Lasagna gardening: It's not just Italian

by Jan Spann

I love Italian cuisine, so when I first heard the term “lasagna gardening” in one of my earliest Master Gardener meetings, I conjured up layers of herbs, tomatoes and even noodles! Much to my amazement (OK, it was embarrassment) I quickly learned that this type of garden is more about soil amendment than what is actually grown there.

Lasagna gardening produces improved soil and requires no tilling or digging, so what’s not to like about that! This method builds the garden through layers of organic materials that will decompose over time, using kitchen and yard waste to compost in the spot where the new garden plot will be.

November is the perfect time to set up your garden spot. You don’t have to dig out existing sod or weeds — you don’t even have to dig. You can opt for a raised bed or start right at ground level. Have your water hose handy, as you will wet down each of the layers to start the decomposition process. Also known as sheet composting, the lasagna garden technique alternates layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich ingredients that fuel the breakdown to soil. The first layer of the lasagna garden calls for at least six to 10 layers of newspaper or one thickness of corrugated cardboard laid atop the area you’ve selected for the garden. Make sure to overlap the layers so that light doesn’t penetrate and give the weeds a chance to sprout. Wet this down.

Just as in a regular compost heap, you will use both brown and green components, alternating these layers. Combining the brown carbon and the green nitrogen layers produce the energy and organisms essential for plant and soil health.

Because you’ve started with a brown layer, it’s time for green, which can be kitchen scraps like fruit and vegetable remains. Meat and dairy products will stop the process, but you can use eggshells, bloodmeal and also hamster or rabbit bedding. One of my favorite ingredients is play sand after the first layer of newspaper: it weighs down the paper and infuses Conway’s clay soil with a much-needed texture.

Tea bags and coffee grounds are excellent choices for the brown layers, which are the slow burners. You can also use junk mail, hedge clippings, pine needles and wood ash from a fireplace or charcoal grill.

Now’s the time to pull up any remaining summer annuals and trim back the perennials, and those will be great additions to the lasagna pile. You also have the advantage of autumn leaves providing a generous supply for the brown layers. As a rule of thumb, add twice as much to the brown layers compared to the greens, but this isn’t rocket science. Continue to soak each layer.

If you don’t have leaves (or don’t want to rake them), you can purchase bags of manure or peat moss. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to “home-grown” animal manure, layer it in, then call me and share the bounty! You can also opt for lime and bonemeal added to your layers, as these enrich and accelerate the process. You can tailor this recipe to fit what you have at hand, as long as you have the combination of carbon and nitrogen, brown and green, to make the final dish successful.

You’ll know you’re finished when the bed is about one to two feet tall. While this may look a bit bulky, it will shrink as the materials break down and are absorbed into the soil. You can cover the pile with plastic to kick-start the process or simply let nature take its course. You can also add another layer of play sand for weight. Water the pile once more.

Once you’ve added the last layer of your lasagna garden plot, curl up with a garden catalog and find the perfect plants for your newly claimed garden spot. If you don’t have winter rains during the winter months, continue to water the pile occasionally. By spring, you’ll find that the earthworms and other kindly organisms have found their way to your pile and have helped make it ready for your bulbs and plants.

And with the time you saved in the garden, you can create your own culinary inspiration from your new garden patch!

Building a lasagna garden

First layer
Corrugated cardboard or stacks of newspaper will go on the ground where you plan to start your new garden. This can be a place on your sod or lawn where you will carve out the new garden space or a garden patch that needs some rehabilitation. Make sure this layer completely covers the area so that no sunlight can permeate as this will allow weeds to grow.

Second layer
Alternate between layers of brown and green. This combination of carbon and nitrogen accelerates the decomposition process, turning these simple components into rich garden soil.

Third layer:
Use newspaper.

Fourth layer:
Add more kitchen scraps.

Fifth layer:
Coee grounds and tea leaves or tea bags work great for the brown layers. Ask a local coee shop or a workplace for those discards.

Brown layer options:
Use leaf mulch
A bed of pine needles
A stack of peat potting soil in plastic bags
Wood chips

Green layers options:
Just-cut clippings from hedges and shrubs can be added for a green layer. Branches, dry leaves and pine needles work for the dry layers.

Final layer:
You can purchase bags of play sand at a local home center. They make a great nal layer, as they will weigh down the pile during winter winds and rains. You can also cover this layer with a tarp or plastic to keep the lasagna layers in place.

Remember to wet the layers as you’re preparing the bed, and if winter doesn’t bring much moisture, water the area occasionally to help the process.

In the spring, remove the plastic (if you covered the pile). You may need to use a shovel or pitch fork to turn the pile. This nal step allows the layers to meld and become a rich, organic material that’s like vitamins for your soil. You should also nd plenty of earthworms in the pile. They are the rst to know when something good is brewing under those layers, and that’s a sure sign that your lasagna garden will serve up something tasty!


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.