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Sheet mulching is, in short, a permaculture practice for creating a garden bed that feeds your plants with nutrients and doesn’t require digging. Instead, you layer materials over the top of your soil, beginning and ending with weed-discouraging ground cover. Because we are interested in any method that cuts down on manual labor and ongoing maintenance, we were excited to try the sheet mulch method to create beds this year.
We have tried this method in different variations over the years, sometimes referring to it as lasagna gardening and sometimes as a method to build raised beds. Our most recent resource for creating vegetable beds in this way came from our reading of Gaia's Garden, an invaluable book on integrating permaculture practices into your homestead by Toby Hemenway.
For other lessons learned from this awesome book on permaculture gardening, read our article on creating a “food hedge.”
After learning the basic lessons of sheet mulch gardening from Gaia's Garden and a few other permaculture websites, we designed our own beds using a variation of Toby Hemenway's method – choosing from among the many options he provides for layers. Because we wanted to maintain rows in our garden, we decided to use this method to create individual rows rather than for our entire garden, but you can certain use this method to clear out an entire garden space as well.
Before building our sheet mulch rows, we weed-whacked the garden, leaving the weeds in place after cutting, then made sure the garden was wet (we happened to get a nice rainy day, but if your ground is not moist naturally you'll want to wet it down before starting).
Our sheet-mulched rows included the following layers:
Cardboard Boxes, rescued from the recycling bins at a clothing store, we opened up the boxes, removed tape, spread them out flat, and drenched them with a garden hose. This layer blocks kills the existing weeds (or grass) and keeps more from growing up into our bed over the course of the season. Wetting the cardboard helps it stay in place and ensures a bit of moisture as you are building the rest of the bed. You can also use newspaper, in thick stacks, for this layer.
Grass Clippings, collected in our John Deere tow-behind lawn sweeper from other areas of our homestead. This layer provides a hearty source of nitrogen for our plant roots to grow down into. (side note: we LOVE our lawn sweeper for collecting grass in the spring to use for mulching our entire garden bed!)
Dry Hay, re-used from the hay bales that had provided a safety barrier on our sledding hill during the winter. The hay will break down gradually and form even more compost in your bed. Again, you'll want to dampen this layer.
Compost, sourced from our local compost station and supplemented with our own compost produced at home. This layer provides the medium into which we planted our seeds and seedlings, and of course a healthy mix of all of the other nutrients that would help our veggies to grow.
And a second layer of dry grass clippings used for mulching the vegetables (after we cleared out an early harvest of mesclun greens which was interplanted with our vegetables). This layer serves as a top mulch, discouraging weeds from growing around our plants and also adding another shot of nutrients (it also looks nice).
Between our sheet mulch rows, we weed-whacked anything that was growing, then applied a layer of garden fabric followed by a thick layer of wood chips (sourced from our own woods and chipped by a tree company that was taking down some tall branches). This allows us to maintain our rows year-after-year, rebuilding or supplementing the sheet mulch as needed, but not needing to rebuild where we need space to walk.
Once our sheet mulched rows were established and had a few weeks to bake in the sun during late spring, we used interplanting methods (another permaculture practice we’ll share about soon!) plus another layer of grass clippings for mulch. For this layer, we made sure to add grass in about two-inch thickness (applied more than once) so that the grass would dry out in the sun.
You’ll notice that most of the materials we used for our sheet mulching beds were either re-used, recycled, or recaptured from our homestead, making this a cost-effective means for building beds. The only things we spent money on were having the wood chipped for our aisles (about $80) and a half-yard of compost (about $35). We expect these beds to last multiple seasons, with perhaps a supplemented layer of compost and some more grass mulch, making them a great return on investment in the long run.
The entire process was also fairly simple, not requiring a ton of physical labor other than shoveling the compost, which is helpful when you also have full-time jobs and one of you has a chronic pain condition that can make homesteading challenging.
Making gardening easier is always a worthy goal!
You can also use this method to build and fill in a raised bed with sides and a frame for fabric row cover (find our directions for that project here), making it a great tool for extending the gardening season.
So far, these beds have performed extremely well in our garden; plants are strong and weeds are minimal. Thus, we highly recommend this method that works with nature (through layers of helpful materials) rather than against her (i.e. tilling and damaging the soil) to enhance your garden success and ease your garden chores!