Building Soil in your Northern Garden

sheet_compost (12) finishing it with soil and peat

By Michelle Biden (La Ronge, SK)

When I came to La Ronge in 2009, I started asking people about gardening in the North. Who does it? What are the tricks? A lot of people told me we lacked soil for good gardens. It is true that it is very sandy in our town. Some people end up buying soil and trucking it up from the south but that’s expensive! So I started looking for other ways to get great soil into my garden using locally available resources.

Composting

First things first, I started a compost pile. There are a lot of ways to compost and I think it’s a matter of preference. You can build a bin to keep your compost contained, buy something premade or throw all your waste into a pile in the corner of your yard. I started with the pile. In this I include my household compostables including vegetable and fruit scraps (any parts you aren’t using),  shredded newspaper, plain brown cardboard, dog fur, old leaves from my indoor plants, old 100% cotton rags (once they are too holey to be rags), old blue jeans (ripped up small). I also added yard waste like leaves, grass clippings and small branches. I don’t put in any food containing oil or meat, no dog, cat or human feces and no weeds with seeds. While my compost was transforming into soil I started looking for other sources of soil.

Nature is composting everywhere. I found great soil by the old wood pile where bark and wood chips from years of wood cutting had sat and turned into beautiful rich black soil. I found great soil under stands of poplar trees where years of falling leaves had sat and turned into beautiful rich black soil. And I found great soil where I had raked my leaves into a pile the year before and had to leave them when an early snowfall covered them for the year. I’ve shovelled this soil to different locations around my yard.

Garden Beds

This year I decided I wanted to add a garden bed to an area where the soil was compact, very weedy and had overall poor soil quality. I had been playing around with lasagna gardening, also called sheet composting in another area of my yard and decided to use this method. With lasagna gardening there is no need for rotatilling, removing weeds or loosening the soil and you can create great soil using a lot of free ‘waste’ from around you. The basics of lasagna gardening are that after putting down a layer of wet newspaper and/or cardboard to block weeds, you put down alternating layers of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ compostables in your garden bed. ‘Greens’ are nitrogen rich stuff and ‘browns’ are carbon rich stuff. You need more browns than greens in your layers.

Here’s some tips:

Weed blocking layer
  • overlapping layers of newspapers. I soaked them so they would form to the ground better and laid them overlapping 6 to 20 pages thick.
  • overlapping layers of cardboard. I used brown, non-coloured, corrugated cardboard. I’m not sure what is in the glossy and coloured dyes and would suggest not using cardboard with them unless you do your research and know it is safe for your purposes. I soaked the cardboard as well for the same reason as the newspaper. You don’t need to do both cardboard and newspaper – just use what you have available so that you can make a layer to block out weeds.
Greens
  • egg shells, vegetable and fruit seeds, cores, peels, tops including any rotten bits from my kitchen
  • vegetable and fruit waste from our school nutrition program
  • coffee grounds from work (I put an empty coffee can by the coffee maker that staff dumped grounds and filters into)
  • grass clippings (be careful it’s not full of weeds that have gone to seed)
  • cow or sheep manure (I did have to buy this) If you have a pet rabbit you could throw their poo and shavings in your lasagna garden. Definitely NO cat of dog feces!
  • finished compost from my compost pile
Browns
  • dried leaves. If they haven’t composted yet they may contain seeds that will sprout up all over your garden.
  • rice hulls from the wild rice processing plant in town. The older the rice hulls the better as they take a long time to break down.
  • shredded newspaper
  • small twigs and branches (these take longer to break down, use them if you don’t mind the extra time)
  • paper towels from drying your hands – I took some from the school. I think if I was going to do this regularly I would create an extra bin in the bathroom just for paper towels used to dry hands and do an education campaign so they don’t get contaminated with other garbage.
  • peat – I dug some from the pile at Quarry Park in La Ronge. When the town developed a new subdivision they put all the top soil/peat from the development in a big pile. Individuals are able to take what they need.

You can either put your lasagna bed together all at once if you have all your materials gathered, or you can take longer and add layers as you get them.

If you want to plant in your bed the same year you create it, add layers of soil throughout your garden bed and top with a layer of soil so you have something to plant into.

Here are some photos of the creation of my lasagna garden bed.

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