Turn a lawn, vacant lot, or weed patch into a vegetable garden! Three easy methods we've actually tried.
Do you find yourself looking out at grass where you would love to see fresh tomatoes and lettuce growing, pollinators flying, and your children picking peas? Clueless as to where to begin in achieving that dream though? Turning sod or neglected soil into a thriving vegetable garden can seem intimidating, but with one weekend's work you can be well on your way to that garden of your dreams!
Before we bought our farm, we cut our teeth in part by gardening in yards and on vacant lots- really anywhere we were allowed. I have transitioned lawns, weed patches, and super-compacted-clay-dust-bowls into half-way decent gardens I could be proud of, and with these methods you could too!
Turning grass into a garden: There are three main methods of organically removing grass to expose soil you can improve and ultimately plant your garden in without using herbicides. They vary in the amount of work you have to put in and the amount of time they take.
Removing sod- Removing your sod by hand is definitely the most labor intensive method, but you can plant in the exposed soil right away. Simply use a sharp spade to remove the sod and all roots a small chunk at a time. Be sure to leave as much soil in place as possible, this is your top soil you will be planting in. This method is best for smaller gardens, and can be done in early spring prior to planting, or in fall. If you expose the soil in the fall, cover it with a tarp or weed barrier until spring to keep flying weed seeds from making their home in your new garden.
Tilling- Roto-tilling can be destructive to soil life and structure if used continually, year after year or multiple times a year, but it can be an excellent way to get a new garden going. Till and let the plant material break down over a few weeks, tilling again about 3 weeks later to destroy any grasses that have reestablished. Make sure your final tilling is at least 4 weeks prior to planting so that the organic matter you tilled into the soil has a chance to break down some. Again, this can be done in early spring prior to planting or in fall. If you expose the soil in the fall, cover it with a tarp or weed barrier until spring to keep weed seeds from making their home in your new garden. Tilling can be used in combination with solarization, explained next.
Solarization- Solaization is the least labor intensive method but takes the most time- you need to start the process the summer prior to planting. It can be used alone or in combination with either method listed above. Spread clear plastic over the area in May or June and fasten tightly in place with rocks or stakes. It will be in place until the fall. Clear plastic allows light in but traps the heat, creating an inferno which kills most of the plant material. In the fall, replace the clear plastic with black plastic or a dark tarp. If you leave the clear plastic through the winter, you will see the opposite of what you want to happen as you create a little moderately-warm greenhouse for plants to regrow in. Some people do this to germinate as many dormant weed seeds as possible which they will till in the spring, but using black plastic in fall and winter is more fool-proof. Till or spot-weed in the spring any plants that survived the process and starting planting.
*This method can kill beneficial soil bacteria and fungi in the process, but the effect is short term, with no lasting effects like that of an herbicide application.
First crops to try:
"Sod-busting" crops: Some crops are easier to grow in new gardens than others. These tend to be those with large seeds because coarse "new" soils can be hard to plant and germinate tiny seeds in until soil structure improves and coarse lingering organic matter breaks down. These large-seeded crops include potatoes, peas, beans, squashes, and corn.
Plants that have large aggressive leaf canopies are also great for a first year garden, because you can expect lingering grasses and weeds to be competition for your plants the first year. These include squashes, corn, and potatoes. Even now on our farm, I plant our potatoes in the "roughest" parts of the market garden because they are such good sod-busters.
Our 'Sweetmeat' squash, with its vigorous, vining canopy can be a great start for a first year garden.
Now that you have a garden, you will want to work on improving the soil, so check out my next blog post on building soil in a new garden!