Create an Almost Instant Garden with Sheet Composting

If you really want to plant a garden, but you are staring at a bunch of green grass and thinking, “That’s going to take a long time,” take heart.  Sheet composting can come to your rescue.  I first heard about sheet composting when I took a Permaculture design course fifteen years ago.  I fell in love with it and I’ve been using it ever since.

The basic idea behind sheet composting is to put down a layer of mulch to discourage the grass or weeds from growing up through and then forming a planting bed on top of that with manure, straw, and compost.  First, decide where you want to put your garden, and then collect all your materials.  Once you have everything together, the sheet composting process moves very quickly.

The easiest and most readily available mulch material for sheet composting is cardboard.  It is available for free in many stores.  My favorite place to get it is at appliance stores, because the boxes that refrigerators, washers, and dryers come in are really big and cover a lot of area.

A pile of cardboard in my garden










Once you have your cardboard, find a source for fresh manure.  That’s not a problem for me, because I have livestock, but it can be a challenge if you live in a city.  If you have a vehicle, you can visit horse stables in your area and fill some bags or buckets (ask first).  Some cities still have police horses and when I lived in Seattle, we collected buckets of manure from the police stables.  Zoos often will part with their doo doo, as well.  If you don’t have access to any of those sources, you can use kitchen scraps, but that will take a bit longer.  Dump things that you would normally add to a compost pile–fruit and vegetable peels and waste, grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.–on the cardboard in a layer about six inches deep.  It will take a little longer to create your bed, but this is also a good option for people who object to using animal products.

Piles of sheep and goat manure on top of the cardboard.










Next, cover the manure or kitchen scraps with a layer of straw about a foot thick.  If you are using scraps, I’d recommend covering them with straw every time you add to your bed to keep odor under control.  Straw is readily available at garden centers.

I am planting summer squash, so I decided to make hills. Sheet composting is flexible.











The final thing you will need is some finished compost or top soil.  If you don’t make your own compost, both of these are available in bags at home and garden centers.  The beauty of sheet composting is that you don’t need much soil to plant in these beds.  Pull the straw away along the top of the bed all the way down to the manure layer, then add the soil on top of that until it is level with the straw.  This is where you will plant.  The roots of the plants will work down through the soil and into the manure layer for nutrition, but the plants won’t be burned by the fresh manure.









Some things work better in sheet composted beds than others.  Anything that is transplanted into the garden, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, or broccoli, will do well in a sheet composted bed.  Things that are directly seeded are more difficult to grow in these kinds of beds, because they can be washed away when watering if you are not extremely careful.  It might be a good idea to grow the lettuce and carrots in containers instead.

Finished hill. Ready to plant.










The bed will dry out more quickly than soil, so keep up with the watering.  At the end of the season, just leave the bed in place after harvesting.  In the spring, your eighteen inch bed will have shrunk down to three or four inches of lovely soil.  After several years of repeating this process, you should have created enough soil that all you will have to do is add some new compost and plant.


1 Comment

  1. Gerri said,

    May 11, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Very interesting..thank you,I’ll try that with my new garden bed 🙂

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