Combat Poor Soil with Lasagna Beds

Over on my Facebook page, Catherine laments the fact that her clay soil isn’t good for gardening and her budget just doesn’t allow for hiring a big piece of equipment to turn and improve the soil. While I don’t have clay soil, I’ve mentioned before that our soil is puny. When we first moved in, I wanted to get some plants in the ground right away, but knew that I’d need to improve the soil for better success in the long run. I’d read about lasagna beds (called such because the beds are layered, much like a lasagna) but had never tried them. This seemed like a perfect chance to try them out, and they may be the answer to Catherine’s troubles, too.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of my lasagna bed process, but I can tell you how I did it.

  • I started by raiding my recycle pile. Cardboard boxes, newspapers, and even old catalogs form the base of the lasagna bed. I covered my planting area with a thick layer of these paper products, overlapping them as I placed them down, and then wet them thoroughly. This base layer was close to 1/2″ thick.

Note: This is a no-till method of planting. You do not need to work the soil under the lasagna bed. You do not need to pull weeds. The newspaper and cardboard layer will smother any weeds that are there. Score!

  • Next I added something you’re not likely to have on hand: chopped banana stalks. I used these only because it’s what I had on hand. You can use coconut coir here, or peat moss (though there are environmental issues with peat moss), or some sort of locally available organic product that holds moisture well.
  • Layer number three was leaf mold, or partially decomposed leaves. You could also use rotted straw from a stable, lawn clippings, sawdust, or any combination thereof. Again, I watered the bed down.
  • The final layer was store-bought compost. In the future, I’ll have my own compost or composted manure, but at the time store-bought was the best I could do.
  • The finished lasagna bed sat about 10″ high. Once it was complete, I planted seeds directly into the top layer of compost and watered them in. Days later, I had sugar snap peas growing.

As the plants grow, the roots work their way down into the layers of the lasagna bed and the worms work their way up. The layers decompose, improving the soil while supporting a crop of vegetables. I found that I did need to be judicious about watering, since the lasagna beds didn’t hold moisture as well as a soil bed would have.

When my peas were done producing – about four months later – I pulled them out and dug into the lasagna bed. (I was so curious to see what I’d find!) While my puny soil was still far from perfect, just about everything I’d layered into the beds was gone. There were a few remnants and small pieces remaining from some of the cardboard boxes, but that’s it! Everything else had completely disappeared and become part of the earth.

I made my lasagna beds directly on the ground with no containment. The folks over at Urban Garden Casual made their lasagna bed within the confines of a simple wooden planter. It’s a pretty flexible way of planting.

While I didn’t think to take photos in my garden, this post over at Backyard Bounty has some process shots that you might find useful.

This article has 16 comments

  1. My Mom is a lasagna bed disciple — it really works! I did a less-sexy version in Nebraska, over the course of the fall/winter cleanup, I just dumped all the leaves and brush on our recently-harvested garden, tossed some newspaper and magazine sheets on top, then watered it down before the first snowfall set in. This took several weeks of raking/dumping, but it was much easier than bagging and disposing of our leaves…just raked it all over to the garden area.

  2. This is the 2nd article I’ve read about this method this week–the other one came from France! Here’s the link: http://french-word-a-day.typepad.com/motdujour/2011/04/heurter.html

  3. I’ve never heard of this method–it sounds so cool. This might be a stupid questions–fascinated non-gardener here–but you don’t have to worry about any pollutants, chemicals in the newspaper ink or on the cardboard?

    • It’s not a stupid question! An earlier commenter shared that newspaper can have formaldehyde in it, which I’d never heard of. I’ve read that when using paper products for a lasagna bed, you should choose only black and white ink and plain cardboard. I have to admit, I haven’t been super careful about sorting out colored paper, but with the mention of formaldehyde, I’m a little more concerned. More research required, it looks like!

  4. I’ve neer heard of this either. But it sounds like an excellent method. I think maybe I won’t spend the weekend turning the soil, and I’ll try this instead. Too bad I have no banana stalks available.

  5. I’m going to put in some raised beds at some point later in the year. I’ll consider this as an option.

  6. I find it fascinating that all these things actually become part of the earth and nourish it, too. Very impressive that you do this, I might add..

  7. What an amazing post. I’ve never heard of this technique before.

  8. Love this concept. And bonus points for the fact that it’s named ‘lasagna bed.’

  9. I have done something similar to this with newsprint, leaves and old straw. I did not realize I was making lasagna!
    My question is: will the purely manure compost be the proper ph? And do you ever turn it under or is it strictly no till? We plant our beans and corn fields in the old stubble (no till) then every third year it is tilled under.

    • I have to admit: I’m not a ph checker! If you were concerned about manure compost not being exactly right, there’d be no harm in mixing it with other types of compost. I’m a firm believer that the more compost, the better. As for turning, there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not to do so. While I’ve always turned my gardens every year, adding fresh compost as I do, there’s a new contingent of gardeners touting a no-till plan, instead just layering more on each year. I’ve heard good things about a book called “Teaming with Microbes” if you are interested in reading more about soils (http://amzn.to/f80pru).

  10. Love this, Kris. Our beds have become overgrown and compacted through the years, so I’m planning to try lasagna gardening this year and have been reading a lot about it. But yours is the best quick description I’ve seen, which makes people a lot more likely to try it! A great comprehensive resource is the aptly named “Lasagna Gardening” by Patricia Lanza.

  11. [...] that the planting area doesn’t have a bunch of big clumps. The other way to start is with a lasagna bed. This is a method of layering materials on top of the ground and planting right in it. This is a [...]

  12. [...] that the planting area doesn’t have a bunch of big clumps. The other way to start is with a lasagna bed. This is a method of layering materials on top of the ground and planting right in it. This is a [...]

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