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Sheet Mulch Now to Impress Your Garden Guests This Summer

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2010-10-05-CompostBin_bw.jpg Artwork courtesy of Anne Hoglund

Wondering how to turn your pathetic, hard, deadbeat dirt into healthy, productive soil? Sheet mulching will save your yard and make you look like you know what you're doing. The term "sheet mulching" doesn't mean adding an old Snoopy, San Francisco 49ers or Barbie sheet to cover up your gigantic weed patch. Oops, I mean front lawn. Sheet mulching, also sometimes called "lasagna gardening," is the process of adding sheets of organic matter to an area of your yard where you want to grow flowers or vegetables the following season. By adding a few layers of organic matter to a fallow or weed-infested area, you'll be sending a mostly invisible band-of-brothers (bacteria, fungus and insects) to party like rockstars underground.
Boom shakalaka!

You'll automatically be improving the texture, structure and nutrient value of your soil.
Future plants growing in that area will have far better resistance to diseases and pests. You'll then be able to pack up your shed full of chemical warfare (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) and take them to your local hazardous waste disposal site. (Call 1-800- cleanup for the nearest drop off site in your area.) You don't need that toxic relationship any more. You're cleaning up your act. Co-dependent no more. Your new affirmation will be, "I love and deserve the bacteria, fungi and worm poop decaying & feeding my soil 24/7 for free." Now say that 3 times.
Don't you feel better already?

A fantastic time to sheet mulch is in the fall so that organic matter will be decomposing for about two seasons. By early spring you'll be able to plant and have a healthy, prolific yard. If you've been thinking about removing a front lawn or part of a lawn so you're wasting less water and using fewer chemicals, sheet mulching is for you! Don't physically remove your lawn. Simply mow it and add your sheet mulch layers right on top. (If you're new to this garden or your yard has not been doing a thing but sloughing off on Facebook, you may want to do a soil test first. Many good soil testers are available at local nurseries or at www.gemplers.com.)

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* Step 1:Conquer and Destroy

Chop down any tall weeds. Don't pull them out of the ground, unless they've gone to seed, as this will wake up all the weed seeds hiding on your block. Simply step on weeds or chop them to the ground and leave the roots in the ground to decay naturally. Remove any large woody materials. If this is a lawn or part of a lawn, simply mow the area and leave grass clippings on the lawn. (Visit www.lawnreform.org to see why we eco-centrics urge you to lose the lawn.)

* Step 2: Add a Concentrated Layer of Compost

Add several inches of compost or aged horse manure or worm castings to the top of the soil or grass. This is high in nitrogen and will shake up the microbial life underground.
If your soil is hard clay you may want to add some gypsum at this time. If your soil is very acidic, you could blend in some limestone. The package will give the correct amount to add per square foot. Add any other soil amendments your soil test kit suggested at this time.

Thoroughly soak the ground with water.

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* Step 3: Add a Weed Barrier

This barrier will prevent germination of the troublemaker weed seeds and their cohorts by taking them to the dark side. You'll want to make sure they never see the light of day again, literally. Both the weeds and grass will die and become food for earthworms. This weed barrier will eventually decompose.

You have a few options for your weed barrier: newspapers, cardboard, burlap bags, gypsum board or even worn-out jeans. Most gardeners choose newspapers or cardboard. (Cardboard will take longer to break down.) Lay out 4-6 sheets of newspapers thick or single layers of cardboard along the entire area, making sure each piece is overlapping with the next. Don't leave any soil exposed to light. If you're sheet mulching around any existing plants, make sure to leave a few inches between the plant and mulch.

For extra credit, you can do what I do. Plant cover crop seeds on the weed barrier along with another layer of compost. This way, come spring, my soil is loaded with nutrients that are in a form both edible and ornamental plants can easily take in and smile back to me, as if I were a saint. Saint Spiegelman.

Cover crops (fava beans, oats, vetch, red clover etc.) are plants that feed the soil with various minerals, micronutrients, carbon or nitrogen, loosen hard clay soil, attract beneficial insects and compete with weeds during the winter rains. You'll cut cover crops down in early spring and leave them there as mulch before you plant your spring garden. You can order the seeds very inexpensively from www.groworganic. com and www.seedsofchange.com.

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* Step 4: The Final Layer

This layer mimics the top layer of the forest. Add a 3-6 inch layer of mulch such as leaves, wood chips or straw. I like to use straw because it attracts earthworms and I can get it at the local farm feed store for 6 bucks a bale. (Everyone has their favorite recipe for sheet mulching so some gardeners like to add another layer of compost here, before adding the final layer of mulch. If you have the compost and time, go ahead. You may become the teacher's pet, but it's not necessary to do, and we will definitely talk about you behind your back.) Water weekly if no rain is expected.

Springtime for Saints

Come spring, you can plant directly into your sheet mulch, as it should be fully decomposed. There will be no reason to turn the soil here since you hired the earthworms to do the work for you already. One less appointment to your chiropractor! Isn't nature grand? After planting flowers or your spring vegetable garden, you may want to add a new top layer of mulch to keep plants cool in the summer, deter pests and weeds, and retain moisture.

Still a 'lawn lover' even though it's so out of style?

Have you been thinking about getting rid of your chemical-addicted and water-guzzling lawn and replacing it with a drought tolerant grass that doesn't require fertilizing or mowing? Then visit www.wildflowerfarm.com and read about Eco-Lawn. Autumn is the best time to seed a new lawn. See the 'Installation Tips' section for helpful advice.

Visit Saint Spiegelman at www.dirtdiva.com

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