Monday, January 25, 2010

Lasagna Garden

I have run out of room for my tomatoes. Over the last three years, I have placed tomato and pepper plants all throughout my current garden beds, and now I need a new spot to rotate them into to avoid building up diseases in the soil. Thus, last weekend's activities.
I "won" the labor for a lasagna garden bed from our local Sierra Club chapter's Christmas fundraiser. Since I had to hightail it home for my son's bedtime, my friend Vicki (of Rose Ranch grass-fed beef), fiercely competed for the lasagna garden in my name, even going so far as to kick in $15 over my top bid in order to win the apparently highly-coveted prize.

A lasagna garden is basically a sheet compost created in layers above the ground, without traditional rototilling or double-digging of the soil. This allows the soil structure to remain intact and reduces the amount of digging. Rick, the volunteer who contributed the prize to raise funds for the Sierra Club, called me to schedule a consultation, we found a location for the new bed, and he told me what materials to procure:

- cardboard (saved over the last two years)
- peat moss, (about15 cu. feet)
- composted horse manure, (1.5 cu. yards)
- compost, (1 cu. yard)
- various amendments like bone meal, greensand, blood meal,
- leaves, and
- straw (from Rick).
On Saturday, my husband and I unloaded the composted horse manure, which luckily smelled just like regular compost. We paid a friend to haul 1.5 cubic yards (a yard is a cube 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet or 27 cubic feet) from some stables in Edmond. We had enough for three/four layers of the lasagna garden and enough to cover all my 200 sq. feet of current garden with about 6 inches of the loamy gold.
The deliverer of our horse manure compost, Ron Ferrell, reports that he has used this on his garden with great results, especially helping with the water retention of the soil. I have heard that horse manure often has weed seeds, but hopefully the composting process took care of that - and if not, we'll have newspaper/straw mulch on top.

On Sunday, Rick arrived and proceeded to demonstrate his Puritan work ethic! We found, fairly quickly, that the area I had chosen for its' sunny location actually had a path of bricks buried under the weeds. Those proved quite handy as cardboard placeholders and as temporary edging for the garden.

Normally, I might not trust cardboard to kill off the demon bermuda grass, which seems to actually consume cardboard boxes. But this area of my yard seems to be mostly non-Bermuda grass weeds. The cardboard layer in our 7 x 17 bed was followed by a layer of peat moss, composted horse manure, peat moss, leaves, horse manure, bone meal and greensand, peat moss and horse manure. From what I've read, peat moss is not the most environmentally friendly amendment to use. But Rick insisted on it as a key ingredient in the lasagna and didn't have any alternatives to suggest. Anybody know of some?

Unfortunately, the local fellow we had contracted with to deliver our non-animal compost got a wee bit confused on the timing and never showed up. He did, however, call later and promise to complete the delivery within the next two days. Too late, too late! I guess I'll have to finish the job myself by topping off the compost, newspaper and straw. Ah well, I'm still pleased to have been able to find a source of local compost and composted manure that did not involve multiple trips to big-box store Z and disposal of 85 plastic bags.

I feel lucky to be in a position to create this kind of lovely soil in our urban location. If we had to start from scratch for some urgent reason.... it would be a lot more difficult. Our compost pile has never yielded a huge amount (from what I've heard, it usually boils down to about 10% of the volume you put into it), and there are no large sources of manure within walking distance (aside from people). There's always green manuring / cover crops, but those take a few seasons to really amend the soil.

Now, I'm planning for a great tomato season. By April 15th (traditional tomato planting date in OKC), all these layers will have been composted down to a luscious rich soil. This year, I am really trying to get "heat and drought tolerant" tomato varieties to foil the problems with drought and heat that we had last year. So along with that precaution, and lots and lots of mulch, I hope to be able to get a good crop this year. Of course this year the weather will turn out to be damp and soggy instead ;).

Even with all this new extra room, I think I only have space for 10-11 tomatoes. Because I can't resist their catalog, and their new on-line feature offering reviews of their seeds, I obtained my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Royal Hillbilly, Carbon, Black Cherry, Orange Banana, and Henderson's Pink Ponderosa. I am contemplating making a second order just to get Arkansas Traveler, Sioux, Amish Paste, Riesentraube and Bloody Butcher.

I also read several reviews of the "Delicious" tomato reporting that this heirloom seems to repel the blight which infested quite a bit of the country last year (the blight reportedly started / spread through big-box store tomato plants). If for some perverse reason my seeds don't start, I'll be headed to the Tomato Man's Daughter, who grows specialty tomatoes.

Tomato lovers - big plans this year? Heard of any more heirloom blight-resistant tomatoes?


PennyWalker said...

Aw, I thought you'd grow lasagne in it!

Instead of peat moss, what about leaf mould? (composted tree leaves.)

May your tomatoes be fruitful.

Chile said...

LOL, I thought it was going to be a garden full of tomatoes, onions, basil, etc.

Sheet mulching is the method recommended by the Tucson Organic Gardeners, too. It worked pretty well for us, but the hydroponic bucket method is working better.

No manure here within walking distance but there is horse manure within biking distance. For goat manure, we have to drive a heck of a ways so we load up big time on that. We can get broken hay and straw pretty cheap to supplement mulch and compost. When (if???) we get our own place, we'll probably look into a big compost delivery. So far, we are creating more compost than we can use here.

Good luck with your garden!

Sharlene T. said...

I love lasagna gardening. Have used it for years. Most people won't believe that there's no digging to it and it's done almost right away.

I've used cut pampas grass fronds (chopped up)instead of peat moss -- and any other organic stuff from the yard, which includes pine needles, mini sticks, etc. Have never had a problem. For faster transforation, I've found that it's important to water after each layer addition.

The fun part is that you can precut your cardboard (or four sheets of newspaper) into any shape you want before layering, saving hours of back-breaking work.

Lasagna gardening, good; digging into ground, bad.

MN_homesteader said...

We are in the same boat as we are huge nightshade folks i.e. maters, taters, peppers, etc. Our plan is this our 3rd year of homesteading is to tear up all of our beds and move to a more permaculture method. We will be ordering 15 cu yds of compost for our new layout.
Crop rotation is tough when one loves so much of one family.

Tara said...

Instead of peat moss, we bought coco peat. It can usually be found at hydroponics places. It is pricier though but much more environmentally friendly.

But I don't know if he needed the peat moss for specific nutrients or pH levels that perhaps the coco peat wouldn't have? I used my coco peat for seed starting.

Kate said...

As I understand it, coir ("kwar")is a more ethical substitute for peat moss. Tara might have meant the same thing when she said coco peat, since coir is a byproduct of coconut harvest. Fedco carries coir fairly cheaply, and I imagine that a local garden supply center might too. I understood that coir was previously a waste product, so maybe the distributors are just thrilled to get anything at all for it.

Tricia said...

Sounds like a busy weekend!

I use lasagne style gardening here (although i've never used Peat definately works without it). I typically use only three ingredients - a carbon ingredient (straw, shredded newspaper, hay or whatever 'clean' waste material I can get my hands on), compost, and manure.

A benefit of using this method in urban areas is that the soil below isn't disturbed - which could be contamined with heavy metals (mines contaminated with lead and arsenic).

Enjoy your new bed!

Steve said...

Sounds like a fun weekend! I've done quite a bit of sheet mulching, especially for planting nightshades, and like the other posters have never used peat moss. The basic carbon/nitrogen mix of something dry and brown (C) with something moist and "green" (N) works fine, no matter what the ingredients are.

I've personally used leaves, straw, cardboard, newspaper, coffee chaff, old spoiled hay, leaf mold, shredded yard waste, wood chips, and sawdust for the browns, while using raw or composted manure for the "greens". All of these have worked well to produce high-quality soil. The main trick for growing tomatoes in it is to make sure to get a good C/N balance. Gaia's Garden has a great section on sheet mulching, including a table with C/N values for common materials.

Good luck with your tomatoes!

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Sounds like peat moss is just a convenient, easily purchasable source of carbon in the urban environment... we had actually done a sheet mulch on top of an existing garden bed before, but never from the ground up. Thanks to everyone for all the suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Yes, peat moss is "just a convenient, easily purchasable source of carbon in the urban environment"... but its a non-renewable resource

For tomatoes see:


or google blight resistant

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Anon - that's my point, you don't have to use peat moss. In the Lasagna Gardening book it comes across as some kind of magical ingredient. I'm pointing out that you don't have to use it, although the book very heavily relies on it, probably because it's easy to find.

The peakoilprophet said...

I'm sure Ron mentioned it but a dusting of green-sand over the whole spot will be invaluable. Some Soil micro-nutrients aren't present in the compost - luv to hear how the heirlooms all do!

Chris said...

I will get over it in a minute, but I was really visualizing growing beds of pasta with meat sauce!