Patrice Peltier is a lazy gardener and garden writer who (sometimes) tends perennials and compost near Milwaukee, Wis.
 

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Lasagna Gardening
by Patrice Peltier - posted 03/25/13  

This isn’t about pasta — lasagna gardening is about building up soil in layers. The concept is based on layering compost ingredients, which also keeps weeds down. Here’s the ‘recipe.’


Some tomatoes growing in the Arena Elementary School garden.1

Love growing veggies but hate to weed? Here’s a concept for you: lasagna gardening. It’s basically growing vegetables in a slow compost pile — but putting it that way lacks a certain “panache.” That’s probably why author Patricia Lanza created a catchier name for her low-maintenance, organic approach to growing vegetables: lasagna gardening. And then wrote a book about it (Lasagna Gardening, published by Rodale Press, first edition 1998).

Like lasagna, this gardening concept is based on layering ingredients. Also like lasagna, the exact recipe varies according to the tastes of the cook and what ingredients are readily available. It’s a fairly forgiving formula that results in a fertile, loose growing medium that retains moisture and discourages weeds. 

Sound good? Let’s start cooking.

Smother Layer

Begin with a “smother layer” of cardboard or a thick pad of newspapers. Lanza recommends using newspapers three sheets thick. My lasagna gardening mentor, Southwest Wisconsin garden guru Roger Reynolds, likes a thicker pad — six to 10 sheets. Both recommend wetting the smother layer to help start the composting process and to keep the layers from blowing away while you’re working. Overlap your seams by 3 to 4 inches so undesired plants can’t sneak through and find the light of day. I used cardboard because I find it easier to work with.

Organic Layer

Now add layers of organic materials using three to four times as much brown, dry material as green material. Browns, which are a carbon source, include leaves, wood chips, straw, sawdust and shredded newspaper. Greens, the nitrogen source, are grass clippings, hay, livestock manure, weeds, and non-meat or non-dairy kitchen scraps, such as vegetable and fruit peels, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags.

The brown layers should be about 4 inches thick with just 1 inch or so of greens. It’s best to water each brown layer after you put it down so that your garden is evenly moist throughout. Keep layering until your lasagna garden is 18 to 24 inches high. For the top layer, add about 2 inches of a coarsely textured brown material such as wood chips, straw or unchopped leaves. This keeps weed seeds from germinating on top.


 
Top: Students at the Arena (Wis.) Elementary School take a break from putting down the “smother” layer in the school garden. Students and their families helped collect leaves and other organic materials for a lasagna garden that was used as part of the school’s science curriculum.2 Above: In spring, students started plants from seed in their classrooms. Teacher Jean Alt said teachers tried to select vegetables that could be harvested in fall when the students returned. Then, students and teachers prepared a fall festival dinner using vegetables from the garden.
Do As I Say,
Not As I Do.


As a fanatic composter and a novice vegetable gardener, lasagna gardening seemed right up my alley. In fall, I layered the bed. In spring, I transplanted tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini and sowed seeds for delicata and butternut squash and watermelons. 

Did I mention I’m a careless gardener? The garden was going great. Then critters ate all the leaves off the eggplants. I neglected to put cages around the tomato plants in time. And I left my garden completely untended for the entire month of August — during one of the hottest, driest summers on record. What was I thinking? Nevertheless, the garden was productive — and there were no weeds — a triumph over extreme neglect. 

More Resources

•  Lasagna Gardening:  A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! By Patricia Lanza

•  lasagnagardening.com

•  Roger Reynolds’ blog at infiltratinglandscapes.blogspot.com

Time to Start

If you start a lasagna garden in spring, start cooking three to four weeks before you plan to begin planting. After layering the materials, Roger Reynolds recommends watering the garden with an overhead sprinkler one hour a day every day for a week (or 1 inch of water a day). Spot check the garden in several places to see if the pile is evenly wet. If so, you can gradually decrease watering to every two or three days. Covering the pile with a tarp or plastic between waterings will reduce moisture loss due to evaporation and may help speed the process, according to Reynolds.

It’s easiest to start a lasagna garden in fall when leaves are readily available. Mother Nature will also help keep your lasagna garden bed moist with fall rain and winter snow.

Whether you build your bed in spring or fall, when the volume is reduced by half or more, and no longer warm to the touch, the bed is ready for planting. 

Planting Phase

Forget about digging into the ground. Instead, part the mulch until you reach a moist layer. Create a furrow or trench about 1 inch deep and several inches wide in the moist mulch. After gently tamping down the bottom of the furrow, add 1 inch of fine-textured growing media like topsoil, potting soil or seed-starting mix. This provides good seed-to-soil contact to allow germination.  

Sow the seeds, covering them with whatever depth of growing media is recommended on the seed packet. Gently water the growing media to create soil-seed contact. 

For transplants, simply dig until you reach moist compost, insert the plant, firm the compost around the plant and water.

Recipe for Success

Whether your soil is clay, sandy, rocky or compacted, who cares? In a lasagna garden, you’re above it all. Another bonus: Your plants are not subject to many of the soilborne fungal diseases that prompt us to rotate crops, because each year you’re planting into a newly created compost pile.

Intrigued? Grab your garden fork, gather your ingredients and start cooking. Abbondanza!


For transplants, like these tomatoes and eggplants, simply part the mulch until you reach a moist layer. Create a hole. Add a cup or so of topsoil and firm this around the plants.1

Roger Reynolds, a University of Wisconsin master gardener volunteer, encourages people to incorporate edible plants wherever possible, like the front corner of this property. Check out these squash vines, which eventually grew 35 to 40 feet long, yielding more than 300 pounds of squash.3

1) Photo by Patrice Peltier
2) Photo courtesy of Joannie Harrington, Arean Elementary School
3) Photo by Roger Reynolds

From State-by-State Gardening January/Febraury 2013

 

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