Man, did I take on a huge project!
About a month ago I was having a slow saturday so I started fumbling around Vimeo and YouTube for permaculture related videos. First, I really have to say, there is some amazing content out there. I would recommend it as a rainy day passtime to anyone. One documentary that I stumbled upon was called Back to Eden. You can watch it in its entirety on Vimeo. The story mostly follows one man Paul Gautschi, and his methods for mimicking some of the natural decomposition patterns of the forest to create lush, fertile soil for your home garden.
The basic method that Paul follows is creating a temporary barrier between your base soil/lawn by using layers of newspaper or cardboard and then topping it with layers of topsoil and wood chips. According to Paul, the wood chips are key. They slowly decompose, creating nutrients for the base soil much in the way that falling forest debris breaks down and composts. The process of breakdown creates a temporary nitrogen lock which is partly where the newspaper comes in. It limits the initial nitrogen lock to the area above the newspaper layer. The newspaper also works to subdue any lawn/weeds that were existent in your base soil.
In my lawn, there were two major alterations that had to be made. First, I have hardscape (cobble stone) all along the front edge of the lawn and bender board edging along the back. To the left I have my koi pond and to the right is my shed. Being locked into a specific height, I couldn’t just start laying newspaper and woodchips on top of my existent lawn. It would have overflowed the garden area onto my hardscape and into the pond area. I had to dig down, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. The second alteration that had to be addressed was my proliferation of gophers and moles. They absolutely destroyed my lawn and was a big point in the decision to eliminate it. In order to keep the little critters out, I again needed to get deep and lay down some hardware mesh.
I started by taking a hoe to the first half inch of the lawn and peeling back the root layer of the grass. This was easy, easy, easy. The soil was fertile & fresh and I got the whole lawn done in under an hour. I put the grass into piles to use later in some composting/hugelkultur projects. Now that the grass was gone, I decided to build this thing in four foot sections. I then took the 3-4″ of top soil off and keep it to the side for the first segment. This again was really simple because of the soft, fertile nature of the soil. The third layer was a whole different story. This was some of the native sandy/rocky subsoil that is all over my property because its…yep…on a river. This third layer took about 2 hours per section by digging, prying and hauling with a mixture of every garden tool in my shed. To top it all off, I managed to puncture oen of my sprinkler pipes with my pry bar, doh!
With the sprinkler pipe mended, I rolled out the hardware mesh, cut it to contour with the edging, and stapled it in place with some T50 10mm staples. You can see this base layer in some of the photos. To keep the double digging down to a minimum, I started on the next section by moving the 3-4″ of top soil directly on to the first sections mesh. By the time I get to the last section, I will take the stored top soil from the first section and lay it there. Layer number three is the newspaper. I used six sheets of newspaper in all locations. I would have used more if I still had the grass growing directly under as a base layer. I wet the newspaper down briefly, just to keep it in place and not blowing away. Last, but not least, I laid down 4″ of fresh wood chips. These wood chips are made at the local dump from a recycling company that grinds them up with a drum grinder from peoples trimmings. They charge $17 per yard and I used half a hard for the first two 4′ sections.
To top off the completion of the first two sections (8’x10′ in total) I stopped by the nursery on the way home and picked out a couple squashes, some eggplant, cucumbers, and a couple strawberries just to round it out. I laid them out in rows and planted them all the way in the top soil below the newspaper. I filled the wood chips in around them until they touched the bottom leaves. Only time will tell how this early crop does and if it runs into any nitrogen deficiencies. If so, some organic fertilizer will hopefully get me through the season until I have a well established mulch layer next year.
Theres a little added benefit to all this hard work. I didn’t have any need for a gym this week. I was getting a serious upper and lower body workout with the shoveling and prying. Bending over, lifting rocks and twisting my core really gave me a harder, more sustained workout that I have done in a gym for a long time.