Yard and garden: healthier soil with compost and mulch

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Most of the couple’s growing area is mulched with woodchips and was done using the sheet mulching method. Vogel said the technique can be as simple or as complicated as a person wants.

In their case, they found large cardboard boxes, removed any tape or staples, opened them up to have a large sheet of cardboard, and then laid it over the areas where they had mowed.

“We mowed the weeds, laid down the cardboard, then put about 4 inches of wood chips on top,” she said. “Some people like to make compost and then wood chips, but that’s up to you.”

The cardboard breaks down and smothers the weeds underneath while the wood chips compact and “knit together,” creating a cover that’s less likely to blow away with New Mexico winds, Vogel said.

“Mulch is a second-best way to keep the soil covered. Even better is having living roots, which is one of the tenets of healthy soil,” she said.

Another of the principles of healthy soil is to minimize tillage, which Vogel and Schilberg did using the sheet mulch method. After several months, they simply pushed the wood chips back on top, cut an “X” in the cardboard, dug a small hole, and planted their seedlings.

“The mulch does a lot of the work,” she said.

The sheet mulch method can be used with any organic material someone has access to, such as old leaves, grass clippings from untreated lawns, manure, or pine needles.

This same organic material can also be used to make compost. A traditional compost pile is something anyone can start if they have the space. Vogel advises putting it in a shady spot if possible and keeping it moist.

“We keep ours covered to reduce moisture loss. You don’t want it to turn into soup, but you don’t want it to be dry either,” she said. “(How quickly it dries) will depend on the weather and the size of your compost pile. A smaller compost pile will dry faster due to the surface area to mass ratio.

Compost can be a rather slow project, Vogel said, but things will fall apart.

“Entropy is real. Things will break down, but if they don’t, you probably just need to water it down,” she said. “There really is no wrong way to do it.”

Other organic materials that can be added to a compost pile include household vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, and coffee grounds.

Vogel said that if you “rotate” your compost pile – mixing organic matter and bringing what’s on the bottom to the top – it will decompose faster and create “warmer” compost, but there are compromises.

“There’s oxidation going on and that process is creating heat and also giving off gases, so you’re probably losing more carbon to the atmosphere,” she said. “At different composting temperatures, you get different active microbes, bacteria versus fungi, different organisms, living in the soil, in the compost.”


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