Getting started with sheet mulching

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.

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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

  • 1
    Sheet mulching with cardboard
  • 2
    Sheet mulching with burlap bags
  • 3
    Sheet 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

Sheet mulching is a great way to prepare land for planting

Sheet mulching is a great method for preparing land for planting. I have used sheet mulching across my homestead for my food forests and other plantings.

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

Sheet mulching with cardboard

Cardboard has been my go to for sheet mulching on my homestead. It works great over large areas but does have some downsides. Make sure you remove any tape/stickers before using the 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Remove tape from cardboard before using it for sheet mulching

A simple way to remove tape from cardboard is to make shallow cuts around the tape and then peel the tape and top layer of cardboard off in 1 piece. The picture shows each step in this process. It is quick once you get the feel of it.

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

  • Generally easy to find, since it’s a common waste product.
  • Breaks down within a year of being used for sheet mulching.
  • Effective at suppressing grasses and other vegetation.
  • leaf
    Good for sheet mulching large, open areas.

Cons of Using Cardboard

  • Time consuming to remove tape, labels and staples.
  • Dyed cardboard can contain heavy metals. Best not to use.

The Pros and Cons of Using Burlap Bags

Sheet mulching with burlap bags

Burlap bags are a great when you need to use sheet mulching in a high traffic area. I used burlap bags for an outdoor gathering area that will see a lot of traffic.

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

  • Works better on aggressive plants and high traffic areas.
  • Molds to the contours of the ground.
  • Good for sheet mulching large open areas.

Cons of Using Burlap Bags

  • Takes a long time (potentially a couple years) to decompose, so not suitable for areas you want to plant sooner.

The Pros and Cons of Using Newspaper

Sheet mulching with newspaper

Newspaper is a great way to sheet mulch an area with existing plants. Or in the case of the above picture when I want to plant immediately--in this case I planted potatoes while I was sheet mulching the existing grass.

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.

Wild Tip

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.

Wild Tip

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

  • Easy to find
  • Good for sheet mulching around existing plants.
  • Good for patching holes or small gaps in cardboard pieces.
  • leaf
    Covers small berms and uneven ground better than cardboard.

Cons of Using Paper

  • Each piece of newspaper only covers a relatively small area.
  • Pieces are prone to tearing, especially when wet.
  • Takes multiple layers to fully suppress grass.
  • Challenging to place on the ground if there’s any wind, unless you wet the newspaper as you apply it.

Getting Started with Sheet Mulching

Sheet mulching is a great method for homesteaders

Sheet mulching is one of my most useful methods as a homesteader. This picture shows an area in front of my shed that I recently sheet mulched using burlap bags and wood chips. This is just a small example of 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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. Gather enough wood chips, fall leaves, straw, etc. to cover the first layer.
  4. Place the cardboard, burlap bags, or newspaper over the area you are sheet mulching, making sure the edges overlap.
  5. Then add the wood chips or other mulching material on top.
  6. 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.

Get started with sheet mulching

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Daron

Daron is the homesteader and blogger behind Wild Homesteading. With years of experience in gardening, permaculture, homesteading, and environmental restoration Daron's goal is to share his knowledge with all of you so you can work with nature to build your homestead and grow your own food. In addition, to running this site Daron is a restoration ecologist managing the restoration program for a local non-profit and a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to a perfect little boy.

  • Matt Todd says:

    Good information and great presentation format! First time I’ve wandered from Permies.com to your website and I’m glad to have found it.

    • Daron says:

      Good to see you over here Matt and thank you for the comment! 🙂 I hope you will check out the future posts too! Are there any topics you would be interested in hearing more about?

  • Carla says:

    Hi, Daron!
    (Carla, from permies ~waves~)
    Our place is a fantastic rock farm. Some areas, we kind of like all the rocks, but in one unfortunately largish area, we’re having trouble with some very tenacious green things pushing their way through the underlying black sheet mulch, they previous owners applied. We’ve neither the heavy equipment nor the physical strength/ stamina to remove all the rock, to pull out the offensive sheeting – so we’re kind of stuck with it. We MIGHT be able to temporarily remove the rocks, in smaller sections at a time – beginning with the worst areas, first – to then lay in some of our huge moving-box stash of cardboard, to supplement the torn stuff, underneath.
    Above, you suggested that cardboard would not lady more than a season, in a single, overlapped layer. Since we don’t want anything growing in this very specific area, how many layers do you think we should use, to keep the green stuff away, for a few years, until we’re more willing to spend the other kind of green stuff, on making it more permanent?

    • Daron says:

      Hello Carla!

      Sorry for the delay getting back to you. I some how missed your comment. Yeah, black sheet mulch is annoying–I had to pull a lot of it out when I moved to my homestead. If you could move some of the rocks that might be best. But if you put 2 well overlapped layers of cardboard over it all and a nice thick layer of wood chips (at least 4 inches) I think that would smoother out the plants coming up.

      But there are some plants that will come through that. Without knowing exactly which plant(s) you are dealing with I can’t guarantee that sheet mulching with only a couple layers of cardboard would work. But you could try it over one area and see how it works.

      I would try to get other plants growing there as soon as possible to help it all fill in. Otherwise, unwanted plants are likely to come in eventually.

      Good luck!

  • Carla says:

    The, not they & last, not lady. Sheesh!

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