Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How to sheet mulch

If you've gardened from scratch, you know how backbreaking it is to till the soil. Just as spinning a yard of yarn with a drop spindle makes me appreciate both the countless woman-years of effort that went into making clothes in the past 20,000 years and modern spinning and weaving machinery, so tilling even a few feet of garden bed makes me appreciate the wonders of sheet mulch.

I'll admit that sheet mulch isn't for everyone. Maybe you only have a few feet of gardening space. Maybe you miraculously have no weeds and rich, tilthy soil. Maybe you adore weeding and have knees and a back of iron. If you have none of these things, sheet mulch is probably a good idea for you and your garden. Sheet mulch is an excellent way of introducing lots of organic matter, something that the tough clay soils of the Bay Area need greatly — without back-breaking digging and tilling.

Much has been written about sheet mulch. Everyone seems to have different experiences. Some swear mulching will bring hoardes of slugs to eat your plants. Some say it robs roots of air. I've had excellent experiences with it in a variety of circumstances, and can recommend nothing better for keeping the soil moist, keeping down weeds, beautifying the area and preventing erosion.

A sheet mulch is a layered effect. First, cut down all the plants you don't want in an area. Then add any compost you want directly on the soil (coffee grounds are great here, as are any seedy or weedy composts you have on hand. Then lay on your sheets. Water them down and step on them (this helps shape them to the ground and absorb more water. Then lay on your organic matter. Water that in. That's it.

Choosing your materials

Before you start, you'll need to acquire your materials. I almost invariably use cardboard, but some folks swear by newspapers (though it can be tricky to lay your hands on so many), old wool carpet, phone books (I'm not kidding), felt and old sheets. I got my hands on a roll of old architectural drawings, which are nice for small spaces. My basic rule of thumb for sheet mulch materials is that you need about five times as much as you think you could possibly use.

I favor cardboard because it's easy to harvest in an urban area, is easy to work with, can be cut through in place for plantings and does an excellent job of keeping weeds from coming through. I had previously haunted appliance stores for my supplies, which worked very well in the Santa Rosa area. I recently discovered that auto body shops get their new fenders, etc. shipped in enormous, heavy boxes. Your area probably has a semi-industrial street/city highway with lots of auto body and furniture shops on it. Cruise down it early on a weekday morning and you'll probably see workers tossing big cardboard boxes out the front door as they unpack them. That's the time to grab them, and the employees are usually happy to let you haul them away. If somewhat puzzled. If you have a friendly relationship with a store that gets shipments in cardboard boxes, ask about coming in when they unpack them and taking them away. Some places sell their boxes or have other arrangements, so be prepared to take no for an answer.

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Yes, that's an enormous pile of cardboard. It looks bigger than it is because it's on top of the enormous pile of wood chips that I asked a tree trimmer to drop off at my house.

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Call around to the various tree trimming businesses, like Ponderosa in Berkeley. They'll drop off freshly chipped tree trimmings for free. The catch? You need a big driveway for them to dump it in, and many can't give you notice before they dump. So you come home one day and find 20 yards of wood chips in your driveway. For perspective, that pile above was about 6 or 8 yards. If you're willing to pay money, you can get nicer wood chips, screened and composted, delivered on schedule.

Wood chips aren't the only mulch, and you don't want to use them in areas where you'll be planting vegetables. Straw is a nice mulch (though you're much more likely to track it back into your house). You can get straw (not hay - hay is the tops of the plants and has a lot of seeds in it) at some animal feed stores for about $8 a bale. If you like near a horse race track, you can also buy it in the back parking lot for about $5 a bale. Bring cash and a truck.

The organic matter you use depends on what you're mulching for. If you're mulching a walkway, big wood chips are great. If you're mulching in anticipation of planting in the spring, composted manure is perfect. Rotted hay has a strong following for that purpose. Straw is nice because you can walk on it and plant through it (more on that later).

If you want a straw mulch to last a long time, rice straw works great. It's both stiffer and longer-wearing than barley (softest) or wheat (pretty stiff) straw. In California, rice straw comes from the Sacramento Valley rice-growing region. It's generally harder to find than wheat or barley straw because equestrian folks don't tend to use it (people who build with straw greatly favor it for its high silica content).

If you're using straw mulch near plants, particularly wheat straw, check the bales for seed heads. A poorly tuned combine will leave many seed heads in the straw left behind after harvesting the hay. If you mulch with seed-rich straw, you'll end up weeding out hundreds of little wheat plants.

Down to business

If you have your sheets, organic matter and hose, you're ready to start. First, cut down the standing plants you don't want to keep. Some plants, like bermuda grass, blackberry and potato, are really good at punching through sheet mulch. Dig those out as much as possible. You can leave dandelion, grasses and other non-sprouting plants on the soil for the worms to eat. If the soil is dry, water it well before laying down your first layer of sheets.

In your weeding, make sure you do a very thorough job around the edges. The edges are where weeds will tend to come up and destroy your mulch. In some areas, we've taken the precaution of digging out the soil and replacing it with wood chips at the edges. Even if you don't go to those lengths, make sure the ground is good and clear at the edges.

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Then you can lay on the cardboard or other sheets. Big sheets are a really good idea.

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That's a box from an auto body shop. Make sure you overlap the sheets by at least six inches. No part of the ground should be visible, but plants can travel sideways for some distance, so the more you overlap, the harder those plants will have to work to break out. The thicker your layers, the better the chance the plants will run out of root energy before they run out of sheets to go around. If your mulch is going to last more than a year or two, use three layers of heavy-duty cardboard. Make sure the overlaps in your second layer are right where the first layer was most solid.

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You can tear or lay down the cardboard or other sheets to go around plants you want to save.

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When the layers are done, watered in and trampled, you can add your organic matter.

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Then water in the organic matter (make sure it's wet all the way through - a sprinker is an excellent way to do this).

And then you'll be all done.

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If you're planting right away, you can either built a bed on top of your sheet mulch with soil (like we did with the strawberries, above) or make holes in the mulch to plant into.

holes in sheet

If you've just mulched recently, the soil will still be nasty, sticky clay, so dig the hole about twice as big as the root ball of your plant and amend heavily (I recommend coffee grounds). After planting, tuck the mulch back around the plant. It's nice to mulch around the base of the plant with coconut pith.

It's great to sheet mulch in late fall/early winter. Then the mulch protects the soil from the winter rains, and the organic matter, continually moist, breaks down into fertile soil, ready for your spring plantings. Beneath the cardboard in cover of darkness, the worms are working, transforming that clay soil into worm castings, lovely rich soil that your plants will adore.

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Friday, April 20, 2007


I used to live and report in Sonoma County, which has some awesome farms and food. Here are some articles I wrote about food and gardening:

Market to table
I made a dinner for four made from ingredients bought at the Sebastopol Farmers Market (and a few things from my garden).

Cooking with wild mushrooms
A year into my obsession with mushrooms, I interviewed local mushroom gurus about their favorite ways to cook up the elusive wild mushroom.

Making compost
One of the articles I wrote from my permaculture training at OAEC, I talked with the experts on turning trash into treasure.

Not just thistling, Dixie
On the importance of battling invasive thistles.

Making sushi
You're probably not growing the ingredients, but oh so tasty. Mmm... raw fish.

Making mead
If you raise bees (and don't we all love an endangered species), you should know how to make mead, honey wine.

OAEC's biodiversity tasting
I've been to two of these marvelous events so far, and found some of my favorite things to grow there. When I went they had a dozen different tomatoes, eight different basil pestos (my favorite was cinnamon basil - amazing depth of flavor. We're growing two dozen of them this year), six sauteed greens (my fave: magenta lambsquarters), herb water, 10 different garlics and an extravagantely diverse salad. They haven't announced one yet for 2007, but if you get on their mailing list, they'll let you know.

Just to show it's possible, Sebastopol man grows bananas. Commercially.

Raising rabbits for food
Both vegans and meat-eaters in denial about where their meat comes from were horrified at my description of a small rabbit-raising operation. But it's the most ethical meat I've ever eaten. Also delicious.

Monte Rio school garden
And because school gardens are the coolest and most important thing ever, Monte Rio School grows its own salad! Yeah!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Starting from scratch

The first thing that most people want to do when starting a garden is sprouting seeds. Is there anything more rewarding than seeing delicate little seedlings poking their green heads out of a moist bed of rich, brown soil?

Is there anything so frustrating as failing to see those seeds sprout, day after day, week after week. Lots of things can go wrong, and I've probably done them all. Here's what I do to get my seeds to sprout.

Sprouting your own seeds is cheaper than buying plants, and you can make more precise decisions about the varieties you'll grow. Most of the conventional seed you see at the stores is not good stuff. I've had good luck with seeds from Territorial Seed, Seedsavers Exchange, Abundant Life, Renee's Garden, Swallowtail Gardens and Seeds of Change. I also love to save my own seed, and I buy plants, particularly from the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center's spring and summer plant sales and Spiral Gardens in North Oakland.

Shopping list:
Organic potting soil (finer texture is better)
Black plastic six-pack trays with under-tray and clear plastic cover
Bricks of coconut pith/coir, wetted and fluffed into a bucket

Label the tags with the names of the plants that you're planting. Put about an inch of the potting soil in each then fill them up most of the rest of the way with the coconut pith. Then put a seed or two in each, then cover them lightly with the pith. Then water them in, put the plastic cover on and set it somewhere where they will stay pretty consistently warm. Plant at least one six-pack of each plant (you should have plenty of room - the trays usually hold 16 six-packs), and stick a label in each six-pack.

This is what your seedling trays might look like after a few weeks:

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Sprouting in the tray has a lot of advantages: you'll be able to choose the strongest plants and position them appropriately. Also, clay pots lose water pretty quickly. For seedlings, you'd have to water them 2-3 times a day. The covered sprouting tray holds water pretty well, and you should only have to water once a day. Garden beds hold an array of dangers for tender young sproutlings.

Keep your seeds watered. If you get very warm, sunny days, pull the plastic top off, particularly once the seeds have sprouted. The soil should stay damp, but not wet. If green stuff starts growing on the pith, your soil is too damp, and you should dump out the under-tray.

It's very important to thin your seedlings. Pick the ones that have the fewest abnormalities in their leaves, grow the fastest and are growing closest to the center of the space. Thin out the rest of them by pinching their stems as close to the soil as you can and drawing the root out.

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It's painful to kill those tiny plants, but the ones you leave behind will be much better for it.

Once your seeds have sprouted and grown up a bit (have started to show leaves besides the first two seed leaves that came up), choose the strongest looking plants for transplant.

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Transplant before the seedlings become root bound, where the roots wrap around the inside of their container. But you want the roots to have reached the walls, so they will hold the root ball together. It can be important to fluff the root ball when transplanting.

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Some plants need more fluffing than others. The tomato plant above required none at all - you can see how the root tips have barely filled out the soil. That's just about the perfect time to transplant. I've been warned not to fluff some at all, but I can't remember which ones. Mainly, you need to keep your fluffing in line with how tender the roots are. For tiny seedlings going into their first four-inch pot, a little poke with the fingertip will do, just enough to loosen up the soil. On the other hand, I once transplanted a feverfew (a very hardy, medicinal herb) from a five-gallon pot into a 12-gallon pot. I gripped the feverfew by the stem and slammed it into the asphalt over and over, barely dislodging any soil, the plant was so root bound. Upon transplanting, it did just fine. So use your judgment when fluffing.

If you're transplanting into clay pots, soak the pots in water for a few hours or overnight (only if they're new - you wouldn't believe how much water they soak up), set them on their saucers and fill them most of the way with potting soil. If you're using plastic pots, just make sure they're not too gross or cracked. Ease the seedlings out of their six-packs (it helps to pinch the plastic while turning it on its side). If the roots have started to wrap around the inside of the plastic, fluff them out gently. Then position it in the pot with one hand, and scoop more soil around it with the other. The top of the soil should be about two inches down from the lip of the pot.

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Tamp it down firmly, then water it in. Then add an inch layer of coconut pith, and water it in again. Then set the plants in their places (someplace sunny!).

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Also, make sure you have several different types of plants around your seedlings. A bunch of one kind of plant looks like a smorgasbord to an insect predator.

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It's harder to grow perennials from seed, and would probably be easier just to buy them from a good nursery. But check for aphids and other problems (particularly the undersides of the leaves) before you bring them home.

Mulch note:
It's also possible to use peat moss, rather than coconut pith, as mulch. However, peat is a fossil resource that, left in place, sequesters carbon, filters water and protects historical artifacts. Coconut pith is an agricultural byproduct. It also looks a lot like redwood bark mulch, so if anyone disses your garden for killing redwoods, you can say, "No, it's coconut pith, an agricultural byproduct." Use a good, heavy layer of mulch. It keeps your watering from eroding the soil from the roots and helps retain water.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What's this?

I believe in local food. Like many Bay Area progressive foodies, I worship at the table of Michael Pollan, Sustainable Table and eating local.

Locally grown food has many advantages. If you visit the farm, you see what the farmer is doing to your food. No worries about CAFOs, fertilization with dangerous products or other perils. You'll have the truth in front of you, as well as inside of you. A relationship with a trustworthy farmer is a beautiful thing indeed. And delicious.

But who can you trust more than yourself? And who knows what you like to eat better than you? If you garden instead of shop (well, you won't be able to get away from going to the grocery store. Growing enough grain for yourself is nearly a full-time job, even if you're growing quinoa), your food will require much less shipping, be more fresh and thus nutritious, and be exactly what you want. Plant what you love to eat, and it will grow.

If you want to really reduce your ecological footprint (besides ditching your car and never riding an airplane), reduce the amount of food you throw away. If you harvest your food when you eat it, you won't waste much. And so tasty!

Before you sheet mulch your lawn and start planting, first you need to figure out what you eat. I always tell people to grow herbs first. With herbs, a little goes a long way, they're pretty insect resistant and don't need excellent soil. Then grow salad greens. Then, if you still have room, time and energy grow strawberries. *Nothing* beats a just-picked, homegrown strawberry, warm from the sun. *runs outside to check if strawberries are ripe yet. no. damn*

But your priorities are going to be different. Maybe you hate strawberries, never cook with herbs and are allergic to salad. Maybe a whole bed of brussels sprouts is what does it for you. My neighbors only grow mustard greens and rice (which they never harvest, oddly enough).

Step 1: Figure out what you eat. This should be easy.
Step 2: Figure out what of 1 you can grow given your situation (climate, sunlight, space, time and energy). This will require some research.
Step 3: Subtract 2 from 1. This will yield what you should grow.

Now you can start sheet mulching your lawn. I recommend refrigerator boxes.

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Tasty herb spiral

One of the best choices you can make for growing food, particularly in a very limited space, is herbs. With just a few feet of bed space, you can grow all the herbs you'll need. Imagine never having sage going bad in your crisper - ever again. When you need an herb, you just pick it. No pesticides, no shipping, no trips to the grocery store.

An herb spiral is a particularly fun way to grow lots of herbs. You'll need a space about three feet on each side, lots of differently sized rocks, fill dirt, garden soil and fine mulch. Plus your plants and seeds.

We have a garden bed that gets full sun until about 2 p.m. and ends right at the foot of the kitchen stairway. Now, here's how we did it:

Here is the space, with an ideal Fibonacci spiral drawn for our guide.

With a vast quantity of urbanite (salvaged concrete pieces) and clay soil we'd excavated nearby, we built the basic mound.
Make a mound

And built.

It can take some work to get the shape right.
the engineer in the hat

Then we could add soil.
Adding soil

And plants. We planted parsley, purple sage, variegated sage, thyme, lemon thyme, oregano, tarragon and chives, then seeded cilantro, dill, caraway, more parsley, garlic chives and arugula.

Then we mulched with coconut pith and patted the last details into shape. And it was done.
Herb spiral

This is just one example. Your herb spiral will reflect your unique culinary and artistic sensibilities, as well as the materials on hand. When you decide where to plant your herbs, remember that the different parts of the circle will have different microclimates (really micro). For example, the north side will be shady, so it's a good place to plant annual herbs that tend to bolt (flower prematurely), like cilantro and basil. The south side is for ferocious sun lovers like sage. If you plant perennials like rosemary and marjoram that tend to bush out, make sure to keep them pruned down, or they'll take over the whole spiral.

Remember: don't bother planting herbs that you don't like, even if you already have them or they're easy to grow. If you won't eat it, don't grow it. Save the space for something you will eat.

We're also planning to install drip irrigation, when we do the rest of the garden. It saves time, energy and water. But I'll still be out there every day, harvesting, weeding (well, less and less weeding now that we have everything sheet mulched) and tending the plants.

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