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Hi im new and my garden sucks :(. Questions about sheet mulch etc  RSS feed

 
e rock
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Hi there I have a hobby farm that used to taken care of about 10 years ago and has fallen to disrepair.
It is in eastern ontario and has clay soil.
For the past few years I tried ammending the soil to make it plant friendly but its still hard like a rock so I am coming to you guys for help.
Its also not where I live so im looking for some maintenance method that is fairly easy since im there every other weekend.

Firstly i imagine i will lay down cardboard and sheet mulch as that seems popular and good.
Do i need to ammend my soil first? With what? I found a compost heap hidden away which managed to add about 4" of fluffy redish root dense soil to my garden. Should i add anything else?
At the end of a season do you pull the mulch back and put ammendments in every year?
Do you winter cover crop when you have sheet mulch?

I have tonnes of weeds. Is the premise of keeping them away to just sheet mulch or have all year living cover crop? like clovers?

please and thanks
this is driving me nuts
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I think that there is little to be gained from trying to grow an annual vegetable garden if you can only be there every other weekend. It seems to me like an orchard would work better in that kind of scenario... Plant the trees, lay down some cardboard immediately around the trees if you want the first few years to give them an edge over the weeds, and otherwise let the trees fend for themselves... Or perhaps plant perennial herbs: Things like nettles, oregano, medicinals, etc. Or weedy annuals like dill, cilantro, etc. Perhaps learn to eat weeds like lambsquarters and red-root amaranth.
 
Blake Wheeler
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Location: Kentucky 6b
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How much ground are we talking? That would affect what methods I chose for sure. Sheet mulching requires a LARGE amount of material to be done properly. Small areas I'd be okay with, large areas not so much. If you wonky go every other weekend it's going to take awhile, not to mention time spent gathering materials. Luckily with fall coming now is the time to do it as material is a bit more available this time of year (straw, leaves, garden waste, etc.).

Gypsum can be added to help loosen up the clay.

Personally, I'd lay out areas where I wanted beds to go, till them initially to break the soil, add any amendments, then sheet mulch those areas. Afterward obviously try to avoid walking on them or doing anything to tamp the soil back down. With fall coming I'd personally throw tarps over the "beds" to minimize them washing away (since there's no roots to hold them in) and let it mellow out and do its thing over winter.

Honestly I don't see the point in cover cropping a sheet mulch. I suppose it can be done, and would add organic matter, but if you're sheet mulching anyway just throw the organic matter in with the sheet mulch to begin with.

You can plant trees/shrubs in the areas you don't have beds, if you want to go that route and they'll help break the soil there. Perhaps sowing daikon radish in those areas will help speed the process.

I'd also look into sowing a low growing white clover heavily everywhere. Will help with weeds, though in my experience won't prevent them, stays low enough to look decent with little maintenance, and improves soil.

What are your plans for the farm? I'll go ahead and tell you, get ready to put more work into getting it into shape than you probably realize. If there's one thing I've learned about permaculture it's that there tends to be more upfront work, which hopefully lessens as time passes.
 
e rock
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re: grow an orchard:
i have a few apple pear plum and cherry trees so i feel like i have that part under control. Trees are easy so that is totally a good suggestion (but i already have them). If i were starting from scratch somewhere new. I would start with trees.

re perenial herbs:
really the only reason i dont want to do that is that it doesnt excite me and im doing this for fun. That would be a plan D for me

re: garden stuff:
the area that i want to do first is ~100sqf. I have 4 100sqf plots marked out but im just trying to figure everything out on the first plot then ill expand to the other 3.
I think i can probably get a tree clipping guy to dump a truck load at my place and i can find loads of cardboard at a warehouse down the road (they toss about 10kg of cardboard a day and have to pay someone to take it )

so its either cover crop (for large areas) or sheet mulch (for small)?
Then once you sheet mulch you no longer cover crop and you just keep adding more mulch when it disappears? Wouldnt weeds start to take root in there? or do i just keep weeding it like normal?
I like the idea of the clovers. Maybe ill go get some and toss them down now in case i dont get around to sheet mulching before winter.

I have never tried gypsum, interesting.

Whats the difference between a hugelkulture and just tilling in wood chips? is it that it is much thicker so it breaks down over many years.
i have plenty of wood. I could try to dig some under my garden but that might be un reasonable since i imagine it has to be quite deep to avoid messing with my shovel/till.
Is that better than a sheet mulch setup?
 
Blake Wheeler
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Location: Kentucky 6b
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Gotta agree with Joseph on the annual veggie thing. If this is a place you'll only be every other weekend annual veggies don't make sense. Many a backyard garden is lost due to neglect. No more than you'll be there the "out of sight, out of mind" factor will weigh in heavily and those veggie beds will become weed beds quickly. Too many things can go wrong between visits. I know it's for fun, but losing crops you worked hard to start isn't fun, and early victories will help give you the motivation to keep going. Cheesy, I know, but it's true. I'd personally focus on perinneals but that's me. Asparagus, fruiting shrubs, sunchokes, etc. you'll spend less time planting and more time enjoying the literal fruit of your labor. Anything that needs less babying will work better for your situation. Not to mention those plants will help you with improving the soil, even when you can't be there.

The area isn't bad then. I was waiting for you to say you were planning to sheet mulch an acre or something lol. Don't get me wrong, it can be done, but the time needed to do it would be enough to turn me away. Yes, weeds will still set up, but they should be very easy to just go in and pull by hand if the mulch is thick enough. My mulched raised beds don't set weeds as easy as soil, but they still get some. I just walk down the aisles between them and pluck them out by hand. Or you can take a hoe and scuffle the mulch around, either works. Once uprooted I let the weeds die in place. Doesn't add much back, but it's better than nothing I guess.

It doesn't have to be either/or when it comes to cover crops or mulch, but I personally don't see the point in doing both. Like a said before, if anything a cover crop can do in addition to a sheet mulch can just be added to the sheet mulch to begin with.

Cover crops hold soil, that's their point. Some also fix nitrogen, and they add organic matter back to the soil. They can also function as a "green manure", meaning you grow them, then till them under a few weeks before planting (adding organic matter to the soil). Mulch holds soil by slowing rain down (so it doesn't wash soil away), keeping wind erosion down, and keep the soil moist (dry soil=dirt). Both add organic matter back to soil, and both hold the soil in place. A good sheet mulch also includes a nitrogen-rich component (manure for example), so it also helps return nutrients to the soil. Basically they both strive to do the same thing. Personally I see cover-cropping being better for large areas as it's more time efficient than covering an entire area in 12" of mixed mulch, while sheet mulching is becomes more feasible the smaller the growing area is. I have absolutely no data to prove it, but I get the feeling a sheet mulch will improve the soil quicker than a cover crop will. After all, you don't have to wait for it to grow. You place it, and it immediately begins to function how it should.

I've never used gypsum personally, but it's a popular option for improving clay soils. It takes several seasons and applications to take effect though. You can actually find pelleted gypsum at more home improvement stores.

Hugel is basically a "raised bed" built over logs. You place logs (and brush) on the ground, then build a mound of soil over the logs. The logs, as they decay hold water that they wick to the soil above it. If you've ever found a felled, rotten tree in the woods you know what I mean, its so soft and water-logged you can dig into with your hand and squeeze water out of the pulp. They can actually hold a substantial amount of water. It was used in areas where the soil, to be blunt, was either not present in depths enough to be productively farmed (shallow, rocky, soil) or just flat-out sucked. Any type of raised gardening system by default needs more water since it has more surface area exposed to the elements that dehydrate it, the wood serves as a reserve supply where the rain you do get is held in place as opposed to dispersing out and being lost. The mass of the wood core (talking logs, not wood chips) is key to it working. If you've got wood chips you're better off just using them as mulch IMO. Tilling them in is work that won't show much, if any, benefit.
 
Blake Wheeler
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What's your housing situation like? Could you place a small raised bed in the back yard to cover the annual veggies you're wanting?
 
Rebecca Norman
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Everything I've read about wood chips says that if you lay them on top of the soil as mulch, the bottom layer initially robs the soil of nitrogen but then stops doing so as the chips slowly rot from the bottom up, while much improving the tilth (texture) of the soil. It might be beneficial to add a source of nitrogen onto the soil before mulching with wood chips, such as manure or compost. Whereas if you till the chips into the soil, their whole surface area is in contact with the soil and so they rob MUCH more nitrogen from it. Also the mulch on top prevents most weed seeds from germinating, and those that do are easy to pull from mulched soil, whereas tilled in chips or whatever won't block weeds at all.

Yes with mulch you still have to weed as usual, but there should be much fewer weeds and they are easier to pull, and over time as you add to the mulch there may be fewer and fewer.
 
Rose Pinder
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what do you want to grow? What would be fun for you?

I think what you can do will be determined in part by the climate, esp as you are not there often. What's your rainfall like? Frosts? Snow? Wind? Heat? etc
 
Michael Bushman
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Location: Sacramento, CA
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Less is more...

A common beginner mistake is planting too large a garden, they can't keep up with the weeding and give up. Plant smaller plots but plant them well, denser plantings help prevent weeds. Sheet mulch around the smaller beds for your walkways. After a year or two, lift up the raised beds, rototill the sheetmulched paths and the material from the raised beds and now you have a larger weed free area with good soil.

Rinse, repeat.
 
dara finnegan
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I always recommend to not rototill clay but put down a good soil bed of black dirt over it and plant in that. The roots will go down to the clay and get moisture. So we are talking raised beds. Clay always wins if you try to amend it. Wood chips are not a good idea as they do not ever put nitrogen in the soil and only rob it. This year I experimented planting in gravel, I took alfalfa meal(high in nitrogen),blood meal and crushed egg shell, about a 10 ounce cup to each hole.
Results were astonishing. So you could amend rows or holes by digging out rows or holes and fill with dirt that has the above recipe. We live in northern mn close to the canadian border and plant a huge garden every year.
 
Cristo Balete
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I sheet mulch an acre of clay with mowed weeds, but the beds have paths between them, so it's not entirely an acre. In the spring I mow the paths and put that on the beds. the paths are a great source of mulch until about July for me. They might continue elsewhere if you get summer rain. When spring weed growth slows down I have other fields of weeds I "harvest" and mow, building very thick layers of cut weed mulch, 8 to 10 inches, that will shrink to about 6 inches, and maintaining that all year. Gathering lawn clippings and fallen leaves off street trees is a good source.

The most import part about clay soil is NEVER expose it to the sun unless you want bricks. I think everybody who has encountered clay has found that out. Then they try to make it into something that it's not, or try to add water, but the sun always wins. But if you use very, very thick layers of manure and mowed weeds over the beds will keep the sun off clay, keep the moisture in the soil, bring up worms, add nutrients. Clay has tons of great minerals in it, it gives food great flavor, it holds a lot of moisture that doesn't require as much water as loamy, sandy soil as long as it's covered.

I plant transplants in the thick mulch with drippers over the top, so I can keep an eye on them, make sure they don't plug up with minerals, and that helps break down the manure and rotting biomass underneath.

I never till clay, I just let the critters do the work, make sure there's lots of manure for the worms, a minimum of 6" of mulch, and clay is just excellent under these conditions. Clay also takes longer to absorb water, so I think being patient with it is helpful. I can break up the worst of clods by wetting them, covering them with a tarp, walking away for an hour or so, come back and chop up the clods with a shovel, and they give up and become great soil.



 
chip sanft
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I'm gardening on clay soil and don't believe in raised beds as typically done (i.e., importing a bunch of stuff and planting in that), although that will be quicker. (Hugelkultur raised mounds are the alternative, which I like.)

According to what I've read, despite being hard to work, clay soils tend to be rich in some things. They generally lack organic matter and nutrients such as nitrogen. The solution is to amend and this is what I've done with solid results. Thoughts:

* The most important thing of all is to have patience. As in years. Don't give up. Never give up.

* To compensate for the slow start, planting a larger area will allow for you to get the quantities you need despite the square foot production rate being poor. The trick is to figure out what you can grow and leave be, since you want to neglect it. Depending on climate and if you can get the seed economically, you might consider: wild type tomatoes (extreemely productive for me, with little to no care); squash (butternut, luffa, pale grey); corn (sweet, popcorn, or even feed corn, since you want it as a green manure, not mainly to eat). You can always plant flowers later if you find you have more garden than you need.

* Some green manure plants will grow in clay and help you with its shortcomings. I've had luck with buckwheat, which I like because it's quick, pretty, draws bees and other pollinators, and is economical in large and in small quantities, as I need. Dirt cheap in 50# sacks but also reasonable by the pound at the food coop. Things like forage turnips (also cheap in big sacks) also have done well, but they're usually sold in bigger bags than our current scale calls for.

* Some often recommended green manures haven't done well for me. Daikon, for instance, didn't dig down. Maybe the clay is still too hard. the answer is to try lots of different things and go with what works.

* If you top dress with lots of manure (as in inches of it), the organic material will slowly work its way into the soil. It will take a while for the results to show but they will likely be good.

* The decomposition of wood chips takes up nitrogen at first, but will return it later. So you may need to pay attention to your plants' needs in the short term. Add extra manure. Benefit from all the organic matter later.

* Assuming the chips and manure are clean, in the long run you'll gain a lot of organic matter and nutrients from your patience. I can see this in my current garden after just two years.

* Wood breakdown brings in helpful fungus. Fungus is your tilth-building friend
 
e rock
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OK lots of amazing info here.
Im happy others had good luck with their clay soil too. Some of the techniques sound pretty interesting but I already got wood chip mulch (tree cuttings) so i will go with that.
I will also plant some perennial vege's to cut down on the work.

I got tree cuttings so it has leaves etc mixed in which should help with nitrogen theft right?

Another question about sheet mulching. Do I want to just put the nitrogen source right under the wood. I have piles of fallen apples which I imagine i will put on top of my nice new soil and under the wood chips. Makes sense?

I will put the chips on now in the fall so they are partially decomposed come spring as well.

Last question. When you sheet mulch, you dont work in any extra material into the soil year over year right? it seems hard to pull back all the mulch and work things in. (i tried this this year and it sucked).
Then as the mulch decomposes you just add more?
 
e rock
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I am taking this perenial vegetables thing and fruit tree advice to heart
I am also spending some time to fix up our fruit trees which I have been neglecting due to too much enjoyment with annual vegetables.

 
chip sanft
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e rock wrote:
I got tree cuttings so it has leaves etc mixed in which should help with nitrogen theft right?

Everything helps, I think, but when I used wood chips, they really took up a lot of nitrogen when just applied and I needed to add a good amount of manure to get things growing nicely. You could mix in all your apples and see how things look. But if you have a source of animal product, you might well consider using that, too.
 
Cristo Balete
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e rock, yes, just keep adding to the top. Make it as thick as you can, 6+ inches. it will shrink, so maintain it at the thickest level. You'll start to see worms come up into thick mulch, and that's the goal.

About the nitrogen robbing by wood chips, you'll have to add more nitrogen from some other source until the wood chips are unrecognizable. Most sources of nitrogen are dissolved in water, and as the water goes past the chips, the chips absorb it. Only when the chips are saturated with water will the nitrogen-rich water get past them. So keep them as damp as possible without saturating the soil.
 
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