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Removing a Lawn to Plant a Garden

Q. Mike: I want to turn a former pasture into 8' wide and 30' long beds with grass paths between. My question is how best to remove the sod. I've heard you talk about solarization, but don't have that long; I want to plant in the coming weeks. I don't think my back can take digging, and I am loathe to use chemical herbicides like Round-Up. Will repeated tilling kill the grass?

    ---Rob; Windfall Farm; Ringoes, NJ
A. Depends on the nature of the pasture, Rob. If the grasses are mostly fescue and other clumping varieties and there are no 'weeds from Hell' like thistle, repeated tilling and raking out of the green material followed by an application of a nice leveling layer of compost could work well.

But first, slow down!

A lot of people feel compelled to 'plant are really big vegetable garden really fast!' in these financially uncertain times, but you should never till soil while its wet. And you don't want to plant summer crops like corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers and cukes before mid-May in your area anyway, so take some time and do this right. To begin with, that means waiting until the soil is dry to the depth of your tiller or tractor tines to work the earth.

Afterwards, go over the tilled area with a tractor or hand-held rake to collect the bulk of the green plants you tilled up. Do this repeatedly; any investment you make this Spring will be paid back in spades in time NOT spent weeding.

I also want to amend your design. Thirty feet long is fine, but eight feet is twice as wide as your beds should be. Make the planting areas four feet wide and create raised beds—they don't have to be framed, just mounded—so that you can care for the plants without stepping into the beds. (And grass will move right back into NON-raised beds.)

Your reward will be the tremendous productivity and vigor of plants whose roots aren't constantly being compressed by your big clodhoppers. (And lots less time spent pulling grassy weeds.) And you won't have to till those beds again, thus avoiding the serious problems that tilling can cause when it uncovers and re-plants dormant weed seeds. (For more details, see this Previous Question of the Week on raised bed building and this one on no-till techniques.)

After your beds are built, create a stale seedbed before you plant anything: Level the soil, water it well, wait a week and then gently hoe all the weeds that sprout at the soil line. You've now eliminated the majority of this season's weeds. Then have a big load of yard waste compost (not sewage sludge or or 'bio-solid') delivered and cover your cleaned beds with an inch of the compost. Plant your crops, then use another inch of compost as a mulch against any weeds we missed.

Q. I want to convert a lawn to a vegetable garden. My front lawn seems the best choice, as it gets good sun part of the day and has the fewest trees. Any advice would be appreciated.

    ---Philip in Downingtown, PA
A. A lot of people are planning to do the same this year, Phil; and I'll be glad to help. But first I must toss the requisite cups of cold water at you as well.

"Good sun part of the day" sounds dicey. If it's not at least 6 full hours a day, think about joining a community garden instead. And you need morning sun to dry off the plants and prevent disease. Afternoon sun isn't half as good, especially for tomatoes. And if trees are casting the shade, their roots may prevent success. And if any of those trees are black walnuts, you can't grow tomatoes anywhere near there.

(Gee—I'm NO fun at all this week!)

Otherwise, physical removal of the sod is best, especially if it's bluegrass, zoysia or other 'running' grass. For small areas, use a sharp curved linoleum knife to cut strips a foot wide, then roll up the strips, much like sod is harvested. (Do more rolls rather than longer ones, as cut sod can get heavy fast.) You can also rent a machine called a sod cutter that will do the bulk of the physical work for you. Either way, transplant the sod to an area where you want a lawn or just pile it upside down; it will compost nicely. Or pile it in single layers—again upside down—around your wanted plants; it makes a great mulch.

Don't remove all the grass; just in four-foot wide areas. Then build raised beds in those spots, leaving two-foot wide walking lanes in between each bed that you'll mow regularly. Collect those clippings, let them air dry until they turn tan and use them to mulch the veggies growing in the beds. You're suddenly sustainable!

Q. I'm constructing raised beds for vegetables and am going to put down heavy cardboard to kill the sod (I didn't want to use Round-Up), then fill the beds with a mixture of compost and soil. Am I correct in this approach?

    ---Wynne in Chester County, PA
A. It might work—or the tenacity of the grass might surprise you (as it equally does users of nasty herbicides like Round-Up). At the very least, I would scalp the lawn first with a mower set as low as possible right before a sunny stretch and let it cook for a week or two. Even better: Scalp it and then bake it under clear plastic for as long as you can wait.

But you'll do better if you either physically remove the sod or till the grass up and rake the big clumps out before you smother the soil with cardboard.

Bottom line: Building permanent raised beds is a lot like painting a room. Do it quick and dirty and people will come by and say, "I thought you were going to paint in here." Spend a lot of time in the preparation and they'll think you hired a pro.

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