Sheet Mulch : Building Soil Nature’s Way

I had the oppurtunity this weekend to take a significant amount of lawn, 1000+ sq ft, at a client’s house and begin to turn it into a perrenial bed. Round-Up is not an option in my world, so I pitched Sheet Mulch and it sold. Here is a photo how to for a simple, effective 3 ingredient Sheet Mulch with materials that are locally and readily availible here on the rural fringe of Suburbia: wood chips, cardboard pallet sheets, and horse manure.
Step #1 Prep the Ground

This plot had not been mown in months, so it took several passes with my electric mulching mower to knock down the turf grasses with the great result being a 1/2″ thick layer of mulched grass. The owner called them weeds, I called it a Green Manure crop!

Step #2 High Nitrogen “Starter”

In this instance there was a horse farm literally a block away from the home, but the edges of suburbia are speckled with horse farms. Some neighborly conversation can get you access to a trailer load of manure prebasted with straw/sawdust for near perfect carbon:nitrogen ratio. It sounds nasty, and it can smell alittle ripe, but use a long fork and you will be fine. I spread it about 2″ thick, but feel free to go as much as 4″. More than that and you might go anerobic. 2″ deep for 1000 sq ft will took about 5-6 yards or 3 loads with my trailer. That’s alot of forking, but you can’t beat the net returns!

Step #3 Weed Barrier

I like to use pallet sheets. Most warehouses, and some retailers-especially those carry alot of pet food or other bagged product, will have these in abundance. Again, do some calling and make nice to see what you can turn up. Newspaper 4-7 sheets thick works great too, but pallet sheets are ink free, and don’t blow around as much in the wind, plus each sheet covers 16 sq ft so you cover ground quick. I overlapped mine at least 6″ on all sides so it took the better part of 100 pallet sheets. The manure is thick with oat and hay seeds, this layer will keep them and the turf grasses out of the bed.

Step #4 Weed Free Mulch

Every muncipality out here has a free mulch pile for its residents. This municipality even had a backhoe on hand to fill my trailer with 2-3 yards of chips in about 5 minutes! I made 5 trips in 2 hours. Check out that windrow!! And, yes, my shoulders will be unuseable tomorrow… The garden will get a 6-7″ layer of this that will settle to 5-6″. Spoiled hay, straw, etc would also work, but spoiled hay is alot harder to find if you aren’t Ruth Stout, and straw typically costs money. Wood Chips take longer to break down, but they don’t blow around much and are a perfect medium for innoculating with edible mushrooms!

Putting it Together

When sheet mulching I find it to be much easier to not let any one step get to far infront of the others. Get too much manure down and it starts to dry out, get too far ahead of the woodchipping with the pallet sheets and they start to blow away. Sheet mulching is a very satisfying to do, as the ground is covered very quickly and the sense of accomplishment is huge.
Tools of the Trade

I did this job solo in 10 hours start to finish, with the exception of having 60 of the pallet sheets on hand prior to starting. Here is a short list of some tools that saved me massive amounts of time, all of which are pictured above
  1. Utility Trailer. Mine is 5×8′, cost under $700 and turns my Forester into a “pickup truck” extraodinaire, able to move 3 yards of light mulch with ease, or 2 yards of manure. Plus a trailer’s sides are 3′ shorter than a pickups so schlepping manure into it is much, much easier. Besides, when I don’t need a work horse I take the trailer off and the Forester goes back to getting 32 mpg vs a pickups 14! I love my trailer!!
  2. Wheelbarrow. I purchased a mulch barrow for this job. $95 at TSC and it holds 10 cu feet. Even overflowing with manure I could lift it with ease-the balance is more Vermont Cart than traditional wheelbarrow with alot of the weight past the wheel’s fulcrum helping you lift the wieght. I have named it Archimedes, but often call it Hubris… A barrow this big is bound to get me in trouble…
  3. Coal Shovel and Compost Fork. The Coal Shovel can move over a cu ft of mulch/manure at a scoop-mulch is light so it pays to move as much per scoop as possible. I picked it up at Menards for $16 as quality/design seemed simple. The Compost Fork is from Earth Tools and imported from Germany. It has a balance and feel that far exceeds anything you will ever find in a hardware store, and is worth every one of its $40.
  4. Helpers! Many hands make light work; I had my uber energetic 5 yr old with me. True, the amount of work done by Sprout was minimal, but the diversion of someone to talk to was priceless, and mad props to him for keeping us both entertained for a full day as “Mr. Stone” keeping the cardboard from blowing away, or squealing anew everytime I dumped him out of the wheelbarrow on the return trip to the mulch windrow. Regardless of their age, someone to keep the weed barrier from blowing away is always a good thing!

The end result of a single days hard work will be taking 1000 sq ft of very sandy loam and covering it with an 8″ layer of organic matter. Through fall and into spring the soil’s ecosystem will kick into high gear with the manure’s nitrogen and eat away at the cardboard. The chips will also begin to decay-I see about a 25% decomposition annually in my paths at home. The net result by June should be a 2-3″ layer of ecologically alive compost covered by 4″ of wood chips-ready to plant!

Sheet mulching can be a great way to relatively easily turn lawn into garden-as long as you have several months before you want to plant. Those months are worth it if you can spare them: in addition to killing the sod, you keep the topsoil of your lawn, with all its ecology, intact, and add 2-4″ of topsoil in the process.


2 Responses

  1. I’m so delighted to have stumbled onto your site! I enjoy your message, attitude, and approach. I am plunging headfirst into permaculture with my small urban lot in South Minneapolis. I will be sheet mulching at least 750 sf of my front yard in the next couple weeks and installing an edible forest (some trees and shrubs now, the rest in the spring).

    Question 1: Is the wheelbarrow you describe Item #4431520 at TSC? I’ll be headed to our Inver Grove Heights store on Mon or Wed to select a new cart.

    Question 2: Have you begun to outfit your Sprout with his own “helper tools” yet? I’m enamored with these Joseph Bentley Gardener’s Apprentice Range tools, but have not yet found a supplier outside the UK. I’d like to get my 7-yo some quality tools that are not junky toys.

    In gratitude,

  2. That all sounds GREAT Heather!

    That is the exact barrow I use for mulch. It is unparalleled for moving bulky light materials, but its a bear for most other chores as it is flippin huge.. Around the home I use my 5 cu ft one much more as it is better sized for compost and rock duties on our uneven lot that has about 20′ of uneven elevation change (lots of permie possibilities there!).

    If you only want one barrow I highly recommend a jack of all trades like the 7 cu ft 4431538 or perhaps go up to the 8 cu ft 4431554 if you want the stability of dual wheels. Dual wheels make them much less maneuverable, but I have never had the 10 cu one tip.

    Sprout helps some, but as he is 6 it is in 10 minute chunks of useful work. Just this year we have upgraded to real metal tools for him as the concern of him thunking his younger sister has lessened. We just use small hand tools from Menards with real metal digging ends- they seem to be designed for less mobile perennial gardeners, but are very well sized to his frame. Most of his work in planting and harvesting. They usually run about 5-$10 and last well

    Be sure to check out my “READ!” page for some awesome books to get you going if you haven’t already.


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