Discover more from The Weekly Dirt with Jessica Damiano
No-dig gardening, sheet mulching with Janice Groves of @JaysGardenJournal
or "How to Eliminate Grass and Weeds and Save Your Body from Wear and Tear"
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This week, I had the pleasure of talking with sheet-mulching expert Janice Groves, who I’ve been following for the past few years on Instagram, where she’s known as Jay of JaysGardenJournal to more than 88,000 followers, and on her YouTube channel of the same name, where she has more than 9,500 followers.
Her drool-worthy Rock Hill, South Carolina, garden is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but what makes it especially intriguing is the ease with which she single-handedly creates beds and borders from grassy or weedy areas in her hard clay soil without tilling, digging or using weed killers.
Groves, a high school math teacher, has perfected the practice of “sheet mulching,” a method of creating garden beds that requires no digging or removal of lawn areas. And there’s plenty she can teach us about it:
JESSICA: Have you always been a gardener?
JAY: I started gardening the year I moved into my home about 18 years ago. I just planted some tomatoes, squash and peppers because I remember my dad planting those. So I dug up a space in the backyard, but it was difficult to do because I have heavy clay soil. I said I’d never do that again, so I knew that if I wanted to continue gardening, I would have to find a better way because digging up the soil was not an easy thing.
JESSICA: When did you discover sheet mulching?
JAY: It took a while because (after the digging experience) I just had a container garden and a foundation bed in place when I moved here, so I would put annuals in there.
I also cut my own lawn. There were two crape myrtles here that were getting bigger and bigger, so when I cut the grass, I had to make my way around the base of the trees. I always dreaded it, so I decided to make a garden bed around the two trees but didn’t want to dig it up. So I went to YouTube, and I came across a video about sheet mulching that, at the time, was 10 years old, and not many people were doing that back then. So I got some cardboard, put it around those two trees and covered it with compost and mulch, and I didn’t touch it for a year.
After that year, I started learning about good trees and bad trees, so I wanted to have two Bradford pear trees cut down. In my studies, I learned you could get those chipped up and use them as mulch in your garden, so I told the arborist to leave the chips in my yard.
I saw that the one area I had sheet mulched made it much easier (to plant), so I decided to expand that area and the whole perimeter of my backyard. I had so much mulch to use that I was able to create a lot of beds. People were donating cardboard to me, and every time I went to a big box store, I would come home with boxes. That was January of 2019 – the beginning of my gardening adventures.
JESSICA: What did you plant first?
JAY: That spring, I planted tomatoes in the first area, and that soil was so rich that year after having the compost layered on it and letting that area sit so long that it was the best tomato harvest I ever had.
After that, I continued to add perennials and shrubs in the back corner to build up the bones of the garden. I picked up some Sunshine Ligustrums, which are shrubs with bright yellow foliage, planted them in the backyard and began to add more plants gradually.
JESSICA: When did you start your Instagram and YouTube accounts?
JAY: I started Instagram first in 2019, because my personal Instagram feed was starting to get full of gardening pictures. I enjoy journaling and like keeping track of how things have changed, so I started the Instagram page to create a visual journal just for my garden.
I started YouTube not long after, but I didn’t use it at all. To be honest, it took a while. I didn’t find the process user-friendly at first.
JESSICA: How do you tape your time-lapse pieces?
JAY: I use my phone and a tripod (to record) my sheet mulching from start to finish, laying down cardboard, compost and mulch -- an hour of work condensed to 15 seconds. People like instant gratification.
JESSICA: How much time do you spend in the garden?
JAY: I’m out there every day. I have summers off, so I’ll spend three to four hours in the garden every day. I get up early and get out there at about 6:30 a.m., work for a couple of hours, take a break, then go out for another hour or two in the evening.
JESSICA: So, back to the process, does sheet mulching work on all types of soil?
JAY: It depends. Some soils retain water easily, and others don’t. I can’t say for sure about sand, for instance, because I haven’t tried it. It works for heavy clay soil. I know that.
JESSICA: How long does it take for the cardboard to decompose?
JAY: Six to 12 months.
JESSICA: Do you need to remove stubborn weeds first?
JAY: No, but if they’re really tall, I’ll come through with the weed whacker first and just cut them down.
JESSICA: What would you say are the main benefits of the method?
JAY: The main purpose is to eliminate grass and weeds and save my body from wear and tear. Pushing a tiller is a lot of work, too. Using cardboard makes it so much easier. Grass and weeds decompose and add nutrients to the soil. It also encourages earthworms to come up and aerate the soil. After the cardboard is decomposed, earthworms are present, so for me, that’s a win all around.
JESSICA: What have you found to be the best materials to use?
JAY: I’ve used corrugated cardboard (composed of two outer layers with a fluted layer between them), but usually, that’s in areas I don’t plan on planting for a long time. If it’s an area I would like to plant within the next season, I’ll use cardboard that doesn’t have that thick layer in the middle, or I’ll use newspaper. My father still gets the newspaper every day. He’s 82 years old, and he keeps the stack climbing just for me.
JESSICA: Is one time of year best for sheet mulching?
JAY: I prefer to do it in the fall for a couple of reasons: The temperatures are lower, so it can stay moist longer, and because most people are impatient, it gives you time to take a break from the garden and get ready for spring. If you do it in summertime, it’s fine, but we’re so eager to start planting, and having cardboard in the yard can dissuade us from starting new garden beds. But if I want to get rid of grass, I’ll do it at any time of year.
JESSICA: Do you ever have to repeat a section?
JAY: I don’t have to do it more than once if I keep it well-mulched.
JESSICA: Does sheet mulching permanently eliminate stubborn weeds?
JAY: I have centipede grass, which will live under the cardboard and make its way out. But [sheet mulching] weakens it, so it makes it easier to pull if it does come up. Sheet mulching is a great way to suppress weeds but not eliminate all of them. Earth is created for plants to grow.
JESSICA: Can an area be planted right after the cardboard has been laid out?
JAY: Yes. When I plant a new plant into a newly sheet-mulched area, I make sure to cut the hole a little bigger than the rootball, which allows me to water [precisely] in the area where the new planting is. And I do mulch really well.
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📬 Ask Jessica
DEAR JESSICA: What do you think of my spray rose? Is this due to the climate, or do I need to do a better job pruning and feeding - or all the above? —Jessica Goldstern, East Hampton, NY
DEAR JESSICA: My climbing yellow rose was beautiful and full of blossoms in June. Now it has dropped most of its leaves, and the flowers look wilted or dead. —Thelma Taub, Port Washington, NY
DEAR JESSICA AND THEMLA: The rot you see is caused by a fungal infection called Botrytis blight. It’s usually accompanied by spots and gray mold, but those symptoms could surface much later.
The fungus forms during cool weather but takes off under heat and humidity, which has been rampant in many places this year.
Remove all affected flowers and stems and place them directly into a plastic trash bag (don’t even let them fall onto the ground). Disinfect your pruners between cuts and also when you’re finished to avoid spreading the infection to other stems or plants. You can use a solution of 9 parts water mixed with 1 part chlorine bleach, alcohol wipes or a disinfectant spray like Lysol.
Next, prune stems strategically to open up better air circulation within the plant.
Spray affected plants with a fungicide every 10 days for the remainder of the season. Look for a product containing chlorothalonil (Fung-onil or Daconil), mancozeb or copper, and buy TWO of them. Alternate the products every 10 days because the plant will become resistant to one if you use it exclusively.
The fungus will survive winter and attack plants next year if you don’t clean up fallen plant parts from the soil around the plant, so be vigilant about that.
💡 If you do one thing this week…
When their tops flop over, harvest onions, then set them on a screen (or baking rack) to cure for 10 days. Afterward, store in a cool, dark spot.
🎗️And don’t forget to weigh in on any anomalies you’re noticing in your garden this year. Fewer butterflies, the success of plants previously suited only for warmer zones, stalled fruit production and other changes all suggest ways that climate change could be affecting how we garden.
Thanks to all who have already responded. Please keep your observations coming. Be as specific as possible, and remember to include where you live (that’s important!)
With you as my boots on the ground, I’ll be able to compile your findings and look for trends to report back to the group.
👏 Sunday shoutout
Reader Bob Maynes shared this lovely photo of his cheerful clematis and petunia border in his Miller Place, NY, backyard.
Send in your photo, and you could be featured next (bonus points if you’re in the picture!)
👍Find of the Week
After a lifetime of watering my plants the old-school way -- with a handheld hose -- I broke down and ordered this soaker system, which I automate with a timer (but can turn on and off at the spigot, if necessary). It's one of the simplest and best improvements I've made, and my raised-bed veggies have never looked better!
Find it on the My Favorite Things page.
📰This week in my Associated Press gardening column
I write a weekly gardening column for the AP, so you might have seen my byline in your local paper (or news website) — wherever in the world you happen to be. In case you miss it, I’ll post the most recent here every week.
Last week: Tips for dealing with flooded plants
Before that: Are ants in your plants harmful?
You can read all my AP gardening columns here.
📚📺🎵 Random things I enjoyed this week
🎥 I’m late to the party, but I finally caught The Barbie Movie, which I thought was an adorable piece of clever social commentary.
📺 I devoured the first two episodes of the third season of Only Murders in the Building on Hulu and was so happy to see the additions of Paul Rudd and Meryl Streep to the cast.
🏆 I received my first-place Press Club award (announced earlier this summer) for my article about “The Cupcake Crew,” a group of former special-ed classmates who started a baking business after graduating high school. It’s not about gardening, but it’s a sweet (get it?) story I think you’ll enjoy. You can read it here:
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I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.