Your Easy 9-Step Guide to Sheet Mulching

Expanding your garden? It doesn't take much to mulch like a pro

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Reviewed by Tara Dudley
Updated September 14, 2022
Man rack yard add mulch
Photo: Emphasis Films / Adobe Stock
Difficulty

Simple

Saturday skill builder.

Time to complete

2 hours

1 – 2 hours

Cost

$30–$150

Free if using repurposed materials; or $30 to $150 per cubic yard for store-bought mulch

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What you'll need:

TOOLS

  • Hose
  • Spade or hoe
  • Scissors

SUPPLIES

  • Cardboard or newspaper
  • Organic mulch
  • Compost

It's easy to assume that transforming large patches of your landscape requires hours of digging, tilling, and weeding. Well, gardeners, meet sheet mulching—the unsung hero of DIY landscaping that is quick, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective. By simply covering an area of your lawn with biodegradable materials—typically cardboard, newspaper, compost, and mulch—you can rejuvenate soil, kill persistent weeds, and break down turf to make more room for flowers and veggies.

Prepping Your Lawn to Sheet Mulch

Take a moment to assess your landscaping goals. Do you have a tired, unhealthy patch of soil that simply won't grow healthy plants? Or how about an area of grass you're looking to turn into a flower garden? While the sheet mulching process is similar in either case, these preparatory steps can help you make decisions down the line.

1. Test Your Soil

Order a home soil test for as little as $15 to check the nutrients, pH, and composition of your soil. Major imbalances in your soil test can help you decide what type of compost—if any—will help the sheet mulching process.

"Contact the local extension service in your area as well for information on how to test your soil," says Tara Dudley, Angi Expert Review Board member and owner of Plant Life Designs.

2. Remove Invasive Species

Pull up any tall grasses, weeds, or invasive species in the sheet mulching area. If you're unsure about which plants may be invasive, chat with a local landscaper for tips.

3. Mark Your Sprinkler Heads

As long as you cut a hole for sprinkler heads, you can absolutely sheet mulch over an irrigation system. Just make sure to mark heads before you begin so you don't cover them up.

Illustration showing sheet mulching layers, including mulch, compost, weed barrier, grass, and soil
  1. Gather Materials

    Man rack yard add mulch
    Photo: Emphasis Films / Adobe Stock

    Sheet mulching requires two main things: a weed barrier and a mulch layer. Adding compost between the base and the mulch assists with soil remediation as well.

    The most common weed barriers are newspapers and corrugated cardboard. Skip any glossy inserts or magazines, as they are not typically biodegradable. All forms of cardboard work fine; just avoid ones with an abundance of ink. Remove tape and staples as well.

    Ensure that you have more cardboard and/or newspaper and mulch than you think you need. For example, if you plan to sheet much between 100 and 200 square feet of yard, order between four and eight cubic yards of mulch.

  2. Mark Your Sheet Mulching Edge

    Create a barrier around the outside of your sheet mulching area by digging out a small trench around its border. Use a spade or hoe to cut diagonally into the ground, creating a natural slope up to your new garden patch. If you are sheet mulching close to a sidewalk, driveway, or path, remove about six inches of turf between the stone and your mulching area.

  3. Mow the Grass Short

    In addition to removing tall weeds as we did in the prep phase, adjust your mower to the lowest setting and mow the grass. Again, there is no reason to pull up grass unless it is invasive to the area.

  4. Water the Area

    For the first time in the process, moisten the patch as you would water any area of your lawn, with one to one-and-a-half inches of water.

  5. Lay Your Barrier

    If you've opted for cardboard, cut the pieces to fit the exact shape of your mulching patch. When mulching around trees or shrubs, cut the cardboard to fit around the base of the trunk. You should hold off on planting annuals during the sheet mulching process, but trees, shrubs, and hardy perennials can stay.

    Lay a single sheet of cardboard or about ten sheets of newspapers on the area, overlapping about 6 inches between each piece. Overlapping ensures that pesky weeds and grass have no hope of striking through the mulch. 

    Press the edges of the paper or cardboard into the trench you dug to hold it in place.

  6. Water Your Weed Barrier

    Break out the hose again and water the layer of paper or cardboard with a good soaking. This water layer will both keep it in place and kick off the decomposition process.

  7. Add the Compost and Mulch

    Again, if you're hoping to increase nutrients in the soil below, start by adding an inch of compost on top of your weed barrier. You can either purchase compost from your garden store or use it from your own compost pile if it's fully broken down.

    Add an average of 6 inches of mulch on top of your compost or barrier. Any variety of organic mulch made with local materials will do, including straw, grass clippings, wood chips, or bark.

  8. Water the Mulch

    Water the area one last time to keep the mulch from blowing away in the wind, and yet again, to encourage the decomposition process.

  9. Give It Time

    Ideally, give the sheet mulched area between four and six months to do its thing. Water the mulch about once a week unless the rain does this for you. The area does not need frequent attention, but it shouldn't dry out for weeks at a time.

    While you absolutely can plant new flowers or veggies immediately, it's best to wait for the decomposition process whenever possible. If you do plant early, cut an X shape in the cardboard and bury the seeds or seedlings right in the soil.

DIY Sheet Mulching vs. Hiring a Pro

Sheet mulching is an ideal DIY project both for its simplicity and cost. Professional mulch installation costs an average of $510 for a 500-square-foot area when you add up the materials, delivery, and installation fees. Add in landscaping costs for the sheet mulching process—typically between $50 and $100 an hour for a landscaper—and you could end up with a several-hundred-dollar bill.

The price of sheet mulching yourself, however, depends on how much you can get from your own home. Make your own mulch at home to avoid the store's $30 to $150 per cubic yard price tag. Add in homemade compost and leftover paper or cardboard, and you're only left with the price of minimal tools.

Sheet Mulch FAQs

When is the best time to sheet mulch?

Sheet mulch before the first frost in the fall to give your sheet mulch plenty of time to decompose. This way, it will be ready for your spring landscaping and gardening. You can sheet mulch in the spring as well, but you will need to cut into the weed barrier to add plants.

Do you need to remove the weed barrier?

The cardboard or newspaper will break down naturally during the sheet mulching process and even support the soil's health. Therefore, there is no reason to dig up and remove the barrier.

Should you use garden fabric for sheet mulching?

While landscape fabric can be helpful for things like pallet gardening and vertical gardens, it can inhibit the sheet mulching process. The weed barrier should naturally break down and allow the transfer of earthworms, nutrients, water, and air between barriers in the long run.

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