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Tip: Save Time With 'Sheet Composting'

Simple technique makes good use of fall leaves

"Sheet composting" is an ideal early-fall technique that makes use of abundant leaves. Remove spent plants from your garden beds, layer on kitchen scraps, shredded leaves, rotted straw, grass clippings, and a bit of fertilizer to supply some nitrogen. Dig or till it in, and by spring you'll have lots of earthworms and a few un-decomposed chunks.

Sheet composting is also a very good way to reinvigorate a garden with poor or depleted soil. This fall, pile on a 4-6" layer of material, sprinkle on some granular organic fertilizer (something with plenty of nitrogen), till it in, and let it sit there until spring. You can read more about sheet composting in The Rodale Book of Composting by Deborah L. Martin and Grace Gershuny (Rodale Press, 1992).

Reader Feedback

Here's a note we received from Sandy in New Lebanon, Ohio: I just read your article about sheet composting. Here's my method: When I plant my garden I start with a pack of newspapers on the ground and cover it with about 6-8" of grass from lawns. I cover the row with that and plant my first row. Then I put another row of paper and grass and plant my second row. I continue until I'm done with my garden.

It won't be weed-free, but almost. You will get some right in the row. but that's nothing new! It sits that way all summer and either in the fall or spring gets tilled in and after a few years the dirt is beautiful. It saves a lot of back-breaking weed- pulling and it keeps the moisture in. My "packs" of newspaper are 10 sheets thick. I make them up during the winter and save them in bags for the garden. I get my grass because I have a sign that reads: WANTED: "clean bags of grass". We put this sign out every spring and get plenty of the green stuff. I realize that you aren't supposed to mulch until the plants are up and blossoming, but about 10 years ago, my husband and I went to Montana for a month each summer and we couldn't have a garden without mulching like this and we needed the garden for the vegetables when we got back. It works for us! We don't go to Montana any more but it gives me more summer to do other stuff than weed and weed and weed some more.

When I first started doing this, we lived up in Duluth, Minn., and I used sheets of newspaper weighed down with stones or dirt. One day, a stranger came by and asked, "Why do you have newspapers in your garden?" I looked down at the ground and tried to keep from smiling while I decided how to answer him. I then looked up at him and, with as straight a face as I could muster, I replied: "Because I want an intelligent garden." He looked at me for a moment or two and then burst out laughing. Then I told him the real reason: to keep the weeds out. I can still see his face after my first answer. It's been fun!

Last updated: 10/24/15

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