Our first sheet mulch garden was an act of faith. We had read about it but we had no idea if it would work, especially here in Alaska. And how can stuff grow without soil? But I was determined to try. Matt was skeptical so he made us dig another garden out of the sod so that we would at least get something if the sheet mulch failed.
I collected lots and lots of cardboard. Then I rented a trailer, hooked it up to my ’77 F100, and drove out to the valley to get a load of goat manure, because I heard that was the best. The neighbors were a little skeptical about the smell of the, but they were really patient as I shoveled it over the cardboard over the next week. I may have been a little ambitious, planning a huge garden in my front yard, but I was serious about my garden. Too many years of travelling around without soil to sink my hands into had made me desperate. The manure had a lot of straw in it, so all my layers were already mixed together. As soon as I covered the manure with a bit of soil it stopped the odor, thank goodness.
In the backyard we dug out sod for a “regular” garden. It was a lot of work, even with Matt helping! And what were we going to do with all that sod? Underneath the sod was sandy, rocky fill. We shook what topsoil we could out of the sod, but essentially we were removing the best part of the soil. We added what little compost we had and a bunch of bagged steer manure.
Then came the moment of truth… planting time. We made a pocket of soil right in the goat manure, then put the plants into that. In the back we planted carrots and beets.
And miraculously, our plants started to grow! In fact, while everyone around us was complaining about how poor their gardens were doing, our vegetables were growing big and beautiful. We had gorgeous zucchini, cucumbers out of control, and nasturtiums on crack. My dad claimed we were living in the banana belt, but I knew the real secret was with the sheet mulch. As it was breaking down, all that microbial action was creating its own heat, just like a compost pile, just not quite as hot.
In the back, our results were not quite so great. The carrots and beets grew, just not as energetically as the plants in the sheet mulch. It just didn’t have the same oomph. In fact, we keep adding stuff to it, but that bed has never performed as well as our sheet mulch beds. The moose got to the beets before we did, so they never really even got big enough to eat.
We’ve been convinced ever since that sheet mulching is the way to go, and have been encouraging others to try it as well. It takes a little bit of resourcefulness to gather all the materials, but in the end, it is the cheapest and less labor-intensive way to go. But you have to do it right. No shortcuts or the magic doesn’t happen. Believe me, I’ve tried. First, you have to make it deep enough…. 1.5-2 feet, minimum! Second, you have to have enough nitrogen-rich material to make it all break down. It’s just like building a compost pile. And third… lots of water! Those microorganisms can’t work when it’s too dry!
If you want to learn more and actually participate in building a sheet mulch bed, I’m teaching a workshop this Saturday, May 11th from 3:30- 5:30pm or May 19th from 12-2pm. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up!