Lasagna Gardening IV: My Victory Garden

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I call it my Victory Garden because it represents victory over my near complete ignorance about gardening. This morning, I went out to remove the plastic sheets covering my lasagna beds. Now that we’ve had a couple of days of rain, I want the last downpours over the next day or so to give the beds a good soak before I cover them again. Every time I go out to the garden, I look to see if anything has sprouted in the one lasagna bed I’ve had exposed to the elements. I planted one fava bean, one borlotti bean, and — oh, lord, I’ve already forgotten what the other two seeds I planted were! Nothing has appeared until this morning. Suddenly, right there, where I swear nothing could be seen as recently as yesterday, appears a shoot of a fava bush bean! I nearly shouted for joy and jumped up and down — but I immedately started to worry. What if we have another frost? February is only half over! What should I do? Cover it at night?

The garden is a mess. Too much mud in an area where I suspect I’ve got an old unused, underground cistern. Later this spring I will have to confront that challenge. Meanwhile, I can’t resist putting more of the garden into action. Perhaps prematurely, I planted three small artichoke plants against the back fence. I’ll probably have to protect them, too, if we have another frost.

dsc04241But spring looks as though it has arrived. The luscious white camellia is coming into bloom. And, as you can see, the plum trees in the front of my house are in bloom. My neighbors say the magnolias, dogwood, camellias and other flowering trees and shrubs blooming around our neighborhood are too early. Maybe so. Still, when the sun is out, the pinks, whites, reds, and purples on branches make a canopy of delicate colors overhead. If only they had waited just until the end of the month to begin!

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Gardening: Lasagna Gardening II

dsc04107In comparison with the weather prevalent throughout the country, I don’t have much to complain about. Nevertheless, the air is cold and the lawn is soggy. I have been neglectful of my garden. I have now three lasagna beds that I was counting on decomposing in time to grow at least some vegetables this spring. My friends Polly and James, farmers and proprietors of the CSA organic farm Pumpkin Ridge Gardens in the Portland, OR region, gave me some very good advice while they were here with their four teenagers over the holidays.

They examined my efforts, visible in the photo. “Nothing is going to happen unless you get more nitrogen,” was Polly’s verdict. At first, she recommended steer or chicken manure, but, on second thought, she advised me to lay on the chicken manure. It has a higher concentration of nitrogen and will jump-start the decomposition of my lasagna beds. Her prediction was that my first year would be valuable primary for the experience. In a year, I should have spectacularly fertile soil.

And at her urging I am going to start germinating some seeds sooner than I expected. For instance, towards the end of January, I will try inserting the first fava bean seeds in one of the beds. According to the book on lasagna gardens, I needn’t wait until the beds begin to decompose. But I think if I get chicken manure on the beds right away, I may have a chance.

By good fortune, my friends, Dan and Sherry Fields, have mountains of chicken manure mixed with grass hay. Later today I will drive out to their ranch in Fiddletown to collect large plastic bags of the stuff. I doubt I can fit as much manure into my car as the beds will need. But it will be a start. I’ll buy commercial chicken manure to supplement it.

In the next few days, I will lay out the last smaller bed.

Gardening: The Lasagna Garden

Big dogs legitimize big lawns — at least when they’re young, their owners live in a city or suburb, and you leave out the little issue of water conservation. My dogs, one of whom is in the category of ‘big,’ are now older if not old. They don’t run around as much as they used to on the big lawn in my back yard. Pretty soon, when they “go off to college,” as I prefer to think of their inevitable demise, I’ll have no excuse for maintaining my water-sucking sponge of a lawn. Hence, I have begun to plan for the future. I’ve long wanted to grow vegetables, but the prospect of digging up even one third of my lawn and conditioning the soil was daunting. I envisioned weeks of arduous work that I would never finish.

A friend who raises organic flowers to sell in upper Michigan mentioned “lasagna gardening” to me. Or, I should say, she recommended googling it so that I could learn about it myself. Not only did I take her recommendation and find simple, clear explanations like this one, but, as a result, I bought Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening and thought it was worth a try. The principle is simple. Instead of digging up the lawn, I could create a 2-foot high bed of layered organic material right on top of the grass and let it “bake” or break down into enriched soil over a couple of months. What’s more, according to Lanza, I’d be able to plant vegetables on the same day that I created the bed. A little skeptical, I have decided to give it a try and record my efforts here. My first step was to turn off the sprinkler that covered the back half of my lawn. The grass there began to die at the beginning of September.

Lasagna Gardening requires a bit of advance planning and collecting. For my first 4 ft X 8ft bed:

  • First, I saved all newspaper pages that did not have any ink except black on it (to my surprise, easier done with the New York Times than with our local paper).
  • Second, I asked the man who cuts my lawn each week to put all grass clippings off to one side of the yard for keeping. I became super diligent at picking up my dogs’ manure, which friends tell me should not get chopped up into the clippings. I suppose it has to do with what’s in dog food.
  • Third, I acquired several bales of straw ($7 – $9 each).
  • Fourth, I bought two 3.8 cubic ft bags of peat moss ($18 each).
  • Fifth, I bought two bags of cedar bark mulch to top the layers off.
  • Sixth, I got a really, really big sheet of black plastic to cover the bed at the end (in fact, it’s so big, it’ll cover an entire second bed that I plan to lay down next weekend.

But I had other options, although less convenient for me. Lanza allows cardboard instead of newspaper as the base and chopped leaves, compost, barn and littler for use as layers. She tops off her lasagna with bonemeal and wood ashes for phosphorus and potassium.

As it happened, the only reason I waited nearly two months to put down the first bed was that I was out of town. I had plenty of newspaper this morning when I got to work.

Of course, it would be windy on the day I needed to lay sheets of newspaper across a 4 X 8 section at the back of my garden. Having my garden hose at hand helped. After I placed several sheets down, I sprayed it with water, which helped to weight down the paper and prevent it from flying up. I covered the 4 X 8 area entirely with about 5 or 6 sheets deep of newspaper, making sure that it was well sodden.

On top of the newspapers I shoveled peat moss about 2-3 inches thick. For the next layer, the straw bales nicely came apart in about 4 inch thick slabs, which I positioned on top. Another layer of peat moss, followed by grass clippings, another of peat moss, another layer of straw, one more of peat moss, and then I capped the square mound with cedar bark.

Lanza doesn’t say anything about watering the square before covering it in plastic, but I did anyway. The climate of northern California necessitates hosing down the compost box once a week, so I figured this could use a spritzer, too.

Once I had taken my photos of it for the blog, I covered the whole thing in black plastic and dropped concrete blocks on the corners.

So far, what I like about this method is that I can lay out and arrange my beds gradually. I have designed in my head how I want to arrange the vegetable beds across the back width of my lawn. The one detail I will change next week is to make the bed narrower. I will extend the bed I created today, but decrease the width to 3 feet and lengthen it to 9 ft. Because it will be the bed farthest from my house, I will plant in it the highest vegetables, like tomatoes and beans.

Since I’m a complete novice at gardening, I welcome all advice, tips, and warnings.