Grow Your Own Food Challenge: Turning Lawn Into Garden

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.

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

Up Next: Remove Sod with Heavy Equipment, Then Till

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4 thoughts on “Grow Your Own Food Challenge: Turning Lawn Into Garden”

  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

    1. 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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