Grow Your Own Food Challenge: Turning Lawn Into Garden

BrotherM / Flickr (Creative Commons)

You might assume that because I work on farms, I know everything I need to know about growing my own food. Unfortunately, that is not the case!

The farms where I work already have immaculate beds. The soil has been amended to near perfection, often with the help of heavy equipment such as tractors and plows. Gorgeous soil allows plants to grow up with better defenses against pests, disease, and weeds. So basically all I have to do is show up, pop in transplants or seeds, and – voila – vegetable bounty.

My home garden is proving to be more of a challenge. Ahem, make that my future home garden, because right now all I’m growing is grass.

My husband I just bought a house last November. The property is a little over five acres, half of which has adequate sunlight for a garden. I’d love to have a big, 40′ x 40′ vegetable garden. But turning all of that sod into garden has turned out to be somewhat of a challenge.

The first obstacle I’ve encountered is lack of information. It seems like most gardening books and internet resources assume that you already have a garden bed. They give you information about how to amend your soil and grow vegetables, but don’t give you much advice on how to get to that starting point.

So I’ve had to talk to quite a few experts about the best ways to turn my lawn into a garden. Here are four organic methods that I’ve been considering:

1. Dig

Digging allows you to plant your garden immediately but can be brutal on your back.

You can dig a garden bed in the spring as soon as the soil is dry enough to be worked. You want the soil to be moist but not soggy. If your soil is dry (certainly not the case here in the Midwest!), water the area a few days ahead of time.

First you need to remove the sod. Using an edger or a sharp spade, cut the sod into parallel strips about a foot wide. Cut these strips into one- to two-foot lengths. Then pry up one end of a piece of sod and slide the spade or fork under it. Cut through any deep taproots and lift out the pre-cut piece, making sure to include the grass’s roots. Shake any loose soil clinging to the underside of the sod back onto the exposed ground. The sod pieces can be transplanted to another part of your yard or rolled-up and composted.

At this point, you can incorporate compost or other amendments into your soil by double digging the exposed ground. First, dig a trench about a foot wide and as deep as your shovel on one end of your new bed. Place the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp. Drive the the tines of a garden fork or broadfork as deep as you can into the bottom of the trench. Rock the handle back and forth to loosen the subsoil. Spread compost and other soil amendments over the loosened soil. Dig another trench alongside the first, dumping the removed soil into the first trench. Continue to the far end of the bed, and fill the last trench with soil from the first trench. At this point, you can proceed with planting.

Pros: Permits immediate planting without the use of expensive power tools.

Cons: Very labor intensive, especially for large beds; sod removal results in loss of organic matter; topsoil lost during sod removal might have to be replaced, especially if you want a raised bed.

man using tiller
halle / Flickr (Creative Commons)

2. Till

This method allows you to retain the original organic matter by using a power tool to turn the sod under. It also allows you to easily incorporate compost or soil amendments into your bed without a lot of digging. Although tilling enables you to plant your garden quickly without a lot of labor, it often propagates grass and other weed seeds.

Breaking up sod with a tiller requires a strong back, but not as much muscle as digging does. You can use this method as soon as the soil is dry enough to be worked.

To get started, rent a heavy-duty rototiller from a farm or hardware store. Fork compost and any other soil amendments onto the sod before tilling. The tiller will work them into the soil. Well-established sod might require more than one pass with the tiller. Allow the overturned sod to break down for a week or two before planting.

Your new bed can be planted soon after tilling, but grass might grow back up through the overturned soil. Tilling also brings weed seeds to the surface that can germinate later and cause big problems in your garden. If you delay planting by a month or two, you can dispatch grass and other weeds as they emerge.

Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; permits almost immediate planting.

Cons: Renting a tiller can be expensive; tillers don’t work well on rocky sites, wet soil, or clay-rich soil; grass can grow back if you plant soon after tilling; tilling propagates weeds and disrupts soil structure.

using tiller
elvisripley / Flickr (Creative Commons)

3. Remove Sod with Heavy Equipment, Then Till

This method is a hybrid of the first two methods. Removing the sod before tilling prevents grass from growing back and allows you to plant your garden immediately.

To get started, rent a sod-cutter and a heavy-duty rototiller from a farm or hardware store. Or, if you’re planning a large bed, consider hiring a landscaper to do the sod-cutting step because rolled-up strips of sod can be extremely heavy.

Use the sod-cutter to remove the sod. If you lose a lot of topsoil during the process, you can replace it with topsoil attained from your local garden store or landscaper. Layer topsoil, compost, and any other soil amendment over the exposed ground. Next, incorporate the new topsoil and amendments into the soil with the tiller.

Although removing the sod before tilling will cut back on future weeding by preventing grass from growing back, tilling might still bring weed seeds to the surface.

Pros: Quicker and easier than digging; prevents grass from growing back; permits immediate planting.

Cons: Renting heavy equipment and replacing topsoil can be expensive; tillers don’t work well on rocky sites, in wet soil, or in clay soil; tilling propagates weeds and disrupts soil structure.

daveeza / Flickr (Creative Commons)

4. Smother the Sod With Lasagna

No, I’m not talking about the pasta casserole! In this method, the lasagna consists of layers of organic matter that smother the sod and enrichen the soil. This method doesn’t require heavy labor, leaves the existing organic matter in place, adds additional organic matter, and doesn’t disrupt the soil structure. But it also delays planting by up to several months.

To get started, lay material such as cardboard, newspaper, or old feed bags over the sod (but be careful to avoid materials that contain synthetic dyes or fungicides). Next, cover your biodegradable material with compost to hold it in place. This will eventually smother the sod and kill the grass.

Over the course of the next few months, continue to add layers of organic materials as they become available to you. Any biodegradable material will work – you can use additional newspaper or cardboard, grass clippings, leaf mold, hay, or straw. Be sure to wet materials to help hold the layers in place.

Since it can take several months for the grass to die and the organic materials to break down, this method is best started in the late summer or early fall. By the following spring, the grass should be dead and the organic matter you’ve added will have been incorporated into the soil by earthworms and other organisms.

Pros: Does not require the physical labor of removing or turning under sod; very affordable; leaves original organic matter in place; does not disrupt soil structure or propagate weeds.

Cons: Delays planting up to several months.

Since I want to start planting my vegetable garden soon and I have an injured back that prevents me from doing a lot of digging or weeding, I’m planning on removing the sod with a sod-cutter and then tilling. Right now I’m waiting for the soil to dry out, but unfortunately there is more rain in the forecast!

I’ll be keeping you posted on my progress as part of our Grow Your Own Food Challenge. And because I have no experience turning lawn into garden, please, PLEASE share any tips or comments below!

Written by rachelshulman


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  1. if you strip the sod properly, you really shouldn’t lose much topsoil at all. no more than an inch (if that) of the root systems, soil, etc.. should be taken. anymore than that and the sod strips are way too heavy and also very messy. if you only had an inch of topsoil in the first place, you probably live in a brand new subdivision and needed to add some more anyway.
    important note….before using a mechanized sod stripper, do a very thorough check of your garden area for bunnies that might be nesting. they will not get out of the way of the stripper and the cutting blade will kill them. hound dogs are, of course, the suggested tool for spotting these hard to see nests. if you find a nest, wait a week or so for them to grow up and leave.

  2. Hi Rachel,
    I envy that you have lots of land for your garden! I grow food at my suburban home, but we manage to have a great supply of veggies and fruit after taking out the lawn in the front and back yards.
    You may want to plant a cover crop such as red clover or alfalfa wherever you are not putting in beds, as they bring up nutrients from the soil and can be used as “green manure” to prepare your soil for the future.
    I tried sheet composting at our home this fall- knocking down weeds at the sides of our house then layering cardboard, newspaper and green material, finished with some soil on top. It is turning into a beautiful composted strip to plant in (takes a few months). This may be too difficult on large spaces, but you may want to try it in some spots- don’t have to dig!

    Happy gardening
    Urban Artichoke

    • I assisted many years ago the head of the Tilth Society in Portland and her ecological sustainable use of newspapers and wood chips was miraculous. Lay the papers, first,then lay over the wood chips, dig into that day and plant trees, bushes, or perennials and nature does it’s work breaking down the weeds, brambles, black berries, ivy,and lawn. Who would ever want to dig all that sod up and do what with it It is full of nuturients. It will decompose by cutting it off from the sun and the hotter the area the faster this occurs. I grant you – one might would have to wait till the next year to start a vegetable garden.

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