Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
When we bought our homestead, the only gardening area was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. Though fine for growing a winter’s worth of potatoes and squash, it’s less convenient for greens, which we harvest daily in the summer and so prefer to grow close to the house. With this in mind, we decided to turn part of our front lawn into a garden.
Having read about a method called "lasagna gardening" (named for its layers; learn the basics here), we decided to try it. Egged on by its success, we extended the garden the following year only this time incorporating hugelkultur techniques. Here’s how we did it.
Step 1: Smother the Lawn
Our initial effort involved trying to dig out the grass. But with only shovels, we found the process arduous and ineffective. The grass roots were so thick we had the impression of digging wire. After several hours, we’d managed to uproot a few square feet of lawn. No doubt we left roots and seeds intact.
So, instead, we decided to smother the lawn. We began the process four summers ago by placing large sheets of cardboard onto the area we wanted to smother. (Our source of cardboard was the dumpster, but if dumpster diving doesn’t suit you, a large-appliance store may have boxes to spare.)
Step 2: Add Layers of Brown and Green Organic Matter
We tucked compostable kitchen scraps including organic coffee grounds and loose-leaf tea under the cardboard. We piled rhubarb leaves, comfrey leaves, weeds and other organic matter from the garden on top.
Next, we hauled wheelbarrows full of leaf mold and other composted material from the garden and dumped it onto the cardboard. Fortunate to have a ditch full of rich soil, we hauled wheelbarrows full of that as well. Each time we mowed the remainder of the lawn, we added grass clippings to the heap. We also added composted manure from our hens.
In the autumn, we placed leaves, branches and twigs onto the heap. (We avoided using certain types of wood, including that from black locust, walnut, and cedar trees.) Throughout the winter, we continued to tuck kitchen compost into the heap. We still do.
What we don’t recommend are raw eggshells. We tried those and they invited skunks. So now if we’re planning to use eggshells, we dry them first in the oven.
Step 3: Plant Strong-Rooted Crops the First Year
By spring, the grass roots were dead. The soil was teeming with earthworms. We celebrated these achievements.
Since the larger branches were not fully decomposed, we shifted them as necessary and cleared small spots on the heap where there was enough soil in which to plant.
Then we planted a variety of vegetables and herbs. Radishes grew well. So did sunchokes, hyssop, oregano, lemon verbena, rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme.
Squash was a particular success since the stems takes up little space (hence, fit well into small spots on the heap), yet each plant produces a lot of fruit. Any type works well, but choose just one to prevent cross-pollination.
Some of what we planted (i.e. oregano, lavender and sage) are perennials. Not only is this wonderful because we get new crops each spring without any work, but also because they crowd out weeds.
Step 4: Shape the Soil into Raised Beds
By the third spring, the branches (along with the smaller organic matter) had decomposed sufficiently to enable us to shape the soil into beds of about eight-feet long and three-feet wide. This configuration has facilitated growing lettuces, arugula, chard, pepper cress, chives, tomatoes and several other crops.
Now in its fourth season, the lasagna garden is thriving. In addition to the crops we had last year, we’re also growing pole beans along a fence we’ve installed. And though we didn’t plant potatoes or garlic (we plant those in the lower garden), they’re growing too, no doubt volunteers from kitchen scraps we’d tucked into the heap as compost.
Step 5: Continue the Composting Process
We continue to add compostable kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaves and twigs by tucking them into the beds. This method of composting not only enriches the soil, but also simplifies the process since it saves us the step of having to move the compost once it’s formed.
Step 6: Deter Weeds in the Walkways and Around the Borders
In order to deter weeds from growing between the beds, we’ve lined the narrow walkways with a combination of newspaper and cardboard and covered it with straw. We repeat the process each spring.
Since we haven’t turned our entire lawn into a garden (parts are too shady), we also use the cardboard and straw method around the borders of the garden to prevent grass from encroaching.
Step 7: Build Hugelkultur Beds
Encouraged by the success of our lasagna garden, we decided three years ago to smother more of the lawn, and then build hugelkultur beds. The main difference between the lasagna method and the hugelkultur method is that the latter involves digging trenches, burying logs closely together about a foot beneath the soil, and then building the beds several feet high.
Other than that, we’ve proceeded in much the same way as outlined in the previous steps. We add brown and green organic matter on a regular basis (usually in the form of kitchen compost, but also in the form of rhubarb leaves, potato leaves, asparagus stems and other non-edibles from our lower garden).
An advantage of hugelkultur is that the logs absorb snow and rain, and so keep the soil moist. This is particularly useful in drier climates such as ours. Another advantage is that as they decay, the logs release nutrients and aerate the soil.
Since decaying logs draw nitrogen, we offset this depletion by filling in the gaps around the logs with grass clippings.
Adding grass clippings has another benefit as well: it eliminates the spaces where wasps can build underground hives. We failed to do so and wasps made their home in a bed.
Our rather offbeat method of having the wasps leave or die (we’re not sure which) involved placing an old boiled-wool blanket over their entrance. Though passers-by may have wondered why a blanket covered part of our garden, the process worked. And we learned our lesson. When the wasps were gone, we removed the blanket, dug up the beds, filled in the gaps around the logs with grass clippings, soil and compost, watered the area well and then reshaped the beds. Our garden is now wasp free.
Our initial reason for converting the lawn to a garden involved convenience. Quite simply, we wanted to be able to open the front door for a head of lettuce or a sprig of thyme. (In permaculture lingo, our lower garden is Zone 2 out of 5 — we wanted a zone one garden for greens and herbs.) What we have now is that and more.
It turns out neither the lasagna nor the hugelkultur beds require tilling. This is advantageous not only because it saves labor (which we then can use elsewhere), but also because it keeps the worm tunnels intact and discourages the dispersion of weeds.
As for weeds, we have surprisingly few. No doubt this is the result of the no-till method, but also of having smothered weed seeds along with the lawn. It probably helps too that we grow certain crops such as oregano that seem to keep weeds at bay. And when we harvest a crop from its roots, we plant something else in its place. Experience has taught us that if we don’t do so, Mother Nature will. And more often than not she chooses weeds. As for hugelkultur beds that are not yet ready for planting, we cover them with cardboard and heavy flakes of straw.
Some may consider a vegetable garden in front of the house unsightly. We disagree. We created the garden to have a convenient space to grow our herbs and greens. But an unexpected gift is its beauty. In our eyes, the garden is a joy to behold.
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