As you may have read, I recently cut down a couple of big trees in my front yard sniff. After piling up the wood to season (5 palettes, 8 feet long and 4 feet high! Did I mention they were big trees?), I looked around. Sunlight streamed down on me for the first time in decades. Visions of sugarplums… er, sugar peas… danced through my head: habitat for pollinators of the scurrying and winged varieties; the 3 sisters of corn, beans, and squash; medicinal herbs cleverly disguise as pretty flowers; food, water, and shelter for me and the critters that live protected in my space; and TOMATOES!!! (Said in the Oprah giving-away-cars voice. Also, speaking of homegrown tomatoes, check out this delightful video my dad sent me from Guy Clark on Austin City Limits.)
Over this unpredictable summer of chaos, I immersed myself in the virtual oasis provided by my friend Kim’s experiment with permaculture. Here is the video by John McCarley that got her started:
Through Kim’s Facebook photos and videos, I watched her yard transform from throw away lawn to garden paradise. “Huh,” says I to myself, “this is less intimidating than I thought and maybe even a little do-able, perhaps.”
And in the synchronous timing that happens sometimes, I found the most marvelous of books, Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. The title alone was a clue this would be a super special book to me. He dives deeper into the philosophy and practicality of permaculture and talks about integrating your space into an ecosystem where plants, wildlife, and humans support and nurture each other. All with minimal effort on my part once it is set up and no digging! HOT DOG! This is what I have always thought was possible but had no clue how to accomplish. His conversational writing and many examples helped me envision the possibilities, and then with a head full of ideas I sat and communed with the garden to see what dreams we could co-create.
I decided to try both methods, Hemenway’s (book) in the front and McCarley’s (video) in the back. (Business in the front and Party in the back? No, I think that is referring to something else.) They both start out the same, putting a foundation of wet cardboard on top of grass and then building layers from there. I call this Dirt Lasagna.
John McCarley’s video is a three-step process.
- Lay down wet cardboard over the area you want to be your garden.
- Lay down an inch or so of compost (he recommends Mushroom compost).
- Put 4 inches of mulch on top; he used leaf mulch and shredded newspaper.
And Done! To plant, remove organic material, cut an X in the cardboard, place your plant on the grass and bring the organic material around it. Add a little organic fertilizer and water. Viola! You’ve got a garden!
Hemenway’s method can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. He says Nature will make do with what you give Her. I chose to go full out because it was Covid-19 and I was bored. The idea is to pile up 8-12 inches of organic material, water it, and then let it rot. In the end you have transformed any land into a yummy bed for all your planting needs.
Steps 1 and 2 are the same as McCarley’s. Here’s where the methods differ: Step 3: add 3 layers of organic material alternated with nitrogen enhancers. I used straw and bone meal. In the end, my layers were 6 to 8 inches thick.
Step 4: If planting immediately, add 2 inches of compost. I choose not to do this. Instead I am letting the dirt lasagna rot over winter and will plant next spring.
Step 5: Cover over with a layer of mulch to keep moisture in and weeds out Hemenway also recommends watering in-between each step because soil and the accompanying organisms thrive best with good hydration.
Getting the Stuff you Need
And there you have it! There are some low cost/free resources out there. As I write this, leaves are falling, and I actually snuck out on a foggy morning before sunrise and grabbed bags of leaves my neighbors had conveniently put into lawn bags for me… I mean, the town … to cart away. Organic Gold! This became my leaf mulch for the back.
Some towns have a yard waste facility where mulch and compost are available. I don’t know how much it costs, if anything. Also, I understand that tree cutting companies will sometimes give you mulch if they are doing work nearby. And some municipalities will deliver mulch to you. Because of Covid and a lack of pick-up truck, I had my locally owned garden center drop off my materials. I was not thrilled about all the bags and the waste of that, but I figure it was what I could do this year for the future and tried not to feel too bad about it.
It turned out that my straw had hay seeds in it. Blarg. I was whiney about this for a hot second until my yard started to look like a giant chia pet. Now I think it is hilarious and will help with erosion control. I also put a small fence around the lasagna to help keep everything in place. And now this winter I will dream of milkweed, cone flowers, asters, sunflowers, black eyed susans, basil, TOMATOES, peas, spinach, brussel sprouts, okra, rosemary, calendula, nasturtiums, daffodils, comfrey, beebalm…..