5 Ways to Turn a Lawn into a Vegetable Patch…
…(The Agrarian Adventures Begin)
What exactly does it take to create a patch from scratch?
I’m about to find out as I try and turn half-an-acre into productive growing areas. The plan is three-fold; a cut flower plot (solely of Madonna lilies), a medical herb micro-farm (with semi-professional drying facilities/methods) and a kitchen garden.
From clearing the site and preparing the soil and deciding what to plant and where to plant it – this blog is a starting-out novices vicarious attempt to document my adventures in gardening and other similarly agrarian pursuits, pastoral pastimes and agricultural enterprises, from goat husbandry, cut flowers and beekeeping to falconry, instinctive archery and fly-fishing…
Wish me luck!
This is not another “back to the land fad” but a response to a personal and family need, to a concrete sensibility for the ‘common good’. Some people will roll their eyes and scoff at the idea of recovering an agrarian and craft-based culture; returning to a dedication to agricultural enterprises – seeing it as silly idealism, but I can’t see a need more real than food and family – can humanity go on without the two?
Growing your own can appear daunting, particularly if you have a large overgrown area to clear. I decided to draw up a vague plan and then get stuck in. Researching as I go along, in books and online, I also relied significantly on my intuition.
As I go along, I’ll share my progress (trials and tribulations), tips and upcoming tasks and aspirations, thoughts and ideas. My first such task centered on the issue of removing (or not removing) turf…
Sod Off, Turf!
Are you past the stage of needing a big lawn for football or is there a patch of sod, or turf, at the bottom of your garden or a large overgrown allotment nearby that you could clear and transform into vegetable plots?
Why not join the increasing numbers of people growing their own food?
Don’t let turf get in your way. It doesn’t need to be back-breaking, indeed you don’t even have to touch a spade or fork.
Let’s walk through the options:
# 1. Cut and Remove by Hand
This method is slow and labour-intensive but allows you to start planting immediately.
Water the area a few days before to make the soil easier to work (or wait until resent rainfall). The soil should be moist but not sodden. Saturated soil is not only heavy but also susceptible to compaction, which leads to poor plant growth.
Cut the sod into parallel strips 1 foot wide using an edger or sharp spade. These strips can then be cut into 1- to 2-foot lengths, depending on the density of the turf and the thickness of the pieces. Next, pry up one end of a piece of sod and slide the spade or fork under it. Cut through any roots, and lift out the pre-cut piece. If the underside of the sod contains much loose soil, a fork may work best, as this soil (nutrient-rich humus) can be shaken back onto the surface when the sod is lifted.
Roll up the strips if you skip the crosscut step, and keep peeling the strip back. Keep in mind, though, that these rolls will be heavy.
Inspect your new bed’s subsoil. Once the sod is gone, look for and destroy potential pests, such as the larvae of insects. Remove any rocks, remaining clumps of grass, and sizable roots.
One drawback to sod removal is the significant loss of organic matter, which greatly contributes to the health of plants. It should be restored as compost (see below).
Pros: Permits immediate planting; avoids use of chemicals and loud machinery.
Cons: Is labour intensive; exposes subsoil to weed seeds by eliminating vegetative cover; removes organic matter.
Tip: Minimise injury or fatigue by using tools of appropriate length and grip and by sharpening your tools before using them.
# 2. Mulch (organic or inorganic)
Perhaps the easiest way to eliminate grass is to cover it using plastic, weed suppressant fabric or landscaping fabric or newspaper and cardboard, or indeed a combination of. Depending on the time of year and material used, this can take several months.
Check out ‘No Dig’ Gardening.
Stretch light-excluding plastic over the lawn. With the edges securely anchored (with ground peg or securing hooks) the temperature under the plastic increases. The high temperature and lack of light will eventually kill the grass, although they can also destroy beneficial organisms.
Laying cardboard or newspaper over the grass is a better alternative. Cover these biodegradable materials with grass clippings, leaf mold, mulch, or compost to hold the layers in place, keep in moisture, and add organic matter. Lay down six to eight sheets of newspaper. Use paper printed with black-and-white ink only, as colored ink may contain heavy metals.
Pros: Does not require the physical effort (‘No Dig’) of removing sod; leaves original organic matter in place; does not disrupt soil structure
Cons: Delays planting up to several months; may kill beneficial organisms if using plastic
Tip: Lay down newspaper layers during the summer, and wet them to help keep them in place. The following spring, the grass should be dead and much of the organic matter you’ve added will have been incorporated into the soil by earthworms and other organisms.
# 3. Rotavate
Breaking up sod with a rotavator requires some energy, but most of the work is done by it’s engine. Small rotavators can usually handle previously worked gardens, but breaking up well established sod requires a heavier machine and may require more than one pass. After rotavating the bed, remove and shake the soil from any remaining clumps of grass.
One advantage of rotavating is that the original organic matter is retained in the garden as the sod is turned under. You can add organic matter by forking or shoveling compost, manure, grass clippings, or leaf mold onto the sod before tilling.
A rotavated bed can be planted immediately, but the process brings to the surface weed seeds that may germinate and cause problems later. You may also wind up inadvertently propagating some weeds, which can send up new shoots from the small pieces of its chopped-up roots.
Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; permits immediate planting
Cons: Is difficult on rocky sites and in wet or clay soils; turns up weed seeds; propagates certain weeds
Tip: Large rotavators can be hard to manoeuvre. You will likely need to carve the edge of your new bed with a spade or edger, especially if the border is curved.
# 4. Raised beds
Turf makes a nutritious base for your raised bed and will reduce the need for additional soil, however soil/compost will need to be brought in to fill the beds (they are raised after all).
Map out the space that you want to convert to a raised bed garden with a garden hose or flour.
Remove the turf from the area and set aside.
After you build your bed, flip the turf upside-down and lay on the base of the bed.
Cover the turf with some newspaper.
Top the bed up with soil or compost. Then, you are ready to plant!
Pros: Permits immediate planting; avoids use of chemicals and loud power tools; leaves original organic matter in place; does not disrupt soil structure.
Cons: Moderately labour-intensive and appropriate timber needs to be sought/bought.
Tip: Approach local timber mills or fencing contractors to ask after old railway sleepers, fencing posts or scaffolding planks.
# 5. Cut and Remove with a Turf Cutter
An easier, quicker yet more costly approach is hiring landscaping machinery. However for the those lacking time or patience, £25 for a day’s hire could seem worthwhile. Plus you get to play with toy!
Water the area a few days before to make the soil easier to work or wait for recent rainfall before starting.
Make sure the turf is free from rocks.
Do a practice run to determine the optimal depth of the cut.
Work methodically, and sensibly – cutting 3-4 foot lengths at a time, rolling them up and removing with the use of a wheelbarrow.
Pros: Is quicker and easier than digging; permits immediate planting
Cons: Is difficult on rocky and uneven sites and in wet or clay soils
Tip: Turf cutters can be hard to manoeuvre. I found using a belt made all the difference – fashion a belt to wrap around your waist and the handlebar in order to decrease the strain through your arms and back: the added resistance encourages the blade to dig deeper into the soil, creating a better tilth.
# 5.1 Bonus combo-option! (what I did, that is)
Cut and lift the turf using a turf cutter and also hire a rotavator to till and prepare the subsoil for planting! Reasonably costly, but a quick-win. I lifted the turf and stacked it to form compost. I then covered the area’s in landscaping fabric. I will then lift the fabric in the winter and return the nutrient-rich composted turf back to the plots and re-cover with the fabric, ready for planting in the spring. I will then burn holes in the fabric to ensure weed-free, non-time-consuming gardening. I will write about how to correctly burn holes in landscaping fabric in the spring.
If you do decide to remove the turf, compost it! Stack the turf rolls or turf lengths in a pile to compost over a season. Make sure the grass is either folded in on it’s self (as in, rolled) or sandwich the turf strips – grass facing grass – in stacks (like lasagne?). The grass and humus will form a nutrient-rich compost which you can add back onto your plot the following season – replacing the soil and nutrients that you removed.
The option used is dictated by how much time, energy and dosh you’ve got to commit (say, with raised beds) as well as whether you have the patience to wait several months to start planting (say, with mulching). Are there more optimal methods to bring about better results?
Whatever you do, don’t be put off. Read. Ask for help. Get stuck in. It will be worth it!