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Grow Your Own Food Challenge: Turning Lawn Into Garden

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.

(Image courtesy of brotherM via a Creative Commons license.)

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5 comments
  1. travis

    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. Urban Artichoke

    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
    Patricia
    Urban Artichoke

    1. maureen powers

      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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