When I moved in, the yard I inherited was barely more than a lumpy patch of “grass.” My theory is that the yard was once a vegetable garden that was left to go fallow and was eventually seeded without being levelled. It was extremely sloped in multiple directions, and full of large lumps and even larger potholes that I often tripped in while trying to walk across. Our goal for the space was to remove all of the lumpy “grass” and level the sloped yard as best we could to improve drainage. Digging it all by hand, shifting the soil, and building raised beds along the west side (where it is lowest) in addition to getting plants in on time, sowing seed, building a compost bin, etc was, quite simply, enough for one year. As a compromise, we made a pathway halfway up and left a small patch of “grass” at the back. In the second year we decided to change things up, extending the garden in front and moving the main entrance to the right. I also marked out new paths and smaller beds on the east side of the garden. By the time that was done, I was simply too tired to tackle that patch of “grass.”
This spring, as soon as the ground was workable, Davin and I were out there nearly everyday working away at that patch, digging it up a few inches at a time. We were determined that this would be the year that we would finally get it all out — no more hand-clipping the tenacious, miss-matched patch of this and that. No more stumbling and tripping in the potholes.
And we did it! Last Friday we got it all out and laid down a layer of mulch in its place. The following (broken down into two parts) are the ins-and-outs to how we did it.
Our original plan was to lay down pea gravel. I like the colour and texture of pea gravel when it is used in pathways and open spaces. We originally placed down mulch as a temporary hold-over until everything was done, but I found along the way that mulch was better suited to the way I use the space. It all comes down to this: I like to walk around outside in my bare feet in the summertime. More specifically, I like to nip out into the garden in my bare feet to collect fresh herbs for whichever meal I am preparing. Mulch feels soft underfoot. Pea gravel hurts.
As far as cost goes, mulch is cheaper in the short term, but it needs to be replenished (to varying degrees) annually or bi-annually. While pea gravel also requires some replenishing here and there, I suspect that it is a more cost effective solution over the long term.
Your Mulch Options
Mulch tends to be a local product, and what is available (and sustainable) will depend on your location. For example, those of you living in the Southern United States, particularly Florida, may have the option of eucalyptus mulch, which is a sustainable waste product. Douglas-fir is a popular option in the Northwest. In my Northeastern, urban location, pine bark and nuggets as well as cocoa shells (a waste product of the chocolate industry) are readily available. I have a dog now and am staying away from cocoa shells. While I suspect she would have to consume a lot of cocoa shells before getting sick, she did eat straw to the point of puking once, so I’m playing it safe for the meantime.
Another thing I do is break up the stems from thick perennials, annuals, conifer bits leftover from Holiday decor, and the prunings from bushes and add that to my pathways. I certainly can’t make a big dent by hand, but every little bit helps, and keeps those materials out of the compost bin where they tend to break down too slowly.
Coir (coconut fibre) is another sustainable(ish) mulch pathway option. Unfortunately, it is not particularly cost effective for large pathways and I suspect it would break down very quickly underfoot.
Rubber tire mulch (pellets created using old tires) is a newer product that is becoming more readily available. It may be “sustainable,” but I can’t imagine adding this material to my garden regardless of the location. While I would be using it on a pathways and not on top of plants, the chemicals leached out of the tires would eventually find its way into the beds. No thanks.
Digging Versus Solarizing
We chose to dig up the remaining patch of grass by hand, but solarizing or composting in place is a viable option. This is done by covering the grass with something that will choke it out and kill it. Thick black plastic is the best choice because it also attracts the heat of the sun and bakes the roots as it smothers. You can also use thick layers of newspaper or cardboard, but know this: you’re going to need A WHOLE LOT of it. The layer must be very thick in order to completely smother the grass and its roots. Old blankets and rugs will work as well, although if you are concerned about inadvertently adding toxins to your soil it is important to try and use those that are made from natural fibres.
Whatever you use, the process can take months, so start well ahead of time. Fall is a great time to begin because it should be ready by springtime.