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 – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens

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This was originally a fire pit, it was filled with rusty nails. When I started working on this bed there was a mass of sumac trees growing out of it. As I dug out the trees I realized the soil was junk, I moved most of it to an out of the way location. I then filled the hole in with wood, garden waste and soil. This was before I knew what hugelkultur was, I called it creative disposal back then…

Hugelkultur is a german term that basically translates to “mound culture”, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is a sheet composting method that involves burying wood debris and organic matter under a mound of earth, the wood adds nutrients as it decomposes and helps retain moisture.

Ok… Allow me to speak openly about something… This is nothing new… People have been doing this for a very long time… It is a great way to get rid of a pile of wood… But… And I know this is going to break hearts… Hugelkultur is not a maintenance free garden that will never need food or weeding… Many of the people who get into permaculture get into it because they falsely believe that permaculture is an excuse for not maintaining their yard… Or they believe that they will just fill their entire yard with trees and food and never have to pull a weed or touch a shovel again… This is simply not the case…

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This is a perfect example of hugelkultur integrated into a slope, this would be perfect in an urban landscape. The framework was made with the larger logs, then backfilled with smaller materials and soil…

So… As I’m writing this I am picturing the neighborhood I grew up in… Nice houses… Green… Perfectly maintained lawns and shrubs… Now I am picturing one of those homeowners erecting a massive hugelkultur mound in their front yard… When the neighbors complain… The excuse will be “It’s hugelkultur – Food not lawns”. Guess what people… There are more people who don’t want to maintain a front yard food forest than there are people who do… I’m just saying… Perspective…

With that said… Hugelkultur does not have to be intrusive… And it does not have to be unsightly. Mulch volcanoes are a common sight in suburbia, essentially too much mulch piled up around the base of a tree. If we take that already accepted landscape look and tweak it a little bit, we could easily create a beautiful and functional permaculture guild smack dab in the middle os suburbia.

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This is the same bed as pictured above after completion, 3 service berries on a perfectly mulched mound… Beneficial plants will be added this spring and summer.

Pick a suitable location in your yard to plant a fruit tree, proper sunlight and space to grow are essential. Once you have chosen your location, cover the ground with cardboard in whatever shape you want your final bed to be. Begin stacking wood and organic matter in a circle, leaving the center open to accept your tree when you are ready to plant . As you place your wood, add soil or compost intermittently throughout the pile. If your neighborhood has some existing mulch volcanoes, base your size and shape off of them. When you have a nice pile, plant the tree in the hole you left in the pile… Do not plant the tree at ground level, the tree should be planted in the top of the pile.

Info on planting fruit trees – https://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/practical-permaculture-planting-and-early-care-of-fruit-trees/

The idea of this method is to slowly integrate permaculture into your neighborhood without waging a “shock and awe” campaign on your neighbors, this is almost always met with resistance and ultimately makes us look bad. Once your tree has been growing for a few weeks, then add a few beneficial perennials or a blueberry bush, just do it in moderation.

I recently got my hands on a really nice sized pile of dimensional, untreated black locust lumber. This wood had been stored on an organic farm for a long time and was well into the decomposition process. I will be using some for hugelkultur beds in a guerilla orchard I am building this summer, but I have been breaking it up and adding it to the soil all throughout my gardens as a beneficial mulch.

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Apple and blueberry guild, this garden eats wood. I recently put these old semi-rotted boards down, the Sedum will grow over it in a month. I have been doing this for three years, I toss a lot of garden waste in this bed and it just disappears.

So this got me thinking, living in a very urban environment all of the soil around me is lifeless clay fill. To simply dig a hole in the earth and fill it with scrap wood and dead fall timber, Organic yard waste and compostable material… Add some dirt… And plant in the top… Well that my friends is essentially hugelkultur.

A common sight in the abandoned yards around my neighborhood are large piles of dead fall branches, simply pile leaves and dirt on top of one of these piles and plant something in them… The pile will usually disappear within a year or two… They also make great opportunities to guerilla garden pumpkin and squash, which seem to thrive in the nutrient rich piles. This is a technique I commonly use in abandoned yards where clean up time is not important, even fresh-cut piles of limbs can be stacked and planted in relatively short time.

Many of the suburban houses that are built today are built on some type of fill, to think that digging in your soil will disrupt the layers that took thousands of years to create is simply a joke. Instead of doing mound culture, dig a big hole and fill it with organic material. Think of it as reverse hugelkultur adapted for the city, this way no one knows you are practicing hippy gardening techniques…

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This log will feed the surrounding plants for years, the hard part is fitting it in your urban garden.

I cringe when I go on facespace or twinterest and see these magnificent photos of meticulously maintained front yard farms, typically with a headline of “urban farmer grows 6 tons of food in his 1/16 acre front yard with absolutely no work or prior experience”. I’m calling voodoo… I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, this stuff is a lot of work. When you see a photo or video of one of these urban farms, you are only seeing it at one point… And that one point is always early in the season before the garden itch has worn off… That is when reality sets in…

Permaculture is really about resource management, collecting and storing energy for future use. Urban permaculture interests me because it adds a level of difficulty that typical gardening does not have, but it does not make it impossible. Permaculture requires creativity, this article is only intended to spark that creativity…

I would love to hear examples people have of creatively disposing of waste on your small urban lot… If you have any please share them in the comments section below…

peace – chriscondello

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.