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Lasagna Gardening 101

lasagna gardening

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Lasagna Gardening 101

3 STEPS TO BUILDING A PRODUCTIVE RAISED BED & BECOMING A LAZY GARDENER

Have you ever neglected a garden and found it overrun with weeds the next growing season?

"This is so much work!" you may think.

This lasagna gardening 101 primer aims to show you how in permaculture, we work towards the most amount of gain for the least amount of work. A permaculture gardening is “lazy gardening.”

Why is that? It’s “lazy” because a lasagna garden allows nature to do the heavy lifting.

Our job is to put the design or thought-work into place so that the natural systems in the soil can most function as efficiently and effectively as possible.

A lasagna garden is merely adding the step of arranging a series of layers of organic matter that decompose over time and create a fertile garden bed for you instead of forcing one into existence temporarily by roto-tilling. 

Here’s how to do it in (3) three easy steps.

lasagna gardening

1. DO NOT TILL

When we till the soil, we are essentially killing the intricate network of life below the ground upon which the life aboveground depends.


kathy merrifield
"A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes."

Kathy Merrifield, retired nematologist at Oregon State University

Dr. Elaine Ingham, Founder, President, and Director of Research for Soil Foodweb Inc, says that tilling causes most soil problems. 

She also reminds us to keep our garden beds pesticide-free:


elaine ingham"The use of toxic compounds such as pesticides and inorganic fertilizers kill the organisms that build structure in the soil."
ELAINE INGHAM
Some of the networks built by the microbiology in the soil include mushroom hyphae. Mycorrhizal fungi (a type of fungi that is in symbiosis with plants), can be found for miles on end in one contiguous plot of land.

"The growth of mycelia can be extensive. A form of honey fungus found in the forests of Michigan, which began from a single spore and grows mainly underground, now is estimated to cover 40 acres. The mycelia network is thought to be over 100 tons in weight and is at least 1,500 years old. More recently, another species of fungus discovered in Washington State was found to cover at least 1,500 acres."

ENCYCLOPEDIA.COM

Because soil fungi are so extensive and so entrenched in the landscape, it can virtually “field” nutrients to those plants and fellow fungi that need it from one part of your yard that has these nutrients in abundance.

One of the superstars of the mushrooms world is mycologist Paul Stamets. Stamets explains the fascinating network of mycelial threads in his book, "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World."

lasagna gardening"I see the mycelium as the Earth's natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate. Through cross-species interfacing, we may one day exchange information with these sentient cellular networks. Because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape."
PAUL STAMETS

What happens when we till?


When we till, we break those fungal connections. We kill and churn up the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms in the soil.

Initially, our soil may have a surge of oxygen, but after some time, without the life to maintain the soil structure, the ecosystem falls apart.

Sadly, many community garden plots till the soil annually, forcing garden plot renters to start from a blank canvas of lifelessness each year.

What if my soil is compacted?


broad fork

If your soil is compacted, use a “broad fork” or something that aerates the earth, without chopping up the earthworms and fungal strands in the ground.

Sadly, many community garden plots till the soil annually, forcing garden plot renters to start from a blank canvas of lifelessness each year.

2. BUILD YOUR LASAGNA GARDEN LAYERS


 Lasagna Gardening 101 Example

This is just (1) one example of many for ordering the layers in your garden bed.

lasagna gardening 101

When creating your lasagna garden, remember the principle,

“Do what you can, with what you have.”

Rather than going out to a store to purchase mulch, for instance, see if you might not have some leaves around your property that simply need to be raked and can use as a lasagna garden “layer.”

A few easy steps to get your lasagna garden started

  • Bottom Lasagna Garden Layers


We always start with cardboard at the bottom.

The cardboard acts not only as a weed barrier but somehow mimics the bedrock layer of the soil on the upper crust of the earth.

Lay down the cardboard, overlapping the pieces about 6-inches, to block off the weeds. This weed barrier will save you from having to pull them all out later. Less work for you.

Please note: You will likely still have weeds in your garden even after putting down the cardboard, but they won’t be as aggressive as they would be without using a cardboard weed barrier. The weeds, if any, will grow less and less every year as you build up your fertile soil.

In the diagram above, you see the “kitchen scraps” layered beneath the cardboard. It's good for you to do the same because you want to make sure that no animals start smelling the scraps from your backyard. They may dig them up before the food has time to decompose.

lasagna gardening

The photo above shows how this California gardener needs to overlap his cardboard more so that there are no gaps and the weeds can't go through.

  • Middle Lasagna Garden Layers


The top of the lasagna garden for us is always a beautiful bed of straw mulch.

Straw mulch works well in the heat and works well in the cold. It eventually disintegrates and becomes part of your soil layers. But initially, when it is newly placed, it helps protect the soil from evaporation and extreme frost.

It’s like a blanket!

lasagna gardening

  • Top Lasagna Garden Layers


The middle layers can consist of whatever you have on hand plus the organic compost/soil mix that you initially use to build your garden.

Introduce life in the middle layers. You can add life forms such as nitrogenous bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, and earthworms to these layers.

Here's the same garden above layered with compost and topsoil.

Pro-Tip: Cut up the straw a bit more


It's helpful to use scissors and snip the straw mulch up into smaller cuttings so that they don’t stifle the plant growth underneath.

Some permaculture gardeners use woodchips instead of straw mulch and have found them to be effective in capturing moisture as well. The only problem with woodchips is that the wood, which is high in carbon, tends to look for nitrogen to use towards its decomposition.

If your garden bed is brand new, this could mean losing much-needed nitrogen in the process. And that is why we recommend straw in most gardens.

  • Edging your Lasagna Garden

lasagna gardening

It is always good to define where your garden bed stops and starts. This physical definition is especially true when working with kids who will tend to step into the garden bed even if it is raised. Stepping on a garden bed can cause soil compaction and acidification, so we try to minimize that as much as possible.

When choosing appropriate materials to "edge" or form the borders of your bed, we recommend something that can stand up for a long time, such as brick or cinder blocks.

Cedar is also an excellent wood choice, but it tends to rot after about (5) five years and needs replacement. Douglas fir is a cheaper alternative to cedar. 

Avoid using “pressure-treated” wood, which also happens to be chemically-treated, as well as pressure-treated.

Some of the members of the Grow-It-Yourself / GIY Membership program have found success in using a “wall block” to stabilize the corners of their raised square-foot beds and then using wooden planks to build the “walls” of your lasagna garden. An example of that block is in the image below.

lasagna gardening 101

Lasagna Gardening 101 YouTube Video


Watch the video below to learn how to build a lasagna garden from scratch using whatever materials you have on hand.

3. PLANT IN YOUR LASAGNA GARDEN 

Once you’ve established your lasagna garden, it is reasonable to ask the following questions:

  • How soon before I can plant in my lasagna bed?


You can transplant in your garden right away. Simply poke a hole through the layers, large enough to allow space for your transplant’s roots to spread.

Or you can wait two weeks to have your garden rained on and decompose naturally so that the microbiology in it can establish itself.

  • Should I transplant or direct sow into my lasagna garden?


John Jeavons, creator of the successful Grow BioIntensive methods recommends starting your plants from seed and transplanting your seedling into the garden once temperatures allow, and the plant has at least “two true leaves.” 

However, if you are in the middle of summer or late spring and you would like to catch up with the optimal growing seasons, you can direct sow specific seeds as long as the germinations temperatures are optimal (usually 60–70 F).

  • Won’t the straw mulch impede the growth of my plants?


By using straw, you might prevent your directly sown seeds from germinating.

This risk is yet another reason to prefer transplanting over direct-sowing. Yes, straw may block the light needed for some seeds to germinate. However, if you cut up your straw very fine all you have to do is shift the straw over a bit in the sections in which you direct sow to allow the seed to get direct light and access to the soil.

However, if you are in the middle of summer or late spring and you would like to catch up with the optimal growing seasons, you can direct sow specific seeds as long as the germinations temperatures are optimal (usually 60–70 F).

  • I still see weeds growing in my lasagna garden. What did I do wrong?


Nothing. Weeds are often misunderstood plants. Their presence may indicate that:

  • The straw mulch you used contained unwanted weeds
  • The wind blew some weeds into your garden bed
  • Your soil needs remediation of some sort. So when you see them, ask yourself,
    1. Is that area not yet fertile enough?
    2. Does it get trampled on a lot?
    3. Is it compacted or eroded?
lasagna gardening

In a past article on Building Garden Diversity, you will find a list of weeds used for soil remediation.

In permaculture, weeds are considered “pioneering plants” that pave the way for more useful vegetables. As you find them in our gardens, allow yourself to be curious about their presence and purpose. Sometimes you’ll be surprised to see the medicinal uses of plants like dandelion include: 

  • healthy digestion
  • lowering cholesterol, and 
  • controlling diabetes.

Nevertheless, a whole bed of dandelions, however, is not desirable.

So pull your weeds out as soon as you see them and plug in a more desirable plant in its stead. You will find fewer weeds in your first lasagna garden year and fewer still, the following years.

Dig Deeper

Now that you’ve learned Lasagna Gardening 101: (3) three simple steps to build your lasagna garden bed, the challenge is for you to give it a go!

Not sure where to start? Come to our next Gardening Webinar and we'll sort it out together!


Comments 8

  1. Hi Nicky,

    As requested…

    Here are 8 videos of tours of Paul Gautschi’s garden (ranging from 2 to 5 hours!)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wh01MMpgFY&index=2&list=PLohrv7JcWR5pXIAeHOA5Q0mCoRy9ta7sm

    I don’t know which to recommend as they each have both overlapping and unique info. And if you’re short on time, try increasing the youtube video speed settings so you can play it faster. The channel also has other shorter clips of Paul.

    Also, here’s the documentary made about Paul’s garden called “Back to Eden” (though I found the above garden tours more informative):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rPPUmStKQ4

    I wish everyone could see what’s happening in Paul’s garden and be inspired to make the whole earth a fruitful garden 🙂

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  2. So, how soon can you plant in a lasagna garden? Is this something that needs to be started a season before you intend to plant?

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      Author

      You can start it year-round and punch a hole through the cardboard to start right away with seedlings or allow the cardboard and layers to decompose over 2 weeks to several months if you wish.

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      Author

      Elizabeth, unfortunately, bermuda grass is the most difficult of grasses to weed out.

      If you’ve already tried lasagna gardening, and the grass still keeps coming in, you will have to hand-weed, solarize or stay on top of the weeds with a torch year after year until they steadily decline. I just keep pulling mine out. And right now, the main veggies are outcompeting it, so it’s good. But I am year five on that bed.

      Weed solarization is also a good thing to look into, if you are wanting to start from scratch. Solarize before you do the lasagna garden.

      So sorry for the delay in writing this. We had hundreds of spam comments and I needed to wade through them one by one to get to yours.

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