduction and table of contents please click here

Long-term maintenance is the killer of most guerrilla gardens. ALL GARDENS REQUIRE REGULAR MAINTENANCE! Whether organic or chemical, food or ornamental, water or soil, privately owned or guerrilla, no garden is completely sustainable without maintenance. Way too many people plug “no work” gardening into Google and find themselves reading my blog, there is no such thing as a completely work free garden… Actually… I take that back… If you are searching the internet for no work gardening… Then you need to pay someone to install and maintain your garden, because essentially, that is what you are asking for… And that is what myself, as well as many others like me do for a living…

With that said, a garden should not be all work. I find all too often that the general public sees gardening as nothing but work. There are some steps you can take to cut down on the amount of maintenance that will be required over the life of your garden. The solution can be as simple as digging a small canal from the downspout of a nearby vacant building, to as complex as soil nutrient alterations in an attempt to discourage a certain type of weed. I find all too often most problems can be solved with minimal work using nothing more than your brain… If you only learn one thing here I would want it to be “work smarter, not harder”…

Litter is a constant problem in my neighborhood, people throw their shit everywhere. When the wind blows that litter around, it will usually stick to anything in its path… Often it will be your garden… You can look at this one of two ways… Either you can get pissed off about all the litter, and subsequently give up gardening in disgust… Or you can be happy over the fact that your garden makes litter removal a little bit easier… I am saying this because I truly believe that if you are going to guerrilla garden on someone else’s land, you should maintain that plot of land as if it were your own… And that typically means cleaning up trash and litter that you had nothing to do with…

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“Daylily before Blight” – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Daylily make great guerrilla garden plants… Extremely hardy and tolerant of the harshest conditions… They require division every once in a while… You can see this as work or as a cheap source of plants…

Organic debris like leaves and grass clippings are very valuable in the guerrilla garden, they can provide a good percentage of the nutrient needs of a garden. Grass clippings are one of the most versatile materials available in urban environments, landscapers are often happy to part with them.

Many of the herbaceous perennials grown in formal gardens are cut back in the fall, most of these plants can be left through the winter. Winter weather breaks organic material down quickly, what is left of these plants in the spring quickly gets covered by new growth. A growing plant mines nutrients from the soil, nutrients that are stored in the leaves, these nutrients will have to be replaced if the organic material is removed so it is often best practice to leave the plants as they are.

Garden debris that is created can often be simply buried in the garden. Trench composting is a style of composting that involves digging a hole and filling it with whatever scrap organic material is available. In the case of a small guerrilla garden, any organic material you come in contact with can technically be buried. I do suggest sticking to smaller pieces in miniature gardens, digging through a layer of woven sticks and grass can prove to be impossible. Remember the bigger the material, the longer it will take to break down.

Guerrilla gardening is an opportunistic activity, sometimes soil, mulch or plants will suddenly become available… Successful guerrilla gardeners are always ready to take these items… Sometimes you will have to take some crap in order to get some good, beggars can’t be choosers… Vacant lots and guerrilla gardens provide unlimited opportunities, any free resource available to you should be considered. Oftentimes, the same things commonly thought of as only being found in high-end formal gardens can be available to the beggar who is willing to wait… Or willing to learn how to propagate plants… Which is the route I took… Now I can propagate just about anything…

An established guerrilla garden requires minimal maintenance. Occasional weeding and yearly mulch can keep a perennial guerrilla garden going for years. Guerrilla gardeners tend to be transient people, very few seem to stay in one location for very long and because of this vacant guerrilla gardens are becoming a normal occurrence. I find it funny that an activity that is commonly used as a protest against blight, could some day be considered a form of blight.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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