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How to prepare a no-till garden bed in one month or less

Experimental garden beds
This spring, I set out to answer the question --- is there a fast no-till way to eradicate overwintering weeds in a month or less? A tall order, I know, but my slow-and-sure kill mulches don't work for a lot of gardeners because they aren't able to think ahead to prepare the soil a few months before planting. The photo above shows four experimental beds (and a control bed that's simply been weed-whacked repeatedly) attempting to answer that question.

Weighing down plastic mulch

Option A involved a type of very thin, biodegradable black plastic. The photo above shows Kayla helping me lay down the plastic three weeks ago. The photo below shows completely dead oats underneath the plastic this past Thursday.

Dead weeds under plasticThis product worked much faster than I thought it would, probably because we've had crazy summer weather in April and early May (highs up to 90 some days), which surely heated up the soil underneath very quickly.

On the down side, all it took was Huckleberry walking across the plastic to tear little holes, which a light wind quickly turned into long tears. (I'm telling you Huckleberry really isn't that big of a cat!) So, although effective, I'd caution against using this product anywhere that pets will be walking even a little bit.


Solarization

Laying down plastic for solarizationOption 2 was solarization, which I explained in more depth in this post. The solarization worked about equally as fast as the black plastic, with the bonus that this clear plastic didn't shred after light pet traffic. The clear plastic also held in the soil moisture, which was handy since rainfall for the last few weeks has been nearly nonexistant.

The downside of solarization is that my raised beds in this area are tall enough that the north-facing side of the bed didn't heat up fully, so the oats underneath the plastic on that side are still somewhat green. So if you plan to use solarization to prepare soil, you'll want to stick to areas where the ground is as flat as possible. With that caveat and assuming hot weather, you can also plant into solarized ground in about three weeks if your weeds are only moderatly tenacious. (Add a few more weeks for both Option A and Option B if you're trying to kill a wily perennial like wiregrass.)

Under the paper mulch

Roll paper mulchOption 3 was a storebought roll of paper mulch. This mulch was the least effective as a fast weedkill, although it looks to be the most effective as a long-term ground cover.

As Mark mentioned, the first rain bleached the dye out of the paper, and the lighter color left behind meant that the mulch simply acted like a barrier between the weeds and the sun rather than heating the soil underneath. The result is that the weeds beneath the paper mulch aren't quite dead yet, although the paper is still providing a good barrier around the high-density apple trees. I suspect I'll need to wait about 4 to 6 weeks between laying down this mulch over an oat cover crop and planting into the bare soil.

As another downside, Lucy running across the mulch did poke holes in the paper layer, allowing some weeds to come up through. That said, the paper has much more structural integrity than the very thin black plastic, so only the paw-print areas were affected rather than the whole sheet of mulch. So I'd say the plastic mulch is acceptable over areas with light pet traffic.

Comfrey chop and drop with newspaper

Option 4 was mad of entirely free materials, but I didn't lay them down until later than the previous options and thus don't have a comparison yet to the other methods. Kayla's father came through with a big box of newspaper (thanks, Jimmy!), and I've been applying the sheets using different methods in different parts of the garden.

Blowing newspaper mulchThe photo to the left shows how I laid the paper down dry and then anchored it with deep-bedding material from the goat coop. Unfortunately, some of the sheets have blown away, which is why I started soaking the paper in a bucket of water before applying.

The top photo in this section shows some newspaper-mulched areas around the hazelnut bushes. Since I have comfrey plants growing along the aisles in that part of the garden, it was easy to yank handfuls of the greenery as a short of chop-'n-drop to weigh the wetted newspapers down. I'll post a followup in a few weeks once I know more about how the newspaper mulches compare to the other methods, but my guess is that they'll be comparable to the storebought paper mulch.

Black plastic kill mulch

The final method I'm trying is a more long-lived type of black plastic that is supposed to be good for 12 years (assuming you don't puncture the fabric in the interim). I laid down an experimental span in the proto-tree-alley a week ago, with the plan of taking up the plastic at the end of the month and planting sweet potatoes there. I'll keep you posted about weed control there as well.

Phew! I know that's a lot of data, but I hope it'll help you decide on a weed barrier that'll fit your particular garden needs. And perhaps there's another method I haven't considered that you've used with success in your garden? Be sure to let me know in the comments!



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This is such a timely post, while I hate using plastic it really does work and warms the soil. I always appreciate you posting these trials and your comments. I don't post often.
Comment by Anonymous Sun May 17 13:23:04 2015
Hey, do you have any links to no-till methods with monkey grass. My father is an old traditional farmer and has always tilled, fertilized with store bought fert, and done most things that go against no-til morals. Recently he is seeing the perks of pesticide free and more organic practices but still likes his tiller. Which i don't blame him with the plot he is working. 100'x50' on a monkey grass infested back yard. Do you have any suggestions, links or resources on dealing with monkey grass utilizing no-til principles? Thanks
Comment by Justus Sun May 17 13:42:38 2015
Do you have any concerns about the impact of a plastic mulch on the life within the soil? I have been concerned that worms, insects, and bacteria would be killed from the high temperatures, so have avoided plastic in my garden.
Comment by Jonathan Mon May 18 16:08:11 2015

Anonymous --- I'll look forward to seeing how your results compare to mine!

Justus --- All of the creeping grasses are a tricky topic, and I haven't really figured out the solution yet. On the one hand, I'm not sure tilling helps that much since I've read it breaks the roots up into smaller pieces so you get a lot more grass. But on the other hand, the beds I have where those grasses are trying to invade are a pain in the butt to weed by hand and require twice the attention of the other beds. Kill mulches help (cardboard covered by straw), but they're not a cure-all.

Jonathan --- Yeah, I'm especially concerned about the methods that heat up the soil. I'll be growing veggies in all of these beds in June, so I'll report back if I notice that some result in healthier plants than others. Time will hopefully tell....

Comment by anna Mon May 18 18:16:35 2015