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Turn your lawn into a garden!

With the pandemic keeping us socially distanced and largely at home, you may be thinking about transforming your outdoor space into a garden.  Having gone through this in 2014, I thought I'd share some practical advice to hopefully save you some time and effort.

Sheet mulch complete (July 2014)

Six years later (August 2020)

Tip #1: Don't dig...mulch!

Your first instinct may be to start digging, but there's a better way - it's called "sheet mulching".  You basically use cardboard, compost and wood chips and make a lasagna of organic material on top of your old lawn.  In essence, you compost the old lawn under layers of organic material.  Here's a photo of our sheet mulch in progress:

Sheet mulch in progress.  Notice the new material is simply placed on top of the old (brown) grass

The white powder is a combination of gypsum & azomite, which puts minerals back into the soil that have been gradually leached away over time.  The dark brown is compost.  The top layer is wood chip.

To make the job a whole lot easier,  compost & wood chips can be bought and delivered directly to your driveway.  Here are a few product links to help in your research:
  • Compost - this one is a green waste product
  • Wood Chips - you'll want a natural wood product - specifically not bark
A note about Cardboard:
With all of the online shopping we're all doing during the pandemic, this is a great to stockpile cardboard from online purchases, for as long as there isn't a glossy coating or paint on the cardboard - it can be used to go back into the earth.  Be sure to remove any packing tape.

Dumpster-diving for cardboard.

As another example, below is a recent sheet mulch completed this spring at a community garden plot.  In this case, the paper bags used to transport the compost were used instead of cardboard for the bottom layer.  Again, no digging is necessary, as everything beneath the sheet mulch will be composted.

And a third example is the sheet mulch volunteers completed on the flower beds at Beresford Park.  This was all reclaimed cardboard (from dumpster diving behind the produce store).

Tip #2: Let plants do the work

recent post described a method of breaking up the heavy clay soil we have in many parts of San Mateo by growing plants with a long tap root - in this case daikon radish.  As the radish plants grow, they dig deep into the soil in search of nutrients and, as a result, create huge spaces in the soil that will let in air and water as they decompose.  This type of radish can grow up to 24 inches long - and is delicious in a stir fry! sells daikon radish seed by the pound.  Here's the link.

Tip #3: Design for water efficiency

This is a good time to think about ways to store water within the garden - without the need of equipment like storage tanks.  A "rain well" is a landscape feature that collects rain water coming off of your roof and stores it back in the ground.  Full disclosure - this does take some design effort and heavy machinery in most cases to successfully implement.  But given our water situation here in California, this is definitely a worthwhile investment.  Here are a few photos of our rain wells under construction:

The red lines outline the new rain well

Heavy machinery is required.

Required rain well depth is calculated based on the size of the roof, a soil perc test and rain water estimates.

A big mess.

Rain well dig complete.

Wood chips added to the basin to absorb water.

The highest water level ever reached (Dec. 2014)

6 years later (Aug. 2020).

Tip #4: Start small and get some help

The best advice on getting started is to identify a small section of yard and test.  This way, you can see what works and what doesn't and there's very little downside.

As you can guess from the photos above, we decided to completely transform our entire landscape - which was a big job.  We used Circlefoot Permaculture ( to completely redesign our landscape and perform all of the sheet mulching and planting work.  They were wonderful.  You'll find our review on their Yelp listing.

Hope this is useful information as you contemplate the transition to a new garden.  Let us know how your project turns out.

-Bill S.


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