How to Get Started with Sheet Mulching
Are you looking for a way to get rid of grass or aggressive weeds on your homestead? Have you heard the term sheet mulching and not known what it is? Or you are wondering how to best use this technique on your own homestead? If so, keep reading so you can get started with sheet mulching today.
At its most basic, sheet mulching is simply putting down a sheet of paper, cardboard, burlap or other similar biodegradable material (i.e. material that will decompose) and then adding at least one layer of regular mulch (wood chips, fall leaves, straw, etc.) on top of the first layer.
Though you can even get even more involved, like with Toby Hemmingway’s “bomb-proof sheet mulch” method which uses 9 layers!
On my own homestead, I stick with just the 2-layer approach. It works fine, it uses a lot less material, and it’s a lot easier to implement.
If you’re new to sheet mulching, you might be wondering: Why not just throw thick mulch on top of the grass or other plants you want to mulch? Why bother with cardboard, paper, or burlap bags?
The reason is that the layer of firm, biodegradable material is way more effective at holding back grasses or other aggressive plants. You could skip that layer, but you would ultimately need to use a lot more wood chips, straw, or fall leaves.
You’ll often hear that 8 inches of mulch will smoother grass.
If you put it down when the grass has stopped growing, (after you first mow the grass very low,) then this can work.
But 8 inches is a lot of mulch!
With just 1 overlapping layer of cardboard, you can get away with using only 2 or 3 inches of mulch. To me, that is well worth the effort of dealing with the cardboard.
The biggest challenge of mulching is finding or producing enough mulch material. Sheet mulching makes it more manageable.
That being said, if you’re mulching bare ground, then don’t worry about sheet mulching. Just throw 3 to 4 inches of regular mulch on it and call it good.
So, are you ready to get started with sheet mulching? Let’s dive in to 3 main types of sheet mulching.
3 Main Types of Sheet Mulching
- 1Sheet mulching with cardboard
- 2Sheet mulching with burlap bags
- 3Sheet mulching with newspaper
The pros and cons of each type of sheet mulching, and the basics of how to do it, will be covered in each section.
But before you read on, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet so you can easily take this info outside with you. Plus, the cheat-sheet has some tips on where to find materials for sheet mulching.
Types of Sheet Mulching
The following 3 sections cover the types of sheet mulching that I see people using the most, and that are fairly easy to find for free.
For all these types of sheet mulching, you can use any organic mulch with them. Generally, wood chips, fall leaves, and straw are the easiest to find or produce yourself.
There are variations on each of these types of sheet mulching, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
The general process is pretty straightforward. Once you place the cardboard, burlap bags, or newspaper down on the ground, just cover it with around 3 inches of mulch.
One extra step you can take is to add compost, an inch or so thick, on top of the cardboard, burlap bags, or newspaper. Then add the regular mulch on top as you would normally.
This will speed up the decomposition of the sheet mulching material. But it takes a lot of compost, so I tend to skip this step.
The Pros and Cons of Using Cardboard
Cardboard is the classic go-to for sheet mulching. But not all types of cardboard are created equal. Corrugated cardboard tends to work better in my experience, and it breaks down faster. The poster-board type can work too, but I don’t think it’s as effective.
You will need to remove any tape, labels, or staples from the cardboard. This can get tedious, but there are a couple tricks you can use to make this go quicker.
- Let the cardboard get wet. Then let it dry. Packing tape tends to come off very easy after that. Be careful, though—if the cardboard gets too wet and stays wet, it will tear much more easily. Also, this method works great for tape, but not so much for the white shipping labels.
- Take a sharp knife and make quick and shallow cuts all around the edges of the tape or labels. Make sure the cuts intersect with each other. Then use the knife tip to get under the top layer of cardboard (assuming corrugated) and just peel off that layer. Since you are removing the top layer of cardboard, the tape, glue and all will come off. Once you get the hang of it this method, it’s quick and easy.
Some people are concerned about toxic chemicals in the cardboard. I have not been able to find anything conclusive on this, but I also don’t think it is a major concern.
What I did find out is that that certain bright dyes (orange, red, yellow, etc.) can contain heavy metals. Because of this, I don’t use any fully-dyed cardboard for sheet mulching, regardless of color, just to be safe.
But as long as the cardboard is not dyed, or just has a small amount of dye, then I’ll use it.
Sheet mulching with cardboard works great to suppress grasses. As long as you overlap it well and cover it with a couple layers of regular mulch, you should have good luck with it.
Generally, the cardboard will decompose within a year. It makes it easy to plant into the mulched area if you wait a year after you first put down the sheet mulch.
When applying cardboard, I always open the boxes all the way, so the cardboard goes down in one single layer. This makes each cardboard box cover the most ground.
Overall, cardboard is a great and relatively easy material to use for sheet mulching.
Pros of Using Cardboard
Cons of Using Cardboard
The Pros and Cons of Using Burlap Bags
Used burlap bags have become one of my go-to sheet mulching materials when I’m dealing with very aggressive plants that would push through cardboard or paper, and when I’m sheet mulching areas that will get a lot of foot traffic.
Burlap bags are much tougher than cardboard and newspaper, and they’ll take longer to breakdown. This is great for high traffic areas, but not so good for places you want to plant soon.
I’ve cut holes in the bags and planted into the holes before, and you can certainly lay them around your plants, but generally I don’t use burlap in areas I want to plant within a year or 2. Even 2 or 3 years in, you may still have to cut through the bags.
This also means that burlap bags will suppress volunteer plants for a while.
One key advantage of burlap bags is that they will mold themselves to the contours of the ground, making it easier to mulch berms or other earthworks. As with cardboard (and newspaper) you will want to overlap the pieces to ensure the grass or other plants don’t come up at the edges.
While not ideal for all sheet-mulching applications, burlap bags have clear advantages and are great for high traffic areas.
Pros of Using Burlap Bags
Cons of Using Burlap Bags
The Pros and Cons of Using Newspaper
Newspaper can be a great material for sheet mulching, but there are some downsides to it. Each piece of newspaper covers only a small area, and it tends to be very weak, making it necessary to use multiple layers to be effective.
Newspaper also tends to easily blow away in the wind, which makes laying it down over an area a bit tricky unless it’s a very calm day. You can wet the newspaper as you place it down, which keeps it from blowing away but makes it more prone to tearing.
That said, newspaper can work great when you have existing plants that you’re trying to sheet mulch around. Newspaper can also be used to patch small gaps between cardboard pieces or small holes you may find in cardboard pieces.
Sometimes when planting into grass, you’ll end up with a ring of sod pieces around your plant that you had removed to get your plant in the ground. Newspaper is better than cardboard at covering these sod rings.
You can use a combination of newspaper and cardboard. Use the newspaper around existing plants you want to keep, and then place cardboard over the open space between the areas covered with newspaper.
Make sure when using newspaper that you don’t use any shiny or smooth pieces of paper. These seem to have a plastic coating which doesn’t break down.
I’ve also found that newspaper can break down slower than cardboard if not covered in a thick layer of mulch.
Finally, as with the other 2 sheet mulching types, make sure to overlap the pieces of newspaper to keep the grass or other plants from coming up through the edges.
Overall, newspaper is more limited as a sheet mulching material, but it’s fairly easy to find and it is very easy to place around existing plants.
One type of material often used for sheet mulching that’s not covered here is the rolls of brown paper that you can buy at hardware stores. This paper is sold as floor protection paper for painting projects.
These rolls have the same general pros and cons as newspaper, (which is why it doesn’t get its own section), but since they come in rolls, you can use them over large areas. That said, as with newspaper, it can still take multiple layers for this to be effective.
Pros of Using Paper
Cons of Using Paper
Getting Started with Sheet Mulching
Sheet mulching is a great way to prepare land for planting. I’ve been sheet mulching large areas of my homestead ever since my family moved here.
By removing competing plants, (especially grass,) you will help your new plants get established. Plus, as the grass or other vegetation breaks down along with the sheet mulching material, you will be left with rich soil that is great for planting in.
Sheet mulching really is an easy process. Here are the basic steps to get started.
- Decide which of the sheet mulching types (cardboard, burlap bags, newspaper/paper) you are going to use. A mix of these types works great too!
- Gather enough material to fully cover the area you want to sheet mulch. Remember to take into account that you will need to overlap the edges of the material.
- Gather enough wood chips, fall leaves, straw, etc. to cover the first layer.
- Place the cardboard, burlap bags, or newspaper over the area you are sheet mulching, making sure the edges overlap.
- Then add the wood chips or other mulching material on top.
- Wait at least 6 months for the grass or other vegetation to fully break down before planting. (You may need to wait longer, depending on what sheet mulching material you are using.)
Depending on which material you’re using, late summer and into the fall can be a great time to sheet mulch an area. This way, the area will be ready to plant into the following spring.
If you’re going for a fall planting, then you should place the sheet mulch down in early spring.
When you do plant the sheet mulched area, make sure to pull the mulch back and plant into the soil, not into the mulch. Then just pull the mulch back around the plant, making sure to leave a little gap around the base of the plant.
Sheet mulching is a great way to transform a grass-covered area into rich soil ready for planting. But before you go out and start sheet mulching, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet so you can easily take this info outside with you. Plus, the cheat-sheet has some tips on where to find materials for sheet mulching.