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!


Any Questions?

Hey all!

Just a quick update today. Here in southern Maine, we have a conference for all the Master Gardeners once a year we call “Digging Deeper.” It’s coming up this Saturday, March 9th, and if you’re in the area I believe there are still tickets available to purchase for non-Master Gardeners. For those who can’t come, I figured I would preview the topics and could both A) report out and B) bring your questions with me! Here are the three presenters and their topics:

  • Lucinda Brockway- Best Lessons from English Garden Design and Discovery
  • Helene Lewand of Black Rock Farm in Kennebunkport- A Year in the Life of a Gardener/Landscaper
  • Fellow Master Gardener, Garrett Bent- Intensive Organic Production of Vegetables for a Farm-to-Table Restaurant.

I’m personally very excited for the second two since I tend to favor vegetable gardening over flower gardening or straight design work, but I’m sure all three will be informative and engaging, as they’ve always been.

Let me know in comments if you have any questions, and I’ll bring them up to the speakers!

13 days til spring!!

The seedlings my students started last year. Look at these little guys, reaching for the sun!

Biggest Gardening Fails

You know the old saying, “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs?”

I’d like to make a motion to change this to “you can’t be a gardener without accidentally killing everything you touch once or twice.”

Because c’mon. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Let’s just get it out in the open, have a brief moment of silence for every plant we’ve mutilated, and move on together.

So today, I’ve gone through all my old garden notes from the past five seasons to find the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the dirt.  Everyone needs a good dose of humility every now and then, right? So let’s see what kind of scarecrows I’ve got in my closet…

Summer of 2014- Ignoring pests

2014 was the first year I really held the reins of my little community garden plot. I had complete control of what, when, and where in my plots I planted for the first time, and I got a little drunk off that power in the beginning. I felt large and totally in charge.

Then came the hornworms.


They showed up, as hornworms usually do, in the middle of the summer, just when my tomato plants were starting to form tiny green tomatoes. But they GROSSED ME OUT. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than try and flick them off with a three foot stick. I think I kept hoping these magic, beneficial wasps I’d read about would swoop in and come to my rescue if I just waited long enough.*

As a result, I lost everything to those chubby green buggers.

Solution- Woman or man up and squish those guys. This past summer, remembering my former shame, I got my gardening gloves on and plucked these guys off by hand. I didn’t even have to spend much time doing it. Once or twice a week for ten minutes was enough to hand-manage these slow moving pests and actually have a tomato harvest through the summer. (Pesticides, even safe ones like Neem oil, should be second or third on your list of pest management techniques, as they can kill the beneficial bugs you want to keep along with the garden-destroying kind.) All it took was patience and familiarity with my plants, because hornworms are excellent at camouflage.

As an added idea, this would be an excellent task to get little kids helping with in your garden! They’re right at eye level with the green beasts and I know tons of kids love all things that wriggle and can be placed in a bucket.

Spring of 2016- Gardening too early
In 2016, I was in the middle of completing my Master Gardener certification, and I was so excited! I was soaking up everything I could learn about soil, botany, pests, organic practices, and so much more.

However, in my enthusiasm, I overlooked one crucial lesson. On many packages of seeds, it notes that planting should occur “as soon as the soil can be worked.” In my naivete, I assumed that meant “as soon as the ground is no longer frozen solid.”

Can anyone guess what kinds of seeds came in this package?

That would be a mistake. If soil is too wet in the spring (as it often is, with all the rain, melting snow, and still-chilly temperatures), moving the soil around too much will cause the soil structure to be DESTROYED. Instead of a nice, crumblike structure come May or June, the soil will have dried out into giant clods that turn to dust if you break them up. And nothing grows well in soil like that.

Solution: Be patient. Test the soil when you’d like to work it by grabbing a small handful and squeezing it into a ball. Upon releasing your fist, if the ball stays firm like play dough or doesn’t break apart nicely with a little pressure from your thumb, you’ll just have to find other projects to keep you entertained, because it is not planting time yet.

Alternatively, if you’ve already made the same mistake I have, the problem can take years to fix, depending on how vigorously you dug up your too-wet soil. Adding some more compost (in various stages of decomposition) and/or working in some manure to the top of your damaged soil, then seeding with some kind of “green manure” like clover or winter rye on top might help it heal faster. In the meantime, find a new patch to plant your veggies in, build raised beds on top of the damaged soil, or think about container gardening for the season if your plot options are limited.

Every year- Not thinning seedlings

I should know better. Intellectually, I know that if plants have optimal spacing, they’ll produce bigger, better, and maybe even faster. And yet some part of me always feels so guilty pulling out those little, tender carrot tops or radish sprouts.

“How can you kill us when we’re so small and cute?” they seem to cry out to me as I pluck and discard them. “What did we ever do to youuuu?”

And so I leave all four hundred carrots in the tiny patch I sowed them in, and thoroughly regret my soft heart about a month later when my carrots look more like wimpy shoelaces than, well, carrots.

Solution: It’s the same advice I give to my high school students looking to write a better short story- kill your darlings. It’s much better to have properly spaced plants produce big, beautiful fruits and veggies for you than to keep a bunch of measly looking ones. Trust me.

Students at Farm Camp doing exactly what I should always do- THINNING CARROTS.

Fall of 2017- Not harvesting completely

Sometimes, I get so excited about finally pulling all the potatoes or carrots out of the ground, I rush. I go as fast as I can so I can run home and make soup immediately with all my delicious, fresh veggies. (Which, of course, you should never do with potatoes. Let them cure for like two weeks in a cool, dark place before cooking with them.) In my haste in 2017, I missed a few and got a big surprise the following spring when something that was DEFINITELY not a bean plant popped up in my bean patch.

Potatoes are proof that there is a God.

Solution: Go slow, use a hoe. (If in doubt, eh, it’ll sprout.) (Pull it then, that’ll be the end.)

(Okay, I’m done now.)

What about all of you? What do you consider your biggest gardening fails? (It’s okay, this is a safe, judgement-free garden. 😉 )

*Yes, this is actually a viable solution if it happens to present itself. The parasitic Braconidae wasp lays its eggs on the backs of hornworms, and if you wait long enough, the baby wasps will hatch, feed on the host hornworm, mature, and then fly off to destroy hornworms all over the neighborhood. So if you ever see a hornworm with what looks like dozens of bright white eggs on its back, LEAVE IT!