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 FieldCredit: public domainDon'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 downearthwormCredit: creative commons - insectimages.org

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 SoilCracked EarthCredit: public domain

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 mulchingCredit: Jordan Gregson

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 barrierCredit: Jordan Gregson

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!Credit: Jordan Gregson

  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