S is for sheet mulching (and spring)

| Farming, Gardening, Permaculture, Permaculture Design, Vegetable Gardening | comments | Author :

Here comes Spring! I can feel it in my bones. No matter that last night was -1.4º at Milkwood Farm… The blossoms as in bud all around. And that means it’s ground-prep time! Bring on the no-dig gardens and the sheet mulching…

Sheet mulching and no-dig gardens have a fair bit of cross-over, and it depends what school of gardening you’re from as to what your preference is, coupled with your conditions.

Making a no-dig bed at a workshop during one of our Sydney permaculture courses.

Myself, I’m more of a no-dig bed gardener. We’ve made too many of these gardens to count, between our farm, permablitzes and workshops. The no dig bed above even has an added worm tower (it’s the blue barrel thing).

No dig gardening was brought to prominence at Milkwood by a sweet little book by Esther Dean: No Dig Gardening and Leaves of Life. We’ve been trying various versions of it ever since.

Not only is this type of gardening a great deal of fun, it’s highly participatory, and fantastic for school gardens. Both Aaron Sorensen and Leonie Shannahan use it extensively in their school garden projects.

Aaron Sorensen + Dan Deighton’s ‘no dig recipe’ in action during a session at Kiama Public School permaculture garden
Kiama Public School kids in the thick of no-dig bed gardening action! Such good fun…

Sheet mulching is a similar premise to no-dig. Smother the undesirable plants, mulch heavily, make a lasagne of carbon and compost, and plant lots. A good burst of energy now for minimal labor further down the line.

Sheet mulching diagram. Origin unknown.

Recently I was reading Sepp Holtzer’s Permaculture, a newly released book describing a landmark Austrian permaculturalist’s farm, which had some funky designs for hugel beds.

Must try out one of these hugel beds in a spare moment… they seem counter intuitive in a drier, erratic climate like ours, but plenty of things that work on Milkwood Farm are counter intuitive, so they may fit right in…

Hugel beds, as outlined in Sepp Holtzer’s book

It will be so interesting to be running no-dig garden bed systems alongside (one the same farm i mean, not right next to) our new intensive market garden. I’m so looking forward to finding a balance of what crops benefit from which sort of system…

Does anyone out there have any stories of running intensive organic beds (ie prepared compost and soil beds) alongside no-dig or sheet mulched beds?

What have you found worked best for different vegetables in each type of approach? Would love some feedback…

See the comments

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10 responses to “S is for sheet mulching (and spring)

  1. Hi Kirsten,

    So much exciting stuff happening at Milkwood – thanks for sharing in such detail.

    I’ve been growing vegies for 13 years and in that time have used a range of different systems from no-dig to chook tractor beds to traditional soil based beds. I’ve found perennial food plants such as asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes, scarlet runner beans, herbs, strawberries etc work best in no dig beds, while most annual vegies, especially root crops, are easier in intensive organic beds. I like some soil in my gardens!

    My current veg patch is reasonably traditional. It consists of nine raised beds 200mm high laid out in a potager style – not very permie with all those straight lines, but it’s a practical patch to work. The beds were initally filled with a mix of decent quality site soil, screened topsoil from a site not far away, aged goose and chook manure from some disused pens on site, plus a decent amount of aged horse manure and composted pig manure. The lots was limed initally to sweeten things up, and I still regularly lime (depending on the crop) with either dolomite or wood ash from our combustion heater. Home made compost is added regularly and we use lots of organic sugarcane mulch. The nine beds make crop rotations easy to manage.

    My view is that all veg gardens require some tilling, either at establishment or ongoing. Even no dig beds need to be lightly dug when planting seedlings or in preparation for different crops. So I call my overall approach these days “minimal till”. If I can avoid tilling, I do. For carrots and deep rooted crops, I till. When using green manures (difficult with no dig beds), I till. My soil structure, moisture holding capacity, and drainage is improving all the time, so this approach works for me. On other sites, no dig miight be more approppriate.

    Best wishes for the establishment of your market garden. My late grandpa was a market gardener in Brisbane, so I’ll be following your progress with interest.



  2. Kirsten,
    You might be interested in the work of Richard wallner (a market garden permie in France). He’s developed garden beds that are ergonomic and high yielding for market veggies production. I’ll pass some materials soon. Must translate them first -unless you want to Exercise your French! 🙂
    Talk soon.

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  4. Hi Kirsten

    I am hoping you might give me some advice.

    We have a 3.5 acre woodland area that is overrun with rhododendron. We are clearing it away in stages and need to mulch to stop it becoming overgrown with whatever we don’t want there. Eventually we want to be able to plant out an orchard.

    The woodland is shrub woodland and consists of willow, birch and hazel mostly. It is self seeded and whilst looks nice a lot of the trees are on their last legs and in winds we regularly have trees fall over.

    So we want a mulch that will allow us as we remove trees to plant out an orchard, apple, pears, cherries. We are looking at a living mulch of White Clover, Mustard and Alfalfa. The advice we need is:
    1. Is this the best form of mulching for our circumstances please?
    2. When we fell a tree, up to now we have been removing the stumps via a digger. The digger ruins the ground though and we would now like to just leave the stumps. It has been suggested to cut them down to ground height and leave them to rot. Trouble is willow particularly doesn’t rot, it just resprouts! Any thoughts please?

    Thanks for the help.


    1. you could cut the willows off at the ground and coppice them for stickwood annually – great source of hot-burning firestarters… re living mulch, i’d get in touch with your local permaculture association and find out what folks near you and in similar conditions use? I’d also look up Martin Crawford’s forest gardening resources that are all UK based – good luck!

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