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Turn Poor Soil into a Thriving Garden with Sheet Mulching

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Lasagna gardening — sometimes called sheet composting or sheet mulching — is an easy method for building a garden bed with little work. And it utilizes materials you may already have on hand. You can use this technique in the spring and plant directly in the “new” beds, or pile layers on in the fall and allow them to break down in the off-season.

Be sure to dive in and learn about composting, too.

raised bed garden with rock edges and filled with soil topped by straw

Lasagna gardening seems like a “cheat”

When we first moved here, 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 it out.

Let me tell you — this method is so much easier than turning the soil and results in a thriving garden rich in organic matter. Good, rich soil is so important for a successful harvest! 
lasagna gardening in action: cardboard layer with greens, adding mulch, planted bed

Lasagna Gardening: Building the base

I started by raiding my recycle pile. Layers of flattened cardboard boxes, layers of newspaper, 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. Be sure to remove any plastic tape before using them in the garden.

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!

How long does it take cardboard to break down in the garden? 

It depends a bit on the weather, but as long as the cardboard stays moist, it will break down within four to six months.

cardboard with greens atop it, lasagna gardening in action

Adding a layer

My first “green” layer was ginger, which we have in abundance. I’ve used banana stumps here, too. You probably don’t have those “ingredients” on hand. Essentially you’re looking for something with a high moisture content and high in nitrogen. Vegetable scraps, grass clippings, or fresh manure can work well, too.

Now, must this be the first layer? Not necessarily. You can start with dry leaves or straw and layer a nice high-nitrogen layer on top of that. I start with the ginger (or banana) because it’s so chunky. I prefer the big pieces of material near the bottom of the pile and more “out of the way.”

This is a very forgiving method! 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 to build a lasagna garden.

man in truck bed shoveling mulch onto a sheet of cardboard

Related: How to Have the Best Soil in the Neighborhood

Layer number three (with a warning)

Layer number three was mulch. I used free mulch from our local green waste center, about 6-8″ deep. I also used free labor provided by my son. (UPDATE: We had the unfortunate experience of getting a contaminated load of free mulch that killed everything we put it on. I no longer use the free mulch, though I do still use free labor.)

You can use leaf mold or partially decomposed leaves in your lasagna gardening method. You could also use rotted straw from a stable, lawn clippings, sawdust, or any combination thereof.

Water the garden bed down after adding another layer.

Lasagna garden growing

Related: Using Permaculture Methods to Create a Backyard Oasis

Adding the final layer

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 veggies 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.

raised bed with green waste inside

Can I use the lasagna gardening method in raised beds?

I made my first lasagna beds directly on the ground with no containment. I’ve also used this sheet mulching method in beds bounded by big stones. It’s a pretty flexible way of planting. But you can also use this method in taller, more structural raised beds as you see above. Beds with raised sides offer an opportunity to add things like wood chips and shredded newspaper to the layers.

Related: Grow Your Own Food: Vegetable Planting Guide

ginger stalks in a raised bed

In a perfect world, I’d have put this lasagna bed together in the fall with more repeating layers and let it sit for several months until time to plant. But let’s face it: It’s not a perfect world and I’m terribly impatient.

As it is, the layers will compost as the seedlings grow. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll see that we doubled the size of the lasagna bed pictured at the top, but I neglected to photograph those stages of the sheet mulching process.

 ginger stalks in a raised bed

When my vegetables 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 in the lasagna garden had completely disappeared and become part of the earth.

This sheet mulching method is an excellent way to get a jump on garden season, too. In the fall, follow this method using several layers of material but skip the seeds. Mother Nature will do her magic during the cold winter months and you’ll have a beautiful bed ready to plant in the warm weather.

garden beds in two stages of sheet mulching

Originally published in July 2014; this post has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

10 comments… add one
  • Paula Smith Sep 16, 2014, 3:53 pm

    This is going to be my method this spring since the land at our new old homestead hasn’t been gardened in a decade or so. The ground is seriously hard packed. We are building our first beds this fall to plant in the spring. I bought the book earlier and was smitten!

  • Candi Jan 28, 2015, 12:27 pm

    Great fall -winter garden activity. I’m itching to go play in the dirt……

    It is not a perfect world! Glad to see others breaking the rules. 🙂

    • Lori Oct 31, 2019, 8:35 am

      Should I work the crab grass lawn first and de-sod as best as I can first? Won’t the roots still grow up through? Amazing.
      Also, we live in Canada with snow from nov-March, will it work well here over winter?

      • Kris Bordessa Oct 31, 2019, 7:58 pm

        Crab grass is tough. A thick layer of cardboard will smother it, but if there’s crabgrass all around that bed, it will slowly work its way back in once the cardboard breaks down. I’ve got creeping grasses similar to crabgrass and what I find is that the lasagna beds like this eliminate the worst of them for a season or two.

        Winter is a great time to do it, as the layers will smother the weeds and you’ll be ready to plant come spring.

  • Judi May 12, 2015, 5:15 pm

    Was wondering about the cardboard and chemicals. Some are treated or have dyes, is this an issue? Is there anything I particular to watch for? 🙂

    • Kris Bordessa May 12, 2015, 5:27 pm

      Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. 😉 I do use pretty much anything in the beds, but I know people who are very particular about which cardboard they’ll use. My thinking is this: If worms can process the pathogens out of manure, they can surely do the same with the ink. And since worms are plentiful, I have to think that the inks/cardboard don’t cause the worms any trouble. Of course, this is a lot of assuming on my part. We’ve each got to do what we’re comfortable with.

      • Maxine Mar 28, 2017, 3:02 am

        Hi, can I use bamboo instead of ginger or banana?

        • Kris Bordessa Mar 29, 2017, 3:11 pm

          Bamboo tends to be acidic, so I don’t use a lot of it.

  • Marilyn Kaplan Aug 11, 2019, 6:20 pm

    My late father would totally approve of your techniques! He was quite the gardener and I grew up learning how to do a lot of things most people wouldn’t know how to do. We always had a compost pile. Unfortunately, I have mostly worms in my compost as it rains a bunch where I live now. This fall I will do the lasagna layering in my two unfinished beds. I just can’t seem to get them weeded and they are mostly clay anyway so this will be a blessing for me. Medical issues have kept me sidelined the past two years and this coming year I plan to have the best yard ever. One cool thing is that my husband was asked by a friend to remove an old rowboat and hubs propped it up on 5 gallon buckets. We filled it with good soil and this was the third year of veggies raised to a comfortable height for me. Love my boat! Also keeps slugs at bay.

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 25, 2019, 12:33 pm

      Rowboat garden sounds awesome!

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