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Lasagna Gardening

Hooray! We’ve made it, ladies and gentlemen. The last frost date of spring has passed here in my corner of zone 5b, and the season has officially begun!

Today, I’d like to show you my preferred method of putting in new garden beds. Lasagna gardening, also known as sheet mulching in the permaculture world, is a technique of layering ingredients on top of each other like a lasagna to form a rich, nutrient-filled soil that will nurture your plants for years to come. I put in a bed this past week* and took some pictures along the way to show you all the steps.

This is the bed I put in last fall. If you want to plant root crops, make sure you give a sheet-mulched bed plenty of time to break down beforehand! The beds I show you how to put in during this post will not be mature enough to handle root crops this season.

To start, carefully pick your location. This bed should be a place that you’ll nurture year after year, so put some thought into where you’re putting it. Mine is going right next to its twin which I put in last fall, as will the subsequent beds I plan on putting in this year. You don’t need to worry about killing whatever’s growing there now; that’ll be taken care of in step two.

Next, mow the lawn/weeds on your chosen plot so they’re as short as possible. Then, water the ground you’ve chosen your bed to be on (or wait for the day after a soaking rain like I did). Both of these steps will help prep the ground for decomposers, which you’ll need to help break down all the materials you’re about to pile up.

After mowing and watering, you’ll lay down a layer of weed barrier directly on top of the ground and/or lawn. I’m using a combination of cardboard and multiple layers of non-glossy newspaper pages. I’ve been collecting these materials all winter for this very purpose, and they did not disappoint! Make sure when you’re putting down your weed barrier you don’t leave any gaps or holes in your barrier, as that will give the weeds (including unwanted grasses) a chance to break through the barrier and take over your bed. As you can see in the picture, there are a couple small holes visible around the edges when I took this picture, but I patched them up before I went on to step three.

weed block barrier in sheet mulched garden bed
This bed is 3′ x 7′. The other one above it is more like 5′ x 8′.

Step three involves using any number of materials to add organic matter to create a beautiful soil structure in your garden bed. Organic matter comes in three forms, as my mentor would say: living, dead, and very dead. Living organic matter includes roots and microbes. Dead organic matter is anything that’s recently died, but still recognizable in its previous form. This can include things like manure, leaf litter, and kitchen scraps. Finally, ‘very dead’ materials are things like fully decomposed compost or manure, where the contents are unrecognizable when compared to their original form.

partially finished compost in sheet mulching garden bed
My first layer: partially finished compost from my backyard pile. If you look closely, you can see half rotted banana peels, egg shells, and pine cones.

You’ll want to use a combination of these three types of organic matter to build up your new garden bed. When I attended a lecture on permaculture in 2016, our speaker, a woman from the Portland Maine Permaculture club shared with us her founders ‘fantasy’ sheet mulch recipe: a layer of seaweed (hey, it’s plentiful and free here in Maine!), followed by layers of rotted manure, fresh grass clippings, and leaf mould. Someday, I’ll try out her method, but this week I had to work with what I had.

The best thing about sheet mulching is that you can use or collect whatever materials you have on-hand for free! Use the same “what not to add” list from my post on composting, or else you might get unwanted weeds, toxins, or vermin in your bed. Aside from that, your only limit is your imagination. I used fresh grass clippings, leaf litter, and a generous layer of totally finished compost from last fall. By the end, the pile was a rich black color and about five inches thick.

So that’s my method of putting in new beds! Questions? Comments? Let’s start a conversation!

*I put in the bed while wearing my newborn daughter. Thanks for your patience during my two month long blog maternity leave!

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