Multiple benefits of a lasagna-style heritage garden

Michigan Master Gardeners in Iosco County developed a lasagna-style heritage garden that is not only sustainable, but beautiful.

Iosco County Master Gardeners at their heritage/lasagna garden project. L-R: Gloria Kershaw, Cathy Menning, Liz Jacob, Jean Thomas, Louise Shoksnyder and Sue Kindt. Photo by Sarah Rautio, MSU Extension.
Iosco County Master Gardeners at their heritage/lasagna garden project. L-R: Gloria Kershaw, Cathy Menning, Liz Jacob, Jean Thomas, Louise Shoksnyder and Sue Kindt. Photo by Sarah Rautio, MSU Extension.

Michigan is home to many Michigan State University Extension Master Gardeners who volunteer their time to develop and assist with horticulture projects, educate the public about science-based horticulture and keep themselves up-to-date on new horticultural findings.

Master Gardeners in Iosco County created an innovative project that combined a heritage garden with a lasagna garden. They constructed it at the Iosco County Fairgrounds, which receives hundreds of visitors every year.

This lasagna/heritage combination is incredibly beneficial because it incorporates multiple ways of creating a healthy and sustainable garden, achieving many of the MSU Extension Smart Gardening principles such as creating and maintaining healthy soils, conserving water and preserving nearby water quality. Furthermore, heritage gardens often consist of native plants, for which there are many smart reasons to choose native plants.

What is a lasagna garden?

Lasagna gardening, sometimes called sheet composting, is gaining popularity in the United States. It is a nontraditional way of creating a garden that uses a raised and layered base rather than a traditional “in-the-ground” garden. As the name suggests, it consists of several layers of different types of materials, as described below.

Lasagna gardens can be particularly effective in areas with poor soil quality because they are built above the soil surface. For example, in the sandy soils of northern Michigan, lasagna garden layers help hold nutrients in the soil much longer than if compost or fertilizers are applied directly to the soil surface. This can eliminate the need for several annual applications of compost or other soil amendments, thereby conserving their use. In addition, fertilizers and nutrients do not leach through the sandy soil where they could contaminate ground and surface water.

As such, the lasagna garden has a self-sustainable nutrient input that also protects the surrounding environment. Since the layers of a lasagna garden are built on top of existing soil, both the process of creating and maintaining the garden are simplified because sod does not have to be removed, the raised area tends to have less weed encroachment, nutrients last the entire season, and spring and fall cleanups are minimized.

Recipe for a lasagna garden

Layer one

Place overlapping pieces of newspaper or cardboard directly on top of the ground (i.e., the surface below it does not need to be prepared). This layer can help reduce the rate of water and nutrient drainage (most common in sandy soils). However, it still needs to “breathe” and allow earthworms to reach the surface soil, so avoid thick and coated cardboard and never use plastic.

In areas that lack sand and contain more clay, this layer may not even be necessary. Some believe this layer also blocks weed growth, but if layers two and three are deep enough, then weed growth should generally not be a problem.

Layer two

Next, you need a good combination of “brown” and “green” materials you would normally put into a compost bin. Brown materials include fall leaves, small pieces of wood and coffee grounds, and green materials include lawn clippings, plant cuttings and vegetable scraps. These materials should be fresh and not composted because this layer will be buried and will compost itself over time.

Try to put two to three times more brown material than green material to obtain the best ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the composted soil product. This layer should be around 1-2 feet deep (it will shrink over time). Some prefer to alternate layers of brown and green materials, hence the lasagna name, however if brown and green materials are distributed evenly, then individual layers are not necessary.

Layer three

This layer consists of a thick layer of good soil that is ready to be planted and is deep enough to support the roots of the plants (at least 3 inches). Good soil is not just the native top soil in your yard, but a mix of materials that produces good soil structure and adequate plant nutrients.

You can make your own mix with one-third topsoil, one-third composted material and one-third peat, coconut coir, vermiculite or perlite. You can also purchase bags of garden soil, but check the ingredients to see if they are similar to the above proportions.

Once the lasagna garden is constructed, you can plant it. If you wish, you can also cover the lasagna with a layer of plastic and let it cook for a while. After one or two seasons, when layers one and two break down, the above lasagna layers will need to be replaced.

Since it requires a rebuild, these gardens are best suited for annual plants such as vegetables. If you use perennials, have a plan for rebuilding nutrients after one or two seasons. The Master Gardeners in Iosco County chose to plant their lasagna garden with Zone 4 “heritage” plants.

What is a heritage garden?

Heritage gardens are gardens that mimic a historical time period, and since those time periods often precede plant introductions, plants are often native. The Iosco County Master Gardeners selected plants that were likely growing in their region between the 1850s and 1950s, which is the same time period in which an adjacent cabin on the Iosco County Fairgrounds was also being used.

For more information on how to plant a heritage vegetable garden, see the MSU Extension bulletin “Vegetable Heritage Gardening.” Also, consider visiting the MSU Heritage Garden at the MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi, Michigan.

Master Gardener training available in northeast Lower Michigan

Master Gardeners in Iosco County are part of a large group of Master Gardeners across the state who are always looking for new Master Gardeners. A Master Gardener training is currently planned for northeast Lower Michigan Aug. 17 to Nov. 16, 2017. It will take place at the Ogemaw County MSU Extension office in West Branch, Michigan, on Thursdays from 5:30-9:30 p.m. For more information or to register, visit Master Gardener Training Course - West Branch (Ogemaw County).

The Michigan Extension Master Gardener Program is open to anyone with interest in learning more about gardening and a passion for volunteering and sharing gardening knowledge within the communities. In order to gain certification, you must complete a 14-week educational course followed by 40 volunteer hours of gardening education service in a community setting.

If you would like to learn more about the Michigan Master Gardener program, visit the Michigan Master Gardener Program website.

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