The following account of sheet-mulching a hell strip is from Denver permie and Wild Green Yonder affiliate Jonathan Hontz. Enjoy!
I have a love/hate relationship with my tree lawn. It used to be a 15 x 24 foot strip of weedy, sun-baked, and compacted land that neither the City nor I wanted to spend any time maintaining. My lady Sabrina and I don’t really do much out there. Our relationship to this lawn is predominantly visual: we’re almost always just looking at the space and not walking around within it.
My first attempt at landscaping the lawn was a half-hearted shot at making it into a wildflower meadow. I bought some yarrow, grama grass, lamb’s ear, and blanket flower, planting them at intervals amongst the weeds. I bootlegged and planted some sunflowers from a highway median to see if they’d like it better in our tree lawn. After planting, I just let the weeds go, and to be honest, it was a beautiful front lawn, even if it was more wild than flower. The weeds filled in around the plantings nicely, and created a very lush habitat for hundreds of spiders, grasshoppers, and crickets. We had a green, healthy, if a bit alternative front lawn that I could look at with a smile.
Then the City inspector came and cited us for having our weeds taller than 6 inches. I debated whether or not to dispute their definition of “weed”, knowing full well that any definition presented would be easy to circumvent. In the end, though, I chose to sheet mulch the lawn to bring it into compliance. Sheet mulching, also known as lasagna composting, is a permaculture technique of building soil in place by putting down a weed barrier, layering various components of organic matter and letting them decompose naturally. I’d heard that it was a great way to bring a disturbed or neglected area to life in a short period of time, and was curious to see for myself what the process was like.
After a quick phone conversation with the inspector, who was very pleasant, I had some basic guidelines for what was allowed out in the lawn. It’s a pretty simple matrix: keep the streets and sidewalks clear, make sure it looks as if it’s maintained, and keep the vegetation low enough around the edges that car doors can be opened without crashing through undergrowth. Fair enough.
1. Mow and edge
I mowed the lawn down to almost bare soil around the plantings and rounded up the materials I’d need. Adam Brock tipped me off to a pile of brick rubble in his neighborhood that was waiting to be disposed of, and after hauling some home and laying it out, I dug out a bit of a trench to hold the bricks on end as a border for the mulched area. We didn’t want any of the mulch spilling out into the street or onto the sidewalk, and the brick serves as our woodchip dam in addition to adding a bit of urban flavor to the area.
2. Weed barrier and carbon layer
Next, I had an opportunity to use some weed-blocking fabric that we had leftover from another project. Sabrina had acquired several garbage bags full of shredded office paper and some mulched up leaves, which form the bulk of the mulch for the project. After cutting the brick trench out, I started spreading the office paper down, mixing in lots of the leaf matter to a depth of 3-4 inches, and then covering it up with the fabric. I cut around the existing plantings and left room to develop small plant guilds around them next year. The fabric lasted longer than I expected, going all around the perimeter, and even a strip into the center of the lawn.
The next day, each layer of mulch got a thorough soaking to help the breakdown of the materials. Our neighbor’s landlord had a few cubic yards of woodchips to get rid of, and this is what I used for the top layer. I hauled it over in our recycling bin, and laid it down about 2 inches thick on top of everything else The look of the finished lawn is quite sparse – I’d like to eventually figure out how to integrate something edible.
Of note here is that this process differs from most recommendations for sheet-mulching in one significant way: I have no compost/organic matter layer. I’ve instead opted to use the (hopefully) decaying weeds and leaves as a green mulch, along with all the waste paper and cardboard. Some may cringe at my use of office paper, but it is a significant carbon source in my compost pile, and breaks down very well there. Most printed materials now use soy-based inks, so I’m not concerned about contamination.
Also notable is that this project cost exactly nothing but time and labor for me to do. All the materials were either on hand (the fabric), reclaimed (the brick), gifted (the woodchips), or waste (the paper and cardboard). It fits with the character of the house and the rest of the landscape, and will never need mowing or watering. It’s also interesting that these projects are typically tried in the spring months, but without a ready supply of leaf mulch blowing around and accumulating everywhere, the project may have been more difficult. Something to keep in mind if you’re planning on waiting until spring.