Foot paths, Sheet mulching, & ecological succession

Our yard is in recovery after years of mowing from previous occupants, so it’s lush with pioneer species doing what they do best – going into disrupted ecosystems, repairing the soil, and making way for shrubs and saplings – the beginning phase of a process called ecological succession. The conventional lawn is an example of a perpetuated disruption. At any given point, an ecosystem is moving along succession (disturbance → shrubs & saplings → pole timber/young canopy → mature forest/ full canopy). This is why there huge business in the selling of grass seed, grass fertilizer, weed killer/herbicides, pesticides, lawn mowers, trimmers, edgers, sprinklers, etc. Those pesky “weeds”(i.e. pioneer species) are incessantly coming to repair a disruption – the lawn. If you try to control and fight ecological succession, you’ll end up spending a whole lot of time, money, and energy to try to prevent ecological law. Not saying there is no place for grass, just something to keep in mind.

I have a few young trees growing that I want to monitor but I’m stepping over and through tall pioneer plants. I’m going to be using this same path semi-frequently to attend these plants so I believe it’s worthwhile to make a footpath. The quickest way I know to make a quick, lasting footpath is by sheet mulching.

With sheet mulching footpaths, take cardboard and lay it on the ground where you’d like the path to be, right over top of whatever plants are there. Then you water the cardboard. Wait a couple minutes and water the cardboard again, just to make sure it’s saturated. Then apply mulch and water a third time. Presto! a walking path that won’t allow plants to pop up through the cardboard until the cardboard is good and decomposed, which takes a good while. (FYI Sheet mulching is typically used for establishing new planting areas – sheet mulch area where unwanted plants are and where wanted plants will be, cut a hole in the cardboard, plant. Instant, cheap, non-hazardous unwanted plant control!)

For cardboard, I walked to the recycling bin and took out whatever we had. For mulch, I always have a pile nearby so I pulled from it. You make think “Not everyone has a pile of mulch sitting around!” And I would agree. I haven’t paid for mulch in a very long time. If I did pay for mulch, I probably wouldn’t have extra just sitting around. My solution = browse craigslist. You’d be surprised by what you might find – one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, especially when that person is paid to cut down and grind trees and has to find some place to get rid of all that mulch! You could also contact your local arborist. You may be similarly surprised to discover that some arborists are willing to dump off whatever they just ground up nearby into your yard. Of course with these methods you don’t get any color tints or specific wood selection, but you get what is in abundant and free.

*A word of caution – sheet mulching on a hill can get slippery with newly placed, wet cardboard. On slopes I’d recommend a different strategy for foot paths and save the sheet mulching for establishing new planting areas