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Compost Garden Guide - Don't Till... Sheet Mulch!

By Edited May 1, 2015 6 6

Turn Grass into Garden - Compost in Place!

3 Steps to Healthy, Fertile, & Beautiful Soil

Welcome to the compost garden guide, a plea for fellow gardeners to follow these three simple steps to create healthy and fertile soil:

  1. don't till
  2. sheet mulch (or, compost in place)
  3. keep the soil covered

We'll first learn the reasons to follow these three steps, then we'll learn how.

Gathering Corn in the Field
Don't Till

First, let's understand the term "till." In common garden and agriculture talk, "till" refers to any mechanical process of disturbing the soil. This includes rotor-tilling, plowing of any type, forking, disking, and other methods of the so called process of opening up the soil.

Perhaps the advice sounds crazy. After all, how often do gardeners or farmers ever hear the advice don't till!? Seldom would one read it in gardening books and it's unlikely to ever be the advice from a state agriculture school or county cooperative extension agency. Isn't composting enough? Well, truth be told, choosing to not till is the single most important and overall "life-giving" decision any steward of the land could make[860]. Generally, tilling:

  • kills earthworms
  • kills many other helpful soil organisms
  • dries-out the soil
  • causes hard-to-obtain micro-nutrients to leach deep into the sub-soil
  • destroys soil structure - crucial for growing healthy vegetables
  • speeds-up decomposition rates, resulting in less organic matter
  • causes erosion
  • creates a "plow-pan," a dense and virtually impenetrable layer of soil about 9 inches down

Being the good intellectual that many are these days, you the reader are likely asking: "if tilling does all these things and it's overall such a bad agricultural practice, why is it so commonplace, why do virtually all farmers and gardeners till their soil?" Good question! It's akin to wondering how people ever truthfully believed that the earth is flat. The only honest response is that most people simply don't know of another method to prepare the soil for planting. They were taught to till, they will always till, and they will forever teach and encourage other to do likewise.

Sheet Mulch (Compost in Place)

Those that don't till utilize the art of sheet mulching. It's one of the best alternatives to tilling. Simply put, composting in place is one of the easiest ways to turn grass into lawn. 

What does it mean to "Compost in Place?"

Put simply, to sheet mulch or compost in place is to make a compost "pile" (it's really more of a "bed") on top of a piece of land one wants to turn into growing space. More specifically, it's the practice of laying down cardboard or newspaper to function as a weed barrier on top of grass, weeds, or other general piece of land to be turned into a growing space and then layering organic matter several inches thick to decompose and become rich soil. For now, let's leave it at that. Below in the "how-to" section we'll learn the step-by-step process.

Why Sheet Mulch (Compost in Place)

Having shared some about sheet mulching, it's important to list all the reasons to do it. Generally, sheet mulching, or composting in place:

  • requires no machinery
  • necessitates only free materials
  • provides an excellent use for old newspaper and cardboard
  • turns bad news into good news[861] (when newspaper is used for the weed barrier)
  • creates the perfect environment for earthworms and other helpful soil organisms
  • is the addition of something, not the taking away or reducing of it
  • eliminates the work of moving compost from a pile or bin to the garden bed (hence, composting in place!)

Cover the Soil
Cracked Earth

Last but certainly not least (think of the three steps as a tripod, as in the three legs in the concept of sustainable development) the practice of covering the soil - mulching. Mulch is anything put on top of the soil to cover it. This is the standard definition, and it opens up the subject of plastic mulches. While this author despises plastic mulch, let's just agree to not delve into this trap any further (afterall, this article's about positive approaches to gardening, we wouldn't want to be negative). So with plastic mulch aside, mulch is any organic matter used to cover the soil. Types of mulch include:

  • straw
  • hay
  • leaves
  • wood chips
  • grass clippings

There are more, of course, but these are the main ones. One important distinction is the difference between straw and hay. Straw is the by-product of grain, the stem (think: straw=stem) of a grain plant such as wheat, rye, barley, etc. Hay is its own product, a single plant (such as Timothy hay) or combination of grasses and legumes that are grown for animals to eat (think: hay is for horses).

Why Cover (or "mulch") the Soil?

Now that we know about some different types of mulch, let's consider that mulch:

  • prevents the soil from "cloding"
  • reduces the need to irrigate
  • is a certain lesser approach to composting in place
  • provides food for earthworms
  • essentially eliminates erosion
  • narrows the soil temperature range (warmer "lows" and cooler "highs")
  • adds what many consider a pleasing esthetic to the garden

How to Practice No-Till

before sheet mulching

The  primary way to follow the "don't till" advice is to sheet mulch. One exception is the work of John Jeavons, who's been attempting to develop a perennial grain that would reduce if not eliminate, what he calls, the "problem of agriculture"[860]. Another exception is the many forms that the cover-cropping based no-till system can take. The general idea is to use the natural and seasonal cycles of annual cover crops in a way that gets nature to do all the work. The first real pioneer of this type of system was the Japanese Farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who outlines his system and philosophy in The One Straw Revolution (though be warned, this book will change your life - for the better!).

The primary alternative of tilling discussed in this article is sheet mulching, or composting in place.

How to Sheet Mulch (Compost in Place)[863]

The process of sheet mulching is really quite simple. Children could easily accomplish the task.

We'll break it down into three simple steps:

  1. prepare the site
  2. lay the weed barrier (cardboard or newspaper)
  3. layer in the compost materials (carbon and nitrogen, or brown and green)

Step #1: Site Preparation

  1. Mow, weed-wack, or have the goats or other animals eat down any preexisting vegetation on the site.
  2. Add any necessary or desired soil amendments (lime, fertilizer, etc.).
    sheet mulching - weed barrier

Step #2: Lay the Weed Barrier

  1. Decide if you prefer to use cardboard or newspaper. The answer could simply be the material easiest to acquire. Keep in mind that for cardboard, the bigger the better and that for newspaper, black and white, no shiny pages. 
  2. Cover the desired soon-to-be growing space with the material, overlapping by no less than 5 inches, ideally a foot or so. If using newspaper, cover about 1/3 of an inch thick; one layer should do for the cardboard.
  3. Wet the weed barrier with water (this helps jumpstart the decomposition process).

Step #3: Layer the Compost Materials

Now comes the fun part. The general composting rule is to add equal carbon and nitrogen, or equal "brown" and "green." Examples of carbon (or "brown") based materials are straw, leaves, dried grass, etc. Examples of nitrogen (or "green") based materials are food scraps, manure, and fresh lawn clippings.

sheet mulched beds!

  1. First put-down a nitrogen rich layer, manure is a great option.
  2. Now add an equal-part carbon layer, straw works great. 
  3. At this point, be as creative as desired; you're building a compost pile on the ground!
  4. Finish with a carbon layer. This will be the mulch for the growing space.

Sheet Mulch (Compost in Place) REFLECTIONS

The fall season is the best for sheet mulching, though it can be done at any time of the year. You can plant directly into the bed, though if it's a fresh bed consider first opening a small hole in the weed barrier (for the roots of the new plant).

The single best source of information on sheet mulching is Toby Hemenway's book Gaia's Garden Before being turned off by the title, know that it has nothing to do with "earth worship" or any such thing - in fact, it's written as objectively as possible. But simply put, if every gardener could only have one book, Gaia's Garden would be it. Seriously. There's nothing but praise to share about it. (It's so monumental, in fact, that creator and moderator of the permies.com forum, Paul Wheaton, has done an entire series of podcasts on Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, broken down by chapters.) And his discussion in the book is complete with super helpful diagrams and pictures. And it's much more thorough than this short overview.

How to Keep the Soil Covered

When step two is covered, the soil is also covered. That's right, the last step in sheet mulching (or, composting in place) is covering the layered compost "bed" with mulch. So that's pretty much it. And when the mulch layer decomposes, just add more! Straw and dried leaves both work great.

Compost-Garden-Guide Reflections

Observant readers may have noticed that all three steps (don't-till, sheet-mulch or compost-in-place, and keep-the-soil-covered) link together. Pretty neat. Doing one thing yields multiple benefits. No longer is composting an isolated garden task, sheet mulching transforms it in form and even function into an integral garden component.

Happy mulching!

And remember, Don't Till, Turn Grass into Garden by Composting in Place!

Sheet Mulch, Don't Till!  -  Learn to Compost in Place(68075)
Credit: public domain


Nov 5, 2011 3:11pm
Great article on sheet mulching. I've done it for years, although I shred newspaper, cover the area, then add a layer of straw or leaves and topping with sheets of newspaper,watering in each layer. When I have food scraps I lift up a corner toss under, this is for the earthworms to feed on. Come spring my soil is dark fertile and ready to plant. I'm going to tweet this.
Nov 8, 2011 5:49pm
I want to understand: When it's time to sow the seeds and plant the plants, you sow the seeds into the sheet composting, but dig a hole through mulch into soil...is that correct?
Nov 8, 2011 9:54pm
Lynsuz- Thanks for the feedback! Always glad to know another sheet-mulcher. Your method is intriguing and illustrates the "place-person-based" nature of the practice. Cardboard might be the best weed-barrier for folks who don't have access to much newspaper, and visa-aver. *I specifically like your method of tossing food scraps under a corner for the earthworm - truly composting in place!*

LLWoodard- To answer your question: yes and no (aren't these types of responses just lovely?). To clarify before explicitly answering, it's best to sheet-mulch sometime in the fall season and plan to plant into it the following spring. The general idea is to *create* a nice rich layer of soil *above* the preexisting ground surface, what ever that might be (there are even instances of people sheet mulching on hard surfaces such as concrete, though this would likely only best support shallow-rooting plants). So to answer your question: YES, when it's time to plant (in the spring) you sow the seeds into the nice new sheet-mulched compost, of sorts, *above* the weed-barrier (cardboard, newspaper, etc.) but *below* the top layer of fresh mulch (step #3 - Layer in the Compost Materials). You might want to keep the top mulch layer (straw, leaves, etc.) pretty thin if your sowing directly (wait till they've germinated and are up pretty good to put down a heavy layer of mulch) and you shouldn't have any problems keeping the mulch around transplants. NO, in that you do not dig through the weed-barrier, unless you're transplanting shortly after making the sheet-mulched bed (when it would help to create an opening in the layer under the transplant). Regardless, the idea is to sow or transplant into what has hopefully become a nice thick layer of composted-in-place soil, forever abiding by the principle of keeping the soil covered with organic mulch.

Hopefully this helps - not sure if I really answered what you were asking. If necessary, don't hesitate to ask for any further clarification.

Happy sheet mulching! (And remember, *NOW* is the optimum time to be starting those sheet-mulch beds... at least for folks in more temperate areas.)
Nov 12, 2011 10:37am
Thank you for this great article, I just wish farmers would adopt sheet mulching to replenish the depleted soils and add the earth worms again! I've read Masanobu Fukuoka's "The One Straw Revolution" years ago and it certainly changed my life! I don't dig my soil over anymore and get the healthiest plants with sheet mulching! I also highly recommend it - easy does it!
Nov 12, 2011 12:31pm
Awesomely helpful feedback, antjecobbett! A "case in point" that only reiterates the importance of ecologically focused growing methods.
Feb 8, 2013 8:07am
I enjoyed the article Mulchkin, thanks for all the information. It's a practical and easier way for most homeowners to garden. The average farmer has hundreds of acres to plant and maintain, and topdressing such large spaces is not practical. Most do grow rotation crops and give their land time to 'heal'.
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  1. Wes Jackson New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
  2. Bill Mollison Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. Tasmania: Tagari Publications, 1988.
  3. Toby Hemenway Gaia's Garden. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2009.

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