Lasagna Gardening 101

Have you ever neglected a garden until the next growing season? Use lasagna gardening to turn a pile of overgrown weeds into fertile growing ground.

6/14/20239 min read

Lasagna Gardening 101


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An easy-to-maintain "lasagna garden" at a Middle School

Lasagna Gardening 101

3 Steps to Build a Productive Raised Bed and becoming a "Lazy Gardener"

Have you ever neglected a garden and found it overrun with weeds the next growing season?"

This is so much work!" you may think.

This lasagna gardening 101 primer aims to show you how in permaculture, we work towards the most amount of gain for the least amount of work. A permaculture garden is a “lazy garden.”

Why is that? It’s “lazy” because a lasagna garden allows nature to do the heavy lifting.

Our job as gardeners is to put the design or thought work into place so that the natural systems in the soil can function as efficiently and effectively as possible.

A lasagna garden is merely adding the step of arranging a series of layers of organic matter that decompose over time and create a fertile garden bed for you instead of forcing one into existence temporarily by roto-tilling.

Here’s how to do it in (3) three easy steps:

1. Do Not Till

When we till the soil, we are essentially killing the intricate network of life below the ground upon which the life aboveground depends.

"A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes."

-Kathy Merrifield, Nematologist at Oregon State University

Roto-tilling disrupts delicate networks of communications among plants and the beneficial microbes that support their growth.

"The use of toxic compounds such as pesticides and inorganic fertilizers kill the organisms that build structure in the soil."

Dr. Elaine Ingham, Founder, President, and Director of Research for Soil Foodweb Inc, says that tilling causes most soil problems.
She also reminds us to keep our garden beds pesticide-free:

Fungi: The Internet of the Soil

Some of the networks built by microbiology in the soil include mushroom hyphae. Mycorrhizal fungi (a type of fungi that is in symbiosis with plants), can be found for miles on end in one contiguous plot of land.

"The growth of mycelia can be extensive. A form of honey fungus found in the forests of Michigan, which began from a single spore and grows mainly underground, now is estimated to cover 40 acres. The mycelia network is thought to be over 100 tons in weight and is at least 1,500 years old. More recently, another species of fungus discovered in Washington State was found to cover at least 1,500 acres."

- Wikipedia

Because soil fungi are so extensive and so entrenched in the landscape, they can virtually “field” nutrients to those plants and fellow fungi that need it from one part of your yard that has these nutrients in abundance.

"I see the mycelium as the Earth's natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate. Through cross-species interfacing, we may one day exchange information with these sentient cellular networks. Because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape."

One of the superstars of the mushroom world is mycologist Paul Stamets. Stamets explains the fascinating network of mycelial threads in his book, "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World."

What happens when we till?

When we till, we break those fungal connections. We kill and churn up the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms in the soil.

Initially, our soil may have a surge of oxygen, but after some time, without the life to maintain the soil structure, the ecosystem falls apart.

Sadly, many community garden plots till the soil annually, forcing garden plot renters to start from a blank canvas of lifelessness each year.

What if my soil is compacted?

If your soil is compacted, use a “broad fork” or something that aerates the earth, without chopping up the earthworms and fungal strands in the ground.

Sadly, many community garden plots till the soil annually, forcing garden plot renters to start from a blank canvas of lifelessness each year.

A broad fork gently tills the soil with much less disruption to the soil food web than mechanical counterparts like roto-tillers.

2. Build Your Lasagna Garden Layers

When creating your lasagna garden, remember the permaculture principle,

“Do what you can, with what you have.”

Rather than going out to a store to purchase mulch, for instance, see if you might not have some leaves around your property that simply need to be raked and can use as a lasagna garden “layer.”

The image to the left is by no means the only formula for making the layers of your lasagna garden. Use it as a starting point and use what you already have on hand.

Below are a few easy steps to get your lasgna garden started:

We always start with cardboard at the bottom.

The cardboard acts not only as a weed barrier but somehow mimics the bedrock layer of the soil on the upper crust of the earth.

Lay down the cardboard, overlapping the pieces about 6 inches, to block off the weeds. This weed barrier will save you from having to pull them all out later. Less work for you.

Please note: You will likely still have weeds in your garden even after putting down the cardboard, but they won’t be as aggressive as they would be without using a cardboard weed barrier. The weeds, if any, will grow less and less every year as you build up your fertile soil.

In the infographic above, you see the “kitchen scraps” layered beneath the cardboard. It's good for you to do the same because you want to make sure that no animals start smelling the scraps from your backyard. They may dig them up before the food has time to decompose.

Bottom Lasagna Garden Layers

The photo shows how a gardener needs to overlap their cardboard so that there are no gaps and the weeds can't go through.

Lasagna Garden Layers

The middle layers can consist of whatever you have on hand plus the organic compost/soil mix that you initially use to build your garden.

Introduce life in the middle layers. You can add beneficial life forms such as nitrogenous bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, and earthworms to these layers.

Here's the same garden above layered with compost and topsoil.

Middle Lasagna Garden Layers

The top of the lasagna garden for us is always a beautiful bed of straw mulch.

Straw mulch works well in the heat and works well in the cold. It eventually disintegrates and becomes part of your soil layers. But initially, when it is newly placed, it helps protect the soil from evaporation and extreme frost.

It’s like a blanket!

Top Lasagna Garden Layers

Pro-Tip: Cut up the straw a bit more

It's helpful to use scissors and snip the straw mulch up into smaller cuttings so that they don’t stifle the plant growth underneath.

Some permaculture gardeners use woodchips instead of straw mulch and have found them to be effective in capturing moisture as well. The only problem with woodchips is that the wood, which is high in carbon, tends to look for nitrogen to use in its decomposition.

If your garden bed is brand new, this could mean losing much-needed nitrogen in the process. And that is why we recommend straw in most gardens.

It is always good to define where your garden bed stops and starts. This physical definition is especially true when working with kids who will tend to step into the garden bed even if it is raised. Stepping on a garden bed can cause soil compaction and acidification, so we try to minimize that as much as possible.

When choosing appropriate materials to "edge" or form the borders of your bed, we recommend something that can stand up for a long time, such as brick or cinder blocks.

Cedar is also an excellent wood choice, but it tends to rot after about (5) five years and needs replacement. Douglas fir is a cheaper alternative to cedar.

Avoid using “pressure-treated” wood, which also happens to be chemically treated, as well as pressure-treated.

Some of the members of the Grow-It-Yourself / GIY Membership Program have found success in using a “wall block” to stabilize the corners of their raised square-foot beds and then using wooden planks to build the “walls” of their lasagna garden. An example of that block is in the image above.

Below is an example of using stone pavers which is a very natural, durable and beautiful option.

Edging your Lasagna Garden

Watch the video below to learn how to build a lasagna garden from scratch using whatever materials you have on hand.

Lasagna Garden Video

3. Plant in Your Lasagna Garden

Once you’ve established your lasagna garden, it is reasonable to ask the following questions:

  • How soon before I can plant in my lasagna bed?

  • Should I transplant or direct sow into my lasagna garden?

  • Won’t the straw mulch impede the growth of my plants?

  • I still see weeds growing in my lasagna garden. What did I do wrong?

Lasagna Garden beds at our homestead Bethany Farm

You can transplant into your garden right away. Simply poke a hole through the layers, large enough to allow space for your transplant’s roots to spread.

Or you can wait two weeks to have your garden rained on and decompose naturally so that the microbiology in it can establish itself.

How soon before I can plant in my lasagna bed?

Should I transplant or direct sow into my lasagna garden?

John Jeavons, creator of the successful Grow BioIntensive methods recommends starting your plants from seed and transplanting your seedling into the garden once temperatures allow, and the plant has at least “two true leaves.”

However, if you are in the middle of summer or late spring and you would like to catch up with the optimal growing seasons, you can direct sow specific seeds as long as the germination temperatures are optimal (usually 60–70 F).

Won’t the straw mulch impede the growth of my plants?

By using straw you might prevent your directly sown seeds from germinating.

This risk is yet another reason to prefer transplanting over direct sowing. Yes, straw may block the light needed for some seeds to germinate. However, if you cut up your straw very fine all you have to do is shift the straw over a bit in the sections in which you direct sow to allow the seed to get direct light and access to the soil.

However, if you are in the middle of summer or late spring and you would like to catch up with the optimal growing seasons, you can direct sow specific seeds as long as the germination temperatures are optimal (usually 60–70 F).

I still see weeds growing in my lasagna garden. What did I do wrong?

Nothing. Ideally, you will have no weeds, like the photo at the top of the blog.  However, if weeds do appear it's good to note their presence may indicate that:

  • The straw mulch you used contained unwanted weeds

  • The wind blew some weeds into your garden bed

  • Your soil needs remediation of some sort. So when you see them, ask yourself,

    1. Is that area not yet fertile enough?

    2. Does it get trampled on a lot?

    3. Is it compacted or eroded?

Weeds are often misunderstood plants.

In a future blog on Building Garden Diversity, you will find a list of weeds used for soil remediation.

In permaculture, weeds are considered “pioneering plants” that pave the way for more useful vegetables. As you find them in our gardens, allow yourself to be curious about their presence and purpose. Sometimes you’ll be surprised to see the medicinal uses of plants like dandelion include:

  • healthy digestion

  • lowering cholesterol, and

  • controlling diabetes.

Nevertheless, a whole bed of dandelions, however, is not desirable.

So pull your weeds out as soon as you see them and plug in a more desirable plant in its stead. You will find fewer weeds in your first lasagna garden year and fewer still, in the following years.

Dig Deeper

Learn to grow a permaculture garden!