Sheet Mulching, or not, or how to save yourself a lot of work

Autumn is a great time to plan and begin to develop new garden beds for next year– as though you didn’t have enough to do.

Sheet Mulching, or not, or how to save yourself a lot of work

Sheet mulching is the process of layering lots of different compostable materials OVER your grass in order to create a new planting bed without digging up and discarding the turf. And it starts with a heavy layer of newspaper or cardboard (or compost then cardboard, depending on your information source). Then there’s a few inches (more) of home-made or bagged compost or composted manure, then a lot of layers of straw (NOT HAY), leaves (preferably chopped/mowed), yard debris (not with weeds or any leaf diseases like black spot), manure (if you have it and if you can stand it), grass clippings (presuming you don’t already have a mulching mower). To a total of around 18-20″ above the original ground level.

Linda Chalker Scott is of the opinion that the layer of paper-product is counter-productive because it prevents/hinders air getting down into the area that you want to compost–the grass turf. She recommends just covering the area to be transformed with 12″ of woodchip mulch.

I’ve tried the sheet mulching thing many times with varying success rates–not least because I don’t have easy access to leaves (almost exclusively conifer neighbourhood), straw, manure, or grass clippings (mine stay on the lawn where they belong). And the racoons love to dig around it,DSCN1426 exposing the cardboard to air, and allowing it to dry out. So in general it’s taken two years to turn a grassy area into a planting bed for flowers or vegetables. Not very efficient, but at least I didn’t have to figure out how to dispose of sod (that can’t go into the yard-waste recycling bin).


This bed (the area that looks darker and right down to the bottom of the picture) was sheet mulched last fall (2012) with cardboard and 3-4″ of city compost. You can see it was variably effective, with lots of grass and weeds growing through, and not enough composting-in-place of the existing turf.

This year I decided to try the wood chip mulch thing–not primarily to turn turf to planting beds, but because I wanted to add paths into the garden. You may remember seeing these pictures before…

The path is to the left, the right is currently potato bed and will be a shrub border in the fall.

The path is to the left, the right is currently potato bed and will be a shrub border in the fall.

I started in May by digging out the turf in the areas that were to be paths and spreading several inches of mulch. The clumps of turf were placed upside down in other turf areas that were to become planting beds of some kind. So in the picture above, to the left of the brick edging is the path, to the right of the brick edging is a layer of upside-down turf  topped with 6″ wood chip mulch.

...finally meeting up with the "translocated mountain of mulch"!

This mountain of wood chips was mostly grass and weeds up until end May 2013. I needed to put the wood chips somewhere, so decided this would be the storage area until used up, and then I’d see how well the underlying plant material had composted.

Above you see the storage area of mulch, under which is two layers of up-turned turf bricks (probably about 6-8″ deep) from dug-up pathways, sitting on top of a grassy/weedy area.

Through the rest of the spring I continued to use up the mulch on paths through the back and the front, as well as mulching the perennial and mixed  beds and borders.  The neighbours and their friends did  likewise–it was a lot of wood chips!

Now here it is Autumn, and this is what has happened to all that turf:


A few dead roots is all the evidence left of layers and layers of turf.


Lovely dark soil, lots of worms.

So I’m convinced: Skip the cardboard, skip the manure, skip the grass-clippings–leave them on the grass! Call up your nearest arborist and get them to drop off a truck-load of wood chips. If you can’t use that much, invite your neighbours to read this blog post and then you can all share the bounty!

Most importantly, though, the first line in this post: “Autumn is a great time to PLAN…”. don’t leave the garden bed development to chance, or what is most convenient. If you can’t quite figure out where  you want to develop new planting beds, ask a neighbour or friend whose garden you admire. They’ll be sure to want to help you! Gardeners love to share their hard-won wisdom!

Comments? Questions? Love to hear it all. Don’t forget to click the “follow” link and the “like” button.

Do as I Say, Not As I Do!

I’ve been digging. I don’t  really like digging, unless it’s just digging into the soil in order to put something into a hole and then fill it again. Today (and yesterday and the day before) I was digging up mostly dead sod, shaking it free-ish of soil, and then digging a hole and putting something into it and mostly filling it again.

Two tips today:

If you’re going to shortcut something, make sure you’re doing it right.

You probably know about “lasagna gardening”. It’s a system of building an organic space by layering material over what’s already there. You save the “structure” of the soil, prevent new weeds from springing up because they stay smothered and light-free, and the worms love it enough to chomp through all the layers giving a rich plantable bed in a few months’ time.

The key is LOTS OF LAYERS. I did NOT do lots of layers, mainly because I didn’t have ready access to lots of layers. The layers would be leaves, straw, compost, and starting it all off, cardboard. I had the cardboard–went to The Edmonds Appliance warehouse and got quantities of giant refrigerator boxes. But that was only after I’d already started with some very light weight boxes, so light weight that they began to disintegrate before what was underneath them– ratty grass and buttercup–had died off.

But never mind, I still had layers– 3 metric tons of hand shovelled compost to be exact. But compost, even at the end of the season when it’s been pretty dry and the compost is relatively unsaturated, is heavy, and 3 metric tons of it doesn’t go as far as you want it to go.

And then other layers? Leaves are hard to come by on a street that’s 100% conifer-treed. Went down to BSS where the boulevard is full of maples and harvested about ten giant bags, but once those were shredded, there was only enough to mulch the important bits, not enough to layer the lasagna bed.

You’ve had enough of the sordid story. The end result is that if I hope to plant into this bed this year, I have to dig out the not-nearly-composted, mostly-dead turf/buttercup.


This is the potato bed on the right edge, the brick edge on the left will be where the path will go in between what was previously there and what will soon be there. Which leads me to tip #2:

Plan out your garden before you do anything that will require a lot of undoing! 

Do as I say, not as I do!

Here’s the bed a few years ago, when I’d dug out quantities of turf to make what I thought was a perfect sized bed.


And this is today.


Before, there were stepping stones, but not enough room around them to escape the giant rose (“Jude the Obscure”), the various peonies that take up a lot more space when they’re 5 years old than they did when there were infants, and everything else that’s growing in girth. I guess that’s why it’s good to know the mature size of plants in order to PLAN. There was no path leading to anything in the garden, so it looked full, but kind of…pointless. Like getting in the car to go somewhere, but you don’t quite know where to go.

So last fall, 5-1/2 years into my tenure here, I tried to design a pathway through to back beds, knowing that I’d have to undo an awful lot of what’s been done before. Oh well, gardening is always a work in progress.

So I would save you from my mistakes: hire me to help you plan!!

If you have a similar story leave me a comment.