|1 1/2 year old forest garden, nice tomatoes on 6-7 foot plants to the top left.|
When we first moved into our home, a bit less than 2 years ago, we wanted to rapidly convert as much of our yard to garden as fast as we could, but being new to the area and broke from buying a house, we didn’t have many resources to work with.
Here’s one method we used to cover very large areas where it didn’t need to look neat right away, in this case, a 1/4 acre thicket of old-field with brambles, weed tree saplings, and bushes, honeysuckle, poke, burdock and ragweed.
Yeah, try tilling that, or maybe smothering it under a layer of cardboard!
–low-labor as we were very busy,
–cheap, no special tools like a tiller.
–garden beds that would EVENTUALLY be water-saving, fertile, and low maintenance.
–lots of bio-mass, sticks, leaves, weeds, etc.
–time for beds to gain fertility naturally
–other “intensive” garden beds for high productivity, so we were looking for a system that would prioritize “low maintenance” over productivity.
Here’s what worked for us:
(Very) Rough Mulch Garden Beds.
OR, chop, drop and pile it up.
This is a technique based on restoration work and studies of building soil by mimicking the “course woody debris” in a forest. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this for someplace close to the house where you need things to look neat right away. But in out of the way areas of unused farmland, bramble and old field, I think this could work well for you. Also, if you’re starting with a large area of lawn, this WOULD still work, but step one would be: “stop mowing your lawn and wait for a couple of years.” Compared to the work of plowing, digging or sheet mulching lawn, working with succession like this might still be quicker and easier for large areas! I might even try gathering a bunch of nuts and seeds from a rest stop or park and stomping them into the lawn as “sacrificial trees.”
1. Clear vegetation as low as possible. In a bramble or old field, you might be able to do this completely with hand clippers and a small hand saw, as I did. But we did have one maple that had died prior to us buying the house and a catalpa that was dying, probably from years of competition with the maple. So we removed the maple and cut the catalpa to regrow as a smaller tree (“coppicing.”) Don’t sweat getting weeds and trees cut as low as a conventional sheet mulch. Sure, weed trees and bushes shot through in the spring, but they were more help than hindrance, providing additional mulching materials and mass and tilling soil with their roots. Others, I have left to work their magic on the soil, I can cut them later with hand clippers.The important thing is that you expose plants you want to grow to more light.
2. Layout paths with your largest woody debris. Woody debris helps create a fungal soil that inhibits grass and builds loose soil that weeds and grasses pull out of easily. The large debris helps you visualize where your paths will be. Make garden beds 4-5 feet wide, so you can reach the middle from both sides.
3. If you want them to be water-wise, then lay the sticks PERPENDICULAR to the slope to slow down and infiltrate water. This method, called “PASSIVE SWALING” causes the sediment to fall out of the slowed water and where it slowly forms a swale without digging. Our beds are like giant “U” shapes, designed to catch water coming down hill.
4. (Optional) “Trench Compost” in a few relatively root-free spots where you can dig. Trench composting is just digging a 1-2 foot deep hole, building a compost pile in it and covering it back over. Just don’t bury too much woody material or you’ll bind up some nitrogen for a few years.
This part is really just voodoo, but it gives me a chance to inspect the soil and I theorize that it “kickstarts” soil life which will carry the nutrients out into the beds, and encourages roots to till the soil by providing nutrient stores for them to grow into.
5. Pile up the rest of your debris on beds using smaller sticks, weeds, leaves, any organic matter you can find. Lay the sticks and twigs in sort of “bundles” parallel to the stick borders as you gather them to create a more solid mass. The thicker, the better. Avoid placing large sticks in the spots you will directly plant, using smaller debris instead in these areas.
|Bottom left, larger branches to frame the beds and suppress grass infiltration, smaller sticks, twigs, bramble canes, weeds, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps fill in the beds. thickly to smother vegetation.|
6. Start mowing the paths. Now you could remove larger stumps or bush stools in the paths before you kill your lawnmower on them. But, not me, I’m lazy, so we planned our paths around them! The key here is an area where we preferred to let nature and the land dictate the design of the garden, instead of imposing a design on it.
7. Plant into beds as you would with any sheet mulch: In spring, you can dig small holes in the mulch for plants, or make a pile of compost or soil in the mulch for a seed bed.
|Finished beds, left, right and foreground|
7. Maintain your beds with thick plantings and “chop and drop”mulching each year.
“Chop and drop” is just what it sounds like. Cut your crop and leave it to compost in place on the garden bed. Spot mulch any weedy areas or large grass patches with newspaper and some garden debris.
“No newspaper or weed barrier?” Nope. That takes lots of time… and newspaper I didn’t have. Yes, there are SOME weeds, but really, according to many sources on forest restoration, 6 inches of debris is going to kill most of your weeds. Check out the surface of a two year old bed:
Not too many weeds in there. Lots of room for plants to grow. And believe me, I didn’t weed!
“And hows productivity?” Better than no garden bed, which is what I’d have with any other method. And actually, it was pretty good, though I did no measuring. I got lots of healthy tomato plants, lots of tomatoes, dozens of squash, peppers, basil, etc, just off one of these beds. And the deer probably got more than we did. That’s pretty good considering I never dug, never watered, never weeded, and never fertilized.
And I know this bed will continue to grow in fertility for a long time as the wood slowly breaks down.