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As a vegetable gardener, you can consult just about any expert gardening source and you’ll be advised to amend your soil with ‘rich organic matter’ for best results. In case you’re wondering what that actually means, it refers to any decaying plant material or animal manure, also known as compost. As this material decomposes, it returns nutrients to the soil for use by your plants, ideally reducing the need for chemical fertilizer.

While you can buy bagged compost at your local garden supply store, or maybe get it delivered in bulk, why not create your own? It’s eco-friendly and it’s not that difficult, particularly if you practice lasagna gardening, otherwise known as no-till gardening or composting in place.

The principle behind lasagna gardening is to create a garden bed consisting of layered organic material organized to retain moisture and nutrients while maximizing its surface area to allow efficient, aerobic decomposition. There is no digging or tilling required and it doesn’t require much maintenance over time.

The only downside to creating a lasagna-style compost bed is that it takes time to decompose to the point that it’s ready for planting. Depending on your climate and materials used, it may take several months or even up to a year to have a rich, plantable bed. Therefore, you must plan your efforts accordingly and can create your lasagna garden(s) over time. You could, for example, create your lasagna bed in the early fall, allowing it to decompose over the winter so that it might be ready for planting in the spring.

An Argument for No-Till Gardening

While farmers and gardeners have been tilling their land since time immemorial (there’s even evidence of it in ancient Egypt), it has become increasingly clear, in recent years, that the practice is not good for the soil and it’s not good for the environment. While tilling is thought to be an efficient way to control weeds by disrupting their life cycle, an unfortunate side effect is that it also disturbs the soil’s important ecosystem. Tilled soil is prone to erosion, compaction, and nutrient loss. Tilling the soil also releases carbon from the soil into the atmosphere contributing to greenhouse gas build up. Lasagna gardening is a sustainable way to grow vegetables and flowers and doesn’t entail tilling.

Getting Started

To get started, pick a sunny, reasonably flat area of the yard and outline your garden area, or build the sides if you’re creating a raised bed. Note that in order to grow and thrive, most vegetables require at least eight hours of direct sunlight each day.

If you’re creating the lasagna garden bed on top of grass sod or a weeded area of the yard, for best results, lay down some brown corrugated cardboard or several layers of newspaper first and wet them down. This will smother the the grass and weeds which will break down into the soil.

For the bottom layer of your lasagna garden, arrange a loose layer of twigs and branches. It’s important to choose material that won’t compress as the compost pile gets built up. And, by arranging it loosely, you allow air to reach the pile, hastening decomposition and reducing unpleasant smells. Take care choosing which tree branches you use: some types, such as cherry, are toxic, and some, such as locust, take too long to break down. To be safe, stick with common wood such as maple, oak, and pine.

The next layer, also referred to as the brown layer, should consist of relatively coarse, carbon rich materials such as dried leaves, wood chips, straw, sawdust, shredded paper or cardboard. The purpose of the materials in this layer is to balance the denser, moist materials in the next layer. Note that hay is not a good substitute for straw as it takes awhile to break down and has seeds that will readily sprout into weeds. And, if you use sawdust, use it only in a small proportion to the other materials.

The following layer, known as the green layer, consists of nitrogen-rich materials which may include kitchen food scraps, grass clippings, weeds, manure, etc. These materials should not include meat, dairy products, bones, or greasy or oily substances which may attract unwanted pests.

Alternate green and brown layers, always ending with a brown layer on top to provide cover for the green layer. Brown layers should be two to three times as thick as green layers. So, for one- to two-inch green layers, you should have two- to six-inch brown layers. Brown layers should be shaped like shallow bowls with the center of the layer below the sides, enclosing the green layer so it’s not exposed on the sides welcoming pests.

Aim for a layered bed that’s two feet tall. Top it with straw and water it regularly during times of drought. If pests, such as rodents and racoons, become an issue, try sprinkling cayenne pepper around the area. Cinnamon prevents fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew. And, in time, you’ll have a beautiful bed, chockablock full of enriched soil, ready for planting.

There are various other techniques you can employ to create no till raised garden beds. For example, a horticultural practice that originated in Germany and Eastern Europe—hugelkultur (German for ‘mound culture’)—involves making raised beds out of rotten wood. You can also use straw bales to grow vegetables. If you live in an area with poor, heavy soil, you may have no choice but to consider one of these alternative gardening methods.

Happy planting!