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The Weekly Gardening Conversation: Lasagna Gardening

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Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturalist Amy Ivy talks with Martha Foley about "lasagna gardening," which (disappointingly) isn't about pasta at all, but rather about layering organic materials, like compost, newspaper, peat moss, etc., on your gardening spot to create a healthier plot come spring. But can it work for home gardeners in the North Country?

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The practice takes its name from the book by Patricia Lanza: Lasagna Gardening. Following the recent frost, Martha had a lot of slimy stuff to clean up. Was it something to “lasagna garden” with?

Amy Ivy said, “In theory, yes, but since it isn’t chopped up it would do better if broken down by time in, “a compost pile, where the heat really builds up, and the micro organisms are at full steam ahead.”

What do you do with your “lasagna” in the spring; do you pull it aside and plant or turn it in?

“Her [Lanza’s] approach is to not turn it at all, and after sitting for six months earthworms have come through, and that naturally blended it to a degree, and the longer it sits the better naturally blended it is.” Lanza recommends you just dig a hole through it deep enough plant your plant. Don’t mix or stir at all.

“If you’re going to plant seeds--because it settles quite a bit--she has you stir it in the fall, with about a 24 inch high pile.” This is especially for starting a new garden. Put down newspaper and then 24 inches of layers. Come spring, it will settle to about six to eight inches, and you plant right in that.

Plant seeds in a furrow lined with soil, because the other materials haven’t finished decomposing. If you put seed into very loose stuff, it just gets lost. The seed needs a good seedbed. “As the seed starts to grow, the roots will reach down into that ‘lasagna’ that you’ve made.”

Most gardeners use layering to some degree, as in the Ruth Stout method. But Martha objects to the scale of the effort, “I have a pretty small garden, and it’s even hard for me to imagine assembling 24 inches of stuff including several layers of peat moss, which I would have to go buy. I mean what if you have a big garden, 50 by 100 feet?”

Ivy says the lasagna method is best for concentrated gardens, like a raised bed. However, bringing in soil is something people should think about, because much of Northern New York has poor soil.

“It’s stony or sandy or it’s really heavy clay--one extreme or the other. It’s not that beautiful loamy, chocolate cake stuff. If you don’t have good soil to work with, you’ve got to do something to it in order to have a productive garden. It’s all about the soil,“ Ivy stressed.

A friend of Ivy’s who had his soil tested in his established garden said it was really good, but in the areas where he had piled up mulch to expand his garden, even though it looked and felt good, it really needed a lot of added nutrients.

“You really don’t know until you test, and each of the different things you add have different components,” Ivy said.  Dry leaves, for example, have phosphorus, but nothing else nutrient-wise. And they have so much carbon in them that they might be using up some of the nitrogen available to decompose. It isn’t bad; it just means you need a variety. Whenever you do all of one thing, that isn’t good. You should test your soil so you know what you are working with.

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