Composting is a rich and fertile topic, and there  is always something more to learn.  I got my most recent lesson at a presentation on Sheet Mulching by Kate Heiber-Cobb, a Permaculture Designer and founder of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild.

The beauty of compost!

Heiber-Cobb says that sheet mulching is also called a compost comforter, which I thought better describes the process.  What gets piled up is a lot thicker than a sheet.  It’s more like a Seven-Layer Salad for your soil.

Sheet composting is a no-dig, layered-mulch method of turning lawn turf or other vegetation into a rich and vibrant growing medium without first removing the existing ground cover.

The premise is that digging out the targeted plants is not only unnecessary – it is deleterious and detrimental.

Tilling will disturb the microbial community already happily living there.   What we might think of as plain dirt is actually an interactive cosmos of micro-organisms  insects and earth worms.  It reminded me of Horton Hears a Who.  There is a whole tiny universe going about its beneficial business in the soil.

Just weeks ago, Doug and I laboriously tilled up an area to prepare it for future gardening, and now I’m thinking we could have saved ourselves a lot of effort and approached the process more gently.

Heiber-Cobb says fall is a great time to do sheet mulching, if you want to have a new garden spot next spring.  If it is done right, it will be ready to plant.

But tucking your new bed under a compost comforter requires gathering a lot of materials.  I am going to start working now on accumulating so I can quilt up a compost comforter in the spring.  Then we can compare how the tilled and non-tilled beds do.

You can find a step-by-step guild to Sheet Mulching here.

Basically it involves  alternating 5 layers of carbon and nitrogen, the two elements that activate the composting process and turn all the materials into rich, moisture-holding soil.

Think of nitrogen as the green, fresh, wet materials, and carbon as the dry, woody stuff.  A good ratio is 3 inches of dry leaves or straw to one inch of compost or manure.

Here’s how Heiber-Cobb does it.

1.   (nitrogen layer) Start by cutting the lawn or other plants and leave everything lay where it falls.  Add some concentrated compost to jump-start microbial activity.  Heiber-Cobb recommends 40 pounds per each 100 sq. ft.  That’s a layer about 2 to 3 inches thick.

...This is the good stuff! (photo credit )

2.  (carbon layer) This is the biodegradable weed barrier.  Use cardboard or newspaper.  Make sure there are no gaps in this covering, and make it thick.  If you are using newspaper, use 6-9 sheets thick.  (don’t worry about color photos.  It’s usually soy ink these days).  If you are using cardboard, get the biggest sheets you can find, but make sure you remove tape and staples.  (If you do this in the spring, you can cut holes in the cardboard and set your plants right into them.)

...Permaculture in practice. (photo credit )

3.  (nitrogen layer) A good manure layer comes next.

4.  (carbon layer) Now add a layer of shredded paper or straw.

5.  (nitrogen layer) Finally top it with a layer of kitchen compost and garden soil mix.

This sounds like a lot of work, but a great way to generate a healthy, productive and ultimately low maintenance ecosystem.  I’ve always loved introducing organic matter into any soil I am responsible for, but this system seems both more organized and more effective  than my past efforts.  So, we’ll see!

How do you like to enrich your soil?

6 replies

  1. inspiring photos and article, Denise. I think I’ll have to reinvigorate my own compost pile, and get back into gardening, period.

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for you kind words. I hope you do reinvigorate your compost pile. Organic matter is always in motion. It breaks down into compost quickly, and is used up quickly. Our gardens are always asking for more and thanking us in beautiful and delicious ways when we provide.

  2. We heavily mulched everything this year with straw from our meadows, and we have plenty of it which is not good enough for feed so we compost it. Your idea did make me wonder about trying to mulch the ground elder we have out of existence. Problem is that we would want to seed it with traditional grasses then and I am not sure if it is available.

    I feel an experiment coming on though. Mulch one area, till another and keep cut another area – oh yes we have lots of the dreaded weed

    • It will be interesting to see how you do with the ground elder. I had to look it up because (knocking on wood while typing) I don’t have a problem with that at this time. Wikipedia says, “In some areas, this plant is considered among the worst of weeds, as it readily spreads over large areas of ground by underground rhizomes. It is extremely invasive, and crowds out native species. The smallest piece of rhizome left in the ground will quickly form a sturdy new plant, followed by many more.

      If a small plant finds its way into a perennial flower garden it will spread with vigor, resist all attempts at eradication, and make continued ornamental gardening there very difficult.”

      Yikes! Those rhizome-spreading invasives are really tough to dislodge. If you tried a layer of cardboard or newspaper, I would make it extra thick. And it might take a number of years.
      At least it seems to be edible and nontoxic so that you can bite it but it won’t bite you.

      I wish you loads of luck,

    • I’m not sure what happened to my original reply here. I looked up ground elder because it’s not (as yet) on my look-out-for list. I think one of the things that the sheet mulching does to turn the things growing under it into earth instead of invasives is that cardboard or newspaper layer, which smothers the plants under it a bit. The workshop leader emphasized that there can be no gaps in the layer. Everything needs to be thoroughly overlapped, so no sun gets through,
      I looked up ground elder and found it spreads through rhizomes, and those are the toughest invasives to discourage.
      Digging them out is almost useless because if you leave a tiny fragment of a rhizone (and of course you will) — there it goes all over again. Maybe smothering it from the top works better.
      As you say, an experiment is the best way to learn.

      • We did find that shallow ploughing the area seriously impeded it as it brought the roots to the surface where the frost got to them but we don’t want to do that to all the areas.

        For small areas, picking the leaves on a regular basis works and they are the some of the fist leaves to grow at the beginning of the year when they are quite palatable as a spinach substitute or as an addition to a spring salad. Pity we can’t eat it to oblivion on our land through.

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