More and more Amarillo residents are discovering the physical and recreational joys of gardening, along with its health benefits. Agriculture is a big part of life in the Panhandle, and we’ve always been a people with a close connection to the ground beneath our feet. Tending a backyard garden gives you the chance to be outdoors, enjoy fresh vegetables, and even save money on food.
One of the most difficult aspects of home gardening is getting started. Once you’ve planned your garden and plotted out a space for it, the most important next step is to prepare the soil. Amarillo weather may be fickle, but our soil is more fertile than you might expect. “Soil is full of life,” says Justin Young, director of education at High Plains Food Bank. He and his wife, Cara, have been managing the Food Bank’s garden since September 2011. “The dirt beneath our feet is teeming with microbes, bacteria, and fungi that all contribute to its fertility.”
The Food Bank began its large garden as a way not only to grow food for the people of the Panhandle, but also to educate them about nutrition and horticulture –with the goal of helping families become more self-sufficient by planting their own gardens. The HPFB garden produces thousands of pounds of all-organic produce every year from lots adjacent to the Food Bank at 815 S. Ross St.
The Youngs believe the best way to prepare soil for a garden is through a natural, no-till approach. “The basic idea behind no-till gardening is to improve the soil and its microbial life without disturbing it,” he says. While tilling may be faster and easier, he says, it leads to soil erosion and can be destructive on a microscopic level. “Building healthy soil and caring for the life that exists within it is the best way to prevent disease and pest infestations, increase your garden’s water retention, and ensure the overall health of your garden,” Justin explains. At the same time, a no-till garden can reduce your workload.
We asked Justin for tips to start a no-till garden. The first step, he says, is to create a “lasagna bed” – a layered compost pile built to the size and shape you’ve planned for your garden. Here is his three-step approach to creating each layer of a no-till “lasagna” bed:
Step One: Ground preparation. Using overlapping sheets of cardboard or newspaper lay out the size and shape of your garden. The cardboard will break down over time, but gives you a head start on controlling pesky weeds and grasses. In the Panhandle, fast-spreading Bermuda grass can be a real nuisance during the hot summer months, so Justin suggests attempting to remove as much of it as possible before starting your garden. Weeds are relentless, which means cardboard likely won’t be a long-term weed solution. But it does put up an early line of defense as your garden takes root.
Step Two: Brown material. On top of the cardboard, spread a 3- to 6-inch layer of “brown” material. This layer can include straw, wood chips or mulch, sawdust, dry leaves, and shredded paper or cardboard. These materials are a source of carbon for your soil, in addition to adding bulk.
Step Three: Green Material. The next layer of your “lasagna” is a mix of green materials, including grass clippings, coffee grounds, manure, healthy garden waste, and fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen. These materials are rich in nitrogen, which is necessary for healthy soil.
Repeat Steps Two and Three. For optimum balance, try to keep your brown layers twice as thick as your green layers. Layer these brown and green materials until you reach a height of at least 2 feet. As the layers decompose, the bed will then settle into a normal height. The “ingredients” in your pile will need to have plenty of time to break down before spring planting, so the best time to start a lasagna bed is in the fall. If you’re beginning this spring, however, Justin suggests finishing off your lasagna bed with a 4- to 6-inch layer of finished compost or planting medium. “This will ensure that your plants have room to grow while the pile breaks down,” Justin says.
Lasagna gardening is better for the environment because it retains water and makes use of kitchen waste. The layers keep weeds from flourishing and require less fertilizer thanks to the nutrient-rich compost. The results are great soil and a lower-maintenance garden. Want fresh, do-it-yourself salad? Start with lasagna.
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.