How Mulching Will Save Your Garden (and Sanity!)

Image from Oregon Live.
For all of you starting in with the back-breaking work of tilling, weeding, fertilizing, and otherwise prepping your garden beds for the impending season, this is a Public Service Announcement from Better Farm.


Turn off that roto-tiller. Back away from that hoe. Return that bag of fertilizer. Pronto.

We've got a mulch simpler solution that benefits you, your sanity,  the environment, and, of course, that gorgeous garden of yours.

What is Mulch Gardening?
Lasagna garden illustration by Kim Carpenter
Mulch gardening is a layering method that mimics a forest floor and combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop. Also called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching, this process can turn hard-to-love soil rich and healthy by improving nutrient and water retention in the dirt, encouraging favorable soil microbial activity and worms, suppressing weed growth, and improving the well-being of plants (all while reducing maintenance!).

How is Mulch Gardening Achieved?
This is the easy part. All the stuff most people throw out—food scraps. cardboard, junk mail, dead leaves, sticks, twigs, and newspaper—is exactly the stuff you want to get mulch gardening going in your yard. Trust us, it works:
Better Farm gardens, 2013.
Starting in the Spring
If you're starting this process in the spring, you'll want to make layers like this in your garden rows:
  • Layer One: cardboard/newspaper/junk mail (we also use the discarded bedding from chicken coops)
  • Layer Two: fresh compost (coffee grounds, banana peels, etc.)
  • Layer Three: Dead leaves, hay, other mulch items
  • Layer Four: Top Soil
The only reason for adding soil in your first year is to ensure your seedlings will have something to grab onto. After this year, however, you won't have to add dirt; you will have already made your own! For you gardeners who are concerned about appearances, top soil and mulch as a top layer around your seedlings will also give you a manicured look. During the season, continue adding all these mulch-gardening layers to a compost bin. In the fall, pull any plants that won't be returning on their own next spring, mix them into your compost, then dump compost over each row, topped with more cardboard, paper, and hay. Here's a photo illustration of these instructions:

First layer: cardboard, newspaper, junk mail

Second layer: fresh compost from our food.
Third layer: hay, grass clippings, pulled (and dead) weeds

We put a second layer of cardboard over the top of some rows to make sure no weeds poke through.

As the layers of biodegradables break down, we're left with rich, dark soil.

Grow, baby, grow!

Next spring, you'll just have to poke a hole into your rows and plant away. The natural weed barriers, composted food, other layers will add every nutrient your plants need, retain moisture, and ensure a plentiful crop.

Starting in the Fall
Each Fall at Better Farm, we add piles of hay and compost to each row.
In the fall, you will pull dead plants from your rows, mix those in with your other compost, then spread all your compost, more cardboard/newspaper, and hay (preferable to straw, click here to find out why) to your rows. In raised beds, do the same exact thing. During the winter, these piles will reduce dramatically in size (at least by half, if not more). Come spring, you'll rake out the top layer from your beds to allow perennials to return; in your rows, you can plant directly into the layers.
 Want to see just how much of a difference mulch gardening makes? Click here to see our four-year reflection photos!

For more information about mulch gardening, click here. We also now offer private garden consultations! Click here to learn more.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.