Lasagne Gardening

Lasagne Gardening is all about the soil and easy replenishment of nutrients with no digging for the gardener.

Layered-mulch-garden-by-Fire-on-the-Hill_1.jpg

Lasagne gardening has continued to change and grow to suit each individual gardener since the publication of Ruth Stout’s book “No Work Garden Book”.  It is such a stunningly simple method of creating rich soil for gardening and so easily adaptable that nearly every gardener has incorporated some of Ruth Stout’s methods.  Although she is considered a pioneer of No Dig Gardening, similar methods were being developed around the world.  There is a great deal of similarity between No Dig Gardening, Permaculture, Sheet Mulch Gardening and even Straw Bale Gardening.

The method is simple and adaptable.  Or you can make it as complicated as you like.  The underlying principle behind the many variations is never dig up your soil, let the soil organisms do all the work for you naturally.

Most variations begin with laying out sheets of cardboard or thick layers of newspaper directly on the ground to smother weeds or grass.  Then you simply recreate what happens in nature, perhaps with a bit more purpose.  In nature, plant debris such as fallen leaves, died back foliage and plants, or twigs and branches lay on the ground and begin to decompose.  The decomposition attracts and encourages microbes, soil organisms and insects to become active  in the process.  These organisms not only help to break down the organic matter into natural and nutritious fertilizer that enriches the soil, the also create excrement that further enriches the soil.  Earthworms and insects also “mix” and aerate the soil with their burrowing activity.

When a gardener is providing the organic material to be decomposed, there is often specific purpose in the materials being layered over the cardboard.  This is where it can be as complicated as you like, or just plain ridiculously simple.  Even the ratio of brown versus green is not as critical as many gardeners would lead you to believe, nature does not have a recipe book and things work out just fine.  With that said, if all you ever layer into your lasagne garden is green grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and plant trimmings, your pile may rot, develop mold and fungus and attract animals.  A good deal of dry straw, shredded leaves or shredded paper will prevent smelly rot and you will get a steady decomposition instead.  The brown materials will also improve the soil texture as well as add specific nutrients to the soil.

Since you can easily find all kinds of step by step or elaborate or complicated methods and instructions for the many No Dig Gardening methods quite easily, I would like to focus on the most basic and simplistic method that will give you a quick and easy start:

  • So lets get back to that cardboard laid down on the ground .  Thats where to start for a brand new garden, and it needs to be started in fall so decomposition is well underway for spring planting.  Overlap the edges to completely prevent air and sunlight from getting to the vegetation underneath.  Water it well.
  • Spread about a 2 inch layer of composted manure over the cardboard.  If your soil is particularly poor, sandy, or heavy clay, you may want to put 2 inches under your cardboard and 2 inches over your cardboard.  
  • Spread a huge layer, a foot or more, of rough organic material that can include straw, leaves, grass clippings and garden and plant waste.  
  • Next is a layer of kitchen scraps that can include fruit and vegetable trimmings, eggshells, and coffee grounds.  Water well.
  • The ratios of materials layered should be about 2:1 brown versus green, or twice as much brown as green.  Layer until the you reach about two feet deep.
  • Finally mulch with straw or compost.

You are all ready to plant in spring.  What started as a pretty high pile of layers will be dramatically reduced by spring from settling and decomposition.  The garden is still a “raised bed”, so when you initially set it up a few railroad ties around the edges will keep the whole thing neater.  If you used cardboard instead of newspaper you may have to cut through it for planting, but your trowel should push right through newspaper.

Some gardeners have set up their lasagne or sheet mulch garden in the spring and planted immediately.  If you do so, just be aware that root vegetables or deep rooted vegetables will not do well the first year.  Your depth of good soil is only about a foot at most the first year or two and many root vegetables as well as deep rooting tomatoes need more depth.  It will take a while for the cardboard to decompose allowing earthworms and soil organisms to break up, aerate and improve the soil below.

As for maintaining the nutrition of your garden soil, now is the time to consider Ruth Stout’s no dig methods.  Ruth Stout was a believer in just “tossing your garbage” into the garden and continuing to heap on armloads of spoiled hay.  I would suggest burying kitchen scraps so you don’t attract animals and unwanted critters, but basically, yes this works fine.  The smaller the scrap pieces the better for quick decomposition.  Anything you normally put into your compost pile can be “buried” right into the garden or layered over it as fresh mulch.

So absorb all the ideas and methods and simply adjust to what suits you.  I employ many of these principles in my own gardening.  Adding well chopped kitchen scraps, crushed eggshells, barely started compost or grass clippings directly to my garden has become a routine for me.  But to avoid attracting critters I do mix it in a bit, and yes, top it with straw.  Straw is in fact an excellent mulch for vegetable gardens, but I only add straw after the soil has become good and warm in late spring.  Hay is often full of weed seeds and needs to be hot composted before adding to the garden.

One objection I have to Lasagne Gardening is partly an emotional one, or two.  First, when I decide to start a garden it is usually springtime and I want to plant it now, not next year.  And, I have horrible clay with hardpan below it.  Lasagne gardening will take a very, very long time to improve the clay for a fully productive garden, probably several years to get through the hardpan that my spade cut through.  Since I am an Intensive French gardener at heart, I dig very deep once to loosen the clay and mix in soil conditioning amendments and rough compost with manure.  That ensures a strong, healthy, highly productive garden right away the first year.  Then I turn to some of the lasagne and Ruth Stout methods for maintenance.

Start a garden with a method that makes the most sense for you, and adapt as you go.

Sharon Dwyer