When I decided that I wanted a garden at my county inn, located in New York’s Catskill Mountains, I found that it was not going to be easy. The ground was part clay and part rock; when I tried to dig it my shovel bounced back at me. Even a pickaxe would not penetrate more than a couple of inches. We tried a rotary tiller and watched in dismay as it hit a rock and jumped out of the ground. It was discouraging and nothing was done for the first couple of years.
One spring day during a walk through the woods surrounding the inn, I discovered how Nature really works. I saw how the layers of leaves and other plant debris fall to the ground and decompose, and how this natural compost turns into a rich soil that receives seeds and allows them to germinate and grow into trees and wildflowers. I thought, “Mother Nature doesn’t own a rotary tiller.”
That day in the woods was an awakening for me. I transposed what I had seen into a layering method that would create good growing soil around the inn. After all, if Mother Nature could just drop leaves, twigs, and even whole trees to the ground and then seeds into the natural humus formed from their decomposition, I could do it better and faster.
As I walked back to the inn, I thought of the amount of natural ingredients available to me. Our almost three hectares of grass clippings, which we left on the ground, could be used in the gardens. Leaves from the Methodist Church, usually bagged and shipped off to the landfill, could be brought to the hill and used on the garden. Vegetable waste from the kitchen at the inn could be used once it had composted. And, as I passed my neighbour’s barn, I gave his horse Kate a look that said, “Old girl, you are going to be responsible for the layers that will really make the garden grow.”
I couldn’t wait to try out my theory. That very day I used the lawn mower to collect and bag the grass clippings from the fields. I covered a garden spot with about twelve inches of dry grass and covered it with manure. The bagged leaves collected at the church in the fall were still at the landfill, so the next day I headed for the dump. I brought them back and put them on my garden. At this point, I had covered the ground with several layers of grass clippings, almost a metre of leaves and a spreader full of horse manure.
When the local garden centre put soil amendments on sale, I filled the back of my pick-up with as much as I could carry, and layered them on the garden to make it look neat. After all, it was a public inn and guests would be roaming the grounds; the manure layer should not be in plain view.
Into the layers I planted seeds and plants for my garden. I pulled the layers apart and tucked small plants into the mass. I firmed the layers on the top, planted seeds, and then covered them with a bit of peat moss.
Everything grew, including the weed seeds, in all that horse manure. Before I could get control of the weeds they had covered the planted areas and were growing to an alarming size. Why not? They were growing in rich, organic soil amendments and there was little competition from the puny herb plants and vegetable seeds I had sown.
By early summer of that year, I had a spectacular weed crop and it was intimidating to think about getting it under control. I would stand by the edge of the garden and try to see if any of my plants had survived and if the seeds had germinated. One day, after weeks of watching my weed garden grow as if it was on steroids, I saw something red. After a closer look, I also saw a bit of yellow and, there among the riot of weeds, I thought I saw a basil leaf.
It was enough to make me walk into the garden. I pushed aside the weeds and stepped into the mess I had created. What I had seen from the sidelines was a small red tomato, a tiny yellow squash blossom, and, yes, basil leaves.
I went to work weeding around the vegetable and herb plants. The weeds were easy to pull in the loose soil amendments and I was amazed at what had survived in what I thought was just a weed patch.
As I uncovered the plants, I filled a basket with herbs and vegetables. I threw away much more than I saved, but it was a miracle anything had grown to bear fruit. While working in my garden of weeds, I knew my biggest mistake had been ignoring the possibility of weed growth and not providing a barrier to prevent it.
The question was, what could I use that would allow me to garden without using black plastic or woven weed barrier? I hated both and wanted to be able to change how my garden looked without encountering the inflexibility of either of these artificial products.
At about this time I was getting ready for a road trip that would take me away for several weeks. I prepared for it by getting all my garbage and recyclables out to the roadside. The heavy stacks of newspaper were tied and placed on the grass next to the garbage cans.
When I returned from the trip, the stacks of paper were still there where I had left them. It had rained and the paper was very wet. Knowing they were no longer candidates for recycling, I got out garbage bags for them. I picked up a stack and at first glance lamented the fact that the grass under the paper had died.
But I looked more closely and found earthworms on top of the ground, crawling around in loose soil. I reached down and scooped up a handful of soil. I’m no genius, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that newspaper was what I needed to create a weed barrier in my layered garden. The stacks of paper had provided the perfect environment for worms and had cut off the light, killing the grass and weeds.
I carried all the stacks of wet paper to the garden and, after taking off the string, overlapped whole sections on top of the weeds. As I stood back to survey the results, I knew I needed to cover the paper to keep it in place, and to keep it from looking like, well, paper. I did this with a pile of chopped leaves and grass clippings lying nearby.
When I finished covering the weeds with paper and covering the paper with grass and leaf mulch, my garden looked neat and weed-free. I felt like I had created a new gardening method.
The method wasn’t new, just new to me, but I didn’t know that then. I began to make plans to take the idea to another level. I planned a garden on a level piece of ground that would start with layers of wet newspaper. The area had been used for parking for many years and was hard-packed clay and rock.
I planned to cover the paper with layers of peat moss, grass clippings, chopped leaves, compost, and manure. In addition, I would cover the manure with enough layers of organic material so it wouldn’t allow weed seeds to germinate.
It was a very large project and I enlisted the help of a surveyor to help me keep the lines straight. We measured, pounded long gutter nails into the ground at the corners, and tied string to them to provide an outline. I used bright survey tape tied to the corners to warn walkers that there was string they could trip on.
As soon as the measuring was done, I began my first big layered garden. The spaces laid out for paths were covered with cardboard and then covered with bark mulch. Garden spaces were covered with overlapping wet newspapers then layered with organic garden amendments: peat moss, grass clippings, peat moss, chopped leaves, peat moss, manure, peat moss, compost, peat moss, and more grass clippings. I repeated the layers until I had about 90 centimetres of material.
When I finished layering the new garden it was snowing, so after sprinkling wood ashes on top (it seemed appropriate to sprinkle something like grated cheese on my lasagna garden), I left it until spring.
In the spring I found the 90 centimetres of organic material had dwindled to less than 30; however, the ground under the paper was loose to about another 8 centimetres and alive with earthworms. I pulled aside the remaining layers and planted my herbs, placing the roots right on the paper. After pulling the material back around the roots, I then waited for them to grow.
And grow they did! It was amazing how quickly the plants grew and how healthy everything was. I began thinking about making more gardens with this easy method but thought obtaining the ingredients might be a problem. I started looking at what was available to me and came up with some places I had not thought of before.
Necessity really is the mother of invention. As I searched for organic material for my new gardens, I found farmers with spoiled hay in their barns, dairy men with litter in the barnyard, tree trimmers with loads of mulch to get rid of, and garden centres who gave me all their split bags of garden amendments. As my number of gardens grew, it wasn’t long before I was making regular trips to the dump for newspaper.
I am always thinking about where my next garden layer will come from and I never miss a chance to make friends with landscapers who drop me loads of fresh grass clippings all summer. With the help of my companion, Dave, we manage the leaves from over a hundred trees, mostly oak. We blow them from the garden beds onto the driveway, run over them with the mower and then empty the bags of chipped leaves onto the gardens until we have all our spaces covered. When winter comes, my garden beds are covered with all the organic material I have gleaned from mine and my neighbours’ properties. My plants are snuggled into blankets of organic mulch that, when decomposed, will add both nitrogen and carbon to the soil.
By planting and experimenting with my new garden system, I found I could layer about 15 or 20 centimetres of soil amendments and plant right away, instead of waiting for it all to decompose. After layering a garden, I would pull apart the layers and put the plant roots right on top of the paper, then pull the layers back around the roots and water.
As the plants grew I added more material. By starting my garden with a thick layer of wet newspaper, I not only had no weeds but found I also used half the water. I could grow clean potatoes by laying the starts on top of wet newspaper and adding layers of organic material on top, then adding more material on top as the plants grew.
My paths were also layered. I began by raking the path design, covering it with cardboard and covering that with course material like rough bark mulch. I found that after a couple of years, my paths became soft and also full of earthworms.
My first gardens were traffic stoppers and it wasn’t long before a lady from a garden club stopped by. As I walked her through the gardens, she told me she wanted to bring her whole club to see what I was doing. They came and during the talk one of the ladies asked how I had done this without soil preparation such as digging or tilling.
She refused to understand my description of the garden process and how the layering of organic material just naturally breaks down. She needed a more exact recipe. With pen poised above her notepad, ready to write down every word, she stared at me as I decided what to say.
I began the explanation: “Ladies, you know how to make a lasagna for dinner. First you layer noodles, then meat sauce, more noodles, and then your cheese mixture and more noodles and sauce. When I am making a new garden, I layer wet newspaper on the ground and cover it with something organic. Maybe peat moss as it is brown and from a distance looks like a freshly dug garden. I continue layering leaves, grass, compost, and manure until I have enough layers to plant in. It’s a ‘garden lasagna.’”
On that summer day, with seventy-five garden club ladies sitting on picnic benches in the midday sun, I invented the term “lasagna gardening.” On that day I also reinvented my life. I had been an innkeeper and gardener. Right then I became a full-time writer, lecturer, and gardener.
Over the last fifteen years I have travelled the United States and Canada to talk about this intriguingly titled method of gardening. At my lectures, I watch new gardeners find hope that they can have a garden and still maintain a busy lifestyle. I see old gardeners take heart that they can still garden even with aching knees and backs. Organic gardeners see it as a way to garden without the use of chemicals and also a way to keep all that valuable material out of the landfills.
If you “Google” lasagna gardening you may be surprised to find almost a million sites talking about this form of gardening. Some writers give testimonials of how well the method works, while others ask questions about what it all means. Some have not interpreted the method correctly and are not satisfied with the results. But the fact remains that millions are talking about it.
With over a half million Lasagna Gardening books sold, it is reasonable to think that another million gardeners have been influenced by what they have read and tried. I hope so, for the practice of making gardens using my lasagna method has truly been a life-changing experience for me. It can be for you, too.
Patricia Lanza is the author of the Lasagna Gardening book series published by Rodale Press.
Patricia Lanza’s Books:
How to Create Wonderful Gardens, 1995, Schmidtz Press
Lasagna Gardening; No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!, 1998, Rodale
Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces, 2002, Rodale
Lasagna Gardening with Herbs, 2004, Rodale
For signed books, contact Patricia at:
205 Lakeview Drive
Fairfield Glade, TN 38558 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org