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From the ground up: Compost garden now to get garden ready for spring

Learn step-by-step basics of using permaculture at Iowa City workshop

The recent chill in the air serves as a reminder that winter will eventually show up. I have taken this cue to heart and spent a bit more time than usual outside checking out public trails and parks. However, I should spend a bit more time working on my yard and garden where tomatoes have gotten a bit out of hand and weeds are thriving where they shouldn’t.

Body copy ragged right: Linn County Extension Master Gardener Becki Lynch has some tips on how to best use the extra growth and leaves so abundant now to create an abundant garden next season.

Q: As we head into winter, is there an easy way to prepare a new bed for planting next spring?

A: Lasagna gardening is a no-dig, no-till organic gardening method that results in rich, fluffy soil with little work from the gardener. Lasagna gardening has nothing to do with what you’ll be growing in this garden. It refers to the method of building the garden, which is adding layers of organic materials that will “cook down” over time, resulting in rich, fluffy soil. It is also known as sheet composting. lasagna gardening is great for the environment, because you’re using your yard and kitchen waste and essentially composting it in place to make a new garden.

One of the best things about lasagna gardening is how easy it is. You don’t have to remove existing sod and weeds. You don’t have to double dig. You don’t have to work the soil at all. The first layer consists of either brown corrugated cardboard or three layers of newspaper laid on top of the grass or weeds in the area you’ve selected for your garden. Wet this layer down to keep everything in place and start the decomposition process. The grass or weeds will break down fairly quickly because they will be smothered by the newspaper or cardboard, as well as by the materials you’re going to layer on top of them. This layer also provides a dark, moist area to attract earthworms that will loosen up the soil as they tunnel through it.

Anything you’d put in a compost pile, you can put into a lasagna garden. The materials you put into the garden will break down, providing nutrient-rich, crumbly soil in which to plant. The following materials are all perfect for lasagna gardens: grass clippings, leaves, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and tea bags, weeds (if they haven’t gone to seed, manure, compost, seaweed, shredded newspaper or junk mail, pine needles, spent blooms, trimmings from the garden, and peat moss.

Just as with an edible lasagna, there is some importance to the methods you use to build your lasagna garden. Next, alternate layers of “browns” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper, peat and pine needles with layers of “greens” such as vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, and grass clippings. In general, you want your “brown” layers to be about twice as deep as your “green” layers, but there’s no need to get finicky about this. Just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. What you want at the end of your layering process is a 2-foot tall layered bed. You’ll be amazed at how much this will shrink down in a few short weeks.

You can make a lasagna garden at any time of year. Fall is an optimum time for many gardeners because of the amount of organic materials you can get for free, thanks to fallen leaves and general yard waste from cleaning up the rest of the yard and garden. Let the lasagna garden sit and break down all winter. By spring, it will be ready to plant in with a minimum of effort. Also, fall rains and winter snow will keep the materials in your lasagna garden moist, which will help them break down faster.When it’s time to plant, just dig down into the bed as you would with any other garden. If you used newspaper as your bottom layer, the shovel will most likely go right through, exposing nice, loose soil underneath. If you used cardboard, you may have to cut a hole in it at each spot where you want to plant something.To maintain the garden, simply add mulch to the top of the bed in the form of straw, grass clippings, bark mulch, or chopped leaves. Once it’s established, care for a lasagna garden just as you would any other: weed and water when necessary, and plant to your heart’s content.

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Questions on gardening, land use or local foods? Contact Michelle Kenyon Brown, community ag programs manager at Linn County Extension, mkenyonb@iastate.edu.

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