Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tuesday January 20, 2009

[First year, lasagna gardens. See beehives in far back? ]

It's a crisp and cold midwestern day here. Every now and then the sun peeks out, but mostly it's that grey winter slate color. These kind of days come often enough and this is when the daydreaming starts.

I am an avid gardener. I have planted gardens for years, starting as a child with my own private pumpkin patch when I was 8. I had to dig the plot myself, break up all the clods, pull out all the weeds. My grandmother showed me how to make hills and plant 3 seeds in each hill. Then it was my job to water them daily and learn to nurture the young seedlings as they sprouted and reached for the sky. I remember how miraculous it seemed to me when they first sprouted. For days, nothing but brown dirt, brown dirt, brown dirt. Then suddenly there was a whisper of green, and by the next morning there was a real pumpkin plant. I harvested pumpkins like crazy that year, and sold them for One dollar each, and fifty cents for the small ones, all up and down our street. I earned enough money to buy a little radio.

When I was 18 and married with a baby on the way, I remember squatting down to pick green beans, much to my old German neighbor's dismay. She thought I shouldn't be doing any kind of labor when I was that pregnant. The garden was flourishing that year and I was dreaming of producing enough food to be able to make my own baby food and can it. (Incidentally, after one of those bean picking marathons, I did actually go into labor. I thought I just had a backache from picking beans!)

As the years passed, I moved around and lived in different places and different climates. I always grew something, even a couple of years when it was only tomatoes and herbs in pots on a patio. I learned that gardening is a lot like cooking, where you can try all kinds of wonderful things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I had yards with plenty of space and yards with none. I had good soil and I had hard clay. I had plenty of sun, or I had none, or I had too much. Too much water--or not enough because of droughts or arid conditions. I have learned that you can't break Mother Nature no matter how hard you try. But if you play by her rules, you can be gratified and completely surprised.

About 15 years ago, I was reading through an old classic by Ruth Stout called The No Work Garden Book: Secrets of Year Round Mulch. It sounded good to me ! I was always an organic gardener. I was one of those back to the landers from the 70's. About 10 years ago, I came upon a book by a woman named Patricia Lanza, called Lasagna Gardening. It was basically about building rich organic soil through composting and layering different substances like straw, manure, peat, leaves, grass clippings , compost--just like you'd do when you make a lasagna. Her premise was that if you built these layers, you could have garden soil ANYWHERE that you could lay things down and pile them up! And you didn't have to till the soil, you just lay down a bunch of layers of either newsprint or any other good paper and wet it down thoroughly and start piling things on. We were lucky to work in a plant that used a heavy brown paper stock that came in 5 foot wide x 11 foot long sheets. And it was free for the taking. She uses this method for vegetable and flower gardening. She said that when you were first beginning your lasagna gardens, you could plant directly into the mulch. I didn't believe that, although the premise of the layered composting made sense to me. That first year, we spent about 200 dollars on finely ground mulch and composted manure from a landscaping place. (Lots of it). We followed her directions, and made the beds about 4 foot across (this is so you can reach to plant and harvest and not stomp down the beds.) and about 25 foot long, because we had the space. I bought some plants and sowed mostly seeds. Right into the top layer of the finely ground mulch.

We had the most incredible garden that year, and I kept dragging people out to show them that I had this garden that didn't have any dirt in it, we didn't till the soil, AND LOOK AT THESE PLANTS !!!!!! I was flabbergasted.

Every fall, once you get these garden beds started, you keep all your garden waste (spent plants, etc) and just pull them up and lay them down. When the leaves start falling, rake them up and add to the pile. After that first year, we didn't buy anything anymore, except straw bales. Throughout the growing season, I used straw to mulch. This keeps the weeds down and helps the beds be much more water conserving and efficient. When it's time to put the garden to bed, I just spread that straw out . And as the last bit of work, I put a good heavy layer of straw down to compost over the winter months.

By the time we moved to Illinois, I had the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. About 3 foot high and 4 foot across, with the richest black organic soil you can imagine. It broke my heart to leave it all. (I tried to convince hubby that if we rented one more small Uhaul, I could bring most of it with us!) MY neighbor there, a lovely woman named Mary, asked if she could have some of it. I told her to go for it, and she spent the last few days we were there hauling wheelbarrows full of it from my back yard to hers.

I have been here for 3 full years now. My gardens are slowly but surely coming along, as I've had to start from scratch. There was also a lot of prep work that had to be done in this yard. The first year here, there was almost no garden. The second year was much better. This past year was phenomenal...until the tornadic winds came and sent a tree crashing into my garden, busting the green beans trellis and smashing most of the plants to smithereens. We'll have to rebuild a trellis this coming spring. I'm starting to dawdle over the seed catalogs that are showing up in the mailbox. I have saved seeds to start 2 different kinds of apple trees that Iplan to start indoors and hopefully have them ready to plant by spring. I will start the butternut squash as well-that worked like a charm last year. And I think I may try some more exotic vegetables too...

This is what these winter days are for. I will end with a great quote by Ruth Stout on winter:
"There is a privacyabout it which no other season gives you...In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other, only in winter, in the country, can you have longer quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself."



  1. So glad I found you here -- I am struggling to post comments though.


  2. The story of your gardens is great. I've wondered about the lasagna technique and how well it actually works. I may have to give that a go... Thanks for visiting my blog!


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