Sunday, March 6, 2011

Building a Lasagna Garden Bed

Writer's side note: My husband has informed me that this blog post is too long... But I figured splitting up how to build a lasagna bed wouldn't be a great thing. Subsequent blog posts will hopefully be shorter. :)

What is Lasagna Gardening?

Lasagna gardening is a process of layering certain elements to provide your plants with ample aeration, nutrients, and moisture year after year. Each layer will provide an essential element required to grow loads of delicious veggies. Since you are layering several feet of material on top of the ground, you end up with a raised bed that provides ample aeration, loads of room for roots to grow straight down, and all the organic material within your growing medium will hang onto just the right amount of moisture, without a huge weed problem.

Maintenance of my garden consists on tending to my plants, providing layers of material to replenish the soil in the fall and sometimes pulling out the occasional sprout of poison ivy, crab grass, wild onion or clover. During growing season, I spend about one to five hours a week tending to my garden. Mid growing season, most of that time is spent harvesting vegetables or just hanging out around my plants to be sure they are healthy and safe. Five hours sounds like a lot, but think of it as about 45 minutes a day and only on dry weeks do I spend that much time! I spend a little more time when I first plant in spring and when I provide new layers to my lasagna in the fall!

Lasagna gardening is sustainable and very friendly to the environment. Lasagna gardening provides a home for all the creatures (microbes, worms, insects, fungi) that help break down your materials into a growing medium that is chock full of healthy microbial life. From bottom to top, you will not only provide food for yourself, but for worms, pill bugs, beetles of all sorts, beautiful yellow writing spiders, mantises, birds, and millions upon millions of soil borne microbes that are essential to every living thing on the planet.

Cardboard is your official weed reducer. It kills the grass and most of the weeds growing in with the grass. Exceptions are deep root plants like Poke Weeds, trees that are already established, and certain types of wild onions. The worst of these is the Poke weed. It can grow roots as big around as traffic cone or sometimes they grow on and on for 6-10 feet in long skinny carrot-like spires. If you pull it up in early spring or late fall, the root can be used in an herbal tincture to boost the immune system, and the young greens (less than a foot tall) can be used as a cooked green as long as you throw out the cooking liquid. However, it should be treated with respect as when it is harvested and prepared at the wrong season, it can be toxic. Getting rid of poke weed roots before your cardboard goes down is very important. They grow everywhere in this area of North Carolina.

Straw is not a necessity but will add a level of aeration to the growing medium you are creating for your plants.

Newspaper can be used in addition to or instead of straw.
Soil a layer or two of sandy top soil is always helpful in introducing the soil borne organisms that will help produce more soils and encourage composting worms to inhabit your garden.

Manure provides a lot of nutrients. Cow poo, horse poo and worm poo work great. As does elephant poo if you can find a circus! Basically any vegetarian grazing animal's poo can provide a lot of useful stuff for your garden. Do not use dog or cat poop because those contain nasty bacteria that you do not want in your garden.

Household food plant based waste. - potato peels, banana peels, coffee grounds, rusty lettuce leaves, broccoli stalks, etc. Anything that grows in the ground can be recycled into garden soil.

Organic Plant Matter (Leaves, Grass Clippings, Store Bought Mulch) start a collection pile this summer as you mow your grass for adding to your garden next fall. My best investment ever was my grass catcher for my mower. Not only does it catch piles and piles of grass, but in the fall, it does a great job of picking up leaves from the 7 pecan trees that incircle my property.

How to build your bed
1. Begin by clearing your garden spot of any roots, tree stumps. You don't have to dig up your grass! You are going to kill it naturally by depriving it of air and sunlight.
2. Take several layers of cardboard from regular cardboard boxes and place them on top of the grass in the shape of your garden. Be sure to overlap them so you don't provide gaps in which weeds will sprout. Complete coverage is key.
3. Use straw, newspaper or some of each to create a layer covering the cardboard and give it a good soak. This layer needs to be a couple of inches thick.
4. Cover this layer with a good layer of top soil and/or manure. This will provide the microbial base to break down the straw and newspaper. It will also provide some nutrients. If you use only manure, you may want to put in a very thin layer of sand. Worms and other creepy crawly creatures love horse poo, but require a little bit of soil grit to keep their digestive systems healthy.
5. Now you will begin layering whatever kind of organic materials you can find - except meat and dairy. Leaves, grass clippings, compost, coffee grounds, apple peels, banana peels, egg shells etc. More straw, more paper... Whatever you can find to go in there. If you don't have a compost pile, check with your local government to see if they provide residents with mulch from their stores - they pick up leaves in the fall and more and more communities are providing affordable or free mulch to their residents.
If you don't have these materials now and your municipal government doesn't provide a mulch service... For this year, do what I did my first year and find a road side mulch place and a friend with a truck who is willing to haul over a good sized load of really nicely composted mulch to your yard. Then be sure to thank the friend with a few tomatoes, onions and zucchini later this year.
6. Your first year, you may want to add a little more top soil and manure to your top layer to help facilitate break down of all the organic material. I did this my first year and it worked pretty well. Subsequent years, you do not have to start over, just keep adding layers of organic material in the fall and by spring it is all ready to go! I usually build up my beds to a minimum of 3 feet each fall.

Baking Instructions
Be sure to layer until 24-36 inches deep at a minimum. When your garden has "baked" for 6 weeks, it will be much shorter. By the end of the gardening season it will be almost completely soil and will only be 4-10 inches deep! Make your garden as deep as you can to start to provide ample planting depth as it breaks down.

Baking your Lasagna
Allowing your garden to remain undisturbed for at least 6 weeks is important. Before then, it is too hot for planting and will kill all but the hardiest of plants! At least six weeks will allow the PH of your garden to balance out and the microbes time to reproduce, begin the breakdown of your organic material and attract the insects and crawling things that eat the microbes. It would be great to find a shortcut, but the best thing to do with this is give it the time it needs. When you plant, you will be planting in some form of partially digested compost. This is okay! I have killed plants, but I have never killed a plant by planting in this material. I have killed many young plants with miracle grow fertilizer.

Do not walk on your beds. If you walk on it, you will compact it and compacted soil makes for shallow growth of plant roots. Loose soil makes for deep roots! The deeper your roots grow, the closer you can plant your plants. My broccoli plants are only about 8-10 inches as apart opposed to the recommended 12 inches and they grow just as well as plants I've seen in traditional gardens. My tomatoes are very close together in rows of two about a foot and a half apart in my 4' wide beds.

Don't make your lasagna beds more than 4'-5' wide and as long as you want. Make paths so you won't have to trample your precious growing medium!

Maintaining your Garden

Keeping the edges of a raised bed trimmed seems like such a simple thing, and it is! But it is key to keeping crab grass, clover, barn weed, and wild wood strawberries from invading. Creeping plants like these will take over your garden beds very quickly! I make my beds far enough apart that my mower conveniently fits between them! This has been a huge timesaver! I recommend either lining your paths between with cardboard and mulch or making them wide enough to mow. Four foot beds give you easy access to vegetables and fruits you grow without the need to walk all over your garden bed to retrieve them

Do not "turn" the bed as layers must remain unmolested. You turn certain types of compost piles so you can encourage airflow. And you encourage air flow to encourage natural microbial growth. Since you introduced microbes into your bed, and your bed is chock full of air pockets, this step is not needed and will only serve to compact your garden.
Pull the few weeds that do come up when they first sprout out of the ground. Weeds are easier to pull when young. Young plants are tender and their roots aren't as deep. Pull them young. Don't wait until you have a full on invasion!
Save grass clippings throughout the summer to layer on with leaves in the fall. This is so important! It makes less waste in your yard and gives your garden everything it will need to have ample growing medium next summer.
Layer on as much organic matter as possible every fall. My garden growing medium was four feet tall last fall after I put on my last layer of leaves for the season.

Compost household plant waste for fall and spring layering. A compost pile will give you loads of great material for your garden. I don't recommend continuing to put your waste directly into the garden through growing season. Composting is so easy and even if you only grow a few plants, there is no reason you shouldn't be doing so. It is natural recycling!

Building your garden should be fun. If you do not like dirt, being outdoors, bugs, worms, or plants you won't maintain it and you will feel like a failure when you end up with tiny tomatoes or bug infested squash. I love being out in my yard when the weather is warm and my garden brings me a lot of joy. If it doesn't bring you joy, find a different hobby! I recommend starting small - perhaps a 4'x8' garden bed your first year, expanding in subsequent years.

Next post: Seed Starting!

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  1. Steph, is it too late to start a bed for Summer veggies?

  2. Definitely not, Susan! I will post a sample layout very soon that will tell you what to plant. For now, get your boys out in the yard and just start building. Start with a 4x8 bed. You will be surprised how much you can grow in it!

  3. I want to create a lasagna garden but even if build it now and have to leave it for 6 weeks I'm afraid it will be too late to plant seeds. (I live in Southern Ontario.) Will it be too late to plant my seeds in the third week of May?

  4. Check He is in Ontario. I have no idea what the planting schedule is that far north. He may know more than I do. I would look at the planting zones as well.