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Lasagne beds

Lasagne beds

Lasagne beds, despite their name, will not allow you to grow lasagne but they are a wonderful method of no-dig gardening as Trevor Bridge explains…

We have been growing vegetables at Le Fayard for ten years now and although constant cultivation and weeding has reduced the amount of weeds in the potager, it still involves a fair amount of labour. Jocelyn and I love being outside in the fresh air and whilst we appreciate the exercise we get from gardening, we have a lot of garden and any labour saving ideas are welcome, so long as they don’t involve the use of chemicals, something we don’t subscribe to whatsoever. 

A further problem we have is the need to water our plot, and the drought conditions we encountered this summer brought home how vulnerable our plants are. We have an ancient underground citerne, a truly wonderful construction with a stone barrel vaulted roof, which stores water collected from the roofs of our house and barn. Even though it holds over 40 cubic metres this was insufficient for our needs this year. We refuse to use tap water, seeing it a waste of a resource that has been expensively treated for drinking purposes. Instead, we tried an experiment which was highly successful and something we will certainly continue with and expand in the future. For the very first time we went in for no-dig gardening and prepared a lasagne bed, otherwise known as sheet composting or layer gardening.

To be honest Jocelyn and her father Bill, who for many years had a prize winning allotment in the Scottish Borders, have long been extolling the virtues of no-dig gardening. This was mainly based on their experiences on family holidays at Talmine on the Sutherland coast which is almost as far north as one can get in Scotland. They used to stay with Hector who came from a long line of Highland crofters and they would help him with his lazy beds; a form of no-dig cultivation using peat sods and seaweed. The lasagne method is similar in that it is no-dig but makes use of a variety of materials. Jocelyn and Bill have long been trying to persuade me to take up such a method, but I originate from the South-West Lancashire heartland of gardening with its rich loamy soil where such methods are not used.

I even remember gangs of men hand hoeing rows of crops when I was young. I consequently took a lot of converting, but I wish I’d taken heed of their suggestions earlier!

Although we placed ours on an existing fertile vegetable plot, it is also a method that can be put into practice on barren, sandy and stony ground or even compacted clay. It can be used on areas that you would have thought impossible to produce a crop on and the lasagne method is ideal if you are renovating or have recently moved house and want to start a potager easily. The beauty of this method is that it is a short cut that doesn’t involve any digging or rotovating. Lasagne beds are not complicated; you prepare the ground by simply adding layer upon layer over a period of time then top it off and cover it over. Everything is recycled in one spot and it works incredibly well.

Normally we rotovate or dig over our vegetable plots at the end of the season and then let the winter rains and frosts break down the soil. For our lasagne bed, however, we omitted this and as a result its surface had become quite weedy. In early spring we simply mowed the weeds down and then, starting at one end, began to lay cardboard directly on the surface, remembering to remove any sticky tape or other non-organic material. On top of the cardboard we then placed grass clippings and kitchen waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps, peelings, coffee grounds, tea bags and tea leaves, straw from our hen cabin, prunings, spent flowers, weeds and any other compostable organic matter. The process of decomposition is speeded up if you can alternate layers of ‘browns’; dry material such as cardboard, shredded newspapers, autumn leaves and pine needles, with ‘greens’; living material such as grass clippings, garden trimmings and vegetable scraps. It is recommended to have your brown layer about twice as thick as your green layer. This helps to create a balanced state of aeration and moisture content, but there’s no need to be fastidious about it. We always started with our layer of cardboard and placed grass clippings on top, but afterwards everything was thrown on quite haphazardly as it was not always possible to obtain the suggested quantities of each type of material. Newspapers and cardboard are ‘earthworm magnets’ and therefore an important base for the bed, but we placed the other material on top in quite a topsy-turvy manner yet it worked well. If you live close to the sea, seaweed can be added. Some friends contributed by saving all of their grass clippings and garden clippings for us.

At the end of the summer we obtained a trailer load of compost that had been made from déchetterie waste and spread it over the bed in a thick layer, about 15cm deep. In all, the bed was in the region of 60cm thick over the existing soil level. We then covered the whole bed with a tarpaulin or bache and weighted it down along its sides. We left it to ‘cook’ over the winter and did not disturb it until we needed it for planting up the following spring. When we removed the bache we were astonished at the enormous quantities of worms that were wiggling about and how well the bed had decomposed. It was weed-free other than for a very small number of that great survivor, bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), and even they were not vigorous looking. We did, however, immediately remove them.

We planted our tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, cucumbers and chillies in this bed which, as part of our annual rotation system, we refer to it as our ratatouille bed. So just to confuse matters our lasagne bed became our ratatouille bed!
When we were planting we found that the bed was beautifully moist and most of the material we had spread on it had broken down. It was only in the area where material had been deposited later, towards the end of the summer, that we encountered some grass clippings that had not decomposed completely. They were fairly insignificant amounts though and did not seem to affect either plant establishment or growth.

As we were planting directly into rich, moist and friable compost as opposed to our stony clay that ranges from being like concrete to a claggy mess, we found it a delight. The trowel simply slid into the ground with hardly any effort at all. I normally hammer wooden stakes into the ground for tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and peppers, which in our ground is a nightmare. I invariably hit a stone and have to start again and again. With the lasagne bed I merely pushed in canes, making tall tepees for the tomatoes and using shorter single canes for the rest of the plants. This was so much easier than hammering in stakes that this in itself means I will use lasagne beds in future.

We were very impressed with the growth that the plants put on. They thrived from the start and developed quickly. My worry that there could be organic matter that had not fully decomposed causing de-nitrification of the soil seemed unfounded. We installed a drip irrigation system on the bed and even though it was one of the driest, if not the driest, summer we have encountered in our ten years gardening in the region, we managed to keep all the plants healthy. This was even though our citerne became empty and we were forced to stop irrigating half way through the long dry spell. The moisture retentiveness of the thick layer of broken down organic matter was quite startling.

The bed stayed relatively weed-free throughout the summer. A few bindweed plants that had survived came through but they were small in number and a few wind blown seeds germinated, but not a great deal. A few short bursts of hoeing soon dealt with them. The remainder of the potager became very weedy and a lot of work was needed to keep it tidy, especially before the dry spell arrived. This acted as a control and we were able to prove to ourselves that far less weeding is necessary in a lasagne bed.

Our crops were substantial in both quantity and quality. We harvested mountains of beautifully tasting produce; all our plants grew well and looked healthy and vigorous. We started a second lasagne bed this summer and the unmitigated success of our first one has encouraged us to decide to convert all our beds to this method.

What next?

We are of course going to convert our entire vegetable plot to lasagne beds in stages, but what did we do with the first one at the end of the season? We simply added a thick layer of compost on top of the bed and covered it again with a tarpaulin/bache and left it to ‘cook’ over winter.


© Living Magazine. Originally published October 2015