Sheet Mulching - An easy way to prepare and create a new landscape.
One of the first things people notice when they start gardening in Montana is that our soil is, well, challenging. Our soil tends to be very low in organic matter, and is not generally well structured. Fortunately, there’s a simple and economical way to create fabulous soil – sheet mulching. In other parts of the world, sheet mulching is also called sheet composting, layered gardening, and even lasagna gardening!
Sheet mulching is essentially composting on-site, on the area that needs amending. It is a simple layering of slashed vegetation, cardboard or newspapers, and organic material, topped off with a nice layer of mulch. Over time, these layers decompose into rich fertile soil. Sheet mulching mimics the natural way of building soil, which is from the top down.
The alternating layers of cardboard, organic material and mulch provide the appropriate carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that is needed. If you don’t add nitrogen sources when incorporating carbon-rich materials into the soil, such as sawdust, wood shavings and newspaper, the carbon will temporarily deplete the soil of nitrogen, and it will be difficult to successfully grow anything. For successful sheet mulching, you need to provide appropriate amounts of both carbon and nitrogen. Here’s how to get it right.
Slash or closely mow all existing herbaceous (soft-tissued, nonwoody) vegetation, and leave it in place. This will provide a layer of nitrogen-rich material. However, it is best to remove tomato and squash plants from the area to avoid potential disease and pest problems.
Next comes the carbon layer. Flatten a bunch of cardboard boxes, and lay them down, overlapping them by 6 inches. You can also use a one-quarter- to one-half-inch layer of newspapers, torn up phone books, or old pieces of carpet. Soak everything with a hose. Wetting down this layer is important. Water is a catalyst to kick-start the decomposition of the materials. Once everything is thoroughly soaked, try not to walk on it, or you may tear it.
Next, it’s time to spread a layer of manure or compost. If you are doing this now, and plan to plant vegetables or annuals and perennials, you can use fresh manure if it is weed-free. Otherwise, use aged manure or compost. Then, wet the area again. The layer of manure or compost will entice earthworms and other soil organisms up into the sheet mulch and hasten its decomposition. Finally, top it all off with at least a 2-inch layer of mulch. Straw is a good choice because it is inexpensive, about $7 a bale. Just be sure that it is certified weed-free.
The beauty of sheet mulching is its versatility. It can be used to build rich garden soil, or it can be used to convert lawn into a low-water-use landscape. Since sheet mulching provides the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, you can plant directly into it! Just pull aside the mulch and organic material, cut an “X” into the bottom layer, dig your hole, and install your plant. Then, put the organic material and mulch back into place.
There you have it – a simple, inexpensive, and nontoxic way to kill your lawn and instantly install a new landscape! Sheet mulching kills weeds and lawns without herbicides, while building the soil without requiring tilling. It is a great way to begin creating a sustainable landscape, and it’s practiced all over the world.
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