Tag Archives: dirt

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.

 

Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.

 

Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon

 

Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!

 

When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.

 

Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.

 

Materials needed for this technique needed are:

 

  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!

 

After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.

 

In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! 🙂

Vermicomposting I: Setting Up Your Worm Bin

Vermicomposting is an indoor composting technique where you keep a worm bin and let the worms do their good work in converting newspapers and kitchen scraps to “worm castings.” This form of finished compost is incredibly high in rich microbial life (the basis for nutritional exchanges in the soil) and rich in nitrogen.  Its a perfect soil amendment for organic gardening of all kinds (or house plants if you aren’t actively gardening). About a year ago, one of my friends lead a workshop for our Permaculture Meetup on Vermicomposting; I supplied all the materials, and I ended up with a great worm bin. I fed it religiously for the first few months in the winter, sporadically after that, and, honestly, forgot about it for the last two months with the flurry of end-of-semester activity.  Recently, I opened it up to harvest the castings and refill the bin–the worms were still happy as could be and had produced an amazing compost!

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

My Worm Bin in Kitchen Corner

Vermicomposting is one way that people in apartments or other small spaces can compost without worrying about having the outdoor space for a compost bin–you can add the compost to plants grown in pots or buckets, and have a small-scale patio garden operation!

 

Vermicomposting is also particularly useful for the colder months of the year. In December-February most of my food scraps will freeze if I throw them in a pile (and even sometimes, if I throw them to the chickens and the chickens choose not to eat them).  The worms are a perfect way to use those scraps and keep your compost moving and getting different kinds of compost year round (for other composting methods, see this post).

 

I also like the earth-centered energetics of the worm bin.  The humble earth worm, with a strong presence in your kitchen, brings excellent earthy qualities.  The idea that the soil web of life is happening right there, before your eyes, is a very magical experience.  I could also see this as a great way to educate children about the cycles of nature and our incredible soil web of life.

 

Building a worm bin is very simple, and probably can be done with materials you likely already have around your home (we built mine by finding materials in my garage). You can buy fancy expensive worm bins (usually running about $100 or so), but I think its much more fun and sustainable to build a bin out of what you already have.  You can also often find cracked plastic tubs on the side of the  road–a cracked tub would be fine for the inner bin.

 

Materials for the Bin: Here’s what you need to build the bin:

  • 2 plastic tubs. One tub will need to fit in the other, and the inner tub will need a lid. The tubs should be opaque (the worms like it very dark).
  • 2 “supports” 3-4″ high.  I used plastic deli containers, but you could also use bricks or stones.
  • A drill and largish-drill bit (like 1/4″ or so).
  • Newspapers.
  • Bucket of water.
  • Worms and food scraps (covered later in this blog post).

 

How to build your worm bin:

1.  Start by placing your supports in between the inner and outer tubs.  Your supports should hold one tub above the other about 3-4.” See my photo below for more information.

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

Supports in bottom of bin (this bin has been going a while, so you see some castings in there)

2.  Once you know how high your inner tub will be, you need to drill holes. You will drill holes  around the top edge as well as in the lid for air flow in and out of the bin. You will also need to drill holes in the bottom for drainage (the worms sometimes produce a “compost tea” that will drain into the bin and that can also be used for plants.

Drilled holes

Drilled holes

3.  Once this is done, add your supports and put the inner bin inside of the outer bin.

4.  Now its time to fill the bin! Tear your newspaper into strips.  Try not to tear too many sheets at once–you want to pull the sheets apart, tear them up, and then crumple them up.

5.  Add the strips to the bucket of water and soak for a few minutes.

6.  Add the soaked newspaper strips into the inner bin–you want to fill the bin 1/2 – 3/4 of the way full with the newspaper.  You can also add a bit of soaked cardboard or paper towel tubes if you have them–the worms will eat through pretty much any paper product.

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

Worm bin (1 month in, they are doing their good work!)

7.  At this stage, your bin is ready to accept food scraps and worms!

 

Worms.  Most indoor vermicomposting does not use typical earthworms found in, say Michigan, but rather worms called “red wrigglers.” If you have a friend who has a worm bin, they can just give you a handful of their works–that’s how I got mine originally, and a small handful of worms quickly multiplied.  If you don’t have friends with worm bins, you can order them online (just google “red wrigglers.”)  They run about $15-30.

Worm in the bin

Worm in the bin

 

Food Scraps.  Worms can only digest certain kinds of food scraps–mostly vegetable in origin.  Here’s what you can’t put in a worm bin:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy
  • Citrus (the acidity of the lemon or orange peels can irritate the worms)
  • Eggshells (I learned this one the hard way–they don’t break them down)
  • Anything sprouting, like a sprouting potato peel (the worms tend to avoid eating living things)

 

Feeding your worm bin. Depending on the size of your family and the amount of vegetables you consume, one worm bin might not be sufficient for all of your composting needs. What you want to do is start on one side of the bin, pull back the newspapers, and bury a small handful of food scraps within. The next day, you can move a few inches around the edge of the bin, and add another handful. In about a 2-3 week period, you can work your way the whole way around the bin, burying food in many areas.  By the time you work back to the original spot, the worms should have taken care of that section and you can add more food.  If you add too much, just give the bin a week or so before adding more scraps.  When you are getting ready to harvest your worm castings, you probably want to let the bin sit about a month so that the worms can take care of the last of the food scraps–then they will move to working on the newspaper and break that down.

 

Harvesting and refilling your worm bin. I waited about 9 months to harvest my worm castings for the first time, but I know I could have probably harvested them a bit sooner.  What I did was take a small spoon and pull the castings up from the bin, checking them for worms, and then putting them in a separate bucket. Any worms I found went into another bowl, that eventually went back into the bin. I didn’t harvest 100% of the castings–I left about the bottom inch (which still had some newspaper) in the bin. That last inch had the highest concentration of worms anyways. After I had harvested my castings (probably 3 or so lbs of them) I refilled the bin with wet newspapers (just like I described above) and began adding food scraps again.  I think if you had a few bins, you could get them on different harvest schedules and have castings more often.

Finished worm castings--awesome!

Finished worm castings–awesome!