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DIY Climate Action - Sheet Mulching

At our home in Claverack, we’ve been gradually reclaiming our lawn from cool season lawn grasses to meadows and shady groves of trees. It’s not easy: our soil is mostly clay and shale, the grass is not lush but is almost impossible to remove because nothing cuts into the soil, and we don’t want to use herbicides.

We tried dumping topsoil on the grass but it only made the grass grow faster. We used to buy black plastic sheeting and weigh it down to kill grass. Although the plastic was reused, in the end we determined we did not want to use plastic at all.

Sheet mulching is our climate smart solution! It is a simple technique that uses layering to deprive the grass of light and provide new (ideally native) plants a lush environment to grow. Done in the fall, we can plant in the new bed by spring, and in a couple of years we see the old soil underneath become lighter and richer.

Bottom Layer - cardboard, newspaper, or even straw to kill the grass by blocking the sun

Middle Layer - 1 ½ inch of compost

Top Layer - 3-4 inches of mulch

Sheet mulching is a simple way of reclaiming lawn and weedy waste areas and it offers us these positive climate impacts as well:

  • We recycle a lot of cardboard on the property. All those boxes that arrived during the pandemic (and still arrive from Amazon and other vendors today) get used. We have to remove staples and plastic tape, and we don’t use the boxes with plastic coatings, but most cardboard is just cardboard. We even used leftover Ram Board from a recent construction project.

  • Our soil absorbs a lot more water where sheet mulch has settled in. It can be subject to moving in a heavy rain when freshly applied, but pretty soon it starts to hold to the ground tightly.

  • We can mulch over problem areas that would normally be sprayed, like infestations of stiltgrass or creeping charlie. Sheet mulching is more completely effective for these than herbicides.

  • Sheet mulched areas can be planted in a few months and the plants can establish in the rich compost and mulch while the cardboard below breaks down – probably more quickly due to the root growth. The result is a faster path to a productive bed. We’ve done beds of Prairie Dropseed grass and native ferns in freshly mulched areas.

  • We often let fall leaves lie on our beds (depending on the plantings), but where we still have lawn we pick them up with a mower and pile them for use as mulch in the next season. Re-using material from our own land is carbon efficient, but if you can’t use your own leaves, a local lawn service will probably dump a big load for you during the fall leaf pick-up season.

Give sheet mulching a try. In the end, we’ll all benefit from the plants (ideally native!) that replace your lawn. They will sequester carbon, feed insects and birds, protect local watersheds from undesirable runoff, and make you feel a little better about the endless stream of Amazon boxes!

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