Got clay? Don’t want to dig? Want a new bed over lawn? Try lasagna gardening in autumn

Kate Johnson at Dairy Ag Festival Springville NY
Kate Johnson shared tips on lasagna gardening in June at the Western New York Dairy/Agricultural Festival in Springville. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

It’s autumn, and here’s an outside project you can do today: create a lasagna garden.

Lasagna gardening is a method where you apply material to your garden bed in layers, like in a lasagna.

Lasagna gardening has several advantages:

  • You don’t have to till or dig your garden bed.
  • The technique works with clay or other poor soil.
  • You can create a new bed over lawn.
  • It’s not labor intensive.
  • It’s organic.
  • You don’t have to wait until spring; this is something you can do in your garden now.
  • If you don’t have time now, you can do it in spring.

This method has been around for a long time, but I was introduced to it in June during a talk by Kate Johnson of East Concord at the Western New York Dairy/Agricultural Festival in Springville. The gardening and farming talks were a new feature of the festival.

About seven years ago, Johnson and her husband Charlie moved back to the homestead where he grew up. She’s a teacher and he’s a musician and organ technician, and in their spare time they raise chickens and grow vegetables in a garden that is about 100 feet square.

She decided to go with lasagna gardening because that method allowed her to skip tilling. There are pros and cons to tilling your garden beds, but one big drawback for Johnson was that because she has so much clay, her soil was simply too wet in spring to till. Using the lasagna gardening method, she doesn’t need to till at all.

In fact, there’s no digging required to prepare the soil. If you’re starting a new garden bed, you can use this method over an existing lawn without having to dig up the grass.

“The substrate can be poor soil or sod—just leave it,” Johnson said.

As the name suggests, in lasagna gardening, you layer the material in your garden. The first layer is cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Over the top of that, you alternate layers of grass clippings, leaves, manure and peat moss—or whatever you’ve got. You need to build it up so it’s a foot deep. This is a great way to use those autumn leaves.

You can do this in the fall and plant in the spring, or do it in the spring and plant immediately. Johnson did it in the spring and planted immediately. To plant, you simply split the layers and put the plant right in.

Johnson emphasized that the location of the paths in your garden must be fixed. You don’t want to walk in the garden and compact your planting medium, so you must decide where the paths will be and not change them.

“Don’t walk in the bed,” Johnson said. “That’s sort of sacred. We don’t have a lot of rules, but that’s one of them.”

By the end of the season, your lasagna garden that was a foot high will be flush with the rest of the soil. You have to keep building it up over the years.

A lasagna garden isn’t labor intensive, but it does take a lot of material, she said.

“If I had copious amounts of material or if I had horses I would do lasagna gardening,” Johnson said.

Since she didn’t have as much material as she would like, when she wanted to expand the garden, she decided to try another kind of design that she calls “shape it and leave it.”

She tilled the area once. Then she shoveled dirt from the paths and put it into the beds to create height in the beds. In the spring, the paths might be wet, but the beds are dry enough to work in.

Any uncovered area is going to turn into weeds, so she mulches with layers of whatever she has on hand such as leaves or horse manure (not fresh manure; it will burn your plants. Make sure it is aged.)

“My favorite mulch is grass clippings,” Johnson said. “As it dries and starts to compost, it forms a kind of mat.” That keeps the weeds down.

A book called Lasagna Gardening was written by Patricia Lanza and is still in print. You can also find much of the information from her book in a post on MotherEarthNews.

Bonus tip: You can get free horse manure at the S&L Ranch, 4447 Broadway, Cheektowaga. Hours are 3:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Getting the manure is a do-it-yourself endeavor, so wear old shoes or boots and take a shovel. You need to take your own containers, such as old storage totes or bushel baskets.

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3 Comments on “Got clay? Don’t want to dig? Want a new bed over lawn? Try lasagna gardening in autumn

  1. Just wanted to say be careful of horse manure. I did all ‘lasagna’ gardening and found a great deal of clover resulted. 🙂

  2. Kathy, I’ve been adding horse manure to my compost pile and I seem to be getting a lot of grass in my garden. I’ve been thinking that it might have come from the manure. I probably won’t stop using manure; I’ll just try to weed a little better and probably cover my beds with mulch.

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