By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
I’ve always regarded gardening a little like the ancient Greeks did the weather. It’s a magical occurrence, governed by mysterious forces beyond my ability to understand or control. It may involve large men in short togas who can make matters very good or very bad for you, depending on their short-tempered, capricious whims. All we can do is hope for the best while attempting to follow the enigmatic invocations of the prophets, such as, “prune after bloom,” “partial shade,” “well-draining” and something to do with planting when birch leaves are as big as squirrel ears.
OK, but plant what — anything, or just more birch trees? And what kind of squirrels are we talking about, here? Arctic ground squirrels, with their tiny, folded-back nibs of cartilage that would never keep a pair of sunglasses in place? Or the bushy-tailed red squirrels of Southeast that look like they’ve got sonar arrays sprouting from their heads?
For that matter, does the pruning have anything to do with the ears? Like sacrificing a goat to Zeus to end a drought? (Editor’s note: No squirrels were harmed in the making of this column.)
So when Chris Cook, of the Central Peninsula Gardening Club, asked if I wanted a lasagna bed garden at my house, I told her I probably wasn’t the best candidate. The only circumstance in which I could envision my thumb being green is if I whacked it with a hammer — probably in an effort to construct some sort of trellis or hoop house or composting apparatus — to the point where gangrene set in.
In my brain’s filing system, “gardening,” as a concept, is stuffed in a box with “horticulture,” “hydroponics” and “genetically modified food.” It’s shoved in the dank, cobwebby “Things I don’t really understand” corner, along with bins labeled “advanced physics,” “the poetry of William Butler Yeats,” “why people care about the British monarchy,” “the appeal of Capri pants,” “how to cook an artichoke” and “toilets flushing the opposite direction below the equator.”
When I explained to Chris that I didn’t know how to garden, she looked at me like I was wearing one of those wacky fascinator headpieces from the royal wedding, as if I had a rigor-mortised jellyfish stapled to my head.
There’s nothing to know, she assured me. If you can layer, you can garden. All you have to do is make a pile and aim a hose. In this case, I wouldn’t even have to do that. The club was looking for a site to host a workshop on how to make a lasagna bed. Chris would bring the necessary materials and the participants would do the work. All I’d have to do is water the thing occasionally and pick the vegetables she assured me would miraculously grow.
No agricultural knowledge or sacrificial rites required.
“It’s easy. I guarantee you can’t mess this up,” she said.
On the appointed day — May 28 — the garden clubbers gathered at my house to turn the designated patch of yard into a garden. Though shovels were on hand, Chris assured us no digging was required.
“That sounds like work. Who wants to do that? The whole purpose of lasagna beds is they’re easy,” she said.
They’re a use-anything, plant-anytime catch-all, sort of like the junk drawer of gardening. She got tired of mowing around two tree stumps in her yard last fall, so she had them ground down and built a lasagna bed on top. That was in September, and she still got growth out of it before winter set in, she said.
First, designate a spot for the bed. It can be symmetrical, or not. Framed in with wood, or not. Rectangular, or not. As long as the bed isn’t too wide, making it difficult to reach the middle, and as long as two or more aren’t spaced too close together, making it difficult to walk or mow between, the size and shape don’t matter.
Chris had us start by laying a thick layer of cardboard and newspaper on the ground to the desired size of the bed and soaking the mat with water. It’s a weed blocker, she said. The cellulose will kill off any grass and weeds underneath. As earthworms climb up through the soggy mass, the bed above will eventually converge with the eventually bare ground underneath. In a year the whole thing will compost together.
“I’ve had my beds so long there’s no longer layers, it’s just dirt,” Chris said. “It takes about a year and all this will be gone. You’ll have earthworms in there like you can’t believe. And if you ever get sick of it, just spread the dirt out over your lawn.”
Next went alternating layers of brown matter and green matter — hence the “lasagna” style for this type of garden-bed construction. Brown is most abundant this time of year — dead, dried-out leaves, grass and cane from last summer. A quick, spring yard cleanup produced more than enough brown material to get the lasagna bed going.
Green layers are a little more difficult this time of year, as plants and grass are just getting growing.
“You can use fireweed, ferns, leaves, grass clippings, the neighbor’s bushes, if you think you can get away with it — anything like that is a green layer. Or go to the dump. People drop off yard stuff all the time,” Chris said.
For particularly rich green layers, use organic materials with high nitrogen contents, like kitchen scraps, coffee grounds (even coffee filters can go in the pile), used grain from breweries, or manure from rabbits or chickens.
It’s OK to use weeds in a green layer, but be careful which layer they go in. If the weeds are cut before they’ve flowered and gone to seed, the clippings can go in upper layers of a lasagna bed. If the weeds have already flowered they can go on a bottom layer, because the heat of the composting pile will break them down rather than allowing them to sprout and grow.
“They’re never going to see the light of day again. You’re not tilling this pile, so they’ll stay down there,” Chris said.
A layer of last year’s leaves topped with coffee grounds and slimy clumps of grass clippings saved from the last lawn mow of the fall started the pile. Woody stems and yellowed cane gathered up from last year’s shrubs and flowers, with the contents of Chris’ chicken-coop floor, topped it off.
“Mmm, this is a yummy layer. Special from my chickies,” Chris said. “Those girls are great for gardening.”
All that was covered with a layer of topsoil, mixed with a little fertilizer. If you want to get fancy, the garden club recommends the peat mixture Stuart Northrup scoops out by the Bobcat load in Sterling, four miles past the post office off the Sterling Highway, and Alaska Sea-Ag fish bonemeal fertilizer. If not, other products also will do the trick.
Next, pack the thing down with shovels and drench it with water.
“And you can’t put too much water on it — more, more, more. Do you see how dry it is under there? Water is everything for these beds,” Chris said.
At that point it was time to admire the handiwork — an oozing, bedraggled, lumpy mass of repurposed refuse sitting on what was, a mere hour before, a perfectly respectable stretch of patchy, moss-ridden Alaska lawn.
The thing looked like a very shallow grave dug for a very large person, or possibly a horse. One that was not well-liked in life, and even less cared for in death and subsequent disposal.
“And that is a lasagna bed,” Chris said. “Isn’t that a disgusting-looking mess? It’s horrible. I love it.”
A few of the workshop participants did the honors of planting vegetable starts in the pile — a couple spindly clumps of chives, some zucchini plants and some cabbage.
“And they’ll grow. I promise you. Other than tomatoes, I can’t think of anything I haven’t done in my lasagna beds,” Chris said.
Beds can be left like that, or “prettied up” and protected, Chris said. Her preferred method is to frame the beds in leftover, rough-cut lumber, drive rebar stakes partially into the wood (or the ground, if the bed is unframed) and thread the ends of PVC pipe over the top of the rebar to create arched ribs over the bed. Next she cuts a length of thick plastic sheeting to fit over the arch and affixes it with small, 25-cent clamps from the hardware store.
She attaches another rib on top, down the length of the bed, and staples the sides of the plastic to lengths of 2-by-4 or 1-by-4 lumber. That way, she can roll up the sides of the plastic sheeting around the wood and set it on top, so she has easy access for planting, watering and harvesting.
Covering the beds also helps keep moose out, and adding inexpensive netting can keep birds away, which are particularly a problem if planting strawberries.
Chris stayed a little longer to answer questions. When’s the best time to build and plant a lasagna bed, a workshop participant wanted to know. They can be built and planted all summer long, but now’s the best time because the sooner they’re planted, the more they’ll produce.
Do they cost a lot to make? Not if you’re suitably cheap about it. The layers are just gathered materials. Newspaper and cardboard can be fished out of recycling bins at the landfill or transfer stations. Chris had some PVC lying around and knows where to collect scrap lumber and rebar.
“You can buy it, but why would you do that? Just find people that have that kind of stuff. Construction yards frequently have that kind of thing from doing concrete work,” she said,
How often do the beds need to be watered? If the beds are covered, about once a week will do. If they’re left open, wind may dry them out faster. Just check the plants — if they look wilted, it’s time to water.
Other than watering, what needs to be done to keep them going? Just keep adding layers.
And will they really grow? Yes.
Even if you don’t know anything about gardening? (Yes, that one was from me.)
“Well, you do now.”
For more information, and a schedule of upcoming gardening club workshops and events, visit http://www.cenpengardenclub.org.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor for the Redoubt Reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com.