by Lois Stahl July 8, 2013
I think that many people find it daunting to start a new permaculture garden as it appears to be a lot of work, especially digging to prepare the space. However this need not be the case, as there are ways of starting your garden without any digging whatsoever. I certainly found this the most discouraging thing, especially as the surrounding area was overgrown with kikuyu grass and various other weeds. I was not interested in bringing in a small tractor to plough up everything and digging the place up with so much overgrown grass was more than I could think of managing. So after contemplating this problem for some while I hit on an idea which I thought was very novel because I had never heard of anyone doing it. I have subsequently heard that some people implement this method, but that’s it’s not as well known as it should be!
What you need for this project though is empty cardboard boxes, which you can obtain from most supermarkets or bottle stores free of charge.
Step One would be tramping down and if necessary cutting down the weeds that are protruding up too high. All your weeds can remain in the ground, but if they are too tall then it is preferable to cut them down in order for the cardboard boxes to lie flat.
It is really best to tackle this task after it has rained, but if you have adequate water you can give it a good soaking before you start.
Step Two: The cardboard boxes get flattened and then placed on the area you want to garden, covering the entire surface as flat as possible. It is best to overlap your cardboard as some grasses and other plants are very persistent and tough and with the slightest bit of light they reach up a tendril to survive. However these single tendrils are much easier to get rid of later on than a whole area of grass.
Step Three: I always water the cardboard so it is somewhat soft and therefore malleable and easier to keep down.
Step Four: After you have covered the area with cardboard you need to put a very thick layer, about 40 to 50 cm, of compost and mulch on top of the cardboard. Dry leaves, grass and straw are ideal for this and then all the compost that you can afford and that comes from your kitchen waste, and once you have covered the cardboard boxes with the mulch and compost, you need to water very thoroughly and be sure that the soil is wet throughout. Then you are ready to plant in your new garden. In due course the cardboard breaks down and disintegrates and the weeds underneath also become food for the plants. So you need to water deep and thoroughly.
Step Five: Now you can plant seeds or seedlings directly. The seeds get planted straight into the mulch at the depth you would normally plant the seed.
Regular watering softens the cardboard and by the time the plants have grown to almost full size the roots can easily penetrate deeper through the cardboard into the soil underneath. Because the plants are in soft compost and mulch they sprout so much easier and before you know it they are looking fantastic. The absence of light under the cardboard does kill off the weeds and also the seeds so that you have very little weeds sprouting as your garden progresses.
Initially daily watering, and even twice daily, is required if it is very hot. But if you have planted seedlings then you should water for longer periods so that the water goes deeper — every second day to start with and then moving on to every third day, once the roots have taken hold, which should take about a week to ten days. Your mulch keeps the moisture content higher, and prevents evaporation, so watering becomes less essential as the mulch breaks down into humus. You want to remember that you need the water to get to the bottom of the roots of the plants. To approximately determine this depth take note of the height of your plants…. As above so below. If you water too shallowly then the roots tend to turn upwards to find water, which weakens your plants and then they are prone to diseases and insects. Most diseases and insects occur when the plants are not happy — in particular regarding watering as this lowers their immune systems and they become prey to diseases. Loads of compost and good watering is the key to healthy and happy plants.
However to every rule there is an exception and in this case carrots are an exception. Carrot seeds like poor sandy soil, but once they are growing they like deep watering to form strong roots. So for your carrot section it is advisable to put down some sandy soil and leave off the compost. Some mulch will help to keep the soil wet. Initially you must soak the cardboard very well for carrots so that they easily can penetrate through into the soil underneath otherwise they grow short and stocky.
A golden rule to remember is: Mother Nature hates being naked, just like we do. In the summer the soil burns and the roots can burn too, no matter how many times a day you may water, and in the winter the cold and possible frost also damages the roots. Everything needs to be mulched at all times. Lots of mulching and groundcover is advisable and don’t be too intent in taking every little weed out because they are often useful and edible in some cases. Of course too much will overtake what you are wanting to grow but when you do take some out leave them on top, to cover the soil and turn into compost.
I have done my entire garden like this and found it extremely helpful and useful. If you think you don’t have enough mulch or compost then go and rake up the leaves your trees have dropped. I fortunately have many Acacia trees around and this gives me wonderful compost and mulch in one, as it is very rich in nitrogen. Unfortunately, if you are in a suburban area, you may have to look to your local nursery for this kind of material but you could take a drive into the country over a weekend and visit some stud farms or dairy farms to collect some compost manure.
It is fine to use some cow or horse manure if you have access to this, but it is not advisable to use chicken manure or pig manure at this stage. These are best used after first composting them with other yard waste, or as liquid manures only, which can be made by leaving them to soak in a container of water for about ten days. Chicken and pig manure is strong and acidic and tends to burn the roots of plants, so care should be taken to keep them away from root systems.
This method avoids any tilling, so doesn’t ‘wake’ dormant seeds in your topsoil layer. The covered weeds turn into soil, and your vegetables can flourish. This method does significantly reduce the time and effort involved in starting a new garden, and the results are fantastic.