help: lasagna garden too brown!

Discussion in 'Soils, Fertilizers and Composting' started by fern2, Mar 5, 2007.

  1. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    Hi,

    Last fall I started a 'lasagna garden' in an area of my yard (previously =lawn + clay soil) that I'm going to be filling with Pacific Northwest native plants in as natural an arrangement as possible.

    Recognising that the soil beneath a native forest probably doesn't contain the same balance of 'greens' & 'browns' as your average garden, I decided to construct my 'lasagna' using layers of: cardboard, coir (instead of peat), lots of leaves (mostly brown, some green), grass cuttings (a bit), thin layers of 'Sea Soil' + mushroom manure + store-bought compost (couldn't afford much), a sprinkling of ashes & coffee grounds, a bit of well-processed homemade compost, medium-fine douglas fir & cedar mulches, plus some forest fines & *very* decayed cedar/fir (=from a local construction site where they're planning to pave over the forest - yuck!).

    After building the layers up about 8', I added some moss & licorice fern-covered logs and the hardiest of my native plants (salal, oregon grape, deer ferns, snowberry, etc), cushioning each rootball in store-bought 'outdoor soil' to ensure they'd have enough nutrients to last the winter. I also set up the layers so that the shady/wet side of the garden got most of the woody mulch & the sunny/dry side got very little of it - hopefully mimicking the gradient you'd find moving from a deep coastal forest into open meadows & forest edges.

    Well, all of those plants are doing great, the leaf mold is working hard, there are plenty of worms & mushrooms, and even a thin layer of moss in places (see the photos). So I'm pretty happy with the garden's progress so far. However I'm now wanting to add in some less hardy plants (shooting stars, camas, columbine, etc) and I'm concerned that the soil may be too heavily weighted toward carbon-rich 'browns' (even in the sunnier section) and that it contains far too little nitrogen-rich 'greens'.
    How can I fix this without having to buy compost from a store or to wait until the city (Vancouver) gives away free compost in May? Is it ok to just add a layer of chopped up kitchen scraps (straight out of the kitchen) & then cover that with some leaves?? Or do I need to let the scraps 'stew' for months before it's safe to add them to the soil? (note: my compost pile isn't very big & is v. hard to turn - so I'd rather not rely on its ability to process scraps quickly). I don't want to have to resort to fertiliser, but I also don't want to starve my plants.

    Can anyone suggest some natural nitrogen-rich materials that I can get for free and can add right on top of my garden 'lasagna' RIGHT AWAY so the worms & detritivores can get to work on it?? All my little spring buds are already pushing through the soil in their pots and I'd like to get them into their permanent homes asap....

    Thanks muchly!!
     

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  2. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    Basically you are planting a compost pile. Each species has different ranges of soil types and nutient levels it is adapted to. The salal for instance, visible in your photo will not want a high N situation at all. On the other hand the deer fern nearby appears to be N deficient. You might want to look at a library for a copy of the UBC Press book INDICATOR PLANTS OF COASTAL BRITISH COLUMBIA to check and compare the soil and exposure requirements of the different kinds you have so far, as well as those you wish to add to the collection.

    I would have just added suitable-seeming topsoil and planted in that, without the layers of buried detritus--which are going to cause the whole thing to settle substantially as they decompose and shrink. Nature doesn't bury layers of fresh organic litter alternating with soil on a routine basis, the normal process involves organic debris falling to the ground and being processed there, with gradually less organic and more mineral soil occurring as you go deeper. The waste processing organisms are concentrated near the surface, where the air is.
     
  3. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    OK, I can't stand it any longer. What is a lasagna garden????? Especially now that I see Ron's reply Basically you are planting a compost pile
     
  4. Gordo

    Gordo Active Member 10 Years

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    Alternating layers of different types of compost material ("browns and greens") often laid down over unimproved soil to create a medium into which plants can be placed fairly soon after. Usually this requires copious amounts of organic matter, but amounts to a method of improving soil that requires relatively less labor than might otherwise be required.
     
  5. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    Thanks, Gordo...sheesh, I'm old enough to call it a Ruth Stout garden (tho' she used just spoiled hay on top). But I finally get it. I've gone off lasagna for a while though.
     
  6. Gordo

    Gordo Active Member 10 Years

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    OK, now I'm curious - who's Ruth Stout?
     
  7. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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  8. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    Forgot to add that she lived to 96 years of age...no doubt from eating vegetables she grew herself! And the fresh air and exercise (minus rototilling and weeding).
     
  9. Gordo

    Gordo Active Member 10 Years

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    Yup, that looks like the "Lasagna" method. Interesting article - I have no quibble with her methods (including gardening in the nude) except for her confused ideas about alcohol. To me, gardening just seems to work better with beer.
     
  10. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    Whoa...I didn't know that! It's been about 30 years since I studied her innovative gardening techniques (...guess it could be called unencumbered gardening?)

    Following her mulching technique for the family's 60 x 50-foot vegetable garden, every few years I'd haul ~4 tons of spoiled (free) hay from a nearby ranch, loading/unloading/spreading it over the garden "like books". The process is truly unmatched by any other method...and I've tried most of 'em.

    And once spread, there's lots of time for beer.
     
  11. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    Thanks for info & advice RonB!! However I figured that, for example, since I regularly see salal & deer ferns growing right next to each other in Pacific Spirit Park (& elsewhere), they'd have very similar soil needs.
    But I'm curious what it was about the deer fern that suggested it's N deficient, especially since that particular plant was a recent purchase (its colour & twisted fronds haven't changed since I bought it). However, since I still need to get some more deer ferns for elsewhere in the garden, I'd love to know what to avoid at the nursery...

    Actually, I only used the compost, soil, & manure in the bottom layers, and then stuck to leaves & mulch/wood after that - so hopefully I haven't screwed up the garden's detritivore activity too much.

    But, assuming that at least some of the plants (perhaps the sun-lovers?) will want more nitrogen than my 'lasagna' will provide, what should I add on top of my layers? Is it ok to add early-stage kitchen scraps or should I just stick to adding a thick layer of green leaves?

    (and btw, I don't think that just adding topsoil would have improved the soil in my yard enough to successfully grow much of anything - that dirt hadn't been tilled, fertilised, boosted, or had anything but grass growing on it for the last 80yrs... it was hard, grey, highly acidic)

    Thanks for your help.
     
  12. Michael F

    Michael F Paragon of Plants Forums Moderator 10 Years

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    A garden made with sheets of pasta.

    I'd guess the poster's problems are due to not using pure durum wheat?
     
  13. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    Covering existing soil with hay is simply mulching. It works in comparatively hot summer climates but mulching vegetable plots out here may not always be desirable, as it retards warming of the soil in summer. Otherwise mulching is a good general practice that should be automatic with serious gardeners and all others wishing to get good results. The problem with the lasagna concept, for starters, is the unnatural alternating layers of debris and soil. The native plants should not require a vegetable garden-like soil condition, plus one would normally try to acquire 'good' topsoil for berming that did not have a severe nutrient deficiency (or wasn't supposed to, anyway, in the case of 'manufactured' "topsoil"). It should always be perfectly adequate for berming, with the condition of the existing soil below not relevant to those within the berm.

    Since it was recently acquired the fern probably came with an N deficiency from sitting in the retail yard too long in unfertilized soilless potting media.
     
  14. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    fern, forgive the mirth...a bit of a rarity here (but sometimes sorely needed).
    Nevertheless, fern, I've seen much discussion (and had some experience) re composting. The consensus seems to be to compost matter separately in a bin or structure until it's aged (which you have done), then apply finished compost around the dripline of plants. That way the plant's roots aren't competing for nutrients with vegetative matter that need their own bacteria to break THEM down.

    As was mentioned, nature's way is to drop leaves on the ground (not bury them), where the decomposition process begins. This mulching serves also to minimize soil erosion from heavy rainstorms, as well as cooling the soil's surface, minimizing evaporation, also bringing earthworms up closer to the surface to aid in the decomp.

    Perhaps the lasagna method is a good one. My feeling is how will you know? Dig things up every month to see how it's going? Sounds like a heck of a lot of work, no matter how bad the soil was.

    But I would not add fresh kitchen wastes to the top...you'll encourage critters.
    And if you have lots of green leaves, why not run your lawnmower (with grass-catcher attached) over them a few times, to chop them up, before mulching around plants. Using lots of green leaves (thickly) will tend to keep any beneficial rain from penetrating into the soil, unless you're on very flat ground.

    I think you need two or three compost bins...keep transfering from one to the next until finished compost fills up one, a "working pile" in the second, and fresh kitchen scraps in the third.

    and MichaelF...you are full of oats, aren't you?
     
  15. oscar

    oscar Active Member

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    he's nuts more like
     
  16. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    No worries. I only wish the process had been as simple & silly as throwing down pasta over the old grass. Unfortunately, it seems that I opted for just about the most labour-intensive & time-consuming soil improvement method on the face of the planet (involving a few weeks of work!). So I guess it's no surprise that my lasagna recipe was wrong too (despite all the research I did before starting). Arg.
    What's even more frustrating is that I opted for the lasagna route because I couldn't afford to buy enough topsoil or compost to adequately cover that part of the garden (~15'x40') and because I figured that letting the detritivores "do the work for me" (ha!) would be more natural & effective than prefab soils. Guess not, eh?

    Ok, so if we assume that my only option is to modify the set-up I've got now (instead of starting from scratch again or buying $500 worth of new topsoil), then I guess I'll be begging local lawn crews for their bags of mulched grass & leaves for the next few months since I don't have enough grass or deciduous leaves to affect the N levels over that large of an area.
    And, of course, I'll also have to set up a reasonably sized 3-bin system for my compost too, as suggested by kia796... I ignorantly bought a big stationary bin a while back and have regretted the purchase ever since - all the quality compost gets crushed at the bottom and I can't get it out. It's like the Bermuda Triangle of Compost in there: no matter how many bucketfuls of garden & kitchen scraps I put in the top each week, little or nothing ever comes out the bottom (even though the whole thing is wall-to-wall worms on the inside).

    How frustrating.

    Well, thank you all for your helpful suggestions. I really appreciate the hints & info. Hopefully I can actually get some of them to work for me. Cross your fingers... :)
     
  17. Ron B

    Ron B Paragon of Plants 10 Years

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    Most of the native stuff won't need or want high N levels, but that depends on what kind each plant is. Some want low N, some moderate and some high. Where each species included (probably all the ones you have are) falls is shown in the book I suggested.
     
  18. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    Fern2, don't despair, that's what gardening is for most of us...trial and error, then improvement. I do agree though that your method was probably THE most labour intensive I've heard. But apart from that, there'd be nothing to look at, to gauge whether it was successful?

    Not to discourage you....BUT lawn crews' grass clippings might be full of weed'n'feed chemical residue, not something you'd want spread on a veggie garden that your family eats.

    There is, however, GOOD news...don't throw out your one stationary bin...simply build two adjacent bins (chicken wire/boards/whatever). A poster here somewhere suggested (with the stationary bin) a pipe, with holes drilled in its length, inserted vertically into the middle of the pile. That allows oxygen into the center.
    Regardless of the bin or self-built type you have, there's still quite a bit of turning involved. Great exercise with a pitchfork, and most of the "aromas" are quite wonderful.

    The trick with composting (which I've not yet mastered, but any effort helps) is apparently getting the layers nearly correct...veggie wastes, dry material, veggie wastes, grass clippings (from your own unsprayed lawn), shredded newspapers (which we recently discussed), a thin layer of fallen (small) leaves, etc. etc.

    You're lucky indeed the whole thing is wall-to-wall worms on the inside.
    Hopefully your compost is in full sun, give it time.

    I've got NO worms in mine, they headed south I think 'coz winter was so cold, PLUS I have too many unshredded leaves in mine. It's a brute to keep moisture in it to build up the "smouldering heat" that's so effective.

    In Vancouver, if you're in a snazzy subdivision for instance, there may be some reluctance to build compost structures, but hey, it's better for your plants. If you're on a larger piece of land, it's not quite so important to have a neat-as-a-pin yard. And if you're really lucky, you're on acreage and have piles all over the place (without any structure).

    I say the uglier the bins, the nicer the compost!
     
  19. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    I've got a hold on "Indicator Plants" through my local library but it's already been checked out until the 23rd, so I may have to wait a few weeks before I can read it. Arg. Hope the potted plants can wait.

    Perhaps the best method for my composting would be to keep each 'pile' inside a (lidded?) container that's small enough to flip & turn by hand - like a half-sized garbage can with lots of holes punched in it. You see, I have a bad back and have trouble making much headway with the pitchfork (especially in the tall, narrow container I use now). And no, there's really nowhere in my garden where a container would get full sun all day- and the only spot with even 1/2 a day of sun is already taken up by flowers & plants. So my compost bin is up in a shaded but moist corner of the yard. Can't do much better than that I'm afraid.

    Thanks for the reminder about the grass though - our garden has been chemical free for decades now but I often forget that there are lots of people out there who still drown their property in chemicals every month. Crazy.

    Thanks again guys. As frustrating as this has been (because I've done so much the hard way), your suggestions really have been very helpful.

    ps: Kia796 - not only did I break my back setting up all the layers etc, but I also took ages removing the old sod & breaking up the hard clay soil beneath it... only to cover it with cardboard & layers, ne'er to be seen again. Smart, eh?
     
  20. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    Pitchforks are a tough go in those tall narrow bins. I usually end up knocking the top half of the frame loose (but I get to see the compost halfway down), and then spend the rest of the day trying to get the half to lock again.

    Your compost is shaded...that's it! To get the right temps to "cook" it (but not the earthworms), you need moisture AND direct sun. That's why your kitchen scraps aren't decomposing quickly enough. With tons of worms, it'll still work, albeit a longer time frame. Maybe someone here knows the technical stuff about earthworms being more sluggish in cooler ground...maybe even not as hungry? Just a guess.

    I've seen the type of composter you're speaking of. It was handmade by a former neighbour, he welded a small pipe to each end of the lidded/clamped shut metal garbage can, placing each end over a stand that was bolted securely to a heavy plywood sheet. He welded a handle at one end and he'd turn it 1/4 turn each day, securing the position with a bungee cord. Jack-of-all-trades, this fellow, but while he got compost in record time (it was in full sun), he said the volume was never enough.

    No wonder you have a bad back! There are lots of materials you can add to the surface without ever picking up a shovel, except to plant your seedlings! Save your back (and time) -- compost from the top down. It WILL eventually work on clay, and the benefit is that you'll be able to walk on it immediately (versus the messy shoes from wet clay).

    Heck, I'd get started immediately with 10 or so pages of newspapers (lay 'em down, wet them, keep them wet or they'll fly), then as lawn mowing season starts (year round in Vancouver?), place grass clippings 6 to 8 inches thick on top of the newspaper, coffee grounds, shredded leaves, whatever will "look OK". Reserve the unsightly veggie peeling stuff for the compost bin. Everything will pack down to a couple of inches in short order as you continue through the garden. Keep adding as it packs down. No pitchfork, no shovel!

    For a year or so, can you plant your potted favourites in a temporary spot?

    It WILL work. Good luck to you. Good riddance to lasagna!
     
  21. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    Only got a sec, so I'll just reply to one bit of your post. I tend to think that my worms are doing a good job, even though they're in the shade. If they weren't wouldn't the bin be overflowing with all the scraps & garden bits I throw in each week?? I think a big part of the problem with that bin (in terms of not being able to get any finished compost out the bottom) is that there's a layer of rooty material that's clogged up the works 2/3 of the way down. Obviously that'd get broken down if the bin was warmer or if I could turn the entire contents of the bin via pitchfork. But even so, shouldn't the bin run out of space eventually since I never remove any finished compost from it (2x in 8yrs)?? Like I said, it's a Bermuda Triangle in there...

    (ps: this is the type of compost bin I've got, except I think mine's a bit taller).
     
  22. fern2

    fern2 Active Member

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    Another question: I just found out that I can get compost from the city year-round (for a fee, but less than if store bought), not just in May. So what if I laid down a thick layer of N-rich compost on top of my lasagna?? Will that help or is that equivalent to alternating between leaves & soil (which Rob B warned me against). Or should I stick to adding a new layer of grass & green leaves, as previously discussed.
     
  23. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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    fern2, your bin SHOULD pack down with all the earthworms working in there...even with adding stuff on top. The rooty material will eventually break down too, but will take a lot longer than green and small stuff. I've got the same compost as your link, and find it's a little small when adding grass clippings weekly.

    Have you considered taking your bin apart (to look at the bottom layers, and maybe get some good stuff out)? Perhaps buy a second bin, place it beside the existing one, and transfer stuff (don't lose the worms) into that as you separate finished from unfinished compost.

    Will leave the second part of your question to Ron B (he's way more knowledgeable...)
     
  24. kia796

    kia796 Active Member

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  25. Gordo

    Gordo Active Member 10 Years

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    As a final note to this thread, I'd just like to congratulate you on your efforts so far, as well as lessons learned. With respect to what you've planted so far, I'd guess that these natives will do quite well with little additional help. One thing I noticed in the photos, which is something that I and most other gardeners are often guilty of, - one-a-those syndrome, planting fewer plants of one species than might be required in a given area to have a substantial visual impact. I would also caution you against planting additional species in too close a proximity to those already planted, as this may actually detract from the overall effect, especially since salal, in particular, will easily overpower most plants planted near by.

    Good luck on your future planting.
     

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