How to Sheet Mulch your Lawn & get it into production…fast

How to Sheet Mulch your Lawn & get it into production…fast

Sheet-mulching is a quick way to convert your lawn to usable garden space. Fall is also the best time to sheet-mulch your garden. Depending on the area being covered, this might only take 30 minutes to an hour, and you can plant directly through the cardboard and into the grass.

Sheet-mulching, as opposed to the more traditional organic gardening techniques of ‘flipping over the soil’ or ‘double-digging’, protects the soil organisms from damage. These organisms (bacteria and funghi) are integral to the process of transferring soil nutrients (vitamins and minerals) to the plant in a form that the plant can use, and will affect the nutrient content in the food that you grow.

This is how it works:

Cardboard is placed directly over the ground and, within a week, the grass under the cardboard begins to rot. Worms come up from the soil to eat the decomposing grass and turn it into worm castings (compost), which makes a great free fertilizer (5% Nitrogen) for the soon-to-be-planted plants.Sheet mulch layers

  • Find some plain cardboard with only black ink (colour ink on cardboard is toxic) – moving boxes or large sheets that cover palettes are best. You’ll want enough to do 2 layers of cardboard. When calculating how much you need, reduce the size of the cardboard by at least 1 foot to account for 6 inches of overlap on the sides.

{There is a bit of an art to sourcing and laying cardboard for sheet-mulching, but basically you want to find large pieces that are easy to overlap. Small folded boxes, with gaps between the tabs when flattened, are not worth the trouble if you’re covering a large area, as grass can easily grow through the cracks if they’re not meticulously covered. Save yourself some work and cover more ground by looking for larger sheets or boxes.}

  • Get some compost to cover the cardboard (the compost helps to break down the cardboard even faster)
    • Make or find a good source of compost- one that has been turned/aerated and heated to the mandatory 160°F to kill pathogens and weed seeds.
  • Remove tape and sticky labels, and lay the cardboard so that all of the sides overlap by 4-6 inches. Do 2-3 layers.sheetmulching_watering
  • Wet the cardboard using a garden hose before adding the compost to the top.
  • Top with at least 2 inches of compost. To plant immediately, use a Stanley/exacto knife and
    cut an X in the cardboard to the size of the root ball to be planted.
  • Dig the hole and add a handful of compost or worm castings to the base of the hole and plant your plant. Top with a bit more compost (remember, nutrients always flow downwards), and water in the plant well.

Top with a few inches of mulch. This could be shredded leaves, wood chips, organic straw (hard to find but worth it!), or any organic matter that you have on site. In a forest, ‘mulch’ is what you find on the forest floor, so have a go at mimicking this system in your garden; your soil will thank you.


People-based Fertilizer – easy – free – and not synthetic!

People-based Fertilizer – easy – free – and not synthetic!

At this time of year, our plants are starting to get hungry; all of the watering we do (even when it’s not a lot) can actually leach some of the nutrients from the soil, so the nutrients do require some topping-up from time to time.

For the crops that will be ready in a month or so, we have a free and readily available alternative to buying expensive fertilizers, some of which aren’t very good for the soil life anyway. And all it takes to access this fertilizing ‘solution’ is an open mind, a watering can, and a big glass of water.

Do you get where I’m going with this? It’s the beauty of pee my friends… Isn’t it great when we can turn a waste product into a free resource?!

It really is the ticket to nice, green plants; 5% of your pee consists of micro-nutrients and the familiar nutrients N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) which all plants need to grow.
There is plenty of Nitrogen in the world- it constitutes 78% of our atmosphere and even enters the soil through rain and lightening…but it’s rarely in a form that plants can use right away. Transforming Nitrogen from a gas and into usable ions is a complex process where various micro-organisms in the soil or on root nodules convert the Nitrogen into nitrates or nitrites that plants can use (you can read more about it here
nutrient breakdown of urine
What is wonderful about pee is that our bodies speed up this process by doing nearly half the work, and therefore make it possible for us to introduce nitrogen into the soil via ammonia. Our bodies absorb nitrogen through amino acids and other means, and when we excrete it, our digestive systems have already stripped the nitrogen down into the basic mineral form required by plants.
So let’s make our bladders gladder, answer the call of nature, and start taking advantage of this very effective and free resource. And remember, drinking enough water makes for clear wee, which looks much more discrete than bright yellow pee when applying the fertilizer in the middle of the day (wink!).

What to know when using urine as a fertilizer: 

  • Men find this activity much easier than us ladies so feel free to recommend it to your partner : )
  • Do not use pee on crops that you will be harvesting within a month because the soil microbes need roughly a month’s time to break down any pathogens found in the (mostly sterile) pee. At this time of year, only use it to fertilize late-producing fruit trees (eg apples or late plums), vegetables such as squash or fall greens that may take another month to mature, or on ornamental plants.
  • Pee must be applied directly to the soil and not to the plant foliage; some plants (such as tomatoes) are more sensitive to strong fertilizers. If there is any risk that it will either run off of the soil, or not be absorbed sufficiently, then dig a shallow trench just outside of the root zone at the drip line of the plant, and apply the fertilizer, then push the dirt back over top to cover.
  • Please refrain from using pee as a fertilizer if you are consuming any pharmaceuticals (prescription drugs, birth control, etc). Remember that traces of any medications or hormones (eg from the pill) will transfer from yourselves into the soil and, although there isn’t much concern that they will enter the plant, they will enter the food chain and be absorbed by soil life and insects, which will be eaten by chickens and birds, then larger birds, and so on; aquatic life is particularly sensitive.
  • Pee does not have to be diluted, however you can dilute it 1:1 or even 1:10 if you’re particularly worried about burning young plants. Tomatoes can be more sensitive, so in this case, with soil. If the soil is well mulched already then it will easily absorb the pee and there won’t be any run-off or need to cover it with soil.

For more myth-busting information take a peek at the articles below:

Health Lessons from the Garden – Part 2: Proven Stress Relief

Health Lessons from the Garden – Part 2: Proven Stress Relief

For those of us who like to get in the garden, you have probably found yourself, at one time or another, so deeply immersed in an activity that you’ve lost all sense of time- I love that feeling! Many gardeners call that “the zone” and although I’m ‘working’ in the garden, I feel incredible peace and joy in that time of simple focus, which is a lot the feeling you get when playing music or painting or drawing- everything else gets tuned-out.

Well, as it happens, it’s not just us gardeners feeling spacey… as of 2011 there has been evidence showing that gardening can provide significant relief from acute stress.

A study in the Netherlands tested 30 allotment (community garden) gardeners and their salivary cortisol levels and moods were repeatedly measured (cortisol is a hormone found naturally in your body that is released as a response to stress).

First, they had the gardeners perform a Stroop test- a popular neuropsychological test that looks into a person’s psychological capacities- and then assigned the gardeners to 30 minutes of either outdoor gardening or light indoor reading at their own garden plot.


What they found was that gardening and reading both led to decreases in cortisol, but gardening resulted in a significant decrease. Unlike the reading group, where peoples’ moods continued to decrease over the 30 minutes of light reading, the gardeners’ positive moods were all fully restored after the 30 minutes of gardening activity! 

I’d say those are great results for 30 minutes of work in the garden!

I’m not sure if there are yet proven links between stress levels and people developing dementia, but I want to mention this other significant study. If you are fifty plus and have access to a balcony or garden, please take note. A study was completed over a 16 year period following women and men in their sixties and seventies. Even when a range of other health factors were taken into account, the study found that people who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of developing dementia than non-gardeners.

Another great result! Let’s remember that taking quiet time for ourselves to breathe and to meditate, is not just about recovering from the stress we may feel in the moment- it has real and significant health benefits over the short and long term. Now garden-in-lovers, all you need to do is practice what you know : )

Stay tuned for our January Newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet for our newsletter, you won’t want to miss this one- it’s packed with great ideas for your garden plan this year.

Happy garden planning everyone!

Health Lessons from the Garden – Gardening Akin to Meditation

Health Lessons from the Garden – Gardening Akin to Meditation

With the New Year here it’s an exciting time for everyone, despite the January blues in the Okanagan. Resolutions and goals have been made, and most of us are doing what we can, to stick to our plans for the year. Amidst all the recommendations out there for “how to realize your resolutions”, I thought I’d add my thoughts on one resolution that really would be worth keeping…and whaddya know…that would be gardening! Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing with you the proven health benefits of gardening in the hope that, if you’d like to do more, or haven’t been drawn to it yet, that you might find it worth exploring more deeply this year.

I’m often teaching about “how to garden” but it’s rare that I talk about WHY it’s worth doing. I got into gardening for so many reasons, and I got hooked back in 2003 while developing a system and gardening-based curriculum for schools in the UK, as my final project at University. My research revealed so many great reasons about why everyone should be gardening and heaps of scientific research with positive results has been done since then. Here are just a few of the reasons why:

–     Studies have proven that gardening shares the same general health benefits of meditation including decreased stress, regulated blood pressure and improved mental health

–     Gardening is a great way to overcome the ‘nature deficit’ syndrome that most of our urbanized society is experiencing on a daily basis

–     Studies have shown that having contact with healthy soil can actually build your immune system

–     It is a fact that freshly harvested produce grown at home has more nutrients than store-bought produce; the sugars in many vegetables including peas and beans start turning to starch in a mere 4 hours after harvest.

This week, we will talk about the link between gardening and meditation. One thing I love about gardening is that it can be so relaxing and a great way to clear the mind. I am lucky enough to work mainly from home, and often during the spring and summer I’ll do some gardening during my lunch break; it’s a great way to take your brain down a gear. Likewise, if when you get home from work, you take just a few minutes to thin some plants, or literally stop and smell the flowers, it can help you immensely to de-stress.gnomes meditating

According to Clare Cooper- Professor Emeritus, MA, MCP, from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the founders of environmental psychology, “When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind.” You naturally stop thinking, obsessing and worrying; your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, or as gardeners’ often call it ‘the zone’.

Try this:

I recommend allowing at least 3-5 minutes of puttering around the veggie beds or flower pots in the time between arriving home and being launched into the after-work errands, dinner or chores. These few minutes will help to place your mind in a more relaxed and open space- it’s the next best thing to stopping completely and meditating…but this way you get some gardening done too!

Next week, we’ll talk more about gardening and stress relief. In the meantime, have a great time dreaming up and planning your gardens for the year…the spring is coming fast – Carpe Diem as they say!

A Must-Have Gardening Book – The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot

A Must-Have Gardening Book – The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot

I very much love this book- it’s really as simple as that. The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot is organized in month-by-month chapters that take you, not just through the growing season, but all throughout the year with tips on how to put the garden to bed, and ideas for maintenance work that can happen in the winter and early spring.

This book is especially useful as a quick go-to resource for when you’re in the middle of planting seeds or transplanting plants, and you just need that quick reminder of how deep to sow the seeds or how far apart you should space your plants. It’s also an easy-to-understand, home-garden appropriate reference, for how to make ‘super duper compost’, leaf mulch, as well as more in-depth topics such as taking cuttings, seed-saving and how to take soil samples.

With all of its wonderful photos and recipes, this book mixes old and new organic gardening philosophies and shares well-researched information about a range of topics including perennial food plants, organic agriculture and even how to grow your own sprouts. Carolyn Herriot is no less than a BC gardening hero. Have a peak at her wonderful, uber-inspirational Ted Talk from Victoria here.

That being said, some of the experiences and instructions in the book are very specific to the West coast. For pretty much anywhere else in Canada, we will need to adapt some of the tips and recipes in this book to suit our local climates. For example, unless you have acidic soil as they do on the west coast, you should be careful to not amend garden soils with dolomite lime (when in doubt always amend soil with high-quality compost and it’s hard to go wrong). Watering techniques will need to be adjusted and certain plants such as figs, Swiss chard and broccoli, will have a shorter life span and won’t last throughout the winter.

Bearing this in mind, I promise you that this book will be an invaluable addition to your gardening and cooking book library. Happy Gardening!

Gardening Books I Recommend – Book Number One!

Gardening Books I Recommend – Book Number One!

With the gardening season now underway, I thought it would be a good time to provide you with some more support by sharing some fantastic resource books that have been instrumental in developing my gardening knowledge.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you my top easy-reference books for day-to-day gardening and garden design. These books are so packed-full of information that they are known staples for many keen gardeners and are often the first thing you reach for at the start of the season…or every time you forget how far or how to deep to plant seeds or veggie transplants (which is often)!

It’s still early days however and not quite transplanting time. Fortunately the weather is cool enough to give us just a little more time to redesign the garden (always fun!) and design our planting plans for the year. This is also the ideal time to move around those perennial plants to more practical parts of the garden. Perhaps that thyme  plant should be moved closer to the front door for easy picking, the tulips relocated and bunched together for a gorgeous display (tulips are edible by the way), or (in my case) that prickly variegated holly moved out of the new garden area to a hedge-row where its year-round beauty can be appreciated by all and do double-duty as a privacy screen.

Garden design and plant placement can be greatly informed by Permaculture design which, in its essence, is all about working with nature rather than against it, so that all the elements, including plants, are providing more than just one function, thereby reducing any waste and the work needed by you in the garden. Sound great?! Yes indeedy!  Gaias_Garden_amazon

Observation is really the key to developing a great garden plan, and to give you some more practical techniques and information for growing your garden into a lovely paradise, I recommend Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden ‘A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture’ (Second Edition).

In addition to all the fantastic information packed into this book (so much so that it will be a handy reference for YEARS to come for home gardeners and professionals alike), Hemenway provides the most incredible charts- everything from plants that attract beneficial insects, to exotic trees and shrubs, along with all their properties, Latin names and their hardiness zones.

Gaias Garden Insect chartThe book discusses topics including soil-building techniques such as lasagna gardening, water conservation and collection, how to create microclimates in your garden, how to use cover crops, and so much more. For Toby’s overview of the book and the table of contents, see his site here.

In the gardening and culinary world, there is an infinite amount of knowledge and we will always be learning; every year I learn more about gardening I also glean more from this fantastic book.

I hope you will enjoy it just as much!

Let’s Sow some Peas!

Let’s Sow some Peas!

It really just takes 5 minutes to sow some peas. With the warmer weather finally on its way, this is the perfect time to get the peas in the ground, as they like a bit of cold to start with. If you’ve been putting off getting into the garden because of more pressing commitments, I encourage you to start now and your taste buds will thank you later!

Grab your hoe, seeds, labels, markers and watering can and you’ll be onwards and upwards!

Sow peas 1 inch apart and 1 inch deep and you can always harvest every other pea at 3 inches as a pea shoot for salads and leave the rest to grow to full height.

Trellises for snow or snap peas (which can grow up to 2 metres) can be added within a couple of weeks- so don’t worry about that now. Trellises can be made from reusable plastic netting (a 6 inch square mesh makes for easy end-of-season cleanup), with bamboo poles woven through them. Shall we say ‘easy peasy’?
Tip: remember to wear gardening gloves when handling aged bamboo poles-they can give nasty cuts!

Pea and bean seeds will last 3-5 years, so bear this in mind when choosing your seeds for the year. I often practice successional sowing by sowing one type of pea in a row one week, and then sowing another type 2-3 weeks later in a row just 5-6 inches away from the first. You can also add some pretty pink colour by planting a thinner row of (inedible) sweet peas next to your edible peas.

Remember to keep the peas moist if lack of moisture or rain is a problem; you can even soak the peas first indoors and allow them to sprout before planting, to speed up the germination time.

For and extra resource, I quite like the Farmer’s Almanac run-down of planting, watering, and soil preparation tips for peas.

Happy sowing!