Monday, August 20, 2012

Garden Party - Our Lasagna Garden

So maybe you put off starting your garden a little too long this year.  Or maybe you've decided for other reasons that you need to start a garden next year.  Now is the perfect time to start, and I'll show you how...

Gardening for me became a passion after watching a few TV shows and reading a book.  The Square Foot Gardening method has truly changed my life.  And my kids' lives.  For the better.

Five years ago, during a really stressful time in our lives, I decided to burn off all that excess negative energy in a positive way by starting a garden.  Fortunately for us, my in-laws live next door to us, and allowed us to start small by using some of their existing garden space that they no longer were using.  It was almost a near perfect 4-foot square that is advocated in All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.  It came with fairly high sides (about 6").

I was determined to use Mel's Mix per the instructions in the book because it made so much sense.  You start with compost, aka recycled plants and plant materials.  Then you add peat moss and vermiculite.  Peat moss is a sterile amendment, meaning no weed seeds.  Because the particles are irregularly shaped, they create air pockets within the soil that help plants find root space, and also create spaces for water to get into the soil.  Peat moss itself also holds a LOT of water, so it helps distribute this moisture to the plants during the growing season.  Vermiculite is a rock product that also helps hold and redistribute water.

Basically, this is the soil-less mix that nurseries use.

So we bought a big bale of peat moss.  I spread it out on a big tarp in the backyard.  I hauled quite a few wheelbarrows full of compost.  I emptied in a bag of vermiculite.  I mixed and I stirred and I mixed some more.  Then I spread this brand new garden soil on top of our area in the garden, gave it a good water, and planted a few seeds.  We had a garden.

The following spring, I put in two of the beds we have now.  I dug up the sod, flipped it over, and topped it with more homemade Mel's Mix.  And this is where I decided never again.  To fill the amount of space we have, it was crazy expensive.  Even though the in-laws and our family are avid composters, there wasn't enough finished so we had to buy more.  And we had to buy more peat moss.  And more vermiculite.  Can you see where I'm going with this?  Plus, the mixing and spreading are pretty heavy work.  Think sore arms and legs for a few days type heavy work.  There had to be a better, cheaper way to do this.

Now you all know that my personal motto is "laziness is the mother of efficiency".  And while I LOVE working in my garden, I'd like to be able to do my normal work at normal speed with no pain after I'm out there doing my thing.  Remember that scene from Chariot's of Fire, where the guys are running in slow motion on the beach to that beautiful music?  Yeah, that's me after all that mixing and dumping.  I move in really slow motion - no special effects necessary.  Except no beautiful music - only "oohs"  and "aahs", and not in a good way either.

Enter the next gardening book that has changed my life:  Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza.  This book explains how to create your own fertile garden without all that back-breaking work.  This is the way soil is made in nature, and uses materials you have on hand.

This process is also called "composting in place" and "sheet composting".  After you read this post, do a Google search and see what you can find.  It's really fascinating.

So let me show you how we use it in our garden.  As I've shared before, we have 3 garden beds, each about 4 feet wide by about 16 feet long.  You can imagine how much Mel's Mix it took to fill these up about 6".  This year, we built the two original beds up to 2 feet high.  Because the beds were not well taken care of last summer (long story), they were full of weeds and grasses.  For the first time EVER, we borrowed the neighbor's rototiller and tilled the weeds into the soil.  We then filled each of the beds with a very healthy, organic soil mix that we purchased from a local garden supplier.  It was way easier and much cheaper than doing it the other way.  This summer, we have tried to grow our garden in this soil.  The nutrients that the plants have used to grow are pretty depleted.  Anything leftover that the soil micro-organisms haven't used up may have leached farther down into the bed due to the drought and the heavy watering I've had to do over the summer.  It's time to replenish the soil for next year.

First, I watered the soil, then I raked a thin layer of "bunny beans" over the top of it.  Bunny beans is a euphemism for the end product made by our pet rabbits.  Litter box leftovers.  You get the picture.  Our one bunny, who uses a litter box, uses a recycled newspaper product as his litter.  This product is totally biodegradable, and safe for the garden.  So is his manure.  He's a vegetarian.  By eating and digesting the greens I either buy or grow for him, he makes me fertilizer.  'Nuff said.  Our other bunny is disabled (another long story), and uses newspapers to do his business.  After I put Bunny #1's litter box contents on the soil, I covered them with Bunny #2's newspapers.  Then I gave the newspaper layer a good soak with the hose.

Worms and soil organisms love to eat newspaper, especially when it comes pre-fertilized.  This layer is about 1/2"-ish thick.  That's important to remember.  Newspaper also acts like a weed barrier.  That'll be helpful next season.

Then I raked some sawdust that was generously donated by a friend of mine who is a high school shop teacher.  Another layer, about 1/2" thick.  Be careful raking because your papers will tear.  Also, you'll notice some paper edges sticking up.  The important thing is that you have relatively even coverage for all your layers.  The Department of Weights and Measures won't be over to make sure that they are all the same depth.  When God tells the trees to shed their leaves in the fall, they don't always land in even layers either.  I think He knows what He's doing, so I'm cool with a few edges peaking out here and there.  Again, a really good soak with the hose.
And PS - if you are using sawdust in your layers that comes from pines (and mine does), be aware that as it decomposes, it will acidify your soil.  Same goes for pine needles.  This is why my layer is so thin, and so close to the existing soil.  With the layers that we build up on top of it, the roots of the plants that go in next season probably won't reach this layer.  You can also sprinkle on some lime.

Next, this is the pile of grasses and weeds I pulled from the walkways between the beds.

There are people who tell you that you shouldn't compost weeds.  I disagree.  LOUDLY!  Most of the "weeds" I pulled are grasses.  You can compost grass clippings.  In fact you should be composting grass clippings.  Also, those nasty weeds rarely get eaten by the bugs.  Whatever chemical compounds they possess that makes them taste horrible to creatures who want to eat my vegetables, I want that in my soil for other plants to use as well.  And speaking of what other plants use - weeds steal valuable nutrients from the soil.  By composting them, I'm taking the nutrients back.  So I spread the weeds and grasses over the top of the sawdust.

That big tall fluffy thing in the middle is a basil plant.  It is the only plant that thrived in this bed this summer.  The layer of weeds/grasses is about 6" deep.  And if you said "soak it really well with a hose next", you'd be correct!

Finally, I made a layer about 2" thick of homemade compost.  For the whole bed, it took about 6 wheelbarrows full of compost. The picture shows the first half done.  Again, soak with the hose.

By now you are probably wondering why the depth measurements are fairly important.  The best mixture for compost is 1 part greens to 2 parts browns.  Greens are things like grasses and weeds, and also your kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and filters and tea bags.  They break down pretty quickly, and are like a sugar rush for the soil organisms.  Browns are things like fallen leaves (which make up the majority of our compost), newspapers, sawdust, corrugated cardboard.  Basically, things that come from trees.  These provide long term energy to the organisms.  Think of it like orange juice and oatmeal for breakfast.  The juice gets your blood sugar up for some quick energy, and the oatmeal keeps you going through the day.  Because the greens decompose fairly quickly, they give off a LOT of heat.  By covering the grasses/weeds with the darker compost, I've not only added that extra layer of browns to the mix, I'm also retaining the heat to help "cook" any seeds.

If you look at the measurements I've given here, the numbers don't add up.  And no it's not "Ann Math" either. Here's why.  I have 2 feet of brown (aka soil) under my greens.  Also, greens decay fairly fast.  About the time I'll be needing more browns for energy for the decomposers, our trees will be shedding their leaves.

To keep our layers building and growing, the litter box will be emptied into the garden over the winter.  The newspapers from the rabbit cage are going to be composted with a new method of composting I learned about this summer - bokashi.  More about that later.  I'll also be adding worm castings from our worm bin.  In the late winter, I'll start my seeds indoors.  In the really early spring, I'll add another layer of compost (not nearly as thick), and plant cold-tolerant seeds right into the compost.  As the weather warms, I'll transplant my seedlings, and grow from there.  Weeds and spent plants will be pulled left right on top, composting in place, until the leaves fall again.

Thanks for letting me share my garden with you today!  I hope this inspires and encourages you to give it a try in your own existing garden, or to consider for next spring's garden.

Have a great day!

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