28 February 2007

Spring Gardening in Layers

During the last half of winter I typically dream about what I'm going to do in the garden once spring finally arrives.
Working in the earth is a lovely pleasure to me. Mowing the lawn, planting a few new herbs and flowers, feeling the cold well water trickle between my toes, watching the buds push out on the rose bushes...
I love the manual labor.
I love the dirt.
I love wearing my threadbare overalls and going barefoot.
I love when my kids come to dig beside me.
I love the all-over soreness I feel when I crawl into bed at night.
I love watching my kids in their excited daily examinations of what's sprouting, what's budding, what's blooming, and what needs trimming, what's thirsty, what's fuzzy, what's prickly, what stinks, what smells divine, and what attracts the butterflies.

We moved into our present home a year and a half ago so I've not had much time here to review the lay of the land and all it's microclimates. I took at face value the landscaping plants the previous owners dropped in the ground to make the house look good enough to buy. The plants were there already, so I just let them be. I had three kids to homeschool and a boxes to unpack-- better to let the landscape do it's thing until we got settled and I could have a good look at it.
The time has come.
Last summer it started when I ripped out three purple Rhododendrons under my living room window. They were token plants placed there to sell the house. They were half dead (literally! One half of each plant was dead, the other half was alive and well) and had sickly purple-gray flowers that I found icky. I didn't feel guilty at all.


Here's where I'm starting in our garden this year. Lasagna Gardening.

This is an idea my mother taught me a few years ago. I used it for 3 years in Texas and I used it here in Maryland last year with great results.

Lasagna Gardening has nothing to do with the Italian pasta dish of the same name. Except that if you cut into a dish of lasagna, lasagna gardening resembles the cross-sections. The main idea here is to layer your gardening elements on top of the ground and eliminate the need for weed barriers, expensive soil enrichments and laboring to coax your garden to produce. It is very simple, uses several items we might consider trash, and is very effective for vegetables and flowers. The article I've linked above will give you the particulars, but here's what I've done in the past.

: Erin's Lasagna Garden :
1) Save all my corrugated cardboard boxes, flatten and store in the shed. ** Remember to do this around the holidays when gift packaging reaches a level near insanity. It doesn't all need to go to the dump! You can also raid the dumpsters behind furniture stores and liquor stores (or inquire with the managment).
Remove anything that is NOT biodegradable from the boxes. (Plastic windows, mailing tape, staples, wire ties, styrofoam supports, etc.)
2) Also save newspapers, circulars, and paper grocery bags. (Slick and polychromatic papers, like magazines, don't work. Toss those in the recycle bin.) If I don't have enough cardboard to cover my area I'll opt for layered newspaper, but it degrades faster than cardboard so I'll have to re-do the newspaper areas sooner.
3) When the weather gets warm enough, I clear out the area I want to work in by turning the soil, moving and removing rocks. And really, I don't even have to work the soil. I can start laying cardboard right on top of my lawn (or even do this on top of asphalt if my layers are deep enough) and it eventually kills everything underneath it without me lifting a finger.
4) If I need/want to move an existing plant or put a largish new one in the ground, this is when I do it.
5) I put down a layer of flattened cardboard. Puzzle pieces of corrugated boxes here, there and everywhere. I leave a space around the base of each plant (about 2-3 inches) so that I'm sure there's a good inlet for water. I use as much cardboard as I've got because if you imagine a weed trying to push it's way through a single layer of a U-Haul box, it's rather difficult. And if one layer is difficult, two layers are intimidating, and three layers are daunting. Those pesky weeds will just pack up and move to your neighbors garden! (Insert devil horns here.)
6) Next I put about a 3-4 inch layer of bark mulch on top of the cardboard. It not only holds the cardboard down in the wind, but keeps moisture under the soil and insulates my lovely plants in the summer heat and winter freeze. (I think the article recommends using peat, but peat is not an easily renewed resource, so you may want to steer clear of that.)
7) Then I do the layers again, which is where the "lasagna" part of Lasagna Gardening comes in.
8) Drop in my seeds or small plants.
9) Water generously.

Really, that's all the prep work I did last spring and it was amazing how weed-free and healthy my garden stayed all summer. Pulling the few weeds that DID take root were like cutting butter with a hot knife because all they had to hold onto were little bits of mulch.
The article also suggests adding bone meal, grass clippings and leaf chippings to the mix to help fortify your soil, but I skipped that expense and effort. If you're indeed planting on top of asphalt (and I'm dying to find out how that goes!), you will need nutrients for those plants (mulch is an insulator, not a good growth medium), so add lots of top soil/compost/manure.

Now I have you thinking I'm a gardening genius. Don't believe it for a second. But here's what I am...
NOT out there pulling weeds all summer long.
NOT pitching all my cardboard pieces and newspapers into the recycle bin.
NOT lamenting my poor soil or spending boatloads of money trying to get something to grow.
THOROUGHLY enjoying the life that takes place in, on and around our little plot of land in Maryland.

9 Comments:

Blogger Kelley said...

Ok, so if I paid for your ticket, would you fly out here and do that for my new yard? It looks lovely right now, but of course the builders landscaped it for show, not go. No telling when the little devil weeds will start popping up. Your lasagna method is the first yard/garden upkeep and planning method I've heard that I'm actually willing to consider. Unlike you, I do not delight in yardwork. Spring is my least favorite time of the year, mostly because of that very thing. But boxes we have, at least for now, and a small yard area to worry about. Great tips--thanks for sharing (much better than eggplant pencils :)).

3:25 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Kel,
If you paid for my ticket, and bought passage for all of your leftover moving boxes to come back WITH me to my own garden, I'd do it in a wink. ;)

No fuss flowers that did well for me in TX (just in case you're thinking of taking the plunge):
Sunflowers
Morning Glories
Cosmos
Zinnias

All four of those love poor, rocky soil and full sun. And what else IS there in TX?! The last two just need to be dead-headed to keep them blooming all summer long.

I also wanted to do a pick-and-eat garden for the kids out by our swingset. Cherry tomatoes, string beans and strawberries. I got it all "lasagna-ed" and planted, and then kept forgetting to water it. Doh!

4:03 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Erin, you are brilliant. A mad-scientist genius.
I love flowers, but I'm not so much the gardener. I'm trying, though. Planted some bulbs, which are actually showing signs of life.
But let me get this straight - you put in two layers of cardboard boxes? And the flowers you plant are planted above the cardboard boxes are in the soil (or, in my case, Texas clay) between boxes?
And is that really a picture of your yard? Wow. That's all I have to say. Wow.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Heather,
I WISH that was my garden. That's just a stock photo of someone else's glorious yard. sigh.

Hooray for the signs of life in your bulb garden! Early spring bulbs are great because they're pretty self-sufficient. Drop them in a hole in the fall, forget about them all winter, and get a nice surprise in the spring.

For your Texas garden, the lasagna method might look like this (in the order you would lay them down- so from bottom to top):

- Texas clay, brown grass and fire ants
- (optional) 3 to 4 sheets of moistened newspaper
- 2 to 3 sheets of cardboard
- 3 or 4 inches of mulch (if you are simply making a weed barrier around existing plants. And then you can stop here, you're done!) OR 3 or 4 inches of top soil or peat (if you want to plant something new in this mixture)
- (opitional) 1 inch of bone meal or kitchen compost (hey, you can use your new toy!)
- Seeds or young plants

This way, you totally avoid the Texas clay altogether and simply grow in the good stuf you've put down on top of the cardboard. (Think the cardboard as the bottom of a flowerpot.)

Make sense? Follow my link to the article if you're still ???

You Texas green thumbs will have to send me pictures of what your lasagna gardens grow!

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Kirsten said...

Erin, I have always loved spring too for that reason, but something tells me that my springs soon will be very different. I've been trying to get my hands on resources for desert gardening. I'm not talking cactus gardens here. Any ideas?

8:41 AM  
Blogger gretalynn said...

Oh how I wish I had somewhere to try this! We live in a garage apartment right now, and that means 0 yard. Maybe the neighbors (friends and owners) will give me a small plot.

Right now I'm just bracing up for the famous Texas heat. Will this east coast gal be able to withstand it? :)

11:40 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

Kirsten,
The only thing that comes to mind right now is that livestock manure is a great compost. Will you be able to gather, store and stockpile manure somewhere? (I wonder if you'd find any interesting tips if you researched manure gardening. I have no idea.)

I had a friend in Russia that was growing a mysterious plant she couldn't identify. No one around knew what it was, but an American friend gave her the seeds and said it was great- whatever "it" was. Turned out, it was okra. At first, I didn't recognize it without its deep-fried, Southern persona. ;) Who knows WHAT you'll be to grow where you live. The possibilities are endless. Want some okra seeds?

Greta,
I did a few small container gardens when we lived in apartments in TX. They're easier to maintain than a full-fledged garden, but still offer a wonderful mini-Eden experience. Do you have some available porch space?

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Erin - you are continuing to stoke the fire of my spring fever! Worship smells like dirt to me, remember...

I have a few places that need this method - I'm putting in a shrub border in the back yard and I do not - repeat DO NOT - feel like digging up the whole area. On a positive note - I was given a gardening budget finally! Woohoo - daylilies here I come!

11:35 AM  
Blogger Charity Singleton said...

Erin -- I didn't have a chance to read this whole post today, but I can't wait to read it. I'm looking for lots of ways to make the most of my little lot, and my browsing showed this to be a great place to start!

5:36 PM  

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