Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring into action in planning your next garden

Lasagna garden ingredients include thick, overlapping sections of wet newspaper, peat moss, compost and torn landscape debris.

Lasagna garden ingredients include thick, overlapping sections of wet newspaper, peat moss, compost and torn landscape debris.

Neeli Reamer is The Roanoke Times' gardening columnist. Her column appears twice monthly in Extra.

Neeli Reamer

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About Neeli

Neeli Reamer is a Master Gardener who has a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication and a master's degree in counseling, where she focused heavily on horticultural therapy techniques.

She believes gardening isn't about being perfect, it's about having fun.

Spring is finally here! If you haven't already done so, it's time to start planning and plotting your next garden.

Spring is also the perfect season to improve your soil.

Long ago, when I began gardening in North Carolina red clay, I didn't understand that healthy, well-aerated soil is the key to garden success. And even though my Grandmother Reamer advised me to cultivate the clay, and work leaf compost into it, I didn't always listen.

I learned a lot more in the years that followed. My horticulture teachers taught me real-life lessons about "double digging."

In short, double digging a garden involves digging about a 12-inch-deep trench the width of the bed, removing the topsoil, adding organic matter (compost) into the trench and forking this 12 inches down into the subsoil.

Next, you shovel the topsoil back into the trench, incorporating additional organic matter. Then, you dig a second trench, beside the first, pile the topsoil from the second trench onto the first trench, and repeat the process over and over, trench by trench, until the whole bed is dug.

This was no fun at all, but my classmates and I saw immediate, undeniable results. Our student gardens looked much better than my garden at home.

For the past few springs, my husband, Kevin, and I have rented tillers to install perennial borders in our yard. We typically form an outline of the future garden with a hose and spray the perimeter with paint. Then, we apply Roundup to kill any weeds. Depending upon the size, Kevin may spend hours tilling soil amendments into the bed.

So, last week when I showed him a popular book I bought called, "Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!" by Patricia Lanza (1998), he smiled.

What is lasagna gardening?

"Lasagna gardening" is a no-dig, no-till way of making raised gardens. Instead of digging down in the dirt, you build up the soil.

The term doesn't have anything to do with tomatoes or oregano.

Lanza writes, "Lasagna gardening is a nontraditional, organic, layering method you can use to create better soil while keeping your gardens neat and attractive. (The name comes from the layers you'll be making to create your beds -- they reminded me of making lasagna!)"

The name is new, but the concept is not. It is also known as sheet composting.

Lanza began lasagna gardening after her children moved and she started to garden alone. She discovered this system yielded fantastic fruits, vegetables and flowers; saved her time, energy and money; and was chemical-free.

Assemble your lasagna garden

Lasagna gardening is easy, especially if you want to quickly establish a small plot.

To begin, select your site and mark off the area. It does not matter if the soil is compacted, or even rocky. You do not need to remove turf grass.

Cover the space with thick pads of wet newspapers (5 or more sheets per layer) or flattened cardboard boxes. Overlap the edges. (The Roanoke Times uses a soy-based ink, but avoid the glossy advertising supplements.)

Sprinkle a 2- to 3-inch layer of peat moss on the newspaper. Next, spread a 4- to 8-inch layer of organic mulch material over the peat moss. Add another layer of peat moss, then a layer of organic mulch material, alternating layers until the bed is 18 to 24 inches high. Sometimes, Lanza tops her pile with wood ashes or bonemeal.

Organic mulch material may include compost, grass clippings, chopped leaves, garden debris, aged manure or straw. Never add fats, meats or bones.

Water your lasagna garden until it has the consistency of a damp sponge.

Plant now or later

At this point, you may go ahead and plant seeds or plants. Lanza writes, "To sow seeds in a newly built lasagna garden, spread fine compost or damp peat moss where the seeds are to go, then set the seeds on the surface. Sift more fine material to cover the seeds and press down."

Just pull the layers apart with your hands to make planting holes for your plants, put the mulch back around them, and water well.

You do not have to plant your garden right away. Within months, the height of the lasagna garden will shrink and layers will turn into rich, crumbly soil.

For faster results, you can "cook" your garden by covering it with black plastic, weighed down by bricks, for six weeks.

You may assemble a lasagna garden any time of the year. Lanza plants everything close together. This, along with the heavy mulch, keeps weeds at bay. Beneficial earthworms are also drawn to the damp environment of lasagna gardens.

Continue to add layers of organic mulch each fall, and you'll be able to savor your lasagna garden for years to come.

Gardening tips

Karen Hager of Blacksburg writes she's already started many of her seeds indoors, and prepped her beds. It is almost time for lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and Brussels sprout.

Hager highly recommends growing ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa), which are used in pies and jams and are good dipped in chocolate. (Seeds are available from Seed Savers Exchange (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds.)

Lanza suggests you take a soil test and check your soil's pH after you decide what you want to grow. Pick up a soil test sample box, and sampling and mailing instructions, at your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office. Routine testing costs approximately $10. Visit for additional information.

Online: If you wish to learn more about Lasagna Gardening, Lanza's website is

Moving on, new columnist needed

My husband has taken a job in another state, so sadly, we will be moving soon. This is one of my last columns.

I've had a wonderful time writing them and getting to know you all, and this beautiful area, a little better.

If you are interested in gardening and writing and would like to apply for the freelance job, please email Kathy Lu, features editor.

Please include a brief explanation about why you're interested in the job, one column sample and three story ideas.

Gardening Calendar

-- today --

l Blue Ridge Wildflower Society Arcadia Field Trip

A look at the early spring ephemerals. Bring something to drink and a snack. The group will meet to carpool, or you can drive to Jennings Creek in Arcadia.

When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where: Bojangles Restaurant, Botetourt Commons, Daleville (for carpool)

Cost: Free

Contact: 774-4518,

l Gardening in Small Spaces

This seminar, taught by members of the Bedford Area Master Gardeners and the Virginia Cooperative Extension agency, will offer valuable information on growing plants in small spaces, such as raised beds, hanging baskets and straw bales.

When: 10:30 a.m.

Where: Stewartsville Library, 45 Cascade Drive, Stewartsville and Big Island Library, 1111 Schooldays Road, Big Island

Cost: Free

Contact: bedfordareamastergar

-- monday --

l Blue Ridge Wildflower Society Meeting: Cooking with Native Plants

Mark Crim, executive chef of Blackwater Cafe, will demonstrate how to add zest to your cooking using native plants and wildflowers. Dishes will be available for sampling.

When: 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: Roanoke Church of Christ, 2606 Brandon Ave., Roanoke

Cost: Free

Contact: 774-4518,

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