Eco-Friendly Landscaping Part II

In Part I, I discussed the plan to switch from turf to Xeriscape in our front yard, and how I decided to incorporate some Permaculture principles.  Part II covers the rest of the project — sheet mulching, planting, and — say it isn’t so — weeding.

Part II

Laying Sheet Mulch

We all know how important it is to stick to a budget, and I was feeling pleased with the fact that I was able to get many of my materials for free. I was ready to proceed with laying my pathway and sheet mulching. I needed to be ready to plant by the May 15 pickup date, which coincidentally is the ‘last frost’ date for my area. Those CRC folks sure are organized.

Laying the Pathway

Reusing edging and bricks for pathway

The first step was laying the brick path. It needed to have concrete sand as a base, which was one of the materials I had to buy, but it was cheap. I was also able to reuse some metal landscaping edging that we removed when we cleared the rock mulch, to lay out the brick path and provide an edge for the sand. I set out string to indicate the borders of the path, and then my husband, Sean, obligingly completed the path project. I moved bricks around. So far, this was easy (for me).

After the path was in, I was able to start sheet mulching. I learned from David Braden of Organic Landscape Design that it is easiest to work in sections. So, one area at a time, I built up my bombproof sheet mulch. Because sheet mulching includes composting in place, and dry materials do not compost, it is important to wet everything down as you go. First, spray down the ground. Then, spread manure and get that wet. Layer your newspaper/cardboard on top of the manure, and really soak it down. Wetting the paper helps ensure it will compost, and it prevents the paper from blowing away in a gentle breeze. Although it is possible to do all of this yourself, it goes much faster when you have help.

After you’ve laid out the paper about 1/2 inch thick, you add more manure on top.  I know it seems like a lot of poo, but paper has a very high carbon content. For nutrient rich compost, you want a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1 . The C:N ratio for cardboard is 378:1, and manure is 15:1. With 1/2 inch of cardboard and 1 inch of manure, that provides a C:N ratio of 26:1. Perfect!

Sheet mulching around pathway

Sheet mulching around pathway

Now, you can put down your thick layer  of mulch — I used straw. It is easy to put down, because you just remove slabs from the bales and plop them down. You don’t have to worry about breaking it up. You can also use soiled straw, grass hay, etc. This layer is supposed to be 8 to 12 inches deep, but I didn’t want mine that thick, because I wanted it to compost down to only a couple inches. So, I put my straw about 6-8 inches deep – enough to inhibit weeds and keep the moisture in, but not as much as is recommended. If I were doing a raised bed garden, I would have gone for the full 12 inches of straw.

Finally, a layer of compost goes on top of the straw or hay, which adds some good nitrogen content to help break down the straw.

I worked in sections, building each section fully before moving on to the next. When I was done with the bare dirt area where the rock mulch and bushes had been cleared, I moved on to the lawn. Because grass has the same C:N ratio as manure, I could skip the first manure layer and just lay newspaper directly on top of the grass. This was SO MUCH BETTER than digging up lawn! And I wouldn’t have to send anything to the landfill.

Eventually, I ran out of manure, and I had to substitute with worm castings from my worm factory, and leachate from my bokashi bucket. Why these substitutions? They are high in nitrogen, I had them on hand, and I didn’t feel like forking more manure into the truck!

It took most of the weekend to sheet mulch the yard. I don’t think anyone was impressed — it looked a bit like a barnyard. But, now I could stake out my plots for the Sunset Garden and Personal Farmers Market, which gave me a nice visual of how much area I would need to fill in with other plants and allowed me to start spreading decorative mulch in the areas around my two planned gardens.  I really needed to put in some decorative mulch, because I was feeling disheartened by the look of straw and manure.

Planting in Sheet Mulch

Normally, you would put sheet mulch down in the autumn and allow it to decompose, so that you could plant in the spring. However, I didn’t have the luxury of time, so I had to plant directly into the sheet mulch, which can be tricky.

First, you don’t want to plant trees or bushes directly into the sheet mulch. They need to go in the ground, and a thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree will encourage voles to burrow under the mulch and munch on the bark of your tree. This would be bad. Because we had a couple bushes to plant which were previously crushed by snow, we planted them and carefully mulched around them, leaving at least eight inches of clearance around the trunk, which would discourage voles and also allow more water flow to the roots.

If you are transplanting from a pot directly into freshly laid sheet mulch, you need to make some accommodations.  The plants need some dirt to go into – they won’t get enough nutrients from straw! Dig a hole in the mulch at least twice the size of the pot, fill it with dirt, and then plant into the dirt. If you are working with a deep-rooted plant, such as a tomato, cut an ‘X’ into the paper/cardboard. The roots will find their way through the X into the soil beneath.

When direct sowing seeds, the same principle applies. Make a 3×3 inch hole in the straw, fill it with dirt, and plant your seeds in that. Otherwise, your tiny seeds will get lost in the deep straw and may never germinate.

plants arrive

Plants arrive! The large containers are filled with compost.

Finally, Garden In A Box pickup day arrived!  All Things Renewable was invited to have a booth at the pickup location in Golden, where we educated people on different methods of composting. As an added bonus, CRC had a lot of extra plants, and so I was able to take some time, pull out my landscape plan, and figure out what I wanted to use to fill in my extra space.  I bought Hen and Chicks and Rocky Mountain Penstemon, both evergreens, from the Heavenly Hell design.  I’ve always wanted to be a gardener, so I really took advantage and purchased extra tomatoes, basil, peppers, lemon thyme, rhubarb, tricolor sage, and ornamental kale from the Personal Farmers Market. Finally, I topped it all off with Korean feather reed grass and six hills giant catmint from the Sunset Garden. I read that the catmint will eventually grow to 3 ft x 3 ft, and I had lots of room to fill up, and I wanted the grass for winter interest.

Planting took much longer than I thought. I foolishly thought I’d get it all done in one day, but after laying all the pots out, I realized I had about 65 plants, just in my two gardens. It took a week to get those plants in the ground. If I didn’t have to dig those pesky holes and fill them with dirt before planting, it would have gone much faster. My neighbor also bought the sunset garden, and his was done in a day. I keep telling myself I had more plants, more area to fill in, and I was making a long-term Permaculture commitment.

After the plants went in, the top layer of decorative mulch was spread, and I was done!

Well, not really.

Outside the Box

After the Sunset Garden and Personal Farmers market gardens were planted, I still had lots of empty space. Remember those extra plants I bought? Behind the Sunset Garden went two additional giant catmints, surrounded by silver mound artemesia (from a local independent garden center) and rocky mountain penstemon. Another empty spot took some hen and chicks. All of these plants are in danger of being crushed by snow, but I am only concerned about the hen and chicks. As a succulent, they may not take kindly to that treatment.

front yard Sep 2010

Front yard, September 2010

After my 100+ pots were in, I went back to the irises I kept from the old yard, and I started dividing them and planting as filler. I also planted some tomatoes, borage, hyssop, and bee balm in the Snow Crusher Zone next to the house. An extra pepper plant went into a planter, and another planter got extra basil and tomato. I always wanted to try growing strawberries, and I had some spare room, so I went to the local nursery for strawberries, iceplant (because it’s pretty) and more silver mound artemesia, which is supposed to repel mice.

I finished everything off by planting lettuce and marigolds in front of the Personal Farmers Market. Although animals aren’t generally interested in herbs, I wanted the marigolds to keep the rabbits away from my lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers.   I intended to have a full border of marigolds, but I just got tired of planting.

After all this effort, I was worried that summer storms would wash away my decorative mulch, so Sean obligingly installed a temporary cedar edging. We didn’t take a lot of time on a showy edge, because once the sheet mulch has composted down, we will remove the edging.

Time to Relax?

Aaahhh, let’s sit back and watch the flowers bloom. Right?


My layer of straw was not the best material I could have used. It seemed like a good idea — I read that a well-tuned combine would remove any seed heads. I did notice seed heads when I was laying the straw, but it didn’t trigger any concern. It should have.

I spent at least four hours per week pulling ‘weeds’ for the next two months. I didn’t have your normal weeds — MY weeds were grass that had sprouted from the seed heads in the straw. I don’t know if it was alfalfa straw or wheat straw, but it doesn’t matter. Both are perennials, and I had to keep on top of it, lest they come back. I had sprouts EVERYWHERE. Granted, it was easy to pull, but it kept coming and coming! Now, my neighbors think that Xeriscape means spending hours pulling weeds, and when I try to explain about the straw and sheet mulch, their eyes glaze over. Live and learn.

Final Thoughts

chives with marigold

Garlic chives and marigolds in herb garden

Now that fall is nearly here, I just watch my plants grow and bloom, occasionally go out to see if any more seeds have sprouted that I need to pull (hardly any in the last two months, thank Goodness), and pick some strawberries. I’ve made homemade pesto for the first time with the basil, enjoyed fresh tomatoes, and snipped some fresh herbs whenever I need them. I do water my tomatoes and peppers by hand, because they will not survive on what the rest of the garden receives.

Today, my sheet mulch has composted down enough that now the top of the root ball of some plants is above the level of the decorative mulch. My yard is covered in little plant mounds. Oops! I thought I dug deep enough, but I guess I didn’t. I don’t know how that will turn out next year, but this year the plants are fine!

Inviting nature in by letting predatory bugs take care of the ‘bad’ bugs seems to be working. My front yard is buzzing with bees, butterflies, and even the occasional hummingbird! I’ve seen more ladybugs, dragonflies, and praying mantises than ever before.

Jazz, who loved to pee on a yucca

My plants are doing very well, although they are small. I keep telling myself that the first year of a Xeriscape garden is about establishing your plants: water deeply but infrequently!

I do have one plant that is not flourishing in the sheet mulch. A few years ago, I planted a yucca to memorialize my dog, Jaxx, when he passed away. Yucca (aka Spanish Bayonet) was Jazz’s plant of choice for relieving himself on hikes. We were always amazed that he never suffered an injury in an uncomfortable place.  Jazz’s yucca flourished in its original spot, but then it began to encroach upon the sidewalk, and, finally, was pummeled by the snow sliding off our solar panels. So, we moved it to another part of the yard, in the sheet mulch, and now it is mostly yellow, listing badly, and acting like it won’t survive much longer. I have an emotional tie to this particular plant, so I hope it hangs in there.

Learn From My Mistakes

With every project, there are lessons learned. Here is what I will do differently, when I remove the rest of my turf:

  • Sheet mulch in the fall for spring planting
  • Don’t use straw:  Too many seeds!
  • Don’t put peppers in an exposed, full sun area. The pepper in the pot is much happier, once I moved it to a more protected location.
  • Harvest basil early, and often.
  • Use drip irrigation – I bought a kit that will let me convert my sprinkler heads into drip lines, but I haven’t yet installed it.
  • Don’t be so quick to fill in the empty areas: Even now, a couple plants are looking crowded.
  • Be patient. The plants will eventually mature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my experience replacing a lawn with a low-water landscape. I’m looking forward to seeing how it looks next year!

Below are some more pictures.

Planter with pepper and marigold. This pepper is much happier than the one in the garden.

Path with extra plants

Path with iris, itty bitty hen and chicks, penstemon, artemesia, and catmint

Sunset Garden closeup

Sunset Garden plumbago (blue) and yellow prairie coneflower

Front yard mulched

Front yard mulched -- looks like a barnyard!

planting area staked out

Planting area sheet mulched and staked with decorative mulch border



  1. November 10th, 2010
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