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Lasagna Composting: The Lazy Gardener’s Secret To Great Soil

I’ll admit it. I have a compost box, but I’m a lousy composter. Every spring, I make a renewed commitment to manage the compost successfully. I layer nitrogen and carbon materials, water the pile until it’s as wet as a wrung-out sponge, and turn it once a week. At least, that’s what I do until about mid-July. Then I lose interest. The compost bin dries out and the decomposition process screeches to a halt. Sure, eventually it all decomposes, but it takes a lot longer than my county extension office claims it will.

A few years ago, though, a friend introduced me to lasagna composting, also known as sheet composting. Now this was something to get excited about! Imagine all the benefits of composting with almost none of the work. Lasagna composting involves spreading all the materials directly on the garden in layers thin enough that they break down on their own with no watering or turning.

“Wow,” you’re probably thinking. “That does sound great! Why would anyone use traditional composting?” Before you dismantle your compost box, keep a few points about sheet composting in mind:

  • Sheet composting takes six months or more, so it’s not a good strategy if you want to plant soon.
  • You can add materials gradually, but sheet composting is more effective if you build the pile within two or three weeks and then leave it be. You might have difficulty accumulating enough materials to make a lasagna compost for a large garden area.
  • Sheet composting isn’t exactly attractive. Most homesteaders won’t care, but if you’re homesteading on a suburban lot with a picky homeowner’s association, others might.

So when should you use sheet composting? I use the technique every fall to improve the soil in my vegetable garden. Fall is the perfect time to start a lasagna compost because the garden beds are empty and will lie fallow for several months. Between the fallen leaves, garden debris and grass clippings, I usually have a lot of materials available in the fall, as well. The lasagna compost also prevents soil erosion, an important consideration during the long, windy winters on the Colorado plains. Read on for my recipe for compost lasagna.

Compost Lasagna

  • Sunday newspaper or old cardboard

Nitrogen Sources

  • Rotted manure
  • Grass clippings
  • Garden debris (avoid diseased plants)
  • Weeds (without the weed seeds)
  • Coffee grounds
  • Vegetable scraps

Carbon Sources

  • Dry leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Corn stalks
  • Pine needles
  • Straw

Start by removing any plant debris from the soil. Place three or four layers of newspaper over the soil and dampen the layers with a garden hose. Spread one inch of manure over the newspaper, followed by one inch of dry carbon materials, such as leaves or pine needles. Keep building the pile, alternating one inch of nitrogen materials with one inch of carbon materials. Wet each layer thoroughly as you go. Build the pile until it is at least six inches high and end with a two-inch carbon layer. Ending with a carbon layer discourages insects from laying their eggs in grass clippings or manure.

Now for the lazy part: simply leave the compost alone and let Mother Nature do her magic. The decomposition process happens slowly because the pile doesn’t generate heat, but by next spring, the compost will be finished. When complete, sheet compost resembles rich earth and you won’t recognize individual materials. Till it under, and you’re ready to start planting.

Like all compost, sheet compost adds nutrients and microorganisms to the soil, while aerating it and improving its texture. When collecting your materials, keep a few things in mind. First, make sure you use straw and not hay, which is full of weed seeds and will cause more problems than it solves. Straw is simply grain residue and doesn’t contain weed seeds. When using newspapers, avoid using the shiny inserts, which may contain toxic dyes. If you’re short on materials, scrounge around. Appliance stores often give away old cardboard, and you can find all the coffee grounds you need at your local coffee shop. Haul manure from a nearby dairy if you don’t have animals, or as a last resort, buy it bagged.

Starting A Vegetable Garden

Sheet composting is also a great way to start a vegetable garden bed (or even flower beds), and you won’t even have to remove sod or weeds. Set your mower to the lowest setting and mow down any grass or weeds on the surface. Use a pitchfork to fluff up the soil slightly.

Layer the sheet lasagna, using exactly the same technique that you’d use to improve an existing garden. Instead of building the pile to six inches, though, build it to twelve or even eighteen inches. This size takes longer to decompose, but it kills any grass or weeds on the surface and it improves uncultivated soil quickly.

If the sheet lasagna becomes very soggy during rainy weather, cover it with black plastic. Secure the plastic loosely at the edges with rocks or bricks. The plastic protects the pile so nutrients don’t leach out. It also warms up the compost so it decomposes more quickly.

In the spring, till the compost into the earth and smooth it out with a rake. You’re ready for your first year of planting! You’ll have rich, fertile earth, full of earthworms and nutrients. Sheet composting, after all, mimics Mother Nature’s own efforts. Think of a forest floor, containing many, many layers of plants, dead leaves, and animal droppings, all slowly brewing together to bring new life to another growing season. Sheet composting has been used by traditional farmers for hundreds of years to restore fertility and manage organic materials. Bring this old practice to your garden for the easiest compost around.

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