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Sheet Mulching: Grow Food Not Grass

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

"Lawns are the largest irrigated “crops” in the US – using over 70 billion gallons a day" - NY Times

Why grow grass when you can grow flavorful and front-yard-fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers... and your own culinary herbs and herbal medicine to feed and nourish your family? You will also be creating a healthy ecosystem for soil organisms, insects, birds and all sorts of critters to flourish and continue to balance the ecosystem as the years progress.

In this post you will learn how to quickly and easily turn your lawn into a productive edible garden or food forest in three easy steps!

1) Cover with cardboard

Cover lawn or weedy dirt patch with thick layer of overlapping cardboard (remove tape, no

wax boxes)

2) Add arborist chips

Cover cardboard with a generous (at least 12 inch) layer of arborist chips aka wood chips. It will be bouncy and seem like too much at first. As everything starts to decompose it will settle.

Arborist chip resources:

  • Contact your local arborists! In Lynnwood: NW Arbor Care, EcoTree NW

  • offers free or low cost chip delivery through various arborists.

3) Add compost

Push back the wood chips where you want your garden beds to go and mound compost (24 inches or more as it will settle and you want to give room for your veggie plants to grow roots) directly on top of cardboard.

Of course, you could always add raised beds at this point as well. If so, there is no need to move the wood chips aside, just put your raised beds directly on top of the chips and fill with soil. As you grow in the soil the woodchips below will be breaking down and helping to create a healthy native soil below the raised bed that will eventually accept and welcome deeper rooted things, like tomatoes.

Soil resources:

  • Here in Snohomish County we are lucky to have Cedar Grove composting our household organics. Go in with a neighbor to share a bulk quantity so you can reduce the cost of delivery. Or, rent or borrow a truck to pick up a yard.

  • Check out your local nursery or garden center. Sky Nursery in Shoreline bulk soils that can pick up ½ yard at a time (I find this useful when top dressing my beds each year).

  • Dirt Exchange has a nice vegetable garden mix that includes the infamous Oly Mountain Fish Compost.

You’re ready to grow your garden!

If you're new to gardening, start with easy crops like lettuces, spinach, and herbs. Many herbs are perennial and come back year after year, or keep their leaves and foliage all year long to create interest and year-round herbs. My favorite perennial herbs to grow in garden beds, or at the edges of the garden beds, are rosemary, thyme, sage, agastache, lovage, and fennel. These are edible, medicinal, and provide food for beneficial insects and birds.

Sheet mulched front yard turned productive garden and food forest. Espalier fruit trees on arbor create an edible fence.

When to sheet mulch

Now is always the best time to begin! However, I've found that fall is the absolute best time. Avoid the hottest part of summer as the cardboard will not break down as efficiently and will just smother the soil. Fall sheet mulching allows the rain to thoroughly soak the cardboard and gives the soil organisms a jump start on breaking it down and so they get to working on breaking down the wood chips.

You may be able to start planting bigger things (like fruit trees and shrubs) into the wood chipped areas as soon as spring, but it totally depends on your native or base soil. You can test it by pulling back the chips and digging a hole. Is the sod broken down completely? Does the soil look dark and crumbly and is it easy to dig? You can begin planting your annual veggies in the compost areas, or raised beds, immediately though!

If sheet mulching is done in late winter or early spring, by fall you should be ready to plant into the sheet mulched soil: fruiting shrubs and dwarf trees, or columnar apple trees for tight spaces. Planting in the fall when rains start again ensure the plants get time and plenty of water to develop sturdy root systems before the following summer drought - and plants are cheaper then too!

Important planting tips and reminders

  1. Keep the wood chips on top of the soil! Always move the woodchips back when digging a hole. You do not want the woodchips to get mixed into the planting hole as it can cause competition for soil nutrients.

  2. Never amend the soil in the planting hole. You want the new plant roots to spread out looking for nutrients and resources, if you put them in the hole the plant will not be encouraged to do that. You can top dress with compost (place on top of the native soil) around the base of the new plant and then cover that with chips to hold in moisture. Be careful to not crowd the stem or trunk of the plant with the compost or woodchips.

Questions? Need help getting started?

Email Marni with any questions or to get more information about a garden consultation to help you get started creating your garden or food forest!

Take a class with Marni and be sure to sign up for emails to be notified about upcoming urban farming classes.

I look forward to hearing how your sheet mulching and garden project is going and would love to see photos of your lawn to garden conversion to share with others and inspire more people to grow food instead of grass.

Together we grow!


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