Good Dirt

Three years ago I started gardening and I’ve never tilled the soil. I built it from the ground up by “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening”. The reason I did this was because I was convinced by authors who were advocates of this type of gardening. The books I will recommend below explain the reasons in great detail, but I will tell you my simple understanding of it. There are 3 reasons why I do it:

#1. It is easier than digging and tilling. Some advocates say you won’t “break your back” gardening but, believe me, you’ll still get a good workout because you have to shovel the materials in. However, once you have the bed established you’ll only have to add in small amounts of compost.

#2. It cuts way down on weeds.

#3. It doesn’t strip away the topsoil, but adds onto it. If you try not to touch the soil at all it will get fluffed and aerated by the earthworms and other creatures which keep it alive.

We only get two to eight inches of topsoil on our Earth, which is the only soil that plants can live in. Natural soil erosion usually occurs at the same rate as soil formation, but the modern conventional techniques of using powerful agricultural implements to till the soil has accelerated the soil erosion. The tillage disturbs the soil and sends it into the waterways. The problem is that it takes a long time to rebuild soil, so many areas have become barren. Some states in the U.S. have spent millions of dollars repairing the damage and luckily their soil losses have been cut in half since the 1980s. But the best medicine is prevention! It’s all about the dirt.

Here is a great visual tool to understand how much usable soil there is on our planet:

Recipe for Good Dirt:

 (How to Make your own No-Till Garden)

It’s all about mimicking nature’s way of composting by just adding layers. It is best to do this in the late summer or fall to let it sit and think over winter. However, if you’d like to make a small plot for this coming season, you’ll just want to add extra composted soil. You can buy something called “comp soil” from local landscaping companies.

What you are essentially doing is making a raised bed. For even better containment you can add wooden sides to your bed and make it a box.

You will need:

  • newspaper, cardboard or old clothing
  • dead leaves, grass clippings or any other organic material
  • compost or comp soil (especially if you want it to be for this season)



Step 1:

Start with a patch of grass in a spot where you would like to grow a garden, keeping in mind where you will have your pathways.







Step 2:

 Cover the grass with wet newspaper, cardboard or old clothing. (If you don’t wet the newspaper it will fly everywhere). What happens is that you kill the grass, turning it into more mulch. Hint: Cover every piece of grass or else it will sneak its way up through.









Step 3

Cover the newspaper with two to five inches of mulch, chopped up dead leaves or any other organic matter that you would put in your compost bin. For this plot I used one layer of untreated bark mulch which was from downed branches ground up in a wood chipper.

The second layer I used was dead leaves. Keep in mind that it’s best to have the matter in very small pieces so that it disintegrates easier.

(You can pile it up pretty high because the heaviness of the top layer will weigh it down.)






Step 4

Cover the mulch with about an inch layer of compost, adding a couple more inches of “comp soil” if you want this plot to be ready for this gardening season.













Voila! It’s really very simple and it works!

You can also amend your soil with all kinds of materials, which is beyond the scope of my knowledge. The 2010 Farmer’s Almanac (031 OLD) has a good article on green & brown manure.

Every day when I put kitchen scraps in my compost bucket I think of the little bits of vitamins and minerals that will one day be nourishing me through the miracle of biodegradation! It’s the start of the beautiful circle of life…

Here’s the dirt on soil 😉 :

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery, 631.49 MON. Montgomery makes a compelling case for protecting our soil for future generations. He also shows the history of land on our Earth.

Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose by R. Neil Sampson, 333.76 SAM. Another case for saving the soil, Sampson explains in scientific detail how the soil process works and how modern (conventional) techniques are harmful in some ways.

Eat More Dirt: Diverting and Instructive Tips for Growing and Tending an Organic Garden by Ellen Sandbeck, 635.04 SAN. Sandbeck has a section on “Growing Healthy Soil” where she explains the importance of the natural way of growing soil from the top down.

The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, 635.9 STO. This quirky author writes about organic gardening in the 70’s, and she has bold and interesting ideas about the process.

Organic Gardening Magazine has an article in every issue about soil. The May 2009 issue talks about the dangers of compaction and says “Don’t walk in your garden beds, and add organic matter regularly. That’s a plan for healthy, productive soil.”

The Permaculture Garden by Graham Bell, 631.58 BELL. I love this book! He has lots of interesting projects. He shows how you can take a grass lawn and turn it into a little forest of permaculture of fruit trees and vegetables… a little utopia!

Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza, 635 LAN. This is the ultimate how-to for lasagna gardens, with details and pictured steps. She also helps you know which ingredients your particular soil will need, based on its PH, etc.

The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy by Masanoba Fukuoka, 631.584 FUK. Fukuoka says that plowing actually compacts the soil, which is defeating the purpose of it altogether… yet another advocate of natural soil-building, which is the basis of organic gardening.

Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper and library assistant at OWL and is currently humming the song This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. February marked the 70th anniversary of this beautiful song. (Click on the link to read the lyrics).

6 thoughts on “Good Dirt

  1. Hey Jesse! Great ideas!
    I do till my garden, but i also add all this in WHILE im tilling. I think of my top soil as a big tossed dirt salad for my plants!
    (and right now im dancing along with Donna Summer)

  2. This was great, Jesse! Loved your pictures! I’d love to try this. My question is how long does it take for the grass to die under the first layer? How long do you let the layers sit before you can begin planting? I can see doing it in the fall and waiting through the winter, which is what I will try next year, but what about for this growing season.

  3. I think the grass dies in a couple of weeks–but you don’t want to dig down below the newspaper… if you plant potatoes you can put them right on top of the newspaper and then pile the stuff on top! As long as you have soil on the top (compost or compsoil) you can plant anything… :o) Let me know how it goes!

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