Planning Your Victory Garden
Building Beds With The Sheet Mulching Method
As many of you know, I have grown up with gardening of all types. As a child, my mother started a landscaping company in California which specialized in xeriscape. In Indiana, the business changed to residential cottage style gardens, incorporating many bright and colorful butterfly and bird-attracting perennial flowers. Over time the landscape company also opened a plant nursery, where I spent my after-school hours and weekends watering all the potted plants and soaking up the educational dialogue between my mother and her customers. At our nursery, we helped them find the right plants for their particular yard. The family landscaping business serviced some prominent clients such as the dean of a local university, doctors, professors, and we also established a wildlife habitat/ interactive children's garden in the middle of the city in the place that was once a parking lot.
In the later years of my mother's life she reverted to her own childhood gardening past, collecting rare and unusual conifers as my grandfather had done. While my mother grew up watering my grandfather's greenhouse, I grew up watering the plants in her greenhouse, and now I find myself in my own greenhouse teaching my kids how to properly water our plants. Gardening runs in the family, you might say.
Indeed, my grandfather was one of the first people to bring the Japanese Maple into the United States after his service in WWII. Some of his rare plant collections can still be found in the Washington Arboretum. He and my mother were members of the American Conifer Society, and there is even a Japanese Maple named after my grandfather.
Gardening Through the Years...
Yesterday I came across a photo of the beginning garden that my husband and I started here at our homestead. He and I have lived many places together, and we always plant gardens wherever we go. There was the time in North Carolina, living on the side of a mountain, when we hauled locust logs out of the woods, split them and built retaining walls for a terraced hillside. There was the time we were in a tiny city apartment in the nearby college town, and after receiving permission for our landlord, we removed about 75% of the lawn and planted all manner of vegetables and flowers. After that, we lived in the deep woods and sowed hundreds of Ginseng seeds over the couple of acres that held our small cottage. We would venture out of the woods, into the sunshine- down a few backroads to a shared garden a few miles away, where we worked with a friend to grow beets, tomatoes, squash, herbs and Asian greens. Following that, we were living on a cow farm in a yurt. That was our first "dream garden". It seemed so big back then. Doug built our first little greenhouse (the 12 x 16 the you can find a tutorial on right here on our Subscribe Star). At that garden we grew almost everything-sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, onions, lettuces, even our own tobacco! And finally, we are here. We have lived here for nearly ten years and the gardens have changed drastically since the beginning. We bought 3 1/2 acres of blank canvas.
The Sheet Mulched Garden...
In the photo below you can see how we started. It was always important for us to try no-till gardening, and this bottomland was prime for that method of growing. Tilling can be a quick way to put in a garden, and in some places nearly necessary- but if the conditions are right, no-till is the way to go. Weeds are quite reduced and the soil is nourished and built over time, vs. tilling the each year which gives life to dormant weed seeds and stripping away precious topsoil. Topsoil is truly precious and in some cases takes hundreds of thousands of years to accumulate. The minerals and beneficial earthworms are also conserved with no-till gardening. Ultimately, it is lower maintenance, more harmonious, and more sustainable for you and your crops in the long run.
As you can see in the photo below, we used "sheet mulching" to establish the gardens. This is a fun and easy way to begin a garden. Personally, I find the idea of building raised beds using wood and other hardware dreadful, but I can acknowledge that they might have some benefits for some people. (Please let me know what they are)
Here are a few reasons we would not choose raised beds (as in, built with wooden frames, etc.):
1. Lumber is expensive
2. Time is precious
3. Weeds will still come up in the raised beds
4. They dry out much more quickly and need to be watered more frequently
5. Typically they are not done properly (i.e the soil needs to be aerated or tilled slightly below the placement of the raised beds otherwise you end up with a "bathtub effect".
6. Over time, they'll need to be replaced
With sheet mulching, you can create a long lasting garden using natural materials.
There are several ways to go about it. You can lightly till the soil before making your sheet mulched beds, or you can gently aerate the soil (right into the lawn!) with a digging fork or broad fork. I highly recommend the broad fork as a VIP in the tool shed.
Then, you layer. We added slow release rock phosphate and other minerals by sprinkling them directly onto the lawn, which was mowed down as low as possible. Next, we fork the whole (future) garden using the broad fork. This is essentially just poking a lot of holes in the ground and also a fantastic workout. Then, we water the lawn (future garden area) unless it is already moist from ample rainfall.
After that we alternate layers of anything good and organic that we can get our hands on such as composted manure (or fresh manure- *see below), finished compost, chopped (or whole) autumn leaves, straw, spoiled old hay, wood chips from a tree company (no Black Walnut!), green manure such as fresh cut grass clippings, and so on. Each bed might not have the same layers. The important part is to have a balance of nitrogen and carbon. Manures and compost need to be balanced with carbon. Straw is the star here.
What I have described above is the omnivore's or "poor man's" approach. We use anything we can. We have even added peat moss before if it was on hand. But if you have the resources- the best combination is just straw and compost.
It is optional, but recommended, to lay newspapers down over the moist, aerated soil/ lawn prior to building your beds. This will not only suppress weeds, but it will also draw earthworms tot eh soil surface- they will find your delicious treats on top and begin to work through the layers, all the while helping decomposition and depositing valuable castings.
How much to layer?
Your beds should have between 3 to 4 total layers and be about 12 inches tall. By planting time, they will have decomposed and will be just slightly above ground level.
When can I plant?
Ideally, after creating the sheet ,mulched garden, you let it rest for at least three months, the longer the better. If your ground is not frozen solid, now would be a fine time to begin. You can then be ready for planting time in the late spring.
How to plant?
One caveat to this method, is that when your beds are brand new, and you are in your first year, sowing seeds directly into the ground will be more challenging. If you are planning to do that, see below. Otherwise, just take your seedlings, measure out your bed and how far apart you'll plant things, and then pull the "mulch" back, dig a little hole, and tuck in your plants. You can then push the mulch back around the plant. This is yet another great thing about sheet mulching- your beds are already mulched which results in better water retention during heat and droughts. Don't forget to water your plants in as usual.
About sowing seeds...
If you are sowing tiny seeds such as carrots, or even beets or radishes and/or you want to use a seeder, we typically remove a long strip of mulch by separating it with a shovel, a rake, or by hand. We get the strip down to the bare, original soil, and then fork it really well to loosen the "clods". Then you can sow the seeds. Once they are sprouted and several inches tall, you can choose to leave the mulch separated, or bring it back around the bases of the plants, depending on what type of crop it is.
If you are using certain types of fresh manure, as in- you just scooped it out of your chicken coop or goat shed- be aware of the guidelines for safety. Our local conservation office recommends that fresh manure be allowed to break down for at least three months before consuming any above ground, fruited plant parts such as squash, tomatoes, etc. I believe it is even longer for things such as root vegetables or fresh greens. Check with your local county extension agent to find out what they recommend.
Different manures might have different guidelines. Rabbit and Alpaca for instance, have pellets and not "manure"...
The Quickest Method...
You can simply order a truck load of high quality finished compost or a blend of compost and garden soil and have it dumped onto your prepared lawn/future garden area. Rake it out so that it is at least 4 inches deep, then cover with a nice thick layer of straw or hay. let it rest 3 or more months and then plant.
I think one thing that people might like about the wooden raised beds is that they have borders. Everyone loves a nice border, so I can understand that. However, it is misleading to think that wooden or retainer beds will keep weeds out. Weeds will come through and even bust the boards apart by the second year. Weed seeds can still fall into the beds and germinate there, and other weeds will come right up through that garden soil that looked so clean and pretty when the garden was first planted.
The best way to control weeds around the border of a garden and in the pathways is to lay THICK cardboard down and mulch over the top of it. The mulch can be wood chips, autumn leaves, or straw/ hay. Never pay good money for hardwood mulch- I'm talking about using the kind of wood chips that tree companies have. Most of them are happy to dump them on your property and they are a valuable resource on the homestead. Beware of black walnut though.
The best part about the sheet mulching method is that weeds are controlled in the beds, as long as you have layered sufficiently. Do not cut corners or underestimate the importance of building thick layers.
If this all still sounds like too much work, see part two, which is the method we switched to, and have now been using for several years. Spoiler- you still won't need a tiller, but you will need birds.