Lasagna Gardening

Layering Debris to Create Compost

Everyone’s busy with holiday preparations, family, and social obligations, so dealing with big garden projects doesn’t seem like such a priority right now. Here’s a method of making compost, though, that can take just a few hours at the start and yield great results without a backward glance.

To make compost, appropriate ratios of green and dry ingredients with a minor dusting of a nitrogenous catalyst in the form of animal manure are piled together and then mixed as they break down, resulting in biologically active and organically balanced compost. At this time of year, there may be a large amount of garden debris in the form of leaves from deciduous trees and clippings from summer and fall annuals, as well as those of perennials that have been cut back for their winter rest period. Given the bounty of plant parts needing to be composted and the lack of much time to foster their transformation into usable compost, here is a useful method that not only allays guilt at not spending time in the garden, but also results in rich compost in time to dress your garden next year. It is a fine way to recycle the organic debris from the garden and then put it back in an easily assimilated form, and it requires a lot less elbow grease than the traditional method.

It’s known variously as sheet composting or, the by more engaging title, lasagna composting. The main idea is the same as building any compost pile. Layer dry ingredients such as fallen leaves, finely shredded woody stems, and weeds (straw works well and is very inexpensive if more of this element is required) with green clippings from your lawn mower, kitchen vegetable scraps like carrot and potato peels, or old algae and water weeds pulled out of the pond. Compost will happen with just these two elements, but to give it a kick start and have a finished product that packs more of a punch as fertilizer, add some well-rotted manure from cows, chickens, pigs, goats, or horses. Be aware that if you get fresh droppings from some of these farm animals (especially show horses) toxic products to repel insect pests used in their feed and stalls may persist in their droppings and can continue to kill bacteria and other insects even in a compost pile. In fast composting, the well-built pile will heat up, and because it is turned several times, it will heat repeatedly so that all these chemicals will be disarmed by the time the compost is finished. With the lasagna method, where piles do not heat up repeatedly, time may or may not do the same favor, so use only clean (no bacterial or fungal pathogens in evidence) materials. Insect pests will most likely not survive, but severely infested material should be disposed of elsewhere for safe measure.

The finished compost pile will resemble a delicious pan of lasagna with its layers of pasta, cheeses, and sauce. In this instance, the lasagna consists of several layers of each type of organic debris, which helpful microorganisms will find a delectable meal. Make the layers not too thin, not too thick; a few inches of each type of material works best with the dry materials a little thicker than the green ones. Just keep alternating the layers until all of your excess material is used up. Remember that those microscopic bacteria and fungi that do the decomposition of any compost pile require a humid and oxygenated environment. For best bacterial activity, make sure that the pile is uniformly moist as it is layered. Dampen any really dry material as the pile is built, but not enough to make it soggy, and alternate fine and coarse textures of organic material to ensure adequate air spaces throughout the pile. A final topping of soil will form a good cap to keep everything together (like that final dressing of parmesan cheese on lasagna). And that’s all there is to it.

This method is great for creating compost for use anywhere in the garden, but it is also a fine way to start a new bed. For example, if you are ready to get rid of a patch of lawn, simply build a lasagna compost pile on top of the area and the grass will be killed as the good planting soil on top is forming. Some advocate beginning the pile with a layer of corrugated cardboard or several layers of newspaper right on top of the grass to really smother it from the start. When the pile has broken down, you are ready to plant. Turn the compost into the soil below and put in the new garden. No herbicides, no hauling of materials, and the digging will be much easier.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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