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!
Very inspirational! I am not familiar with the term “upcycling” so have some research to do now!
Oh, sorry Nancy. I’ll add an upcycling definition into the post–upcycling is the re-use of a thing in its current form before consigning it to the landfill, or even the recycle bin. In recycling, lots of energy is used to break something down and then rebuild it–often in a weaker form than the original. Upcycling captures the energy already inherent in the original thing.
I hate digging sod — too much hard work for my middle aged back. I wish I had discovered sheet mulching when I was a young woman. My current garden was completely created using a very THICK layer of newspaper (10 or so sheets thick), which I wet down and then piled 18-24″ of dirt and compost (which I purchased and had delivered) on top.
Good for you, Erica–there are many ways to skin a cat. And your method involves principles of both sheet mulching and upcycling!
Inspiring to see your hard work. The burlap bags are a great idea. The chaff made me laugh 🙂 because this weekend my child’s friend brought over some chaff–her family had tried adding it to bedding for their chickens, who apparently hated it and ran away (though who knows what they were actually fleeing in their little chicken minds), so the girls decided it would be brilliant bedding for the stable full of toy horses in my girl’s room. The result? Chaff all over the place, and a job for the vacuum.
We started digging around in our garden this weekend, too–the portion of the yard devoted to grass continues to shrink (we also put in raised beds last year for veggies). Hard work, but so rewarding when you stir-fry that chard.
That’s so funny to hear of these chickens’ reaction–my hens just love chaff in their coop! Yes, the workings of the chicken brain are indeed mysterious…
My chickens seem to have hated the chaff initially (poultry brains and novelty do not mix well) but after about a day seemed to like it a lot. I use it as duff, directly on the ground, where it keeps things drier.
I had the brilliant idea to try to use chaff in their nesting boxes, thinking it soft and downy. Awful. The eggs as they come out of the hens are just damp enough that the chaff sticks all over them and doesn’t come off (which is not a problem with the more standard wood shavings). So I’ve learned no to use it there!
What a great idea! Just like your summer garden plans help you get through winter chores, your gardening posts help keep me motivated for the time when I have a yard to plant. I used to have a small container garden on my apartment balcony, but in my new apartment there is no place outside for plants. I have a few plants inside, but my tenacious cats determine what and how much I can grow.
Suffice it to say, I am bursting with excitement to garden, raise chickens, and pitch my own summer tent. Maybe in a couple years…
Thanks for all the inspiration.
We converted our weedy-“grass” lawn over the past 2 years and used the burlap/coffee grounds that we collected from coffee shops around Seattle. It worked awesome! In building our raised beds I flipped over the existing sod, covered it with cardboard and then layers of organic straw, coffee grounds, chaff and whatever I could get my hands on. Covered it all with burlap and let it break down some. Planted a cover crop on it after a few months and it was ready to go. Not completely broken down, but definitely ready for planting. Burlap + coffee grounds= urban farming bliss!
I was really tempted to get the burlap bags for my garden as well but they apparently they aren’t organic and I’m afraid of any pesticide that may come in with them so I declined. I’ll be watching to see how it works for you, if you have any issues with plants not thriving in that soil later.
Eats – I’ve done some research and it really looks like many jute farms are actually organic, or at least do not use pesticides and herbicides (since jute is a pretty tough grass, it needs very little coddling and care).
Here’s one reference I found that talks about typical production methods: http://www.bagsgogreen.com/jute.html
If you learn more, please get in touch with me. Thanks!
After reading your last blog about the chaff, I got to work calling the coffee roasting place here in Spokane, and sure enough they have a ton of it! I am so excited and am planning on dropping off a garbage can for them to fill up weekly for my coop and also for the compost. I am so excited!!!
Thanks so much!
Thanks for all the thoughts, everybody!
Beth–thanks for your sweet comments. I am trying to think of more things apartment-dwellers can do to feel connected to the rhythms of nature. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.
Meg–sounds like you did it right!
Sustainable Eats–very important point, and David, thanks for you comment. I’ve been talking to other more experienced organic farmers about this, who support David’s point, and feel very comfortable with reused burlap when compared to other typical options for sheet mulch/weed block: newspaper or cardboard created via checmical processes in pulp mills, wood chips of dubious origin, or of course plastic. Still, I am going to research this further. We have some photos of sissal plantations we walked through in East Africa, and of local jute-making processes. I’ll try to find them and add them to the blog.
Alicia–great! Let us know how it works for you.
Hi Lyanda. I am tickled to find your blog as I have just bought Crow Planet for a friend who is like the north-of-the-border equivalent of you. I can hardly wait to see her next week to give it to her! After I do I’ll direct her here to soak up all your sustainable urban goodness.
That is exciting since I like to grow my potatoes in burlap bags – it lets you change the dirt year to year and allows you to hill them easily and tuck them into odd corners of the garden. Then at harvest time you just dump the bag in a wheel barrel and dig through the dirt for potatoes so you don’t miss any of them. I’m definitely getting in on the next pickup David!
This is a great idea… thanks for passing it on!
Found your blog via your article in Utne about Crow Planet. Loved the article and this post. I live high up on the 6th floor of a building in Seattle, but enjoy crows, seagulls, and other people’s yards on regular neighborhood walks. Thanks for the lovely photos of your very cute and helpful chickens.
I just got a few dozen sacks from David (hah, funny I found your post) and am going to see how they work for blocking grass and weeds around my baby fruit trees. I’ll probably put some composty kind of stuff to decompose under them, too, and see how happy the soil will get. Just need to wait for the next sunny day. 🙂
What a surprise; your coop is the same colors as our garden shed in the nearby Shorewood neighborhood! I shared this post with my sister in WI who, along with her husband, is converting an ice shanty into a coop.
Would love to hear more about this project. We are starting a pilot community garden in our city and have been thinking about using burlap from a local coffee roaster to take care of the grass. Any thoughts?
The burlap will work, but it will take many months for grass to die (no matter what you cover it with). Wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time, and stop humans from planting lawns int he first place? Let me hook you up with David at Upcycle Northwest who has worked with lots of people on this…
I’m with Lyanda on this; grass by its very nature is tough, durable stuff. (I was just reading the other day how grasses evolved an entirely different chemical pathway for photosynthesis that, while less efficient from a solar energy point of view, is much more thrifty with water – hence the ability of grasses to grow in arid conditions that would kill lesser plants.)
So, they’re tough cookies – but not indestructible. If you don’t want to dig the grass out first (and who would?), burlap mulching to get rid of it still works fine, given time. But you can help the process along greatly:
– Play barber: mow/weedwhack the grass you’re going to cover as low as you can first.
– Cover it with a layer of mulch / chaff / grass clippings / compost.
– Put the burlap bags on top, but (and here’s the critical step!) take an extra moment to put a layer of thin cardboard, a sheet of kraft paper, a few brown paper bags, or even some sheets of newspaper into the bags. Make sure that it goes all the way into the corners.
– Stake the bags down thoroughly and make sure they’re slightly overlapped. Mulch or bark over the top if you prefer for the aesthetics.
The layer of cardboard/paper in the bags will give a few extra months of complete light and water blockage, and make it less likely the grass blades can sneak their way through. By the time the paper dissolves naturally away, the grass should be long gone.
Let us know how it works for you!
-David / Seattle Burlap
My name is Rev Jerry Rice,Guess you are doing fine.Am sending this email to make an inquiry of Burlap Bags and i am looking for the 17″ X 30″ Burlap Bags (1,000 per Bale) and i want you to get back to me with the price on that.If you don’t have any of this can you let me know what you offer in your shop or advise me with your web site address,hope to hear from you soon.
Rev Jerry Rice
Rev Rice, I don’t sell burlap–for sales info, click on the Seattle Burlap link in the blog post. Good luck.
I am really fascinated by the way you have used burlap sacks in your garden!
I had heard of coffee grinds and cardboard, but apparently I missed the memo on burlap sacks! Thanks for the tip!
I’m new to the practice of self-sufficiency, but have been gathering knowledge for years, waiting.
Now I have a home and have been in the front yard laying down cardboard and any grass clippings I can get from the neighbours. When I have access to a truck I head to places offering free manure to place on top of the cardboard and grass.
I recently came across an ad for free chaff and have found a huge resource of chaff and bags, (all free!), within a few miles of home.
After finding this post while doing research I will be getting some as well!
So my layers are built in the order of; cardboard, clippings, chaff and manure.
Should I set the burlap over everything and wait for lawn death? Or should I add more amendments? I’d like to plant this spring but it is a big project.
If it would be better to wait I can start laying down the urbanite and bricks I’ve gathered for walkways. I could also build the fence and vertical panels for my beans.
Lots to do, just trying to plan my steps!
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