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The Lazy Garden

Updated on May 13, 2013

Starting your Garden

Starting a garden does not have to be difficult. In my time as a gardener I have turned over countless hunks of sod, double dug nearly an acre of land at one property alone, and also ran a roto tilling business. All of these are really hard work, but I thought they were the only way I could start a garden. Then one day I learned about sheet mulching. This technique is not only easier, it also produces superior results. When we turn soil, or roto till it we severely disturb the soil ecosystem. The soil is full of living creatures, large and small. Most of us are familiar with some of the larger soil dwelling creatures like worms, beetles, and centipedes. We often fail to remember there are millions of microscopic soil creatures that just are not visible to the naked eye. When we till the soil all of these creatures get a rude disturbance, and many are killed. It has been estimated that up to one third of the worm population in the soil can be destroyed in soil that is tilled in the spring. There are also beneficial fungi that provide a distribution network of food and water for the plants that live in our garden. When we till we also destroy these networks and it may take them an entire growing season to re-establish themselves so that they can continue to help our plants. Digging and tilling is not the ideal way to start a garden, however sheet mulching is.

Building and Planting a Sheet Mulched Bed

Building a Garden Bed

Building a sheet mulch garden bed is quite easy, but takes a little bit of preparation. You will need to spend a little time gathering the things you will need to build your bed. Well rotted manure, that has been composting for over a year is a good start. You could also use some of your own compost, as long as the materials are decomposed to the point where the kitchen scraps are unrecognizable, and so is any manure that was used to build the compost. Secondly you will need enough newspaper to cover the proposed area with overlapping sheets, six sheets deep. You may also use cardboard if you are building this bed ahead of time, say building it in the fall in order to plant in the spring. Another time you would use cardboard is if you were planting shrubs, trees, or perennial plants, or young transplants where you could cut the cardboard to plant. If you are planning to plant the bed with seeds, stick to the newspaper. A good source of newspaper is your local news store who may be discarding large numbers of unsold newspapers. Find out which newspaper has less glossy material, because you will not want to use any paper that is glossy. Cardboard is easily obtained from bike shops, furniture stores, or liquor stores. While you are there you may want to pick up refreshments to celebrate your new garden.

You will also need some good quality finished compost. Homemade compost is best. Commercial compost is often super heated which kills the disease micro organisms, but also kills the beneficial ones. Commercial compost may have a supply of nutrients in it, but often has few microbes. Experiment with your local composts to find out what works the best in your area. Finally, you will need some organic material to use as mulch. Sawdust, shredded leaves, or straw works well for mulch. Many times you can get a tree trimming company to drop off wood chips, and often you can convince your neighbors to give you any leaves that they are getting rid of. Delivered right to your door in lazy garden style.

When it comes time to build the bed, chop down all the plant material in the area, leaving the chopped pieces where they lie. This will provide ongoing nutrition for the bed as it breaks down. This also saves loading the wheelbarrow and bringing it to the compost pile. Cover this with a layer of your partly finished compost or well rotted manure. This layer should be three to four inches thick. If these materials are dry you will need to water them. The newspaper or cardboard goes down next. Make sure the edges of the paper overlap, because this is your weed barrier and the idea is to exclude light so that weeds cannot grow.

You will want to water the bed at this point, and then spread the finished compost on top of the paper or cardboard. Now it is time to plant. Water any transplants well, and then start to plant them by cutting or punching holes in the cardboard, and inserting the plants. If you are planting seeds, plant them into the finished compost layer.

The last step is to mulch. Spread a thin layer of wood chips, shredded leaves or straw on the bed. Do not spread the mulch too thickly over the seeds, and do not cover the stems of woody plants deeply. Water the bed again and watch how it grows.


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