Q I want to convert an area of my yard from grass to a vegetable garden. I don't own a tiller, how can I get started?

A: This is a common question and one I enjoy answering. About 10 years ago, I suffered a back injury that left me sidelined from my gardening duties at the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson.

The constant use of a rototiller was the ultimate cause of my backache. What seemed like a problem ultimately became a light-bulb moment that changed how I thought about gardening and soil.

'Lasagna Gardening'

A colleague recommended a book called “Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!” written by a Master Gardener Patricia Lanza.

Honestly, it sounded too good to be true. But after reading the book cover to cover in one night, I decided to give it a try. The book literally changed my life.

I know that sounds dramatic, but not only did it make the tiller obsolete, it helped foster a deep interest in creating and gardening in healthy, living soils.

I developed a keen interest in composting followed by worm composting. Those interests became important springboards for teaching everyone I meet how to garden more sustainably.

Lanza's idea is based on an ancient technique called sheet composting, a passive method of composting in which carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials are layered and composted in place. The idea is that you build soils up rather than digging or tilling amendments into the soil.

The decomposition process takes place through the activity of macro- and microorganisms that break down organic matter, unlocking nutrients for plant uptake and use. After one season in our warm, wet climate, layers of leaves, straw and food scraps quickly become rich, crumbly soil.

Other authors have written similar books over the years, including South Carolina's Margot Rochester (“Earthly Delights: Gardening by the Seasons the Easy Way”). Rochester, a former Kershaw County Master Gardener, died in 2008, but her relaxed, environmentally friendly message lives on.

Getting started

The following is a brief list of materials you can use to start building your bed today. Begin by gathering organic materials that will go into the layers. Starting from the ground up you will need some combination of the following items:

Newspaper or cardboard: Serves as a weed or sod barrier; soak newspapers first so they won't blow away.

Peat moss or coir (sometimes called coco peat): Made from coconut fibers, coir is more sustainable than peat moss. Repeat layers of coco peat between other layers.

Spoiled hay or straw: Seedless straw is preferable to hay.

Grass clippings: Avoid any grass clippings with pre- or post-emergent herbicides that might harm new plants.

Compost: Your own or purchased.

Vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds etc.: Never use meat-based products. My favorite tip is to bag and freeze scraps until you have enough for your project. If you don't have enough nitrogen-rich food scraps or grass clippings, you may add a cup of fertilizer, blood meal, cottonseed meal or other nitrogen source between the layers.

Fresh or dry leaves from trees and shrubs: Run them over with a lawn mower or use them whole.

Bagged soil (optional): To plant right away, I have found topping off with a good bagged garden soil that contains slow-release fertilizer will allow new seedlings to get a good start. Otherwise, you will need to wait a season before planting to allow decomposition to take place.

The benefit to using this method, as compared with traditional tilling, is that it is uncomplicated and inexpensive. Additionally, weed seeds are not exposed to light, so they cannot germinate. Also, moisture is retained and soil is not compacted.

Sheet composting also can be used to create new flower beds and to prepare areas to plant trees and shrubs. Skeptics only need to look at the rich, dark soil on the forest floor beneath layers of fallen leaves and organic debris for proof that this method works.

Reach Amy L. Dabbs at gardening@postandcourier.com.