Some people think gardening and aching backs go hand in hand. Recently, on my Georgian Permaculture adventure, I learned a new old way of doing things that left even this constantly aching pregnant lady's back pain free. Needless to say, I was convinced.
I really can't help but think Michelle Obama would feel the same way if she gave it a go. (You go, First Lady!)
Oh! Did I mention it's just about as cheap as you can get? Simply put, this method of garden bed building is sheet composting--your compost pile is actually where you do your growing, too!
What you need: A good water source (a hose is easiest. . .perhaps connected to a rain barrel? hm?), a biodegradable weed blocker such as cardboard or newspaper, and organic materials to layer and layer and layer.
Define your space--you can lay out sticks and twigs, rope it off or have a generally good idea of the size and shape you want your area to be. You can also dive right in and lay out the cardboard/newspaper weed blocker. If you're mulching over vegetation, make sure it's cut pretty short, or stomp it down to have a relatively level start. Before anything else, it's time to "sweeten the ground" by adding a light cover of garden lime. Garden lime is used to balance the acidity of some of the materials you'll add to your bed such as oak leaves and pine needles. Just liberally sprinkle it over the area you're about to transform into the new garden.
For newspaper, you'll want it 5 pages thick, and have them wet before putting them down. That's thick enough to keep the weeds out and smother the grass. Working with wet paper will stay in place better than trying to wrangle dry sheets in the wind. Cardboard can be wet or dry, but if it's dry you'll need to give it a good soaking once it is in place. Which ever you use, make sure the edges overlap each other several inches. You don't want weeds slipping into the bed through the cracks.
For organic material, I use the free stuff, which means driving around picking up bags of leaves and grass clippings, finding composted manure (check Craigslist and Freecycle or stop by a horse stable and see if they have a pile you can dive into), pine needles, rotting/molded hay or straw (also sources through Craigslist/Freecycle), wood chip mulch (we have a mountain in our front yard free from some tree guys), wood ash from the fireplace, and chicken or rabbit bedding. Some people prefer to use peat moss or coconut coir, but peat is not too popular among us environmentalists and coir is pretty hard for me to source locally. Since it won't heat up like a true compost pile, steer clear of adding kitchen scraps, but otherwise use what you would to build your compost.
Since I tend to err on the wordy side of blogging, I thought a visual explanation could take it from here.
This diagram is also available as a download in PDF form here, or click on the image and you'll be taken to the bigger version for your viewing pleasure.
When you're ready to plant in your new beds, push a small area of the mulch back to create a "pot" for your plant (aka a hole several inches in diameter all the way down to the weed barrier layer). Cut a drainage hole right on through the weed barrier then fill the spot in with good compost, and plant right into the compost. Easy peasy!
More mulch madness: As with most gardeners, you'll find these tidbits of info a little different than what I've supplied here. My words are based on my experiences, but as with all gardening, it's an experiment so don't get stuck on rules. . .Just get out there and have fun!
Renee Garner has a passion to make things grow, although her brownish thumb wants her to believe otherwise. When mud pies aren't on the menu, you can find her doodling the days away at Wolfie and the Sneak.