Updated: Jul 19, 2022
Learn about composting in urban/suburban environments, why and how to create a worm bin, and how to build rich, living soil your plants will thrive in.
Your soil matters. Many plants need nutrient-rich soil with the right conditions to thrive, especially our native woodland species. How do you ensure that your soil conditions are healthy, get the best return on investment, and give your plants the best chance for survival? Here are a few tips and DIY projects to build rich, living soil.
When we think about creating soil, composting often comes to mind. Composting can be a great solution to transform food waste into soil, and it provides precious nutrients. However, it's time consuming, difficult to do in urban and suburban environments, and not the best solution for everyone. We're here to discuss some other ways to build soil that might suit you and your neighbors a little better - as well as the simple ways you can compost with less mess.
The best way to start a new garden bed, or expand existing planting areas, is to start at least 3-6 months ahead of planting with sheet mulching. Thinking a season or two ahead of things is also a great way to get your mind and body oriented around the natural cycles of the plants, and more in sync with Nature.
What is Sheet Mulching?
Sheet mulching is a simple DIY project that transforms sod and weedy patches into dense, living soil. It's a low-input, minimal effort way to build soil that will be ready to plant in 3-6 months. Consider sheet mulching when you want to get rid of some monoculture grass and create a new garden bed, expand the edges of an existing bed, or connect two beds together.
You can sheet mulch as small or large of an area as you want! The LadyBugs have done everything from a small hellstrips on the side of a road, to an entire front yard and larger patches for whole pond systems.
What You'll Need
- Tape Measure: First, measure your space, so you can calculate how much of each material you'll need. Use a tool like this one to estimate your soil and wood chip needs.
- Cardboard: Save your delivery boxes, ask neighbors to save theirs, or check local department stores. Home Improvement stores often have large appliance boxes that work well for covering large spaces. Any box, large or small, can prove useful for covering the area.
Pro Tip: Boxes with less packing tape will make your life easier, as you'll have to remove all the plastic tape before laying the boxes.
- Leaves (optional): You can collect fallen leaves from other parts of your yard and lay them on grass before covering with cardboard. You can also choose to sheet mulch in autumn when the leaves are falling directly onto your project site, reducing your labor. More organic matter will create richer soil!
- Box Cutter (optional): Helpful for removing staples from large boxes, and cutting strips to fill oddly shaped spaces, if necessary.
- Water Source: After laying, spraying down boxes with a hose will help keep boxes in place and jumpstart decomposition.
- Finished Compost Soil (depending on species to be planted): This layer will go on top of cardboard, to aid decomposition, inoculate new soil with a healthy microbiome, and add nutrients for plant species that like a more loamy soil. In the Harrisburg, PA area, we always go with Dig My Earth. Make sure your soil source is as local as possible, chemical free, ideally organic, and created as sustainably as possible.
Pro Tip: Many of our native sun-loving meadow species will not enjoy a richer soil, and actually prefer the leaner clay topsoils found in urband and suburban environments. This is great news, right? In all cases, it is always important to assess the conditions of your site and find the best plants for that space first, then see what you need to add. This is why we recommend investing in Ecological Consultation first.
- Wood Chips: Everything gets covered with 1-2 inches of wood chips at the end, to retain soil moisture. Contact local arborists and ask if they have chips they'll give you for free, or check Chip Drop.
→ See it in action: Sheet Mulching Tutorial by Waxwing EcoWorks
Want to plant soon? Get finished compost soil from a local, ethical source.
Establishing your garden with high quality organic soil is a great way to start. Soil building methods, like Worm Bins and Composting, take a lot longer to produce finished material, and can be added as supplements to your garden as you go.
If you're creating a new raised bed, container garden, or any garden space that you intend to plant into right away, you can plant directly into 3-4 inches (or more for containers) of finished compost soil, such as this 100% leaf compost from Dig My Earth.
Depending on the species and conditions of the site, you could request a mix of the compost with topsoil (more clay content), sand (for drainage) or woodchips (for water retention and acidity), etc. Knowing what kind of plants you want, what the site will support and what works best here, is all essential.
What to do with compacted clay soil?
Clay soil is prevalent all over the Mid-Atlantic bioregion, especially in urban and suburban environments. Chances are, somewhere on the land you're stewarding, you have densely compacted clay soil that could also be dry and/or rocky.
Instead of replacing, covering or drastically altering these soil conditions, think about working WITH the land as it is. There are lots of native plants that love these soil conditions!
Meadow plants like Echinacea (E. purpurea), Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), deep root grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), asters and phlox all thrive in clay soils and more harsh conditions. Their roots will help loosen compacted soil and improve soil health over time. Consider giving areas with tight clay soil to the pollinators, and you'll enjoy the beautiful blooms too!
Sheet mulching is even more simple for meadow installs. Just cardboard and wood chips will do the trick for perennial native meadows.
What about Composting?
Composting organic matter is a way to keep resources on site, and transform "waste" into nutrients that can build soil. But composting can be a little more complicated in certain situations. Before you decide to start composting, ask yourself a few questions.
WHERE are you planning to compost?
Urban and suburban waste management and sanitation are super important. It's how we avoid bubonic plagues and other health hazards that afflicted our cities in the past. Composting in urban areas is a lot more complicated than in rural areas, and requires more equipment and technical management to prevent disease, unwanted pests, potential water contaminants, and unpleasant smells.
Unpopular Opinion: Composting on-site in densely populated areas is complicated and possibly hazardous. There may be a better option.
WHY do you want to compost?
Do you want to create less waste? What do you need to compost, and why? What are your goals?
If your goal is to reduce the amount of trash your household generates, here are a few things to consider.
→ When food scraps are thrown in plastic bags and sent to the landfill, microorganisms can't break them down naturally and beneficially, and they actually become a source of harmful methane in the atmosphere. That's why composting food scraps (and many paper products!) somewhere is a great solution.
→ Instead of doing your own composting in your urban backyard, consider using a composting service run by your municipality. Because they can generate more heat to break down scraps, larger scale composting can often accommodate more types of food scraps than a small scale composting system, such as dairy and meat. Larger facilities are also structured to contain possible groundwater contamination, and they're less accessible to animals, reducing the risk of spreading disease. For PA residents, see if your municipality has a composting program here.
→ The best way to reduce the amount of trash you throw away is to buy less products that become trash. This includes all plastics, styrofoam, single use containers and materials that are not biodegradable. It's a big goal that requires a lot of commitment, and might be a more beneficial place to put your energy, rather than composting in the city.
If you really just want soil, we recommend getting finished compost soil from an ethical, local provider, like Dig My Earth. Getting enough soil to make an impact from your compost bin will take a while, so it's ideal to use a finished source to create gardens, and then supplement with your own finished compost to add nutrients as you go.
So, you really want to compost! What to do + what not to do.
- Talk to your neighbors! Composting can be cause for concern if not done correctly, but can certainly be beneficial when done correctly. Take the opportunity to talk with your neighbors about why you're starting a compost pile, and how you intend to benefit Earth.
- Choose the right spot, somewhere shady and dry, near a source of water.
- Use two bins, one to start compost, and one to finish. Three if you have a larger space and production.
- Add the correct ratio of brown material to green material. Too much fresh "green" material, like fresh food scraps, will cause the bin to rot and mold, which breeds disease, and stinks!
- Turn compost often with a pitchfork to aerate it.
- Only add things that are safe to compost. Check out this list of what you should and should not compost.
Flikr: Photo by Protopian Pickle Jar
Vermicomposting: Why you might want to keep worms in your house on purpose...
Worms are part of Nature's digestive system. Different types of worms eat different things, and turn their food into "black gold" - super nutritious organic matter full of microbes and beneficial bacteria. Worm castings are essential for healthy soil that retains moisture, keeping plant roots hydrated and well fed.
You can keep your own worm bin at home, and they'll turn some of your food scraps into amazing soil amendments. It's a fun science experiment for the whole family!
Here's a great resource for getting started with a worm bin. A basic worm bin is a plastic container (with holes) raised up off the ground. The best place to situate your worm bin is in a medium-moisture (not too dry, not to wet), warm part of the basement, if that's available.
The worms will need bedding, such as shredded newspaper or shredded documents, shredded cardboard or egg cartons. They'll also need a generous scoop of healthy garden soil, the right amount of moisture, and the right kind of food.
Almost any fruit or vegetable matter is okay for worms to eat, with the exception of some stems, peels, and citrus. No animal products should go in the worm bin at all (unless you're a vermi-pro and got the kind that digest meat and bones... and you'll need to monitor for rot and smells). Coffee grounds, and paper products like napkins, shredded paper towels, coffee filters and tea bags can go in the bin! But not too much of one thing, especially the acidic things, which can burn their skin.You'll know if your worms can't handle a particular food if it's still in the bin the next time you feed them.
Pro Tip: Freeze their food scraps and thaw before feeding. This breaksdown the cell walls and makes the food more readily available for the worms to eat.Almost like pre-chewing it - they will love you!
Caring for worms takes a bit of practice, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Learn more about maintaining a worm bin here.
Whichever methods you choose to try, building soil is the most valuable thing you can do for your garden. It's the best way to ensure that your plants thrive, while supporting a host of vital ecosystem services. Enjoy connecting to Earth as you build a more resilient ecosystem with the land you steward.
More Soil Resources:
→ WATCH: How To Build Great Soil - Dr. Elaine Ingham, one of the world's leading soil microbiology experts + her team discovered the Soil Food Web.
→ WATCH Understanding Our Soil: The Nitrogen Cycle, Fixers and Fertilizers - our very own LadyBug, Jimi Sol!
We're LadyBug EarthCare, and we empower humans to build habitat and support pollination through Reconnection, Kinship + Stewardship. Want more 1:1 Support and Guidance for your land? → Book a Virtual Site Visit with Kendra