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Broad scale sheet mulching on the cheap  RSS feed

 
Erik Lee
Posts: 104
Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Looking for some help here...

I'm working on establishing a large (multiple acre) forest garden as part of my site design, and I've been going over options regarding how to suppress the grass that currently occupies the space. The cheapest purchased mulch I've found so far is bark mulch from the local sawmill at a cost of about $2000/acre, which is pretty steep for my budget. That's the best price for a raw material that I've found though, other than some free wood chips I'm going to get from the power company later this year. Unfortunately, it would take about 10 years to get enough wood chips to do what I'm planning, and I'd sure like to get it done quicker. I had a notion to use a cover crop to shade out grass, and that's what I wanted to get some other opinions on.

My scheme at this point is to lightly till the area in question as soon as the ground thaws in order to weaken the grass, then plant something like buckwheat in a very dense stand. I'll put normal mulch around the actual trees, but what I was hoping is that the buckwheat would form a dense enough cover to shade out most of the grass beneath in the large spaces between the trees. At the end of the season (when the buckwheat is dry and has gone to seed) I'll cut/trample it and leave it where it falls so that the same thing will hopefully happen the next year without the tilling step.

Over the next few years as the trees get established, I'll gradually cut down the buckwheat in places and plant the shrubs, vines, etc. that will round out the design. The main purpose of all this is so that I can hopefully avoid having to try to mow between my trees like I would if I just left it alone.

The grass in question is primarily fescue. There is also a healthy population of weeds at the moment, which might be a worse problem. I get 40-50 inches of rain a year (all in the spring and winter), and am in USDA zone 6.

If this setup works, I'll be able to establish a grass-free zone for about $80/acre, which is a lot more palatable.

My questions are:
Does that sound like a ridiculous idea?
Is there a better plant (or process) you would recommend?

Thanks!
 
Craig Dobbson
master steward
Posts: 1996
Location: Maine (zone 5)
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Would it be feasible to use a sod cutter to loosen the sod then flip it over? Plant the buckwheat on the flipped sod or mulch it and plant into it.
 
Josh T-Hansen
Posts: 143
Location: Zone 5 Brimfield, MA
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Erik Lee wrote:Does that sound like a ridiculous idea?
- Yes

It would be easier to lay landscaping fabric on a strip of the land for 1 year, then move the fabric over and plant into where it was. You will probably never be rid of all the grass on multiple acres! Grass species are often the best for main pathways. Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford
 
                        
Posts: 40
Location: Berkeley,CA
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I agree with the sod flip if you can manage it or there is a tool I believe is called a "ripper?" that just gouges air pockets in the soil and is less invasive/detrimental to soil life yet lets your cover crop germinate. Are you going to swale or terrace any of it? It's good to get earthworks done first if you can so you don't have to sheet mulch twice because I hate that "man, I'm an idiot" feeling when you do a job only to realize you gotta do it again. Where are you living by the way?

I know that there are many bulbs that repel grass, daffodils come to mind, and diversifying the cover crop you use to include some deep rooted plants,herbs,flowers, and such would be a good idea so all root zones are occupied by the plants you want. You could also try scrounging around the neighborhood for organic matter to get the process going, I find that people are more than willing to part with their grass clippings and yard waste if you ask. That is assuming that you live close to some other folks of course. Besides some details I think your plan looks solid and is certainly not ridiculous by any means. Cheers
 
Erik Lee
Posts: 104
Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Craig: The sod cutter/ripper sounds like a fantastic idea, I will definitely look into that. I have a beat up old tractor that I might be able to rig something together with as well...

Eric: Grass repelling plants, that sounds like just the ticket. I'm not sure if it was apparent from my original post, but this buckwheat operation is basically just a gambit to put a less tree-competitive cover on the ground to build fertility and work the soil while I get the real forest plants established, which will definitely include the herbs/flowers/etc like you mentioned. I hadn't thought to look for things that would actively suppress the grass though, that's a very intriguing idea. I will be adding swales and some other earthworks, but they won't be within the actual forest, just on the uphill edge. The forest is part of a larger system I'm trying to put together that's related to alley-cropping, except that I'm going to have grazing land between the strips of forest instead of annual crops and the forest will be laid out on contour to take advantage of water harvesting earthworks.

Josh: That's a good book recommendation... I'm actually reading it right now . Was your objection to the idea of using buckwheat to shade out grass, or to the size of the project? I think there are several examples of large scale forest gardens out there. I agree that the landscaping fabric might be easier on the labor side of things, but the budget side of things is a different story in my case unfortunately (If you have a good source for it that's pretty inexpensive I'd love to know though). I will certainly take the slower approach with bona fide mulch for the lower layer plants, but I was really hoping to get at least the large and slow growing trees started early in the process and avoid mowing between them. The lower layers I'm hoping will benefit from a few years' accumulation of buckwheat/etc. litter and root action in the soil.

 
David Good
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Boy - you've got a heck of a project there. What zone are you in?

I'm working on establishing a half-acre food forest and was doing some more planning this evening. I've got 70 fruit, nut and useful trees planted but don't have any nitrogen fixers or cover crops yet. I cut circles around each tree in the grass and have mulched parts. Getting enough mulch to crush weeds with is way too intense for me, though. In another month I'm planning on making little chop-spots in the grass between the fruit trees and planting them with velvet bean, mimosas, sweet potato, senna alata, eleagnus and other tough soil-fixers/grass shaders and hope for the best.

Getting enough much to cover even my half-acre is prohibitively expensive/work-intensive. I'm starting with the trees I have and working out, basically, and hoping a good year of chop-n-drop will get the grass under control.
 
Morgan Morrigan
Posts: 1400
Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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sheep and cardboard.

can always plant in barley and sell it to the homebrewers. They will pay top dollar for a euro type. String hops thru the trees, and you can start generating revenue right away.

then start harvesting wool. once you get your alleys set up, sell off the sheep, and bring in alpacas. (less messy , and higher yarn price).
 
Josh T-Hansen
Posts: 143
Location: Zone 5 Brimfield, MA
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Erik Lee wrote:Was your objection to the idea of using buckwheat to shade out grass, or to the size of the project? ...budget side of things is a different story in my case unfortunately (If you have a good source for it that's pretty inexpensive I'd love to know though). I will certainly take the slower approach with bona fide mulch for the lower layer plants, but I was really hoping to get at least the large and slow growing trees started early in the process and avoid mowing between them. The lower layers I'm hoping will benefit from a few years' accumulation of buckwheat/etc. litter and root action in the soil.


My objection was to the tilling. I don't know if the buckwheat will defeat the grass or for how long. Which is why I don't think I would do the whole acreage at once. I agree that buckwheat would probably help the soil, and you could still sow it after the fabric mulch, if the soil is bad. You could plant the trees, and do a spot sheet mulch with cardboard around each tree to keep the grass from competing and still not need to mow the field for a few years. Mowing once in the years(unless you have a lot of help, Martin's was 5+ with just him if I remember right) that it will take to establish the whole project with perennials is easier than tilling or sheet mulching the whole thing.

A brief look on Amazon can cover 1/4 acre for $300 of reusable fabric (small change for great effect). 1/4 isn't too hard to sow buckwheat, but it is a lot of transplanting to fill densely enough to shade out grass. So I am suggesting do what Martin did and fabric mulch one manageable piece at a time. Grass 5 feet from a tree will not kill it, so there is no need to have a groundcover under them right away.

Not sure what you mean about mulch for the lower layer plants. Mulching acres of small plants isn't my cup of tea, although it would probably help alot. The system will generate its own mulch, let the plants create a living groundcover (not saying this is easy but that's why I suggest one section at a time).
Have fun!
 
Kay Bee
Posts: 471
Location: Jackson County, OR (Zone 7)
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straw is a very easy mulch to spread and is quite effective. If you can find a decent price on bales, it would probably cost between 100-200 per acre to put down a layer 3+ inches thick.

I was able to find wheat straw for $2 a bale delivered this fall. I'm using them for cold frames and shaping a rubber liner for a temporary cistern over the winter. Next season they will become mulch and soil ammendment.

Even spoiled hay or straw would work for your needs, so you may be able to find someone who will give it away if you come to haul it yourself.

Since you already have plenty of grass and weeds, seeds in the straw probably wouldn't matter much.
 
John Polk
steward
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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Try putting an ad on Craig's List: "WANTED: Old/rotten hay/straw."

You might be pleasantly surprised.
 
Erik Lee
Posts: 104
Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Josh- Points well taken. I generally don't like the idea of tillage either, but in some cases I'm okay with it as a way to create a soil disturbance and let some other pioneer species in. I'll check into the reusable fabric on amazon though, that's a significantly better price than anything I've found around here (my best price was contractor plastic, which came it at about $2k/acre, and isn't reusable). Perhaps I'll try a mixed strategy and report back on what works and what doesn't. Thanks for the input.

Kay, John -- I'll look around here and see what I can find for straw. The best price I saw this spring was $3/square bale, but that was for fresh stuff. I did use it on a couple of smaller projects, and it worked on most of the area (a few spots of grass made it though, but not bad). The thing that gave me some pause was the quantity I'd have to get my hands on. I think a square bale would probably make a decent layer of mulch for about a 10x10 foot square after it settled, so I'd need about 430 bales for an acre at that thickness. If I can get spoiled stuff for free though, it could be workable.
 
Marianne West
Posts: 131
Location: Lemon Grove, CA
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this is just from what I read on this forums - not at all from experience. it seems one method is to first have cows grazing on the land you want to work with and after a time, let the pigs come in to dig everything up. Maybe if you don't want to have livestock, farmers like to graze their herd on your land. Both Sepp and Paul have a lot to say about this...
 
George Lee
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Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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collect raw materials from your local municipality compost centre
 
Kay Bee
Posts: 471
Location: Jackson County, OR (Zone 7)
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Good luck with your project Erik!

John's suggestion of posting an ad for old or rotten straw/hay on Craigslist may work very well. so long as it isn't too wet or decaysed, I can get at least a 20' x 20' area froma a square bale with good coverage. Usually more, but it all depends on how thick you want it.
 
Gary Park
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Location: St. Louis, MO
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Establishing a multiple acre forest garden will cost THOUSANDS, if not tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Why get rid of the grass entirely right now? Just remove the grass or heavily mulch where you plant trees and bushes and eventually it will die out from the shade. Are you getting hundreds and hundreds of free plants and trees for free and your only obstacle is grass? Lastly, if the grass is decent, could you sell it as sod?
 
duane hennon
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if you do not to take advantage of what's already there (grass) by converting to animal products
consider
sucession planting

grass -> weeds -> opportunistic trees & shrubs-> forest

not doing anything will allow the field to return to forest

"food forests" are mostly assemblies of selected (opportunistic trees and shrubs)
to speed things up and select the species is the goal

i would design a number of managable assemblies rather than a hundred acre one
access roads, harvest, house, barn, out buildings, sunlight , water works (swales, ponds, drainage) need to be thought out

put in water works, and plant opportunistic plants -nitrogen fixers, nurse plants, perernnials, on swales. these need less care than fruit trees
this will allow for the overall improvement of the land and you can then concentrate planting and mulching around high value trees as you get them

good luck however you decide

 
R. Peacock
Posts: 35
Location: eastern part of West Tennessee
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If you live close enough to a municipality that does a fall leaf pick-up, contact them about dumping their shreaded leaves on your land. Down sides of this is you will have to spread it out and in some neighborhoods they will get trash with the leaves. I have found a hoe and bow rake best for spreading it out, but for your scale a front loader on your tractor would be in order.
 
Cee Ray
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it takes a lot of straw and/or hay to beat down grass, at least 6 inches deep in my experience especiallly with course straw.. personally I might try renting a turf cutter, composting the turf, and densely planting a mix of some annuals and legumes that are prone to winter kill like tillage rye, tillage radish, amaranth, chickling vetch etc
 
Erik Lee
Posts: 104
Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Thanks for the input everyone, there's a lot of good info here.

Regarding the total cost of the project, this forest garden has a stronger emphasis on wild or nearly wild edibles and other useful plants. I'm getting a lot of my material from the conservation department, and for the more specialized stuff I'm raising varieties from seed or other propagation methods (grafting, etc.), so I've been able to keep my costs down to a dollar or so per tree (averaged over the garden) thus far. The shrubs, herbs, etc. will be accumulated over time by a similar process. I'm hoping to keep that up and create good and useful forest garden on a shoestring budget. I think it can be done, provided one isn't too picky about varieties.

Based on the response here, I think I'll try the turf cutter/sod flipping method, then plant the buckwheat and some other fast growing non-grass plants (legumes and accumulators) to start the shading out process. I'll update the forum after the season with the results -- worst case, it'll be like I didn't bother sheet mulching at all. Best case, maybe somebody else can save a little money establishing their own forest garden...

 
Josh T-Hansen
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Erik Lee wrote: I'll try the turf cutter/sod flipping method

Could you please provide a link to the equipment you will be using for this and how much estimated time this will take per acre? Thanks very much.
 
Erik Lee
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Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Josh -- I don't have a link as I've never used such equipment before. I'm going to look into it on the recommendation of others on the board though. I suspect the time would be on the order of a few hours per acre (I have a tiller for my tractor that could do an acre in a couple of hours, and I suspect the turf cutter would be somewhat slower). I'll put up some info about it as soon as I get it all figured out though.

If it turns out to be a huge hassle, I'll try something else. I'm hoping it'll give me a head start though, so we'll see. I'll post an update either way with the results when I have them.
 
Jason Matthew
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Erik Lee wrote:Thanks for the input everyone, there's a lot of good info here.

Regarding the total cost of the project, this forest garden has a stronger emphasis on wild or nearly wild edibles and other useful plants. I'm getting a lot of my material from the conservation department, and for the more specialized stuff I'm raising varieties from seed or other propagation methods (grafting, etc.), so I've been able to keep my costs down to a dollar or so per tree (averaged over the garden) thus far. The shrubs, herbs, etc. will be accumulated over time by a similar process. I'm hoping to keep that up and create good and useful forest garden on a shoestring budget. I think it can be done, provided one isn't too picky about varieties.

Based on the response here, I think I'll try the turf cutter/sod flipping method, then plant the buckwheat and some other fast growing non-grass plants (legumes and accumulators) to start the shading out process. I'll update the forum after the season with the results -- worst case, it'll be like I didn't bother sheet mulching at all. Best case, maybe somebody else can save a little money establishing their own forest garden...



Wild or nearly wild edibles should be strong enough on their own to outcompete grass. They are part of the natural succession after all.

On my own property, I have tilled and not been real happy with the results. I have another area covered with cardboard that I will try to mulch this year and plant into. I am going to try buckwheat over a closely mowed area as well and evaluate my results. I am working on the cheap as well and am trying to control my inputs. I have mulched my existing trees with oak leaves that were raked up this fall.
 
Josh T-Hansen
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Josh T-Hansen wrote:A brief look on Amazon can cover 1/4 acre for $300 of reusable fabric
I cannot edit that previous post at this time, but the figure is actually closer to $750 after shipping. The product used for the calculation is supposed to last at least 15 years if used "properly". Still a good deal and great method overall in my opinion especially for those who don't have or want a tractor. My apologies folks!!
Thanks Erik, didn't occur to me tractors could attach sod cutters.
 
David Miller
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Location: Harrisonburg, VA
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This seems as good a place as any to request feedback, I'm planning a micro scale sheet mulch (comparatively). My plan is to cover the entire area (apx 900 sq ft) with cardboard, cover with leaves, cover the leaves with compost and plant clover into it. Suggestions, hate the idea, love the idea? In my mind it will work, the clover will grow in the compost with the sponge of the leaves under it to keep it wet and later break down. Eventually the clover's roots will penetrate the cardboard turning the whole lot of it into topsoil while stifling my noxious "weeds".
 
Erik Lee
Posts: 104
Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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David, I haven't done exactly that, but I did have very good results with plain cardboard and wood chips. I put the cardboard over a section of grass, poked holes in it, dropped corn and beans into the holes, then put wood chips over the whole affair. Worked like a charm last year, and now I have nice, crumbly soil beneath a thin layer of mostly decayed wood chips. If I had the resources I'd do my whole forest garden like that in a heartbeat. Based on that experience, I'd say your idea seems like a good one. The clover might just stay on top of the cardboard for a while, but the cardboard will be totally gone within 6 months if your experience is like mine, so that's the outside limit of time before the clover roots penetrate to the soil below.

One thing to be aware of is that many of those noxious weeds you mentioned have seeds that can remain viable in the soil for several years. As long as they stay under the mulch they mostly won't sprout, but if you disturb the soil at some point they can reappear like magic. That applies regardless of how you mulch or work the soil though (at least for all the methods I've tried), so it's just more of a general thing to have on the radar, not specific to your idea.
 
David Miller
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I just hope it chokes out the crabgrass! I'm glad to know you've had success with this approach. I'm hoping to find either woodchips or peanut hulls to put over the cardboard before the leaves but you know how scrounging for freebies can be. Thanks for the reinforcement.
 
kent smith
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Location: Pennsylvania
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Have you seen this film, it is a free down load. wwwbacktoedenfilm.com I deals with heavy sheet mulching.
kent
 
Jacques Lanteigne
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hey guys, keep it simple.

if one group of animal could deal with that situation without too much problem,
and with good comeback, it would be Chickens.
Straw should almost never contain seed, unlike hay bales.
and from what I understand, Pumpkin should grow easy in your area.
Just think of the Mayan garden 3 sisters. Mais, beans and pumpkin.
Pumpkin alone is this case would do it. plant it densely and let it produce.
if you don't care for the pumpkins, let em there to re fertilize the land and replant itself till
you are happy with the result and have eaten your fill of pumpkin or sold it in the fall.
 
Erik Lee
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Location: Zone 6 - Missouri
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Pumpkins, great idea! I actually already have chickens running on it, but not nearly enough of them to kill off the grass for such a big area. Also, grass around here is amazingly resilient (especially where you don't want it to be). I will definitely try some pumpkins though, thanks. My only concern there would be an infestation of squash beetles, which we had last year. Still, it's worth a try. Perhaps the chickens and guineas will keep the beetles under control for me...
 
Cal Burns
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Why not contact a bunch of tree trimming companies and arrange for them to drop off tree mulch on a regular basis? They'll do it for free. It breaks down eventually into great soil, and chickens would have fun I imagine scratching thru it.
 
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