Last year we expanded our vegetable garden three-fold by converting grass into raised beds. My plan for last autumn was to sheet mulch the last row of grass that receives any sun, making it ready for spring planting. Sheet mulching is the great, labor-saving method of converting any grassy-weedy area into a nutrient-rich garden bed by layering compostable material onto it, and letting it sit for several months. It mimics natural systems, in which layers of leafy litter fall to the earth and compost over time, without tilling. Many garden websites have instructions for sheet mulching–these from the New York Permaculture Exchange are pretty straightforward. BUT of course I was too busy or lazy or something last fall and didn’t get to the sheet mulching, which meant, yesterday, gathering my little Urban Land Army (Tom and Claire) and going at the sod with a shovel.
This is a controversial step–urban soil tends to be so distressed, removing the top layer of grass also removes any semblance of a soil ecosystem, and most permaculturists recommend mulching and planting over the grass. But I am a little neurotic about grass removal. In my experience, grass is SO tenacious–it starts growing back around the garden edges, and sprouting up between my carrots, no matter how much soil is piled on top of it. It stresses me out. As much as I agree with the permaculture philosophy, in my own yard (once the chance for sheet mulching has passed), I am a grass-remover-soil-amender, doing as much as I can to rebuild the soil after sod removal, with the help of chickens and compost and future good habits. Besides, I like digging with my family…
The new bed isn’t that big–2 feet wide by maybe 20 feet long. We removed as much of the wormy soil from the sod as we could, and put the rest in the chickens’ pen. They were tickled, nibbling grass and finding worms all afternoon. They’ll have it converted to fine, manure-rich soil in no time.
Meanwhile, my friend David, who works on making the waste products from the coffee industry available to gardeners through his UpCycle Northwest project (and who I wrote about in the recent coffee chaff in the chicken coop post) was looking for gardeners to experiment with chaff and spent grounds as soil amendment, and burlap coffee bags as weed block/sheet mulch. We said “Sure!” and he showed up yesterday like Santa Claus with a truck full of bags and chaff and coffee grounds. We wet down the new bed, layered it with the nitrogen-rich chaff and grounds, and–to speed composting for late spring planting– covered it with the burlap. I intend to amend the soil further with composted chicken manure from the coop. We’ll soil test and see how it turns out.
The burlap coffee bags are beautiful, and I loved reading their stamped labels as we spread them–they came from Guatemala, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Mexico…David saves the ones with the cleanest, nicest labels for crafters, who repurpose them into handbags. The rest are offered to gardeners, for whom they nicely replace that nasty plastic weekblock, and make the perfect first layer in a sheet mulch. I am planning to plant this bed in a couple of months, so we will probably remove the burlap, rather than letting it fully compost, but I’ll try it as proper sheet mulch in the future, and will let you know how this experiment fares.
You’ll see there is some grass left, and if we lived somewhere that grass required upkeep, I would remove all of it. But the rest of our grass is all in the shade, unsuitable for most food gardening. We never water it, just let it die back in the summer, and it’s mostly moss (which is soft), and dandelions (which we and the hens can eat). We use one corner to pitch our backyard camping tent in the summer, and a nice mossy spot for a quilt where we read and play games. I am very pleased that, at least at this house, my grass removing days are complete!
For information on obtaining burlap coffee bags, and more on upcycling, (the in-word for smarter/better recycling, making use of the energy in the initial production of something, rather than using more energy to break it down into raw materials–or, as David puts it, finding “the highest and best re-use for the material rather than the easiest or most obvious”), see David’s website.
And for more on turning lawns into food, explore the wonderful Cascadia Food Not Lawns website!