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Lasagna Gardening 101

Do you like to garden but hate to pull weeds or drag the hose out to water it?

An easy solution for that is to try lasagna gardening. It is called lasagna gardening because the process to make the garden is adding layer after layer similar to how you would make a pan of lasagna in the kitchen. While it might not look like a traditional garden the benefits of lasagna gardening are tremendous not only for you but also for the environment. Lasagna gardening is a no-till gardening method that results in rich fluffy soil with very little work from the gardener after the initial setup. Microorganisms in the soil feed off of the layers you put down breaking them down over time, creating a fantastic area to plant a garden that requires little to no watering, fertilization, or weeding.

If constructing a new garden site, the best time to prepare a site is in the fall. Adding these layers in the fall will give time for the microorganisms to break up the hard-packed soil and the site will be ready for you to plant your garden in the spring. It is ok to start a garden in the spring as well though it may just not work as well if you haven’t been gardening in the spot before because the area will probably still be compacted.

The first layer that should be added is newspaper or cardboard which provides food and a moist layer for the microorganisms, but most importantly this layer will suppress weeds for the entire growing season! I like to use cardboard on my garden at Gilbertson Conservation Education Area in Elgin because it lasts the longest and will suppress weeds all the way into the fall. This layer will smother any existing weeds or grass that is at the site so no spraying or tilling is required.

The next layer should be a “brown layer” which would be composed of dry leaves, peat, pine needles, or wood mulch. It can also be a combination of any of those. The brown layer adds carbon to your garden. I personally like to use wood mulch for my garden because I have it readily available from cutting and chipping brush. After adding the brown layer, the next layer should be a “green layer” which would be composed of grass clippings and food scraps. This layer will add nitrogen to your garden and make your plants thrive without having to add artificial fertilizer to the soil! You can continue to add layer after layer until your garden area is approximately 2 feet thick. (This measurement doesn’t have to be precise but remember the thicker it is, the fewer weeds that will grow, and the more moisture will be held in requiring little to no watering.)

After adding these layers, I like to use a knife and cut a hole through the bottom layer (cardboard) where I’m going to plant my plants. I like to add a handful of soil where I cut the hole and plant my plant. I then push the brown and green layers back around the plant. I water the plants one or two times after planting them and do not have to water them again for the entire growing season because these layers hold so much moisture.

I started the majority of my garden on top of very hard-packed ground that has been mowed lawn for years. I was very skeptical of whether this was going to work or not because the first year I pressed a shovel into the ground where I wanted to plant the garden, and I could barely get the shovel halfway in the soil. After two years. I can very easily get the entire shovel into the soil and the soil is thriving with life (spiders, worms, millipedes, bees, and all sorts of critters.) It takes a long time for the microorganisms to break down the layers into extremely healthy soil; often about 2 years. I have found that my plants weren’t able to get the nutrients they needed possibly from compaction of the soil, and lack of microorganisms in the soil. I noticed sometimes they weren’t growing very well so this made me even more skeptical. This should get better year after year of doing the gardening and I have seen this comparing the two years to each other.

The first two years I added a very small amount of manure to the garden to try and help the situation. If you add too much manure it is possible to kill some of your microorganisms. You need microorganisms in the soil to cycle nutrients, out-compete pests, and protect your plants. Hopefully this year I will not have to add any manure and my nutrients will cycle naturally in the soil by the soil microbes. I do plant a cover crop in the fall as well to help feed the soil microbes even when my vegetable plants are dead. This cover crop will help attract additional critters and soil microbes and speed up improving my soil health. Watching the change in my soil has been enlightening and exciting! I can’t wait to see how it goes this summer.

I will continue to plant my garden through these techniques. I encourage you to come look at my garden at the Gilbertson Conservation Education Area in Elgin and see how I have been experimenting with this type of gardening. If you need more information, please do not be afraid to contact me at the nature center.

We partnered with my wife Alisha and Neil from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and made a soil health video which has been attached below to help show some of the benefits of this type of gardening as well!

Garden Pros:

• Little to no watering

• Little to no weeding

• Holds water from entering watersheds

• Prevents erosion

• Little maintenance after initial set up

• Soil health

Garden Cons:

• More work during initial set up

• Takes a long time (a year or two) to establish the soil

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