If I could somehow go back in time and give my new-gardener self just one piece of advice, it would be this: Use the lasagna method when starting a new garden bed. Of all the tough gardening chores, removing old weed-infested sod (or any sod, really) rates right up at the top of the This-Really-Bites list. Oh, how I wish I had known that I could just smother stuff rather than wrestle it out of the ground—the sheer force propelling me off to the chiropractor to fix my aching back once again.
There is no such thing as maintenance-free gardening. But gardening doesn’t have to be on a mission to kill you either. This is the beauty of the lasagna method. The goal is to keep light and, to some extent, air and water, from reaching the weeds and turf. There are no exact rules for this process, so I’ll explain what I do and you can modify the strategy as you see fit.
Run your mower over the area you’re thinking you’d like to turn into gardens so that weeds and turf aren’t super tall. Use your garden hose or a length of rope to mark the outline of your new bed. Next, cover the sod, weeds, or whatever other horrors are lurking in that spot, with five to 10 sheets of newspaper. (Newsprint is fine because the dye is vegetable based, but don’t use those glossy ad pages.) Overlap the edges to close gaps as best you can. And keep a hose handy so you can wet the newspaper as you go or it will blow all over the place and drive you nuts. You can use cardboard rather than newspaper if you want to, but it takes longer to break down and, depending on where it’s from, it can contain some glues that you might not want in the soil where edibles are grown.
Once the paper is laid out and watered, cover it with about 4 to 6 inches of topsoil mixed with the compost of your choice. (I really like mushroom compost at the moment.) Feel free to add in other organic matter too, such as leaf mulch, coffee grounds or rice hulls. Peat moss will also help to improve drainage when used as part of a soil mix in a large bed. But I’m trying to steer clear of it after learning that the process used to harvest peat moss often causes the demise of the wetlands or peat bogs in which it grows. It’s a personal choice, but I thought I should explain why I’ve omitted it here.
Cover the entire area with about 3 to 4 inches of organic mulch. I usually use wood chips, but any organic mulch will do. Just be sure to cover the soil well so you don’t get a big weed patch sprouting up out of it again. If you don’t feel like getting wood mulch or don’t like using it, you can cover the area with a tarp and use some rocks to hold it down. (See our lovely blue tarp pictured above.) In the heat of the summer, it takes about two to three months for turf and weeds to die back to where it’s easy to plant straight down through the layers of soil, newspaper and dead sod/weeds. You can plant sooner, but it will be more of a struggle to dig down through the layers.
One last thing: If you’re killing off weeds and turf with the lasagna method in the fall, you can add lots more organic matter that will take additional time to break down. Things like mulched leaves, coffee grounds and filters, fruit and vegetable scraps, sawdust, tea bags, shredded newspaper and grass clipping are all good choices that will add nutrients to the soil and improve its structure, too. As long as it’s well covered with mulch, it shouldn’t attract raccoons or other marauders over the winter.