Planting in Sheet Mulch

Lessons Learned

I’ve only had a garden for three seasons. Granted I’ve wanted to have a garden since I was eight years old, so it’s kind of odd, realizing. Third year as a gardener here, coming up.

Brief recap:

Year one. We move into the house we’re currently renting, two months after having the Baby. The mister says he’s thinking a garden would be great, we’ll just put a fence along such and such a part of the back yard. I say, wow, that’s a lot of square garden footage; also, let’s ask the landlord before putting in fences; also, I have no head space for this. He starts digging. I start digging. Hours of wielding a mattock, throwing the tool up over my head, spiking down into the grass, turning, turning, three long rows of crumbling soil.

We plant it. The lettuce patch is a small square, sown directly. It goes crazy. The kale goes crazy. My friend is selling tomato starts; we buy eleven of them and they go crazy. Pumpkins too.

That summer, grass overwhelms everything, and I am ashamed. Then I find out about sheet mulching, and am victorious.

Year two. I have head space. It’s early spring and I start sowing seeds indoors. I look up the last frost date. I feel extraordinarily prepared. I sheet mulch the garden early, and get angry at the chickens for breaking in and messing everything up. I clip their wings. I realize I have no idea how to plant anything in a garden that’s already sheet-mulched. (How do you get through the layer of paper under the straw? Just … cut into it?)

Anyway, everything dies.

Transplanted artichokes die. All except for one, which is a gigantic alien beauty, growing in the container off the front porch. The rest of it, dead. Cucumbers, dead. The tomatoes … well, we had a weird season. The tomatoes from the year before wild-seeded themselves and started coming up absolutely everywhere — along with the wild-seeded mustard — amid potatoes and whatever else. I wanted to take a photo of a particular three-by-eight foot patch where there were something like eight different volunteer veggies packed in at maximum density. I had no heart to pull anything up. It was all alive.

That year, we harvested a 16 oz. mason jar of mustard seed. Hour after sunny hour, sitting on the dirt path, cracking seed pods into the jar.

Year three. That’s this year. Once again — it already feels like a doomed tradition, though a pleasant one, to wipe the slate clean and tell yourself you’re going to avoid all of last year’s failures. This year, this year, you’re going to HAVE that garden.

So. Progress report. It’s almost May.

Just like last year, I’ve got everything marked out on the calendar. When to start indoors, when to sow outside, when to transplant. This year, I have it marked, too, when to plant successive crops. For example, peas. You don’t just plant them once, apparently. You plant them every couple weeks for a continued harvest. This year, I have all those reminders scheduled out.

And I’m on track … mostly.

Started the artichokes indoors (a couple weeks late). About half of them mysteriously died in their pots. Is this normal?

Started the leeks indoors. Set them outside, under a basket to shade them, brought them indoors again at night, did this for a couple days before planting. A few of the seedlings died; I replaced those with a second wave of reinforcements. As of today, every spot assigned to a leek currently has a leek in it. Most are doing fine. A few are ailing. They may all pull through.

Started the onions indoors. Transplanted the onions. Didn’t let them harden off first, though, as I did with the leeks — and as it turns out, of the 18 or so that there were, only three survive. Apparently hardening off is important.

Started the cauliflower indoors. Put them outside during the day, but didn’t bring them back in overnight. Instead, left them outside in their pots during a week of rain. Hail too. No survivors.

Started a new tray of cauliflower. We’ll see.

Started the cucumbers indoors, just yesterday. We’ll see.

Started the tomatoes and peppers indoors. THRIVING. Thriving. The tomatoes are thriving. I will make sure to give them a chance to harden off before I put them in the ground, believe you me.

Potatoes … started outdoors. I followed directions; I bought seed potatoes from the overpriced fancy city gardener’s store. I cut them into pieces, each with an eye or two on it. (I think. The eyes on a Yukon Gold are hard to believe in.) I let their cut ends dry up before planting them, so they’d have some layer of resistance to mold and pests, something we didn’t do last year. Last year, the potatoes didn’t come up. Last year’s potatoes are coming up this year, and this year’s potatoes aren’t coming up at all. I have sticks in the ground to mark where they’re planted. What are they doing under there? God knows.

Everything I’ve planted this year, I’ve tried to companion-plant. Before choosing its spot in the garden I took a moment to find out who its best friends might be.

The romanesco? Sown directly outdoors next to its companion, the robust and nearly-invincible chard. Successfully sprouted, beautifully sprouted, and in the weeks following, almost entirely slug-eaten.

Have considered buying a troupe of slug-eating ducks.

Have ruled it out.

About the chard, this is the only producing patch in the garden right now, a patch at least nine feet long by two feet deep. And you know where it came from? Nothing I did. My friend gave me one lone chard plant two years ago, and more out of pity than any desire to eat chard, I stuck it in the ground. It has colonized its territory. A month or two ago, I went in, dug everything up, broke up all the plants and spaced them out a foot apart. After a day of wiltiness and self-pity, the colony became once again strong and glad. It now occupies probably 25 percent of our total garden area.

Oh, one other weirdball. Last year’s kale? The stuff I systematically pulled up by its roots and tossed on the ground last fall, back when every last leaf was carpeted with aphids? I figured I’d let it lie exposed and die, thought it would compost, but no. There are now six robust kale plants growing, all sprouted off those original root stalks, which were laid bare on the surface of the earth until out of mercy and admiration I shoved some dirt up on top of them. Seriously. They care.

Let me sum all this up. My big plan this year is basically, what happens if I follow directions? What happens if I start the plants when the package tells me to? Take the time to let them harden off? Place them next to the species they’re supposed to like?

This year, if they freaking die on me I will visit a farmer’s market and buy some more. If my seeds do not sprout, if my starts do not take, by God I will capitalize on other plants started by those more experienced than I, and get this garden growing at a density that I associate with abundance and self-sufficiency. Even if I myself can’t do it all. (Yet.)

Lessons learned thus far

1. Give seedlings a chance to acclimate to the outdoors before you ask them to overnight it. Come on, they’re babies.

2. As long as you’re starting anything indoors, give it room to grow past the baby stage before you put it outside. Why would you expose a baby to that kind of danger?

3. Start them earlier than you think. Start them in January. Or December.

4. If you’re going to sow anything outdoors, be prepared to lose half of it to slugs. Really, maybe it’s just better to start it all indoors.

5. Carrots hate you. They hate you. They won’t grow even with a layer of plastic to keep them warm; adjust your hopes.

6. When all else fails, mustard will make you look good.

7. So will pumpkins. Talk about foliage.

8. Tomatoes are forgiving.

9. So is kale.

10. Robins will make you feel like an old geezer complaining about skateboarders from the first moment you see them hopping recklessly through your babies.

11. Worms are a good omen, sent by God.

12. Worm castings are useless.

All right, that’s enough. Time to get another glass of wine.

  • redhen02

    HI! :D I seriously enjoyed this post.. giggled at some accountings and LOL’d at others. Your efforts will be greatly rewarded this year, I’m sure of it… Your adventures and mishaps are all part of the journey. You’re doing GREAT! Each year is a big step in learning experience…

    Today I put in my carrot sprouts. (Dad got the water system going this weekend and it is doing well.) I also put in potatoes. Unlike your experiences, this is my first with tubers. With about a foot of straw sidling up to the trellis in front of the house, I’m going to put in some sugar pumpkins. The seeds came from my neighbor, Charlotte. I exchanged red onion seedlings which she adores, for those pumpkin seeds. I look forward to the greenery and the fruit. Char gave me some beans for which I’ll need to make teepees. It should be interesting. Tomatoes, I planted way too early, died. Oh well, I will dutifully wait till end of May. The Swiss chard is flourishing from last year in the garden bed which is flanking the privacy fence. Oh, and one new thing… I put in some plants called Woolly Thyme, ground covering that bestows tiny, fragrant pink flowers in the summer and grows 2 inches high. It is bedded around the electric box facing the sidewalk… I picked it for its durability in dry and full sun conditions… with soil that tends to dryness, which the area does. I hope these babies do well. Love you, Mom Date: Thu, 25 Apr 2013 01:52:02 +0000 To: redhen02@hotmail.com

    • That’s great! I will remember Wooly Thyme. I’m keeping an eye out for a groundcover I can use in the back corner of our place… the “hidden garden” we call it, in the very back corner. It’s got loads of blue bells this time of year, but lots of bare earth that wants something to cover it up. A summer flower would be just the thing.

    • p.s. Glenn just got some Wooly Thyme for the back corner… gonna plant it as soon as I have any reason to believe the chickens won’t immediately dig it up.

  • FUN!
    I look forward to sharing how my new plants settle in; It will be fun to watch.. :)

  • Heather Kahl

    I love this post. Fun to read and so full of truthful gardening woes! Why can’t all plants just go in the ground and grow where you plant them? People like me would be much more apt to actually pursue more than tomatoes and strawberries. Why earth? WHY? Incidentally I’ve discovered that Chard is really good when cooked with lemon and garlic and paired with steak. Also we love kale so if you get over run again just let me know. We’d be happy to take it off your hands.

    • Ooh, chard with lemon, steak and garlic sounds GREAT.

  • Heather Kahl

    also what do you do with all that mustard seed?!

    • Ha, well, we keep it in a jar in the fridge, that’s what.

      Someday when I get around to it I’ll look up how to make mustard… you grind the seeds, right? Short of that we’ll just use it to plant more mustard I suppose. Not that we need to, because last year’s mustard is already wild-seeding itself again. There are little sprouts all over the place, and an actual patch of it right in the middle of the leeks. Sigh. I’m kind of cheering it on.