The layered look

New approaches to growing food in limited spaces

New approaches to growing food in limited spaces

March 25, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

Editor's note: This is the third in an occasional series about vegetable gardening.

A prime spot to start a vegetable garden might be scarce for some Tri-State-area residents.

Maybe the backyard is rocky with a lot of clay. Or maybe you have a patch of rich, easy-to-dig-into soil that doesn't get a lot of sunlight. Or perhaps you don't have any soil, just a patio or deck.

Lasagna gardening, container gardening or salad-box gardening might solve your problem.

Lasagna gardening

Set aside your wisecracks about growing pasta plants.

Lasagna gardening was promoted by Patricia Lanza in her 1998 award-winning book, "Lasagna Gardening." It is a no-dig method based on creating raised beds using materials many homeowners already have on hand.

The beds can be built in the fall, allowing the different layers of materials to break down into a looser soil mixture by spring, or stacked in the spring and used right away, says Annette Ipsan, horticulture educator for the Washington County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension.


Mary Beth Bennett, agriculture extension agent with the Berkeley County, W.Va., office of the West Virginia University Extension Service, has been using lasagna gardening for about five years. She's grown tomatoes every year and also planted pepper and squash plants. Bennett's lasagna gardens are framed by wooden boards, but a frame is not required.

There's no specific formula for the layers, though Bennett says gardeners should make levels of greens (nitrogen sources) and browns (carbon sources). Basically, you use what you have or what you can get from your neighbors. Some things, such as compost and straw, you can buy at a garden center.

How to build a lasagna garden

Here's how to build a layered garden:

Pick a sunny spot in the yard and mow the grass or weeds in that area.

Then lay at least five to six sheets of newspaper over the area. A couple layers of lightweight, corrugated cardboard could be used, Bennett says. Newspaper will break down much easier than cardboard, Ipsan says. So if you want to start planting immediately in the lasagna garden, paper is preferable.

Wet the paper so it is soaked.

The newspaper will create a barrier against weeds and, in subsequent years, break down and allow plant roots from your garden to break through the paper into the soil beneath, Bennett says.

Lay down 2 to 3 inches of compost or moist garden soil atop the paper.

Spread out a 2-inch layer of grass clippings. Don't use clippings from grass that was treated with weed killer or your plants will not grow, Bennett says. If you don't have grass clippings, use other nitrogen sources; according to the online Home and Garden Information Center (at, these can include coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste, fresh hay, alfalfa and manure.

If you are using manure, use cow or horse manure that has aged at least a year before adding it to your vegetable gardening, Ipsan says. If you don't allow the manure to age, it can be full of weed seeds.

Lay down a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost.

Place a 4-inch layer of dried leaves; they don't have to be chopped up. Alternative carbon sources include straw, hay, sawdust and wood chips, shrub trimmings, cornstalks and corncobs, newsprint, shredded telephone books and shredded, uncoated copier paper. The carbon level should be twice as thick as the nitrogen level.

Lay down a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost.

Repeat the layers of nitrogen sources, compost, carbon sources, and compost. Do not press down on the layers.

Top the "lasagna" with a couple inches of compost or top soil. The bed should end up being 18 to 24 inches high, Bennett says.

To plant seeds or vegetable transplants, gently create a hole. Then pull the layers over the seeds or back around the plant stem, Bennett says.

Advanced container gardening

A basic container garden can be created in a deep, well-drained pot that is kept in a sunny spot and watered regularly.

You can use a 5-gallon plastic bucket or half-barrel planter, buy a specialty container such as an EarthBox, or create your own gardening container, such as a salad box.

A salad box looks like a dresser drawer made with 2-by-4s, but without the wooden bottom. Instead the bottom is window screening, stapled to the wooden frame, and hardware cloth underneath the screening and bent up around the sides of the drawer. The hardware cloth provides structural support and allows drainage, says Washington County Master Gardener Bob Courtemanche. Courtemanche and his wife, Anne, demonstrated how to make salad boxes at the Flower & Garden Show at Hagerstown Community College earlier this month.

Pour potting mix in, plant seeds, and you have a salad box.

Because they tend to be shallow, they are best for growing vegetables with short roots, such as lettuce, radishes and beets, Bob Courtemanche says.

The box is portable, so you can place it wherever there is sunlight. It also can be brought inside, though a tray should be placed underneath to catch draining water.

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