No-till garden from scratch

Many Master Gardeners have related successful experiences with the lasagna garden method of creating new garden beds. Pat Lanza has popularized these techniques in her books, which I am determined to read. The concept is simple: cover areas of turf with newspaper or cardboard and then apply layers of organic materials, like shredded leaves, grass clippings, and compost. Over time, everything breaks down and so that you can plant seeds and seedlings directly into the bed without digging and turning the soil.

This fits perfectly with sustainable gardening- build up and conserve organic matter and prevent soil erosion and nutrient run-off. The added bonus is no weeds! But as a person who loves to see, smell, and feel soil, I was having a bit of a tough time embracing the concept. Well, we put it to an initial test this spring in one of the 4 new beds at the Grow It Eat It demo garden at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Ellicott City.

Newspaper was laid on an 8-ft. X 8-ft. area of turf in April and then covered with a 2-in. layer of LeafGro- a commercial yard waste compost. This picture was taken May 8. The grass clippings on the bed are from weed whacking the walkways (we then covered the walkways with shredded pine bark mulch). The edges of the newspaper are still visible.

June 12- bush bean, Swiss chard, kale, and cucumber were direct seeded in the LeafGro in late May, and are growing well. There are no signs of the newspaper or turf, other than decomposing roots.

Linda Branagan is the Howard Co. Master Gardener tending this demo garden. We’ll report on yields later. For now, I’d give this method a big thumbs-up.

6 Comments on “No-till garden from scratch

  1. hi folks! i've been reading for a while but i think i haven't commented before. my husband and i grow vegetables at our home in mt. rainier. love the blog!

    we've used pat lanza's method in a couple of our garden beds now, with pretty good results. the first no-till bed we made was our tomato bed, which is several layers of leafgro, composted horse manure (from the park police stables in mitchellville), coir, home compost and topsoil. i added more to the bed this spring. the newspaper has completely disappeared!

    the shallower beds (just leafgro, or leafgro with a little manure) have worked well so far for kale, radishes, spinach and flowers. we've got a few dwarf melon plants started among the radishes now, and hopefully those will grow if we give them a little extra compost a couple times this summer.


  2. Jon,

    I am suprised at how fast the newspaper decomposed.

    I have always been worried about using commercial yard waste compost on my vegetable garden because I don't know if there are chemicals in it that I don't want on my vegetables. For example, home owners may pour on the herbicides or insectides and then mow the lawn and their tainted clippings end up in the commercial yard waste compost. Should I worry about this?

    How about chemicals in the newspaper or cardboard?

    I do use commercial pesticides so I do have some tolerance for chemcials. So relatively speaking, should I worry about chemicals in the compost or newspaper?


  3. Hi Maria- don't forget to put your garden on our map (on Grow It eat It home page).

    Hey Dale- LeafGro is a top quality compost produced by Maryland Environmental Services (MES) using relatively rigorous standards. It's produced primarily from grass clippings and tree leaves. Commonly used lawn herbicides applied to grass clippings that are collected and composted are broken down through exposure to water, air, high temperature, and microrganisms.

    There are some very persistent herbicides that have been shown to contaminate composts- aminopyralid and clopyralid. These growth regulators have made their way through the digestive tracts of cattle and horses, survived the composting process and then damaged vegetable plants after the contaminated compost was applied to the field or garden.

    I don't know if MES is regularly testing for heavy metals, herbicide residues, and other potential contaminants. I will find out and report back to the blog.

    Newspaper and soy-based newspaper inks pose no known health risks to gardeners. Avoid slick, colored advertising pages.

    Legitimate concerns over possible contaminants in manure and compost have led more gardeners to rely more heavily on shredded leaves and cover crops for improving soils and supplying nutrients.


  4. Great looking garden.

    At my end, have only tried no-till over old lawn to make shrub beds before but not for gardens yet.

    One consideration about no-till is whether to lay sheets or just lay the mulch. Recently, I put together a new article separating sustainable gardening from gardening sustainably. It gets into paper and cardboard not being recycled, and how that may affect energy use or pollution to make new paper. It all depends on the garden, where its located and how big the paper or cardboard layer was.


  5. Interesting post. Could you report on how the garden is doing now? We're thinking of adopting the method in our Central Texas garden.


  6. Doing very well. As expected, lots of winter annual weeds still germinate and grow from fall-spring but the weed problem would be worse if we were tilling the soil each year and bringing up new weed seeds. We only use hand tools in this small demonstration garden so the practice of covering the soil with newspaper and compost and planting through them has worked well. We had pepper and tomato in the two beds last year and right now they are planted in warm-season leafy greens- amaranth, Malabar spinach, Swiss chard, sweet potato. Add an inch or so of fresh compost each year to the beds or grow a cover crop for part of the year, to improve soil quality and fertility.


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