The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

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! 🙂

 

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead) August 1, 2015

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)