Last post I mentioned that I’d share some gardening tips with you. Since I started gardening back in the 80’s, a lot of new things have come to market, but for organic gardening, it’s pretty much the same story – feed the soil. But what if you are starting from scratch – in other words, starting from a lawn - how do you get started?
I wish I’d learned about permaculture a long time ago because my farm, and previous yards, would look a lot different. But, we learn and implement what we do as information becomes available to us and from that, we often grow. In this case, literally!
So I’m going to share with you a bit of a modified version of how I used to suggest starting a garden from an existing lawn area. And this is true even if you just have an overgrown patch of weeds, too. But many reading this are converting lawns to gardens – and YAY for that!
I generally start out my gardening classes with the disclaimer that my way is by far not the only way and that I don’t hold all of the answers.
Much of what I have learned and apply today, was learned by listening to others who have much more wisdom and experience than me. I always try to remember my sources to give credit, too. That way you can look up more information or clarify something I’ve said.
In this case, the method I’m going to share with you is part of a permaculture technique called “Sheet Mulching”. This technique has been called a variety of things and is taught by many others in various forms, including brilliant homesteader and wonderful gardener and author Ruth Stout who wrote How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.
Toby Hemenway is the author of an awesome book called Gaia’s Garden. If you’ve not ever read it, I’d really suggest picking up a copy. It’s a great resource guide that I was told about while taking a permaculture class given by Larry Korn, who studied under another great teacher, farmer and author of yet another great book, called One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka. So what I’m going to share with you, is nothing new, but it’s certainly revolutionized many people’s gardening attempts, and it seems permaculture is making a broader appearance lately.
Step 1, in my opinion, is to start small. Seriously. Once you get an idea of how much time the upkeep will take you for the size plot you start with, you can gauge whether or not you’d like to increase the size the following season. But let's not bite off a huge chunk and let it get away from us the first season. It's not really difficult to grow some of your own food, but it will take some time.
Plot location is as important as plot size in that you need to have at least 4-6 hours of (preferably) morning sun. Afternoon sun really doesn’t benefit growth as much do the sun’s rays during the early part of the day. There are some plants that can grow without much sun, and if you’re patient, you can still have a garden with only 4 hours of morning sun. But let’s hope you can find a corner or plot somewhere with a bit more than that.
So, now let's say we’ve selected a nice, manageable slice of land that gets at least 4 hours of sun.
Here’s the abridged directions of what Toby calls the “Ultimate, Bomb-Proof Sheet Mulch”;
I would change one thing around, just to make it a bit easier, and that is to mow grass/weeds low before you start, rather than after his step 1, as he outlines in his book. Leave the clippings on the ground.
- Water area to be prepared the day before – or better yet, plan to do this the day after a good, soaking rain.
- Add any soil amendments needed for your soil type. Such items would include, lava sand, rock phosphate, perhaps some kelp meal. We’ve discussed soil amendments a few times before (or you can check the web site for more info.)
- Loosen heavy clay, using a garden fork. You are not digging or turning the soil. Just push the garden fork in and rock it back and forth a bit, all around the site. This adds air to the soil and allows amendments to soak in faster as well as give soil critters some wiggle room.
- Add a thin layer of a source of nitrogen. You can use a general organic fertilizer like Texas Tea or Lady Bug, cottonseed meal, feather meal or even some decomposed farm animal manure. Horse and chicken manure is in abundance here, so that’s generally what I use.
- Layer with several sheets of newspaper, or, much easier to use, large pieces of cardboard. Be sure to overlap the edges by about 6 inches, to block out light. That is KEY! Newspaper needs to be about ¼ - ½ of an inch thick. Weeds can push through otherwise. Wet each layer thoroughly as you lay it out. Hopefully, you saved some rainwater from the last rain event.
- Sprinkle another thin layer of the nitrogen source over the “sheet” layer.
- On top of this, add 8-12 inches of a bulk mulch material, like finely ground tree trimmings, leaves, (abundantly available this time of the year) or even old straw bales. Be careful NOT to use old bales of Bermuda grass hay. It can have seeds in it and we don’t want to go “there”!
- Wet this layer down well. It will encourage rotting of any weed seeds that may be present and help material to break down faster. The consistency of a wrung out sponge is what you’re looking for.
- Now, add a layer, about 2 inches thick, of compost. Homemade is the best, but if you’re just starting out, you may need to buy some. Give me a call and I can order it bulk for you and have it delivered to your house. I have a favorite source I’ve used on and off for many years back when I was doing landscapes and had a more active garden center. They test their compost regularly and it’s safe for use in a vegetable garden.
- (Before you partake in any “free” compost, ask questions.
- What is their source of raw materials?
- Do they test it for herbicides? (You don’t want to apply some kind of herbicide ridden compost to your new garden. Not only would it defeat the organic component, but if it’s got a broad leaf weed killer present, you’ll also damage your desired plants’ growth.)
- If the compost isn’t moist, wet it down.
- Top off with a nice clean, weed free layer of shredded mulch. I like to get free mulch from local tree trimmers. You can also use a thick layer of leaves, however when they dry, they tend to blow around. Mulch’s job is not only to provide a nice, finished look, but to help reduce erosion.
That’s it! You now have a garden in the making. Go back inside, make some hot tea, look at some seed catalogs and dream!
The winter rains will help break down the layers of newspaper or cardboard and all of that yummy organic matter will be creating a wonderful, living layer of topsoil, complete with earthworms and other beneficials, and a growing bed for your new spring garden, while you wait out ol’ man winter.
You actually can plant sooner, if you want to, by slicing open the newspaper/cardboard and setting weather appropriate seeds or transplants over the openings.
Onions are not fans of weeds and this type of weed free garden bed may be a super easy vegetable to start with. “Onion Sets” are available here at Eden’s as well as in most other garden and feed stores. Look for “short day” varieties.
NOTE: I suggest waiting until about mid February as onions are biennials and can be “tricked” into their 2nd growing season by our topsy turvy temperatures. But many people have planted early and get a decent to very nice crop planting at various times. There’s no hard and fast rule with onions and when you’re not planting hundreds of row feed, you can afford to take a few risks. But just a word of caution; if planted too early, some may begin to flower before they finish making a full sized bulb under ground.
If you’re a rookie, you may want to start with transplants this spring for things like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which can be a bit tricky starting from seed.
The roots of seeds or transplants will find their way into the nice, rich and weed free plot you’ve created without breaking your back, a shovel, renting a sod cutter or hiring a crew to dig up the grass.