Mimicking the forest floor
Vail, CO Colorado
The name “lasagna gardening” may stir up cartoon-like images of pasta sheets sprouting from the ground, along with stalks of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and emerald-green zucchini. But you don’t grow your favorite Italian dish while lasagna gardening (though wouldn’t that be cool?). Lasagna gardening is an easy, sustainable method of building fertile soil from the ground up.
Recently, the talented Rita Manna and Dan Moloney, of Reet’s Garden and Design, taught a free workshop on lasagna gardening to gardeners at the Eagle-Vail Community Garden. Lasagna gardening, also called “sheet composting,” refers to the method of building the garden by adding layers of organic materials that will “cook down” over time, resulting in rich, fluffy and organic soil.
Eagle-Vail’s garden is built on an old pool site, and the existing soil is not that great. In fact, the one plant that did grow on the vacant lot was amaranth, a grain that can survive with chlorine in the soil and even help to eliminate it, Dan told us during the workshop. Given the poor soil, most of the Eagle-Vail Community Garden is composed of raised beds, and soil and compost were trucked in to fill those beds.
The garden’s design also sets aside space for a communal area, an in-ground garden where neighbors can share in the work and share in the harvest without committing to buying their own plots. The first step in building this area is creating new soil, which is where Rita and Dan come in with the lasagna gardening method.
“We are mimicking the forest floor,” Rita said. “In the forest, things die and layer naturally without mixing, which is what we are going to do here.”
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First, the group of eager gardeners laid a layer of cardboard, culled from recycling dumpsters around Eagle-Vail. We ripped off any residual tape left from packing and arranged the cardboard in a single layer. With a garden hose, we saturated the first layer.
“Cardboard is a wood product and a weed block,” Rita said. “It allows water to go through but not enough oxygen initially where any grass or weed can go through it.”
Next, we picked fieldstones from the piles of structural dirt donated and lined them around the cardboard to form a border.
The next layer is burlap, and Vail Mountain Roasters in Minturn gave us their coffee sacks that otherwise would end up in the Dumpster. We laid the burlap sacks in a T design to form pathways gardeners will use to access their plantings. Then, we took more fieldstones to form a border around the T. To define the pathways even more, we shoveled mulch onto the burlap.
Once the garden’s foundation is set, it’s time to spread layer by layer, making sure to saturate each layer with water. With lasagna gardening, you alternate layers of “browns,” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper and mulch, with layers of “greens,” such as vegetable scraps, manure and kelp meal, basically dried seaweed. In general, you want your “brown” layers to be about twice as deep as your “green” layers.
At the Eagle-Vail Community Garden, we layered with easily accessible browns and greens: cardboard, compost from the Summit County landfill, leaves from a neighbor’s lawn, a sprinkle of kelp meal, more compost, manure from Cordillera’s stables and even more compost. You are aiming for about a two-foot-tall layered bed, but you can always add more layers next spring.
“The key is don’t mix it together,” Rita said. “There’s a difference between baked ziti and lasagna. You get the same taste but not the same results.”
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle, and she writes about it in this weekly column Greener Pastures. She also sits on the Eagle-Vail Community Garden Committee. She and her husband, Captain Vacuum, own Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company. Contact her at email@example.com.