Lasagna Gardening Basics
When I first started gardening, I thought I had to do it all. The gardeners I knew and the books and magazines I read said to remove the sod, then till, dig, and even double-dig the top 12 to 18 inches of soil before starting a garden. This message is intimidating. It's enough to make you want to throw in the trowel before you even get started!
I followed that approach in my own garden for many years. But when the children left home and I began to garden alone, I was hard-pressed to keep up with the demands of my job and keep the garden going. Then one year I was so busy that I didn't have the garden tilled at all. Instead, I piled it high with the contents of all the compost piles, several bales of peat moss, and lots of aged barn litter. I bought plants, plunked them in holes, and gave them a rough mulch of grass clippings each time I mowed. It was a mess to look at but a great garden for production. When I could find a plant among the weeds, I would harvest record numbers of fruits and vegetables. It was amazing!
Still, I felt guilty about the way the garden looked, so I tried to start and run the rotary tiller. It finally started, but I lost control when it hit a rock, and it went careening off on its own, like a chicken with its head cut off. The whole experience scared me to death, and I vowed never to try it again. During the rest of that summer, I thought about my neglected vegetable garden and its generous yield. Sure, anyone can have a great garden with deeply dug or tilled soil. But I likedthe idea of doing less work and getting better results. The idea of lasagna gardening was born.
What Is Lasagna Gardening?
No, it doesn't mean growing your own lasagna! Lasagna gardening is a nontraditional, organic, layering method you can use to create better soil while keeping your gardens neat and attractive. (The name comes from the layers you'll be making to create your bedsthey reminded me of making lasagna!) Based on a commonsense approach and readily available natural ingredients, lasagna gardening is an easy; time-saving way to install and maintain any kind of garden without removing the sod, digging, or tilling. Close planting and generous mulching greatly reduce the time needed for watering and weeding. And because of the healthy growing environment, lasagna gardens are plagued with fewer garden pests. Using no power tools, heavy equipment, or expensive additives, one person can easily create and enjoy a healthy, productive garden.
Why Lasagna Gardening?
The answer is simple: It saves work, energy, time, and money. After you make the beds, all you have to do each year is plant and mulchno tilling or heavy digging required. The ground stays cool and damp under the layers of mulch, so regular watering is a thing of the past. Setting the plants close together encourages them to fill in faster, so weeds don't stand a chance, and the few that do pop up are easy to pull from the loose mulch. Lasagna gardens give you a place to recycle nearly all of the wastes from your property, so you'll keep those garden trimmings and kitchen scraps out of landfills. Best of all, lasagna gardens are chemical-free, so you'll become a more earth-friendly gardener, providing healthy food for the table and a safe habitat for birds and butterflies. You'll surround yourself with beautiful and healthy growing spaces and enjoy the pleasure and stress-relief you only get from gardening.
Lasagna gardening is for busy people who have the urge to put their hands in the soil. It's for people who are power-tool challenged. It's for anyone who is not able to garden traditionally because of age or physical limitations. It's for the new gardener. It's for the environmentally conscious. It's for the legions of us who are stressed and overworked. It's the way to have it all without doing it all.
Creating any kind of garden, whether traditional or lasagna, starts with two basic questions: What do you want to grow and where will you put the garden? If you have a large property, you probably have your choice of sites. In this case, you can first decide what you'd like to grow, then choose a spot that fits the needs of those plants. If you want to raise vegetables, for instance, you'll look for a spot that's open and sunny, so you can grow the widest variety of crops.
Those of you with limited space are better off choosing a site first, then selecting plants that will thrive in the growing conditions that spot has to offer. Sure, most plants will grow in less-than-ideal conditions. But their yield or flowering will also be less than optimum, and they'll be more prone to pests and diseases. By matching the plants to the site, you'll be well on your way to creating a naturally healthy, top-producing, easy-care garden.
Select a Site
If you have plenty of possible sites for a new garden, it can be difficult to decide on the perfect spot. I find it helpful to start with a plan of my property. This isn't anything formal: just an outline of the property drawn roughly to scale, with buildings, the driveway, and other permanent features (such as trees, large shrubs, play areas, patios, and walkways) sketched in. Make a few photocopies of this base plan, so you can make notes on one copy and pencil in different garden layouts on another copy without messing up the original.
Start with a Base Map. Not sure where you want your new lasagna garden? To identify possible sites on your property, make a simple map of your yard, sketching in the existing features, such as buildings and trees.
Now Make Notes. Jot down comments about your soil conditions, shade patterns, and other observations right on a copy of your yard map. Besides helping you identify a good site right now, it will also be handy for planning future gardens.
Take a copy of your base plan and head out to your yard. Unless you're planning to replace an existing planting, you'll probably want to consider only areas that are currently in grass for your new garden. Now, take a good look around.
Sun and Shade. The easiest things to observe are the shade patterns cast by trees, buildings, and other features. On your plan, use a pencil or crayon to color in the areas that are in shade. Actually, it's smart to repeat this exercise in the morning, at midday, and again in the afternoon, so you can get an accurate assessment of how many hours of sunlight the different areas get during the day. If you're extremely organized, it's ideal to observe the shade patterns several times during the spring, summer, and fall before planting. An area that's in full sun at spring planting time can end up in full shade by midsummer, when nearby trees have fully expanded their leaves. When this much advance planning isn't practical, you'll just have to make an educated guess about the average amount of sun a particular site gets. If necessary, you can adjust some of your plant choices later on as you learn more about the spot you've chosen.
A site that's in full sun eight or more hours every day gets enough light to support a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Many of the same plants can get by on six to eight hours of sun, although they may not yield as much or flower as generously as when growing in full sun. Spots with less than six hours of sun a day can still support great gardens, but you'll need to choose your plants more carefully to find the ones that thrive in somewhat shady spots. To find out more about the light needs of specific plants, refer to their entries in the following chapter's.
Water and Wind. Next, take a closer look at the ground. As you walk around, note any areas where water forms puddles after a heavy rain or spots that feel soggy underfoot, and mark them on your plan. These poorly drained spots are less than ideal for most garden plants, as soggy soil tends to rot roots, so it's better to choose a drier site for your lasagna garden.
Think about how the wind blows through your property, too. Some wind is good, since it circulates air around your plants and helps leaves and stems dry quickly after rain, discouraging diseases. An open site that's frequently exposed to strong gusts can be a problem, though, since the wind draws water out of plants quickly and may cause them to wilt. Wind can also knock down taller plants. If you live on top of a hill or another frequently windy location, choose a site where your lasagna garden will be sheltered by shrubs, trees, a fence, or a building.
Decide What to Grow
You probably already have some idea of what you want to grow in your lasagna garden. This is a good time to write down a wish list of all of your ideas. If you enjoy cooking homegrown produce or eating it right from the plant, vegetables and fruits are likely at the top of your list. Cooks will get plenty of use from a garden of Culinary herbs, too. If crafts are a favorite hobby, how about planting scented herbs for potpourri, or a cut-flower garden to provide a bounty of blooms for fresh arrangements or drying? Want to liven up your landscape with colorful plantings? Make a lasagna garden packed flail of shrubs and perennials, or perhaps a mixture of dwarf conifers and rock-garden plants for close-up viewing.
Take a Soil Test
Once you've decided on a spot for your garden, and you have some idea of what you want to grow, it's time to take a closer look at your soilspecifically, its pH. pH is a measure of how acid or alkaline your soil is, which in turn affects how your plants will grow. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. (A pH below 7 indicates acidity; above 7 is alkaline.) Most plants grow best when the soil pH falls somewhere between 6.5 and 7.2. So, how do you find out your soil's pH? Take a soil test!
Start by collecting a few spoonfuls of soil from five or six different spots in the area where you plan to put your lasagna garden. Mix them together to create a representative sample of the soil. Then, check the sample with a home test kit (available at garden centers), or send it to a soil-testing lab for a professional analysis. You can find a lab by asking the staff of your local nursery or garden center for their recommendations, calling your local Extension Service, or checking in your telephone directory under "Laboratories, Testing."
Lab tests cost more but give you a detailed report of your soil's nutrient content as well as its pH. Some also provide recommendations on what you need to add to counteract nutrient imbalances, based on the plants you want to grow. This full-scale testing might be a good idea if you are really curious about your soil, or if plants already growing on or near the site aren't as healthy or vigorous as you'd normally expect. To be honest, though, I've never had a professional soil test done on any of my gardens. I rely on a simple home test kit that allows me to check each gardens pH. I've found that the nutrient levels seem to take care of themselves, so I don't worry about them too much. Lasagna gardening gives you total control over what goes into your soil, so you can build soil that is pretty near perfect for growing most home crops.
Whichever testing approach you take, be sure to jot down whatever results you end up with. You'll refer back to these notes later, as you choose and apply your lasagna ingredients.
Gathering Lasagna Ingredients
The key ingredients in any lasagna garden are organic materials. These include peat moss, animal manures, shredded leaves, and other mulches; compost; and other materials recycled from garden and household wastes, such as grass clippings, coffee grounds, and vegetable peelings. Gather as much of these nutrient-rich materials as you can from your own property, and see if your neighbors are willing to share any organic materials they don't use for their own gardens. If you still need more materials, you can buy them from your local garden or home center.
Develop a Mulch Mentality
Understanding mulchwhat it is, what it does, what organic materials make good mulch, and where to get themis the first step in becoming a committed lasagna gardener.
So, what is mulch, and what does it do? Basically, a mulch is anything that covers and shields your soil from baking sun, drying wind, and pounding rain. This could include a layer of chopped leaves, a sheet of black plastic, or even closely spaced plants. But for the purposes of lasagna gardening, we're specifically interested in organic mulches. While these mulches cover and protect the soil, they also release materials that feed earthworms and other helpful soil organisms. In turn, these organisms release nutrients in a form that plant roots can absorb. Think of it