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How to bake successful lasagna garden beds

“We each have an archetypal lasagna.”

— Anna Hezel, “Lasagna: A Baked Pasta Cookbook,” 2019

One of my favorite comfort foods on chilly nights is a big plate of steaming lasagna, and I have to agree with author Anna Hezel that I always make it the same way — the way my mom made lasagna, and probably the way her mom made lasagna, too.

However, Hezel wants her readers to think outside of the pasta box when it comes to lasagna. “We want to think of lasagna not just as a set of Grandma’s recipes that is frozen in time and space, but as a dish that continues to evolve, warp, bubble up and melt as it sails around the globe and passes from generation to generation.”

Along with classic lasagna recipes, Hezel and her co-editors at Taste magazine present several enticing “Not Classics” that emphasize garden-fresh vegetables and herbs: Beet-Ricotta Lasagna with Brown Butter & Poppy Seeds, Sweet Pea Lasagna with Mint Pesto, Roasted Squash Lasagna with Leeks & Sage, and Sausage-Fennel Lasagna Rolls, to name a few.

Hezel’s book demonstrates that Grandma’s meat-and-cheese lasagna has certainly evolved. Despite different ingredients, however, layering is still the key to making a luscious lasagna. It was the layering process that prompted a gardener named Patricia Lanza to coin the phrase “lasagna gardening” in 1998.

In her book, “Lasagna Gardening,” Lanza describes a layering system for creating new garden beds that requires minimal digging and no tilling. Interestingly, Lanza says inspiration for lasagna gardening came from watching her grandma prepare for planting by hitching her mule to an old plow and guiding the mule through rocky soil to make straight rows.

Lanza writes, “But what I needed to do was adapt those lesson I’d learned to a new way of gardening: a way to have the best soil with the least effort. Lasagna gardening was my answer.”

Also called sheet mulching or sheet composting, lasagna gardens are built by layering organic materials and leaving them in place over the winter to decompose. In the spring, the result is humus-rich, moisture-retentive garden soil, full of micro-organisms and earthworms, ready for planting vegetables, herbs and flowers.

With fallen leaves and garden debris readily available, autumn is a great time to build new garden beds by using the layering method. Here’s how to do it:

Define the area for your new garden bed by mowing or weed-whacking grass or other vegetation as low as possible, and then either mark off the bed with stakes and string or use a hand shovel to dig a shallow trench around the perimeter.

If the soil is compacted, use a digging fork to loosen the top six inches for better drainage.

Completely cover the bed by overlapping three to six layers of newspaper or two layers of cardboard to smother remaining grass or weeds. Over time, the newspaper and cardboard will break down and become part of the garden soil.

Soak the newspaper or cardboard with water from the hose, or wait for rain, and then add a thin layer of nitrogen fertilizer such as linseed meal (flax).

Add alternating layers of “brown” and “green” materials two to four inches thick, and sprinkle a thin layer of nitrogen fertilizer every few layers to speed up the composting process. Brown materials such as dead leaves, small twigs, straw, shredded newspaper and coffee grounds add carbon to the soil. Green materials such as fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps and green plant debris add moisture and nitrogen. Bedding material from horses, chickens, rabbits, goats and sheep is also good for adding nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic material to the layers.

When the layers reach 18-24 inches high, water again and finish with a top layer of brown material or aged compost. Burlap bags can also be used to keep everything in place until planting time. During particularly wet weather, some gardeners recommend covering the pile with plastic, which will help to retain heat and speed up decomposition.

Come spring, the materials in a finished lasagna bed will no longer be recognizable and the bed will smell like fresh earth. Seeds can be directly sown into the bed or seedlings can be transplanted. Add mulch around the plantings, and next year add just a few more layers of organic material to freshen up the bed for the following growing season.

The trick to lasagna gardening is stockpiling organic materials, or finding local resources. As Lanza notes, “Most of us spend a lifetime disposing of our waste products from home and garden as quickly as possible. But once you start lasagna gardening, you’ll realize that you’ve been throwing away valuable organic matter — and paying for the privilege.”

Just as we each have an archetypal lasagna in mind as pasta lovers, gardeners often picture an archetypal raised garden bed with a wooden frame and soil hauled in from elsewhere. Lasagna gardening, however, encourages us to rethink our waste disposal practices and our usual way of creating garden beds. Are you ready to think outside of the garden box?

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.

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Fall to-do list

  • Winterize irrigation system
  • Test soil pH; amend as needed
  • Apply copper sprays to fruit/nut trees, cane berries and grape vines
  • Protect frost-sensitive plants by covering or bringing indoors (check for insects first)
  • Cut perennial herbs back to half their height; cut artichoke plants to six inches
  • Still time in November to plant garlic and shallots
  • Continue succession planting lettuce and other leafy greens
  • Mulch garden beds that don’t have overwintering crops/cover crops with shredded leaves or straw