Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lasagna Gardening

NOTE: This post was started last fall. Rather than rewrite it, I'll just add to it........

Sadly, it's almost time to hang up the garden tools and begin hibernating until spring. On the one hand I'm looking forward to turning my attention indoors - there are many projects that need my attention - projects that have been neglected all summer long as I played outside. On the other hand, this was the first summer in a long time where I actually enjoyed doing yard work.

The weather was largely responsible for my change of heart - it was dry and sunny and not too hot most of the summer. Perfection. Another reason I enjoyed it was that I tried to approach things from a different angle. Instead of viewing the work as a list of chores that needed to be checked off, I tried to use the work as my excuse to get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. I also worked with fewer time constraints. So what if I only have a 1/2 hour to put down mulch? The pile will still be there tomorrow and the next day. It will get done eventually. I have a lot more fun doing just about anything if I don't feel I have to finish it right this minute.

In keeping with my more relaxed approach, I am experimenting with a new-to-me way of gardening, Lasagna Gardening. Lasagna gardening is a method of gardening introduced by Patricia Lanza in her book by the same name. The aspect of this type of gardening that appeals to me most is that you build up instead of digging down. Instead of toiling for hours and hours digging out sod, tilling the soil, and then turning it over and working it every spring and fall, you build your garden up - no digging, no turning, no back-breaking labor. Well, there IS labor, but it's the kind of labor I don't mind so much. I don't know yet if I buy her "no weeding" claim yet, but we'll find out this spring and summer!

Fast forward to this spring..........

So where were we. Ah yes, building up rather than digging down. Not unlike the edible lasagna, lasagna garden beds are a series of layers. This is another appealing aspect of lasagna gardening because these layers are made up of things you can find around the yard or in your community. I try to use as many free things as possible, but there are still a few things I have to buy. (I haven't reached the point of fanatacism where I'm willing to visit farms and ask for - much less cart in the back of my car - free manure. But check back in a few years and see if I'm still holding out........)

newspaper layer of lasagna garden
First, a thick layer of wet newspaper.

The layers start off with wet newspaper or cardboard as a barrier against the grass and weeds. Our basement is currently overflowing with newspaper and cardboard in anticipation of creating several new beds this year as well as pathways between them. What a great way to recycle!

As you can see from the pictures, we have opted to try open beds. Many folks build planting boxes to help contain the beds, but again, I'm going for minimum effort and expense, so we're trying open beds first. We can always build boxes later if open beds don't work out.

Once the newspaper or cardboard is down, you begin to build layers of organic material, mixing carbon-rich materials (brown) like leaves, with nitrogen-rich materials (green) like grass. (Check out this list for other sources of brown and green materials.) Part of the fun of this stage is trying to find as many free organic resources as possible.

After the newspaper layer, we wanted to use something with a bit of weight to it (as opposed to leaves or straw) to help hold down the newspaper, so we went with peat moss. Peat moss is recommended in Pat Lanza's original book, but apparently she has backed off from using it because of questions of sustainability and because it really doesn't add much in the way of nutrients to the soil. It's also expensive and doesn't fit into my free and easy scheme, so I'm more than happy not to use it. (This year I plan to use free mulch instead.) Our next layer was a layer of straw (which I have to buy, but it's fairly cheap) followed by grass and then leaves. The grass and leaves are free and abundant although I have to scavenge the leaves.

building lasagna garden
Here we've added straw, hummus/manure and we're
starting on the leaves. (The leaves really should be
chopped smaller than that for best results.)

With our 1+ acre of lawn, we have plenty of free grass. What we don't have is leaves - we live on converted farm land and the residents here haven not been good about planting trees, which is a shame. But I still get them for free! First I offered to rake my neighbors yard - a win-win - he gets out of some raking and I get free leaves. This worked okay, but was a lot of work - raking and then mowing the leaves and my mower really didn't break the leaves down enough and I could tell it wasn't going to give me enough leaves anyway.

Then I read a tip about using the mulched leaves that many towns pick up curbside. Many towns, mine included, have sites where they dump the leaves and other lawn waste and leave for residents to haul away for free. I have to admit that I get some rather strange looks when people see that I'm taking leaves OUT instead of bringing them IN since most people have more leaves than they know what to do with! But at least I didn't have to resort to having my son jump out of the car and pick up bags of leaves off the curb in front of other people's homes! He (13 years old) wasn't too keen on that idea. This has worked out great - not only to I have access to a LARGE supply of leaves, but in many cases they are already mulched. I just bring my gloves and some big black lawn bags and start stuffing.

building lasagna garden beds
We built the beds about 18 inches high and then let them
sit all winter.

So anyway, we continued to alternate mostly leaves and grass but we also added composted manure/hummus (bought from Lowe's or Walmart) and a bit of straw. Straw doesn't break down all that easily, so I put it down toward the bottom thinking that maybe it would break down faster if it were underneath a lot of other material. We'll see. One drawback I've found with straw is that it tends to sprout, but the sprouts were easily weeded out. I've read that you can get sterile straw but apparently mine was not.

more layers on lasagna beds
Earlier this spring I added another layer of leaves and some
hummus/manure and then covered the beds with black
weed barrier to let them "cook".

cooking lasagna garden beds
Apparently some of the weed barrier I bought didn't work so well
because the grass underneath kept right on growing!

I've done a bit of reading and am trying to approach this in the most relaxed manner possible. At first I agonized over how much newspaper to use, how tall the beds should be, which organic materials to use and how much of each material and on and on. Now I've decided to just throw it on, see what happens and learn along the way. Again, my plan is to find out how little I can do and still have great results, so it makes sense to not agonize over exact proportions and to start out with a slightly shorter bed and see if that works before I decide that I must have a strict ratio (which makes it harder to build beds in certain seasons if you don't have access to certain things) or that the bed MUST be 24 inches high, etc.

The beds we have built are about 3 x 8. The idea is to make the beds easily accessible from all sides so that you never have to actually step IN the bed. This will help keep the soil from compacting, keeping the soil loose to promote root growth and making it easier to pull weeds.

Now supposedly you can build the beds and plant in them right away, but I liked the idea of having the beds ready to go once spring time came. I also figured that letting them sit over winter would help break down the layers a bit, hopefully creating a bit of worm-infested, rich soil in which to plant. I have stuck my hands in the layers and sure enough, I did find more dirt than was there before and worms too! Exciting!

Whew. That should do it for a first post about lasagna gardening. Our upcoming projects are to build a fence, create pathways between the gardens using cardboard and mulch (again, free from the city), create a proper compost area, and create at least 2 more beds. I will post as things progress and hopefully in a few months I will be taking pictures of our bounty! I'm definitely trying to enjoy the building process because I have control over this part. Once the plants go in, it's time to do battle with critters, pests, the elements - all the things that conspire to bring your garden down. But I'm determined to prevail this year.....the trick will be to do it without chemicals........

Here are a few articles on Lasagna Gardening:

Gardening in layers

Lasagna Gardening

Lasagna Gardening 101

Building Soil Nature's Way


  1. Wow, that's quite a project -- and quite a post! Very informative!

  2. Hi Alysha! Welcome back to blog-land. What a great post about lasagna gardening-thanks for sharing the pictures because I just couldn't picture it in my head.

    I just wanted to warn you about getting manure from a farmer instead of purchasing it. My mom did that once. It turns out that cows don't digest weed seeds, so they come out, um, whole and viable on the other end. My mom had a garden full of this horrible invasive weed- we were weeding practically every day. After about six years of fighting these weeds, they caused enough headache for her to actually cover the garden and skip a year, hoping to eliminate the weeds. It's been a nightmare for her to say the least, so I would say of all the things, purchase your manure. :-)

  3. Nice to hear from you again. I never thought it could be this simple. Think I will try this in our big planter since we finally de-weeded, mulched and planted it again after a 3 year hiatus (baby had priority!) I can say one thing, letting our planter go 'fallow' for three years worked out great. The soil is lovely, albeit patchy as far as depth of the beautiful dark brown organic part. This lasagna method will allow us to 'fill' the depth of the planter with more of that great organic soil.

  4. Tracy - Um, yeah, it kind of turned into a novel! ;-)

    Erika - I've heard the same thing, but supposedly if you get composted manure, the heat from composting kills the seeds. Now how you can determine for sure whether or not it's been composted......that's another story.

    Linlu - I believe Pat Lanza addresses lasagna gardening in small spaces and containers. I'm sure it would work nicely.

  5. I'm making similar raised beds, no wood on sides, in a part of my garden that is all weeds. I cut the weeds down and covered with cardboard and straw and then scythe cut sorghum-sudangrass and put that on it. The whole pile is about 12". I covered the whole row 3' x 32' with 4 mil black palstic. Does anyone know how fast it will take my 'lasagna' to cook? Oh, I live on Long Island NY, and it's the end of June.