When my family moved into a new home, I resolved to transform the front yard. The previous owner had maintained a well-manicured lawn, but where others saw lovely green grass, I saw an opportunity for something greener. Today, the front yard is home to fruit trees and a thriving vegetable garden that I built layer by layer.
Lasagna gardening, also known as layered gardening, sheet composting, sheet mulching or no-dig gardening, is a great way to start a new garden. Rather than bringing in yards of soil, you build up the soil you have by adding layer upon layer of organic matter, alternating carbon- and nitrogen-rich layers. Over the course of a year or so, it all breaks down, thanks to the action of beneficial microbes, insects and earthworms. What’s left is soil that makes the perfect planting mix to grow your garden.
Lasagna gardening was popularized in the late 1990s with the publication of Patricia Lanza’s book by the same name (Rodale Books, 1998). Her book introduced a new generation of hungry gardeners to an economical system of soil building that mimics nature itself: In the course of a season, grass and weeds grow in a field, they dry out and decay, and perhaps the field is covered with a blanket of autumn leaves. If this patch of land is lucky, fallen fruit or animal manure may supply some nitrogen-rich organic matter. When the rains come, the whole mess gets soaked, providing an ideal environment for compound breakdown.
Building a lasagna garden is similar to building a compost pile. Like a good compost pile, your bed must contain different types of organic matter. Aim for alternating layers of “browns” (carbon sources) and “greens” (nitrogen sources) , both of which are needed by the organisms that break down this formerly living material. Commonly available brown ingredients include dry leaves, straw, newspaper and shredded cardboard, while green ingredients can include lawn clippings, kitchen compost, coffee grounds and herbivorous animal manure.
Step 1: Prep the Ground
Like many people who begin a new garden, I started with a lawn of dense sod. Mow your patch of lawn as short as possible, and leave the grass trimmings in place
Step 2: Dig a Garden Plot
Using a spade, dig up and turn the first 12 inches of soil. Do your best to break up the sod. If the layer of soil beneath this is poor quality (mine was pure yellow clay), “double dig” an additional 6 to 12 inches and replace the bottom layer with the broken up sod, covering this with the sub-par soil you dug out from below. This extra digging involves more labor, but it’ll improve your subsoil and give your plants space for healthy roots.
Step 3: Make Layer No. 1
Having now thoroughly wrecked your lawn, cover the broken-up soil with your first brown layer. I used flattened cardboard boxes, overlapped to prevent grass regrowth. You could use straw, leaves, sawdust or shredded paper just as easily.
Make each “lasagna” layer 1 to 2 inches thick and loosely packed. Air and water must be able to
permeate the materials or they will not compost readily. Straw, leaves and cardboard boxes are particularly good choices because they have enough spaces for natural aeration, speeding up decomposition.
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