Lasagna gardening cuts down on digging

Kate Johnson of East Concord has clay in her garden, that’s one of the reasons she turned to lasagna gardening, a technique where you don’t have to till your garden beds.

She discussed lasagna gardening and other techniques in a talk during the Western New York Dairy-Agricultural Festival last weekend. It was one of a series of gardening and farming talks that was a new feature of the festival.

Johnson attended college in Baltimore and graduate school in Troy, about seven years ago, she and her husband Charlie moved back to the homestead where he grew up. She’s a teacher and he’s a musician and organ technician, and in their spare time they raise chickens and grow vegetables in a garden that is about 100 square feet.

She decided to go with lasagna gardening because that method allowed her to skip tilling. There are pros and cons to tilling your garden beds, but one big drawback for Johnson was that because she has so much clay, her soil was simply too wet in spring to till. Using the lasagna gardening method, she doesn’t need to till as much.

Actually, at all.

In fact, there’s no digging required to prepare the soil. If you’re starting a new garden bed, you can use this method over an existing lawn without having to dig up the grass.

“The substrate can be poor soil or sod—just leave it,” Johnson said.

As the name suggests, in lasagna gardening, you layer the material in your garden. The first layer is cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Over the top of that, you alternate layers of grass clippings, leaves, manure and peat moss—or whatever you’ve got. You need to build it up so it’s a foot deep.

You can do this in the fall and plant in the spring, or do it in the spring and plant immediately. To plant, you simply split the layers and put the plant right in.

Johnson emphasized that the location of the paths in your garden must be fixed. You don’t want to walk in the garden and compact your planting medium, so you must decide where the paths will be and not change them.

“Don’t walk in the bed,” Johnson said. “That’s sort of sacred. We don’t have a lot of rules, but that’s one of them.”

By the end of the season, your lasagna garden that was a foot high will be flush with the rest of the soil. You have to keep building it up over the years. A lasagna garden isn’t labor intensive, but it does take a lot of material, she said.

“If I had copious amounts of material or if I had horses I would do lasagna gardening,” Johnson said.

Since she didn’t have as much material as she would like, when she wanted to expand the garden, she decided to try another kind of design that she calls “shape it and leave it.”

She tilled the area once. Then she shoveled dirt from the paths and put it into the beds to create height in the beds. In the spring, the paths might be wet, but the beds are dry enough to work in.

Any uncovered area is going to turn into weeds, so she mulches with layers of whatever she has on hand such as leaves or horse manure (not fresh manure; it will burn your plants. Make sure it is aged.)

“My favorite mulch is grass clippings,” Johnson said. “As it dries and starts to compost, it forms a kind of mat.” That keeps the weeds down.

If you’re tired of digging up your garden each spring, try lasagna gardening. You can find more information in Patricia Lanza’s book called Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!

You should also check out these other books on Lasagna Gardening.