Sheet Mulching Re-visited

Last week’s blog included a link back to our October 2016 blog on experimenting with sheet mulching (also known by some as “lasagne gardening”) http://wp.me/p5JEJY-YZ so I thought we ought to re-visit and see how that worked. Sheet mulching is the layering of different kinds of compostable garden waste (sometimes with old newspapers or cardboard as well) on the surface of poor garden soil. The aim is to quickly add organic matter to the existing soil, improving drainage, water retention and fertility.

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I had several questions in my mind last fall when this experiment was carried out:

1. Will the cardboard decompose?
2. Is the “green” and “brown” balance right?
3. Will the raccoons and skunks churn it all up?
4. Will there be a crop of new weeds from the imported materials?
5. Will the cold Colorado winter simply stop any decomposition from taking place?
6. Will there just be a smelly slimy heap to remove next spring?
7. OR, will we have achieved that elixir of gardening – fertile, well-drained, moisture-retentive soil???

The experiment has been going on for some eight months now and these are the answers, so far:

1. YES. Some digging about at the base of the layers revealed no sign of cardboard except for a few stray bits of plastic tape that didn’t get removed when I broke down the cardboard boxes.
2. Probably YES. Though close inspection revealed that in some parts the grass clippings were laid too thick and would have done better if they’d been mixed in more with the dried leaves.
3. NO. Apart from a few little exploratory digs by some critters, the layers remained intact.
4. NO. Initially there was some germination from seeds (unidentified grass/cereal) which were in the chicken coop material I used, but these were easily pulled in the first couple of weeks. Since then not a single weed has appeared.
5. NO. Digging into the layers revealed pretty well composted good, brown material though not everywhere. Lots of worms too. Straw seems to have been the hardest to break down and is still recognizable in some places.
6. NO. See 5.
7. Well, MAYBE ….

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The native grey clay soil is still there beneath the sheet mulch

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Well on the way to being compost

There is no doubt that we now have deep layers of composted garden waste on our borders. The layers have not been totally absorbed into the soil below. They have shrunk in depth by a couple of inches which is probably mainly due to gravity and the reduction of air pockets. I accept that these borders may remain as “raised” borders for some time.

So, what happens next? I expect these sheet mulched borders to continue to decompose over the summer and, perhaps, by next spring will no longer be “raised”.

But I can’t wait until then to get new plants in.  Already, I have a planted a Japanese maple and some hellebores in one of the beds (both should benefit from the rich compost.  I dug holes in the compost layers, put in some native soil from elsewhere in the garden and planted and watered.

I was concerned that the compost itself would not hold the plant roots securely which is why I mixed in garden soil from elsewhere to give weight. It will also provide mineral nutrients that may not be present in the compost/mulch. Now, some six weeks later, the new plants are all well rooted and looking good.

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Japanese maple and hellebores just planted

So, is it worth doing? I’m giving the experiment a qualified “yes” at this stage.

I think it works for areas that have been neglected or are being cultivated for the first time. There is an initial effort in gathering the materials and building the sheet mulch layers, but then you just sit back and wait.

Does one big “hit” of compostable material work better than cumulative additions over the years? I don’t know. Time will tell as I compare these borders with others in the garden. Certainly, I got a lot more compost onto the borders than I could generate annually from my compost bins. (You don’t get a lot of kitchen waste from two people; and a modest-sized, young garden doesn’t produce much waste either.)

It might have been less work to simply go out and buy bags of compost from the garden center or big box store. That would have been expensive (my materials were all free). There are no regulations on what goes into bagged compost for retail sales.  At least I knew exactly what was in mine.

Aside from these thoughts, there has definitely been a great sense of satisfaction in doing the experiment.  It was interesting.  It was good exercise.  It was free.  I turned what other people thought was just rubbish messing up their yards into useful, re-vitalizing material for our garden and plants.

Anne Hughes/A Denver County Master Gardener

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One response to “Sheet Mulching Re-visited

  1. Nancy Downs

    I’ll be interested to hear if over time your plants appear stunted. I witnessed a gardener start a perennial bed by sheet composting and in that case, over several years, her plants were demonstrably stunted. Our speculation was it might have been due to the carbon breaking down and outcompeting for nitrogen.

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