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The search to eliminate weed work (the easy way)—whether for permaculture or vegetable gardening—expectantly brings you to the realm of sheet mulching.
Sheet mulch refers to items physically formed as sheets and are used to deprive weeds of light. Popular choices are cardboard, paper on rolls, paper leaf bags, and newspaper.
You can sheet mulch a space in several ways and have effective results. After you (1) understand the difference between sheet mulching and lasagna gardening; (2) find the appropriate method for the purpose you need.
Below are all the ways of sheet mulching you need to know of. Pay attention to the situations each method is employed. Using the right methods for your scenarios is the key to preventing problems, instead of creating them.
1. The easier way: Mulch around existing plants
Situation alert: perhaps you have existing perennial shrubs and trees, or a new set ready to bury in the ground.
What would you rather do?
a) Plant first and place sheet mulch around,
b) or cut holes, dig, then fuss with proper placement—the hole not quite wide enough for the roots—and neglect a fair job.
The former certainly sounds simpler.
First, plant your perennials then lay your sheet mulch of choice around the base. Leave a few inches of space away from the trunk in the ground. Space from the plant is required not to starve the roots of oxygen.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
We find it easier to dig first and mulch around prominent plants—their root systems require a proper size hole and extra care for successful transplanting. Nothing should be in your way.
Situation alert: However, the line is drawn when numerous early-life plants need planting or seeds need sowing. Explore this balance below to avoid tedious work:
2. The (not-so) harder way: Sheet mulch the whole area first
Many permaculturists mow down and sheet mulch an entire area to reset the space to a clean slate. Perhaps they wait a year, or not, and then they cut holes to position each plant.
I name this the harder way because the added layer on top when digging a hole is extra work. Extra work that could be avoided by doing it the easier way.
But as stated above, sheet mulching around several little plants becomes an impractical volume of work. Regular shredded mulch is easily sprinkled around small plants while sheet mulches would require meticulous custom cutting.
Before you sheet mulch, plant a foundation of any mature transplants with a large root system. This entails anything from the overstory, understory, shrub, and vining layers.
After you sheet mulch, “salt and pepper” the entree with any small transplants or cuttings that have little to no established roots. Cut an “X” into the sheet mulch layer, fold the corners under, trowel an adequate hole, pop it in, burry, and mulch. This entails any fresh cuttings from any plant with no grown roots, or small potted herbs and ground covers.
For planting in rows, you can leave gaps in the sheet mulch just big enough for seeds or transplants.
3. The compost pile way: Sheets, manure, mulch
Shredded mulch on top of a sheet mulch layer may take longer than average to break down.
The sheet mulch has contact with the soil, green material, and its hungry consumers. Until the sheets are devoured the mulch gets to wait. The result? A longer-lived mulch floor to walk on—great for those who want it that way.
But what about increasing food production?
For food production, companion planting, and nutrient availability you’ll need a decomposed medium for growing in. You can speed up the process of mulch decomposition by mixing aged manure. The rich nitrogen bacteria will feed on the carbon-heavy mulch and create a rich medium for growing more quickly than without aged manure.
Fungi are inevitable too! Many types of fungi will infiltrate your woodchip or other mulch and consume them before the bacteria of the soil beneath the sheets do. So those who care more about food production in their landscapes can inoculate their mulch with mushrooms while it’s fresh.
As the fungi consume your mulch and turn into a useful medium for plants—you can sooner add companion plants or seed a cover crop.
The manure method is great for avoiding the need to cut an “X” the harder way while enabling you to plant companion guilds around fruit trees, seed a ground cover, and inoculate a wood or manure-based mushroom bed. You’re basically creating a new “reset” soil on top of your sheet mulch for fresh planting.
4. The plant-based way: Sheets, greens, mulch
This is the same idea as above in every way except you are using “green manure.” Instead of actual animal manure; use greens like fresh-cut grass, weeds that haven’t sprouted, or specially grown green manure crops like comfrey.
You’re basically creating a compost pile on top of your sheet mulch. Building your own soil on the spot.
If the greens are attached to roots such as sod, or weeds have gone to seed, then you can chop up all the greens first, maybe sprinkle a bit of mulch for decomposing purposes, sheet mulch on top, then apply fresh mulch so it isn’t unsightly.
We did this method for our unmulched-overgrown-with-weeds trees this year. Now they look happy and ready to root strong.
Until we bought fencing—we hadn’t gotten around to mulching our trees, and we graciously let the weeds surround them as protection. Otherwise, the deer would have munched them down to nothing, like usual.
5. The cheap way: Just sheets
Sometimes sourcing mulch or soil to top our sheet mulch is too expensive, unavailable, or not something we’re in a rush to apply.
The cheapest way I’ve been able to source and lay sheet mulch alone was saved cardboard—a byproduct of deliveries to mine or my friend’s and neighbors’ houses.
Your grandmother might also have a way with newspapers. I don’t know where or how but she brings me stacks of them! Perhaps I should ask next time and I’ll share for those of you without a newspaper-savvy family.
Finally, the only expense is fuel for paper leaf bags. I love using paper leaf bags. It’s my favorite sheet mulch material. Double-layer thick, easy to work with, large ground coverage, and basically free to source. We pick up neighborhood leaf bags for the leaves themselves as mulch, leaf mold compost, and the bags!
6. The no-tillers regenerative way: Temporary sheets
This technique is how I plan to reset our vegetable garden and cover-crop a new food forest.
Decomposable sheet mulches are excellent for permanent plantings, but not ideal for annuals. The idea of sheet mulching for annuals is to lay sheet mulch, top it with a foot of plantable imported soil, and sow or transplant crops on top of everything—not exactly a sustainable or feasible way to go with bigger areas. Permanent plantings are in the ground with sheet mulch simply protecting and suppressing the surface.
The solution for annual gardens would be temporary sheet mulching. Temporary sheet mulch is best done with materials that don’t decompose quickly. Vinyl tarps make great temporary “sheet mulches.”
You’d be laying a tarp down to kill/compost the weeds with the heat of the sun and light deprivation, removing the tarp, and growing annuals in the ground.
Many no-till gardeners use silage tarps. You can source cheap tarps by visiting a lumber yard and asking for their old tarps or purchasing recycled billboard tarps.
My idea of this method is to divide our cropland into four sections and rotate their use. Simultaneously, in a single season:
- The first section would grow our food crops
- The second section would be covered to kill and compost the previous crops and weeds. Seeded a perennial cover crop.
- The third section would be the cover crop re-merged and left to grow for a full season
- The fourth would be tarped over the previous cover crop to kill and compost it. Leaving it ready for heavy-feeding annuals next season.
This rotation allows your soil to be regenerated for 3 years between heavy-feeding annual crops—eliminating the need to import and use unsustainable fertility.
While you may end up growing less food due to the intentionally divided space, you’ll be growing higher quality more nutrient-dense food. Quality over quantity is a worthy long-sighted trade-off.
This is the exact rotation that we will be starting next year after we reset our fenced garden. It’ll take 5 years before I can report back the results. If you’ve done this, leave a comment about your climate and experience!
Not all sheet mulch needs to be permanently laid. Removable material makes it easy for vegetable gardeners to maintain a weed-free space without the problems of lasagnas.
On the perennial side of things, if you want a seeded cover crop instead of mulch—this is the way to go! Kill the pre-existing plants for a season with tarp coverage, remove the tarp, sow your seed, then plant your forest garden on a clean and non-competitive slate.
Growing cover crops will eliminate the need to create or import mulch for feeding perennials. A cover crop is to grow your own mulch on the spot. Simply chop and drop with a scythe, sickle, or mower.
7. The no-till no-shine way: semi-permanent tarps
Semi-permanent tarping is becoming a popular way of vegetable gardening, especially in cooler climates.
Attractive to cool climates is for the benefit of heating your soil quickly in spring. But step #6 has the same benefit and with a preferably sturdier and longer-lasting tarp material—and regeneration intentionally built into the process.
A black plastic landscape tarp is used for this method and you’ll easily find videos of people burning holes where they plan to put a squash, tomato, or any space-loving crop.
Some growers lay this plastic and keep it there for several seasons of use. This would require them to fertilize their plants instead of feeding and building their soil.
Personally, I dislike the idea of this method because of the material waste and the potential for lack of soil regeneration.
This technique would require you to remove the plastic to add compost or any other amendment to nourish your soil. While the same tarps could be reused after lifting for amendment, not only is this a lot of careful work to prevent damage, but the thin material inevitably degrades quite quickly.
Upon degradation, the plastic material is becoming incorporated into your soil. Furthering our already big problem of microplastic consumption.
Semi-permanent tarp-mulching in this way is a highly wasteful and non-regenerative way to grow food. You’d be demanding fresh-made rolls of plastic and creating an unusable waste product. In method #6, I recommend sourcing sturdy recycled tarp material that was already produced and used by other industries.
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