Sheet Mulching

I’ve mentioned that I intend to sheet mulch my yard this year. To the uninitiated (including me), this is what sheet muching is, and how to do it:

Sheet Mulching for Home Gardens

The first thing to say about sheet mulching is that it saves a great deal of labour, and a great deal of water, while dispensing with the material that normally goes into a landfill. Thus mulching also saves money for public authorities, and produces an excellent soil. Another appeal is that the system is tool-free and suppresses all weeds: ivy, couch, docks, thistle, dandelions and even blackberries. Before starting, plant any large trees or shrubs from the nursery as usual. (dig a spacious hole, place the baby tree in the hole and gently back-fill, ideally with a mixture of rotted manure and soil. Gently firm around the base of the tree. Make sure the tree is suited to its siting–this should be decided previously by your planting design.)The first step (see diagram) is to sprinkle a handful of lime and a handful of chicken manure (or any organic high nitrogen manure). Nitrogen starts off the process of reducing the carbon in the following layers. Don’t bother to dig, level, or weed the area. Your first attempt should be very close to the house, preferably starting from a foundation or path which is itself weed free. Thus you are protected from invasion of weeds from the rear, so to speak.

Now, proceed to tile and overlap the area with sheet mulch material. This can be cardboard, hardboard, newspapers, old carpet (non-synthetic — Admin), under felt, old mattresses or clothing, rotted palings or thin wood. If you have a bucket of non-noxious wastes like tea leaves, peelings, leaves and small food scraps, scatter these first, for the worms. If you have a source of weed–seedy hay or like material, bury this also below the overlapping material, so that no weeds follow on. Cover the area to be mulched completely leaving no holes for weeds to poke through. If you have a valuable tree or shrub in the way, tear the base material and wrap it around the stem. Go on leaving only valuable plants (some dandelions, clover, useful small plants) with their leaves poking out. Water this first layer well and then apply, in sequence: 75 mm of either

  • horse stable straw
  • poultry manure in sawdust
  • seaweed
  • leaf mould or raked leaves or any of these mixed.

All of these are manurial or contain essential elements. All hold water well. Follow these with dry, weed-free material on top: 150 mm of either

  • pine needles
  • nut shells
  • leaf mould or raked leaves
  • dry straw (not hay)
  • bark, chips or sawdust or any of these mixed.

FINISH. Water until fairly well soaked. Always put at least 225 mm of cover over the paper, cardboard etc. 300 mm is better, 375 mm too much, {less is of no use, so do a small area very well, not a large area thinly or sloppily. It takes about 20 minutes to cover an area some 10 m x 10 m, and if you have all the materials at hand it is no trouble at all, and looks very well. Now take large seeds (beans, peas, chick peas, etch tubers (potato, Jerusalem artichoke etc.), small plants (herbs, tomato, celery, lettuce, cabbage etch and small potted plants. Set them out as follows: With your hands burrow down a small hole to the base of the loose top mulch. Punch or slit a hole in the sheet mulch and push in the seed or tuber or plant the small seedling in it . For seeds and tubers, put the mulch back over. For seedlings, hold the leaves softly in one hand, and bring the mulch up to the base of the plant. OK instant garden. Time to retire. An important thing to do is to quite fill up the area with plants, according to the prior planting plan you had worked out on paper. For instance:

  • camomile and thyme near the path;
  • larger herbs behind them (marjoram, sage, comfrey),
  • potatoes and tubers behind this;
  • small fruits and fruit trees at the outer border

Any holes can be filled with strawberries, cloves of garlic, onion plants, potatoes, or some such useful plant, at random. If you must sow small seed then do it in this way: Pull back the mulch in a row; lay down a line of sand, and sow small seeds of radish, carrot, etc. Cover with a narrow board for a few days, until seeds have sprouted (or sprout them first on damp paper). Then remove the board and draw mulch up as the tops grow. Root crops don’t do well in their first year as the soil is still compacted and there is too much manure so they tend to fork out. Plant most root crops in the second year, when it is only necessary to pull back the loose top mulch to reveal a layer of fine dark soil. By the end of the first summer, the soil is revolutionised, and will contain hundreds of worms and soil bacteria. Just add a little top mulch to keep levels up, usually a mix of chips, bark, pine needles and hay. Scatter a little lime. For permanent beds do no more, but annuals need occasional fresh mulch seer harvest their wastes are “tucked under” as are all your food wastes from the kitchen. Worms also are so active that the leaves and peelings disappear overnight. Leather boots take a little longer, jeans a week or so, and dead ducks a few days.

Whether from neighbours untended fences, or from the uncontrolled edge of your own cultivation, the mulched area of zone one is under constant attack from ground invaders. Comfrey or any vigorous herbs should be planted as a barrier around your protected area, mulch it with cardboard, sawdust and straw, and rest easy from the labour of keeping your borders safe. The same approach can be used to contain useful rampant species, so that blackberries can be confined to openings in the forest, reedmace to pond edges surrounded by alder, and mint confined by shady dense bushes, rather than in tubs. Hens make a mess of mulch, but ducks can be released in mid winter to clean up slugs and snails. Sawdust, toads, frogs and birds protect from slugs, snails, wood lice and earwigs.


There is no need to rotate plants in this system, or to ‘rest the ground’. Potatoes are simply placed on top of the old mulch and re-mulched. But then there is no need to leave room to hoe or dig either, so plants may be stacked much more closely, preferably in mixed beds rather than in strict rows. By frequent replanting (guided by intuition and design), the garden will start to assume the healthy appearance of a mixed herbal pasture. The reasons for this “Untidy” approach are: symbiosis; Neighbouring plants help each other for example by:

  • One plant making nutrients in surplus for another (the classic example being nitrogen fixing plants).
  • Water drawn up from the subsoil by deep rooted species made available to surrounding plants
  • Reducing pest and disease infestations – by direct mutual aid e.g. aromatic herbs repel pests or by plants (like dill or fennel) attracting or feeding predators that range over a garden eating many other insects. Overall vitality is raised.

For more info about designing for beneficial interactions see the Permaculture literature. Some strong weeds may force through. Carry some damp newspaper and a bucket of sawdust. If perhaps 10% of the docks or couch comes up, sheet with paper and again, cover with sawdust. All eventually die out under this treatment, leaving the area clear of all weeds: only your plants have their heads in the air. Another ploy is to dig up dock roots, bury kitchen scraps there, and re-mulch.


Water only when needed; that is if plants wilt. Feel down in the mulch, and if it is damp at base it doesn’t need water. Most of your work is in extending the system, filling in spaces with useful plugs, and designing the plantings or harvesting. Keep the garden full at all times. In the first year, however, the base of the mulch are slow to develop. Newly planted seedlings need water initially, as in normal gardening.

Trees make quite phenomenal growth in this system, and bear several years earlier than in clean tilled ground. The soil improves permanently. Trees may never need fresh mulch, as in a few years the larger trees and shrubs become self mulching, the herbs hold their own, and only the annuals need annual attention. Potatoes are picked, not dug and the mulch kept up close to prevent greening off. They also do better in the second or subsequent years.

Never bury sawdust or chips, just put them on top where atmospheric nitrogen breaks down the wood. Worms add sufficient manure to supply the base manure. Keep the mulch lose, don’t let it mat, and thus mix lawn clippings or sawdust with stiff dry material like chips or pine needles, bark, etc. Observation and trial are the rules. Try a small area first, extend later. Now a little reflection will reveal the social benefits of a domestic sheet mulch. By using all organic wastes productively, you make the grade from consumer to producer, and the very nature of your garbage pail alters to harmless materials. If you extend the mulch out to the front garden, then so much the better. Then you can inspire your neighbours. Mass urban (and rural ) mulching…


In a few months you will note many free tomato and tree seedlings and the like spring up from your mulch. These may arise from your kitchen wastes bucket, or can be deliberately broadcast sown, as sheet mulch is the best way to propagate healthy plants. Judicious thinning, replanting, gifts, and sales use of the surplus seedlings. Yet another effect of litter and mulch is outlined in Habitat (Vol. 4 of May, 1977, pp. 16-17), where the problem of Phytppthora (otherwise known as die back, fire-blight or cinnamon fungus) is discussed.

Litter and mulch preserve soil organisms, and the steady temperature and moisture conditions which encourage other organisms hostile to the Phytophora fungi. Burning opposes this effect, which explains why well-mulched gardens are less likely to be affected by disease than logged, roaded and burnt forests, and why potatoes grown in mulch are often disease-free and “blight-resistant”. Somewhere (never in peasant lands) people started to separate medical, food, honey-producing, aromatic, and annual vegetables into distinct areas. “Modern” gardening books seem to encourage this, showing neat plans of categorised layout–kitchen garden separated from orchard, orchard from herb garden, herb garden from annual border, border from pond and so on. We recommend a total reintegration as the best method of pest control, stability in system, and beauty in landscape, with rare massed planting for special and pest-free species (marigold, gooseberry etc.).


Another way to protect soils, preserve moisture and prevent weeds is to develop a living mulch of herbs such as mint and lemon balm. In fact it is difficult not to. The mulched garden/forest floor becomes a self-mulching ecosystem much like any forest floor.


There are several techniques developed by gardeners throughout the world to keep annuals in the garden ‘turning over’ Leeks are a good example, for if a few are left to run to seed, then lifted, many small bulbuls can be found around the base of the stems Those can be planted out in the same way as onion sets, and as Fukuoka points out, leeks should never be absent from a well managed system. In the leek/onion group of plants, many are in any case perennial.

Near the door we can plant two varieties of European chives (coarse-fine leaves), Asiatic garlic chives, and shallots of various types. Further away, as a border, set out potato onions (which give about 25 for every one planted), Welsh onions, evergreen bunching onions, the top bulbuls of tree onions, and plant the Cloves of garlic in the strawberry patch in autumn, or any space left in raised beds. Garlic bulbs, if allowed to multiply for two years give a constant crop. If the large pods at the base of broad beans are left to dry and hay-bunched in late summer they will resprout in autumn; or the crop may be pruned back hard after harvest and will sprout again. Corn is a good interplant for summer. Seed potatoes can be left under mulch to sprout in spring, and lettuces let go to seed will scatter seedlings around their base for replanting. Parsley and many flat-seeded species reseed freely in mulch, and their seedlings can be set out to grow.

Some people keep carrot tops in a dark or cool place, let them sprout again, and set them out to grow in soft soil. Others cut their cabbages low, split the stalk crosswise with a knife, let small spouts start, then divide up the root mass and replant. All these methods eliminate resowing or making seed beds, and keep the garden turning over crop. The axil tips of tomatoes and related species can be pinched out and reset as small plants all summer, the last lot potted and brought in to fruit over winter. Peppers treated in this way may be winter pruned and then set outside in spring, and sweet capsicum treated the same.

Some useful species of annuals need to be encouraged to persist, perhaps by a little soil disturbance or mulch under the seedling plant.. A small proportion (about 4-6%) of all crops sown can be let run to seed or ripen for scattering under mulch, rather than buying annual seed crop. The key is to mulch with soft weeds, hay, and like plant material rather than to turn the soil and clean-cultivate.

Credits: Mostly borrowed from Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison. Original article.


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