One of the things that I've begun doing this year is to expand on my outreach efforts to new gardeners in my community. It's not that I'm an expert on all things garden related; by no means do I fit that bill. I have however learned a lot of things through trial and error, and this spring my wife and I attended a two and a half month training program called the Master Gardener program. I learned a lot of new information there as well, and it's really helped with my efforts.
In talking to neighbors and friends, a few of which have been affected by the global economic downturn, one of their concerns is that starting a garden can be a costly adventure. That is particularly true here in northern Utah where we call home. We are very near to the shore of the Great Salt Lake, and because of that our soil is salty and alkaline. Add to that the fact that it is a sedimentary soil that over thousands of years has become hard pack clay, and it's not what most would call the optimum conditions for starting a new garden. Because of these factors and because Mel Bartholomew of square foot gardening fame began his whole movement in Utah just a half hour from where we live, raised bed gardening is very big here. It's not cheap to get started though, so I felt concerned with telling people that were already tight on money that they should spend a good size chunk of it on starting a raised bed. At the same time, I know that most people starting gardens directly in the ground have a couple of years of amending the soil ahead of them before they really starting seeing the "fruits" of their labors.
Enter the "Lasagna Garden." I picked up a book at our local thrift store last summer about a garden called a lasagna garden. It wasn't what it sounded like, a garden to grow lasagna ingredients, but rather was a raised bed garden that could be started with little investment and promised little effort for good return. The basics of what this is all about is building a garden bed from miscellaneous organic materials and letting them essentially compost in place to build a fertile soil that can support a garden.
I hate to suggest anyone try something that I haven't done myself, so, last fall, as a part of our "liberate the lawn" efforts in the back yard, we decided to give it a shot as a sort of experimental garden plot for this year. We already had plans to build a new raised bed there, so it was easy to just modify our plans to go with this new idea. We built the raised beds along our fence line using the same type of recycled concrete blocks that we'd used for the rest of our yard landscaping and, after breaking up the ground a bit with a pitch fork, layered the bottom of the bed with cardboard pieces that we got for free from work.
Next I filled the bed with layers of organic material like I was putting together a sort of organic compost lasagna. I took pictures of the process.
To fill the bed, I pulled over a thin layer of soil from the existing raised bed that I was tying into. Onto that I added layers of material like straw, homemade compost, grass clippings, composted chicken manure, course sawdust that was used as chicken bedding, coffee grounds from the local coffee shop and some left over peat and vermiculite that I happened to have on hand at the end of the season.
Knowing that it would sink, I filled it very full and left it to sit over the winter. The fall rains soaked it, the winter snows insulated it, and by early this spring we had what was beginning to look a lot like soil. A few months later and I dug into into it to plant my first crops; a mix of different plants that I hope will give me a good idea of lasagna gardening's benefits for different plants. I've planted watermelons, casaba melon, tomatoes, bush cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in it. The soil was soft and friable, and I needed no tools at all to plant the starts.
This picture was taken a little less than a month ago. So far, I am VERY impressed with the results of this method. The rich organic content of this bed drains well while at the same time holding a good amount of water. Below the surface, the soil looks to be very rich and fertile. This is the first time I've been able to get watermelons to grow well at all, and I'm already starting to see set fruit on my pepper plants.
If you're feeling a pinch in your pocketbook, or maybe have friends that are, this is a nearly zero cost alternative to building a raised bed garden that can support a lot of garden and can be worked very easily. It seems to be a good alternative and is certainly one that I look forward to exploring further.
All the best.