Category Archives: Compost

Video: Get Your Sheet Mulch On!

Full disclosure time. There was a time in my life when I paid good money for sod. I got a few bids, hired a landscaper and happily watched them lay out beautiful rolls of green grass. I lovingly watered it in the morning and evening to keep it looking green.

I kept the “flower beds” around it sparse and mulched with red beauty bark. I didn’t know what to do with the yard. I wanted things to be “low maintenance.“ I could barely maintain the house.

But little by little things changed. Slowly, but surely, through many successful plantings and failures, I went through an evolution. The artificially-colored, splinter-induing bark got carted away. The grass began to turn a nice shade of khaki and shortly thereafter was sacrficied for one raised bed after another.

I guess it’s only natural then that the last piece of sod that I paid for years ago in the front yard make its way to the big park in the sky with the rest of it. I’m tired of mowing that silly little strip, which hardly stays green anyway. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with it, though I have visions of a mini-orchard. That’s the fun I have to look forward to in the spring.

So, it’s sheet mulch time. This video is a short one because the process is so damn easy. I don’t know why you’d remove the grass any other way. Why break a sweat and dig when you can throw some cardboard and compost on it and let nature take its course? Early fall is a great time to get this started, so maybe you can join me. See any grass in your yard that has seen better days? Do you have visions of edibles or ornamental beauties that could take its place? If you said yes, then it might be time to get your sheet mulch on! I think you’ll be glad you did! Then you can have visions of spring projects dancing in your head too! RIP grass. It’s been real!

A Dirty Job

Today I did some serious labor. But I have to back it up a bit to when this project all began…in August.

Behold the lawn (and all the lush vegetation – be still, my heart!) in August. May it rest in peace.Well, it didn’t all go away, but a big chunk of it did. It’s just too sunny of a spot to not use for growing more vegetables!Here is the lawn after I started the take-over. Rather than labor over a shovel, trying to dig out or turn over the sod, I used the sheet mulching method instead to smother the grass. Here is how Seattle Tilth describes sheet mulching:

Sheet mulching smothers unwanted plants or grass with a semi-permeable layer of cardboard or several sheets of newspaper topped by a layer of organic material. The sheet mulch is left in place to decompose both the weeds underneath and the materials placed on top. The result will be soil that has increased fertility, more organic matter and few weeds, and it will be ready for planting in about six months.

I am lucky to have an abundance of chicken manure-rich bedding, so I used that as the mulch for my site. I used sheet mulching for the purpose of ridding myself of the grass as easily as possible and planned to put raised beds in the area since I like the ease and look of them. However, given how sheet mulching can enrich your soil, especially if you’re mulching with chicken manure, I probably could have had a lot of success just planting right into the ground.By the time I let the chickens into the area in early February, the cardboard had completely broken down and the grass was gone. No digging required!If I could have gotten a better picture of the chickens tilling the ground, I would have. But the space was teeming with so many worms, the chickens just wouldn’t stay still – best day of their lives, I’m sure.

This week, during my mid-winter week break from school, I set out to work on the infrastructure that would occupy my newly cleared space. The plan was to create a U-shaped formation of three raised beds with an aisle in the middle. I moved the soil in the bed that was already in the space (see the picture at the top) and swung it around. That will now be the top of my horseshoe formation. Then, I built two 3 foot by 10 feet cedar raised beds. Today, I set out on an adventure to fill them with soil.

I got my dad to come with me on my field trip to Cedar Grove out in Everett, to help me secure the load and for general moral support. I rented a truck from Handy Andy and we made our trip up north. In the past, I would have made my own soil mix using the Square Foot Gardening ratio, but it’s a lot of work and is really expensive. This time, I decided to spend my money on a local company and buy soil enriched with compost that comes from our local waste system. Easy it was not, but certainly worth it. I’m still kicking myself for not bringing my camera. It was so cool to be on-site at Cedar Grove, the company that puts our yard and kitchen waste to use. The company that has supplied me with many a bag of compost. They were so nice too! I even got a punch card – buy 5 yards and get a 1/2 yard free! But I tell you, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to redeem that benefit, nor does my back have any interest in it.

I purchased a yard (the equivalent of approximately 30 bags of compost/soil) of Vegetable Garden Mix for a mere $23 and then pulled the truck along side huge piles of compost and soil. An older gentleman came rumbling up in a huge earth mover, filled what seemed like barely a quarter of the dumper with the soil and slowly, but surely dumped it into the bed of the truck. At the risk of sounding like a total garden nerd, I have to admit that it was exhilarating to be sitting in the cab and feel the power and weight of all that soil being dropped into the back. The old man yelled to me over the rumbling engine that he gave me a little extra, about a half a yard more. The incredible job of moving all that soil, which awaited me, did not spoil my excitement. I am the queen of over-confidence.

It took me about two hours to load and move around countless wheelbarrows full of soil. Between the shoveling and pushing a wheelbarrow laden with soil up the driveway and up the walkway to its final destination in my garden beds, I got a full body workout for sure. At one point, I stopped to fill up the wheelbarrow wheel with air because it seemed so flat and hard to move. I discovered, however, that it was just flattening with the weight of the soil. Good times! And Jake, if you’re reading this, please know that I have much respect for the strength it took to move the yard of gravel you had to wheelbarrow around to make the foundation for my coop. Soil is unassumingly heavy and I can only imagine what it would be like to have done the same thing with such a heavy material as gravel.

My friend Kathryn showed up just in time to help me finish the job and as usual, we had some fun. What better way to get the rest of the soil out of the truck then my projecting it into the wheelbarrow she was holding? Oh sure, I tried the same process without Kathryn’s assistance, but the wheelbarrow just tipped over with the sudden force of it. Plus, it was way more fun this way. I only wish we would have started videotaping sooner!

In the end, I ended up filling up two 30 square foot beds, topping off a few existing beds, and storing probably around 1/2 a yard on a tarp on my driveway out back. That’s just another project waiting to happen.

Before:

After:

Let’s recap:

Lumber for two 3′ x 10′ raised beds = $100
One and a half yards of soil = $23
Renting a truck to haul it = $70 ($64 for a one day rental plus gas)
A much needed sandwich post labor = $7
The pride of knowing I’m strong enough to do a dirty job like this on my own = priceless

Bath Time!

I’ve been meaning to mention this new chicken resource I acquired the last time I was at Powell’s. The book is City Chicks by Patricia Foreman and what I like the most about it is its extensive information about compost and using manure in the garden.

Not all chicken books are created equal and I’ve found that as a chicken owner, not just someone looking for a brief, general overview of chicken husbandry, I need a small collection of books to suit all my needs. Since I recently built myself a three-bin compost system especially for composting all the waste my chickens produce, I needed a resource to help me better understand how to break the manure down and use it safely. I’ve already harvested a batch that has cured and put it in a few of my beds that are resting for the winter. I hope to get even better at closing the waste cycle, keeping it in my little ecosystem, and putting it to work.

This book has also been a great resource for another aspect of chicken life – bath time. Chickens need to take baths, but not with water like us. They bathe in dirt. If my girls were free-range chickies, they’d find themselves a patch of dirt and would dig themselves a shallow hole to dust in. But unfortunately, they’re only out of their run in bouts of supervised free-range time and I don’t have an area where they could dig a dusting hole if they wanted too. So, the solution – build them a dusting box! A dusting box is essentially a shallow box filled with dirt. The birds get in, hunker down into the dirt, roll around in it, and fluff and kick all the sandy dirt and dust into their feathers…and everything else in the vicinity.

That’s Penny, above, in all her bathing glory. The chickens use their dusting box for sunbathing and general enjoyment too. As with most things chickens do, they usually bathe together (unless of course, you’re the low one in the pecking order like Penny and bathe alone or get kicked out when the other two want in).  Spraying down the dirt in the dusting box, you can also help keep your chickens cool when the temperatures start to rise. You know what Martha would say about it – it’s a good thing.

The original dusting box that Jake built ended up being too shallow, as the chickens would always end up kicking all the dirt out, and shuffle bedding from the run in. So, I got out the trusty ol’ drill, found some lovely scrap boards, cut them to size, and attached them to the outside of the old dusting box.  Now, the box measures just over 6 1/2 inches tall from the floor to the top edge of the box.

Then, I followed the directions that Patricia gives in her book for creating the perfect dusting box mixture. She recommends making a mix of equal parts organic potting soil, sand, and diatomaceous earth.

I was able to get Diatomaceous Earth (DE) from local company, Scratch and Peck Feeds. I added that to the mix, in addition to sprinkling it in their nesting boxes, to protect them from getting mites and lice.

I put all of the aforementioned ingredients into a large garbage can, except I only used about half of the bag of DE, and mixed it all together with the shovel as best I could. Stirring together a big amount of dense materials is no easy task, but it’s worth it for the convenience of having dusting box dirt on-hand for future use.

I filled the box up a little more than half way with the dirt mixture and they got right to it. The height is just right too – the dirt stays in and the run litter stays out. A good dusting box is a little detail that will make your chickens very happy!

Don’t toss those leaves!

It’s that time of the year again when beautiful orange, red, and brown leaves litter the ground and our yards. But rather than raking up those leaves and tossing them into the yard waste bin, why not put them to use in your own garden instead? Here are a few things you can do with all your dried leaves, which will take just as much time, if not less, as putting them in the yard waste bin.

  • Use your leaves as a mulch. Put them on top of garden beds that you’re putting to bed for the winter. They will prevent soil from being washed away by heavy rain and will eventually contribute to the organic matter in your soil when the leaves break down. Last year, I left my dahlia tubers in the ground and kept them warm by piling lots of dried leaves on top of the ground above them. They survived and bloomed just beautifully this year.
  • Add them to your compost pile as “browns”. Dried leaves are carbon-rich, so when you add them to your compost pile with nitrogen-rich “greens,” you get the perfect combination for decomposition.
  • Make leaf mold! According to the Seattle Tilth Maritime Garden Guide, “before the age of soil-less, peat-based potting soils, composted leaves (called leaf mold) were a key component of the best potting soils.” Making leaf mold is one of the easiest types of composting you can do. All you need are dried leaves, some chicken wire, and a little time.

I’m going to use some extra chicken wire I have and the following directions from the aforementioned Tilth guide to make my own leaf mold this fall:

Leaves can be stored in a simple bin constructed of a 3-foot-wide piece of hog wire bent to make a cylinder and stood up on end. The ends of the wire can then be secured to each other to allow the bin to stand. It is beneficial to shade or cover the leaf mold pile during the summer to keep it from drying out.