Lasagna has long been a comfort food, and the secret to the rich flavor and delightful textures can be found in the way lasagna’s prepared or — if you like — crafted. The layers make the magic. Lasagna gardening is no different in that respect. Just like with a good lasagna, this gardening method relies on a hefty dose of patience but requires little active intervention while it’s “cooking”.
What exactly is lasagna gardening? What’s so good about this approach to gardening? How can you get started with your very own lasagna garden as soon as possible, and what tricks do you need to know about to get the best results?
Join us on a fascinating journey for answers to all of these questions!
What Is a Lasagna Garden?
Lasagna gardening is a gardening technique that does not require digging or tilling the land. Also called sheet mulching or sheet composting, lasagna gardening has an important place in the permaculture approach to caring for the land, but even gardeners who are not currently looking to embrace other permaculture principles can learn a lot from this particular technique.
In short, lasagna gardening relies on layers, or sheets, of composting materials to create a rich and fertile as well as airy or fluffy soil that is a joy to work with. The following layers are typically used in lasagna gardening:
- A base layer. This layer should be made up of materials that will not decompose as quickly or compress to the extent of the layers that will subsequently be added. Very often, small branches or twigs are chosen for this purpose. In some cases, cardboard or newspapers are chosen. These will kill vegetation already in place at the site of the lasagna garden.
- A brown (carbon) layer, which will offer nutrition for the worms that help transform your base materials into beautiful, rich, compost. This second layer should be two to six inches (five to 15 centimeters) tall, and a lot of different materials can be used — fallen leaves, wood chips, hay, shredded cardboard, and sawdust, for example, as well as grass clippings, pine needles, and manure.
- A green (nitrogen) layer, which should be only one to two inches (two and a half to five centimeters) deep, and be made up of fresh fruit and vegetable waste as well as plant clippings. To render the process effective, it is, however, critical to avoid non-vegetable materials such as meats, dairy products, fats, coffee grounds, and even grass clippings.)
These brown and green layers are then continued, for as long as is practical, until the top layer is reached — this should be a brown layer, so that your work in progress does not attract as many pests.
As you can already see, lasagna gardening relies in natural materials that you likely already have laying around in your yard, and that you may not know what to do with at the moment. It mimics the process nature uses to turn waste into compost, but streamlines it for beautiful results and efficiency.
It is important to point out that lasagna gardening is not just another way to create a compost heap — the result should be a flat surface that you can actually grow plants in once the composting process has finished. The growing medium this technique creates is an extraordinarily rich one, but gardeners simultaneously end up with a growing medium that is easy to work with; always nice!
What Are the Benefits of Lasagna Gardening or Sheet Composting?
The advantages of lasagna gardening aren’t just numerous, but also really quite delightful. They can probably best be divided into benefits for the gardener and environmental benefits.
In terms of your own convenience, lasagna gardening is great because:
- You will not have to till the land at all — the layering process has a very definite philosophy to it, as the base layer helps to create an airy and fluffy growing medium, while the alternating brown and green layers speed up the rate at which the materials are composted. Stirring or otherwise interfering with a lasagna garden will mess that process up, so you can leave it alone once created!
- Once your lasagna garden is ready, this growing medium will save you water, as lasagna gardens retain water more readily that traditional gardening methods.
- If you are working with a nutrient poor soil in your garden, lasagna gardening is an excellent way to create a medium that more demanding plants can grow well in.
- Lasagna gardening is, as an approach to creating a potting medium, very scalable. If you only have a balcony, because you live in an apartment, it is still possible to use this method. If you’d like to go big, that’s very doable, too. Indeed, you can make your lasagna garden as tall as you like, and if you are already interested in an approach like square foot gardening or container gardening, sheet composting is actually a great way to get ready for this.
- Lasagna gardening creates its own potting medium, and has the added bonus that the plants grown in such a garden are unlikely to be plagued by many weeds. From your side, that means spending less time weeding.
- Lasagna gardening, like many sustainable approaches to gardening, has a welcome tendency to be rather easy on the wallet, too. To get started, you use materials you already have (old leaves) or continuously create (food scraps). That means you won’t have to buy anything, and you will no longer have to find other ways to dispose of these materials either.
In environmental terms, meanwhile, you return the materials nature has left behind to their place of origin to once again participate in the cycle of life. Materials that might otherwise have been considered waste no longer have to end up in a landfill, where the natural cycle is disrupted. Instead, they get to help you grow some awesome plants. Yes, this means that fertilizer will not be necessary, because your lasagna garden takes care of that part.
To sum all those benefits up into a tidy catchphrase, lasagna gardening is easy, efficient, and environmentally sustainable. What’s not to like?
What’s the Catch? Lasagna Gardening Has to Have Some Downsides, Right?
That all sounds amazing, doesn’t it? If you’re wondering what the catch is — because every great gardening technique comes with a set of downsides, too — you are asking the right question. It is always good to know exactly what you are getting into, so that you can better determine if a method is right for you, after all. There are indeed some disadvantages to lasagna gardening, although this depends on your perspective to some extent. Here’s a look at some of the most important ones:
- Setting up a lasagna garden is quite labor intensive. You may get the materials for free, but you still have to collect them, and that will take time. Once you have the materials you need, you also need to go through the process of creating the layers required for a lasagna garden, and it’s quite a lot of work to finish up.
- Like a good lasagna, lasagna gardens take time to “cook”; if you’re hoping to get started right away, lasagna gardening may not be right for you. After you are done adding the final layer to a lasagna garden, it can take anywhere from six months to a full year for the garden to be ready for planting. This technique isn’t suitable for impatient gardeners!
- Lasagna gardens don’t only attract worms (very much welcome), but also snails and slugs (not good!).
- To create the green layers, you’ll have to be mindful that you don’t add the wrong products. Unlike a traditional compost heap or box, you won’t simply be able to shovel chicken salad leftovers into the compost; green layers should be free from the oil and meat you’d find in that. It’s best to create a separate compost for food scraps you discard right after cutting them.
Do these disadvantages not deter you? Are you ready to take on an exciting new challenges, likely with excellent results? Then, starting a lasagna garden may be right for you. Stay with us to find out exactly how you can get started with the process!
How to Make a Lasagna Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide
Before getting started with lasagna gardening, or sheet composting, gardeners should know that they still need a set of tools, though they won’t be digging or tilling the land. These include a shovel, garden gloves, a hose, and, if you’re planning to set your lasagna garden up in a container or raised bed, tools to make those, too.
An abundant supply of organic materials is another indisputable must, but we’ll assume that you have this covered. If you are low on fallen leaves, your neighbors will probably be more than happy to share some with you.
1. Deciding When You Want to Get Started with Your Lasagna Garden
The time of year during which you begin the process will impact the final result, as well as how soon your lasagna garden will be ready for planting. The majority of lasagna gardeners will get started during the fall period. This is an excellent choice for a number of reasons.
More organic materials will be available for the brown layers required for sheet composting during this time, as leaves will fall off deciduous leaves and annual plants will be completing their life cycles. In addition, the increased rainfall the lasagna garden gets during this time speeds up the process. Finally, winter is a great time to allow your lasagna garden to percolate, because you likely won’t be doing much gardening during this time anyway. When the first signs of spring make their appearance, your garden bed will likely be good to go.
Starting a lasagna garden during the spring or summer is harder, as you will have fewer materials to work with. This then means that you will have to look for substitutes such as topsoil and peat, which likewise add some cost to the project.
2. Marking the Boundaries of Your Planned Lasagna Garden
Lasagna gardens can be tiny projects, huge projects, and everything in between. Those gardeners who want to try lasagna gardening out on a small scale will have great success with lasagna box gardens, which are essentially raised beds placed directly on the earth (where interaction with the sheet composting layers and nature can easily take place). You can buy raised beds commercially, but making your own is not too hard, either.
Those who are intending to create a lasagna garden on a much larger scale will want to mark the boundaries of the project out with wooden poles, perhaps tying lengths of rope between them. Setting out boundaries for your planned lasagna garden will help you determine if you are happy with the scale, as well as giving you a better idea of the amount of materials you will need to fill the space.
3. Putting Your Compost Layers Down
Every lasagna garden requires a bottom layer. This layer serves the purpose of improving air circulation to the other layers, and can also be used to kill any grass that is currently growing on the site where you have planned a lasagna garden.
- Many people choose to use cardboard or old newspapers for this bottom layer. These should be watered to hold the layer in place and to promote faster composting. Twigs and branches, when laid down at the bottom of a lasagna garden will improve the air circulation to the other layers. They will not decompose as quickly as the other layers and help you achieve an especially airy and fluffy end result.
- Once the bottom layer has been established, covering the entire area of your future lasagna garden, it is time to begin adding more layers. Remember — a brown layer sits right atop the bottom layer. This is key, because it plays an essential role in attracting earthworms, which are your worker bees, to the site.
- Your first brown layer, and all subsequent ones, should be made up of dry leaves, pine needles, browned palm fronds, manure, shredded newspaper bits, hay, peat, and similar materials. If you are able to create a semi-even mix before you lay the layer down, that will be helpful, but it is not essential. Brown layers are two to six inches (five to 15 centimeters) deep.
- Your first green layer should consist entirely of organic wastes such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, and it will offer nitrogen. These green layers are much thinner, with a total initial depth of one to two inches (two and a half to five centimeters).
- After the initial three layers of a lasagna garden have successfully been established, gardeners should continue to alternate between brown and green layers, ensuring that their depth is roughly correct. There is no need to break out your measuring tape, because this is an art rather than a precise science, but do keep an eye on the fact that the carbon layers should be much thicker than the nitrogen-providing layers.
- Keep building, until you’re happy with the result — but remember that the height of your initial setup will begin to come down very quickly, as the materials begin to decay so that your new potting medium can be created. For a larger lasagna garden, sheet composting layers should typically start off being around two feet (60 centimeters) tall. It will not stay that high. Those who are looking for an impressive raised bed should consider creating a taller initial lasagna garden.
To deter pests and larger animals who may be interested in taking off with some of the materials in your lasagna garden, you are always encouraged to make your final layer, the layer that faces the outside world, a brown layer.
4. Watching, Waiting, and Offering a Little Water if Necessary
In the hours, days, and weeks after the establishment of your lasagna garden, you will not see any radical changes. Rest assured that nature is hard at work to turn those lovely layers into a fruitful potting medium for you, however.
Worms and other creatures such as ants and beetles will soon join the process, and your sheet composting project will begin to take on a life of its own as it goes through the stages it takes to create your potting medium.
If you’re bored, take daily or weekly pictures — those will be interesting to look back on later, and it’s truly amazing to see what nature can do. While your lasagna garden is a work in process, it will not generally require any further help from your side; you did almost everything you needed to when you placed the layers down. There is, however, one exception to this.
Moisture plays an essential role in the process of getting the soil ready, and if you live in an area with very little rainfall or snow, you may need to add a little water to the mix. Don’t soak your lasagna garden, but sprinkle it lightly, in this case.
5. It’s Go Time! Planting Your Lasagna Garden
Gardeners who established their lasagna garden at the beginning of the previous fall will likely be greater with a loose, airy, but otherwise fairly even and uniform material that looks a lot like the potting soil you might buy from a garden center at the beginning of spring.
Once you reach this stage, your lasagna garden is ready for some new plants to be added! Because the soil is so loose, planting your planned plants will not be a problem at all. If you have placed a little too much cardboard on your first layer, however, this may not have decomposed all the way and you may need to pierce it.
From this point forward, your lasagna garden functions like any other garden would, and you can now proceed to care for the plants you are growing in it like you would normally do.
6. Maintaining Your Lasagna Garden
You will, of course, want to keep that soil looking beautiful so that it can continue to nourish your plants. Why not take the opportunity to add new brown and green layers to your existing lasagna garden each fall, so that you will be greeted with a fresh new potting medium at the start of each growing season?
Lasagna gardens are a very sustainable way to garden, and they give you excellent soil that plants will grow well in and that is an absolutely joy to work with. Sheet composting may not be easy, as such, as it does depend on some hard work at the outset, but it is definitely straightforward. Anyone can achieve success with this method, so long as they have a little patience.
Lasagna Gardening FAQs
Q: What should I keep out of my lasagna garden?
A: Do not add meat, fats, dairy products, or cooking oils to your green layers, and do not add unwanted weeds, either, as they will likely proliferate in your lasagna garden. Additionally, ensure that you don’t add materials that contain pesticides or chemicals.
Q: Can I add new layers to any lasagna garden?
A: New layers can freely be added to your lasagna garden each fall if you are growing annuals, but perennials should only be mulched.
Q: How nutritionally diverse should my layers be?
A: Adding variety to your layers is a good thing; it ensures that your final result is an extremely rich soil that your plants will thrive in. However, it is not necessary to take this to an extreme. If you have an abundance of brown leaves for your brown layers but you don’t know where to get your hands on any hay, your lasagna garden can still be successful.
Q: Where do I collect the materials for my lasagna garden?
A: If you are worried that you will not have enough materials for your green and brown layers, you can ask friends and neighbors to share. To get more leaves, you can even collect fallen leaves from a local public park. These would otherwise be collected and discarded anyway.