How I Turned a Grass Lawn Into a Garden Plot
This year, I converted a large area of my lawn into a nice, usable garden space. It was very satisfying, but it also makes me want to rant just a bit.
Can someone please tell me why people ever thought lawns were a good idea? To me, lawns are a waste of good gardening space. They're labor-intensive, yet reap little reward. Turning a field of green carpeting into a productive vegetable and herb garden has to be one of the noblest tasks humankind can do. Or at least, that's what I told myself this year as I set out to turn our grassy lawn into a vegetable and fruit garden. After all, everyone in our household has to pull their own weight - shouldn't the lawn have to do the same?
So that's what I did. With my own hands (yes, me, a born Chicagoan) I turned sections of our lawn into a garden plot. I did it the (modest cough) hard way - with hoes, scythes, and hand tools. I turned both previously untilled lawn and soil that had been tilled the previous year but now was overgrown with grass and weeds into soil that we could grow things in. May I just say - yay!
How Tough Is Your Garden Lawn?
The hardest part about turning my lawn into a garden plot was the thick sod filled with weeds and tough clumps of grass. Is your lawn challenge like that?
Because I am not inspired by using gas or electric powered equipment, I did not use a rototiller, string trimmer, or anything else that could run off madly on its own if I lost control of it. Because I am impatient, I did not use the pleasurably lazy "lasagna gardening" technique in which you lay down straw or black plastic mulch over cut foliage and then let it all stew for six months to a year. Although I like lasagna gardening in other areas, I was in a hurry to clear up space on the lawn to plant, so I didn't want to wait. My goal was to get the grass out of the way, make the soil nice enough not to strangle the roots of the plants I wanted to grow, and plant 'em. Maybe I'd even mulch with bark or coco coir or black plastic to tell those weeds they weren't comin' back, no way.
My Experience as an Amateur Gone Ambitious
So that's what I did. I did it not knowing a thing about garden tools, weeding, digging, or—let's face it—gardening. I was fortunate that my sister-in-law spearheaded the project in terms of figuring out the plans for the garden and providing the types of soil amendments needed. She bought most everything, except the tools I ended up using the most. And somehow or other, it got done. Maybe not the most aesthetically pleasing garden ever, but still, food we can eat! Grown right here! On formerly-useless lawn! What could be better?
It occurred to me that other people might want to know how I got rid of the layer of grass - not because I did anything particularly amazing. I mean, it's just gardening, and I can't exactly take credit for reinventing it - but because it was, well, hard, you know? I would have loved it if someone could have just told me right at the beginning what I would need to have and do. Then I wouldn't have had to research and try all different sorts of tools before I found the right ones. I wouldn't have had to learn ALL the important techniques through the trial-and-error method.
I Needed Old-Fashioned Type, Durable Tools, Not Sissy WalMart Tools
As an example of my trials and errors...when I started this project, I'd hardly ever used a hoe, and then only a lame, bone-jarring one. I decided early on to get a quality Rogue hoe. Rogue is an inexpensive American brand and they make STRONG hoes. They also have a wide assortment to choose from. I ended up getting several - about five (yes, I took this seriously!) I ended up using primarily four in the garden-to-be and ignoring the last. Plus, I learned from experience that two (the 40X and 55A) were essentially interchangeable. I sure wish I'd known that when I ordered them. Below, I describe the tricks and techniques I discovered for using all the equipment that I had no clue how to use when I started.
My Challenges: Why Digging the Garden Was So Hard
I found my biggest challenge was finding tools that could handle the work. The next biggest was staying uninjured—which largely came down to the tools, as well.
- We are in the Pacific Northwest, with damp, muddy, dense clay. This means I needed strong hoes and digging implements that wouldn't break when used to pry up the dirt, like the cheap chain-hardware-store strawberry hoe I broke trying to dig out lawn.
- We have a thick, fibrous layer of thistles, Himalayan blackberries, weeds, and tall grass (we're talking eight feet tall in places) taking over our lawn. Our sod is mighty sod. I needed tools that were sharp and fast for getting out both thick, deeply-rooted weeds and long, tortuous roots.
- Our lawn has rocks, from pebble-sized to brick-sized, buried in it. So the blades of the tools I used had to not be wimpy, but able to withstand the occasional impact against a rock.
- I have overcome chronic back, knee, and foot pain in the past, so I needed the physical work to be ergonomic enough NOT to set things off again. I was careful to keep my posture healthy and use tools that I could handle with ease and that were the right size for me (I'm petite). I did manage to hurt my knee at one point due to wearing my otherwise beloved Muck boots instead of my favorite moccasins on a rainy day. (Tell you more about that another time.) But it just confirmed my overwhelming experience that to prevent injury, the right tools were absolutely essential.
Tools I Used to Transform the Lawn Into Garden Soil
Rogue Hoe - 55A and 40X
For powerful digging/turning of sod
Though slightly different shapes and weights, these turned out to be functionally very similar. You don't need both.
Rogue Scuffle Hoe - 80S
For push-pull weeding and loosening dirt
You kind of slice this thing through the soil in any direction you want. It's super sharp and does what I imagine a Japanese sickle weeder can do if you tilt it at an angle.
Rogue Hoe 70F, Field Hoe
For moving dirt fast
This long-handled tool has a long reach and a big face that allows me to carve and shave clay dirt almost effortlessly into fluffy dirt, then pull it along. It also cuts well and has a hefty weight to it.
Japanese Kusakichi brand Ika (Squid) Hoe
For removing stubborn grassy clumps, sifting weeds, and breaking up chunks of dirt
Very heavyweight for its size.
For cultivating dirt (especially breaking up clumps of sod), targeting young/new weeds during planting and generally taking around with you
This is a convenient, lightweight hoe I found easy to lug around and use often.
Wilcox All-Pro trowels
For digging out rocks, slicing deep roots, and sifting through dirt
I didn't use these a lot, but occasionally they were "just the tool."
Rock Rake - brand unknown
For raking weeds and dirt
I used a sturdy rock rake mostly for smoothing dirt in the last stages of preparing the soil.
Glaser Stirrup Hoe
For weeding and sifting weeds
Because I was weeding a wide swathe, I used the largest one with the 7" head. I probably should have gotten the slightly smaller one to use for weeding in narrow areas once things were planted.
For cutting down high grass, thistles, and blackberries
Honing stone and peening anvil highly advised!
For moving large clumps of weeds
Particularly helpful if you have a lot of high grass when you start.
Landscape Anchor Pins (Ground Staples)
These nifty mega-staples hold black plastic down for composting or mulch
Black Plastic Mulch
For lasagna gardening/composting large or small plots
This is so not green, but so convenient...what can I say?
For protecting the hands from thistles, thorns, poison plants, blisters, and yucky things.
I highly recommend your keeping at least 2 replacement pairs if your soil gets muddy. That way you'll always have a pair available when the gloves get too muddy and water-logged to use.
Coco Coir, Planting Soil, Fertilizer, and other soil enhancers
For making the soil airy, light, fluffy, rich, and water-retaining without being water-logged
What you use as a soil amendment depends on your particular soil conditions.
Steps I Took In Turning Our Lawn Into a Garden
To turn our lawn quickly into a garden plot, I did the following. (This is the short version.)
- I scythed the grass and weeds to a manageable height.
- I dug out the sod.
- I put the weeds and grass where they could compost.
- I added soil enhancements.
- I shaped the dirt into raised, sloped beds (about 10" high)
- I planted and mulched.
Bit 'O Lawn, Bit 'O Lasagna, Bit O' Garden
How to Turn a Lawn Into a Garden Plot: The Long Version
So all of that sounds really easy, summarized in six short steps. Not gonna lie to you here, it's not. If you don't like to sweat and work for hours on end, you probably want to go rent a rototiller and skip to step 4. It'll still be hard work, just not to quite such an, um, spiritual level.
Step 1: Taming the Tall Weeds
If your lawn is neat and well-managed, you've already got a head start - just mow your lawn in preparation for Step 2, digging.
However, if your grass is wildly overgrown or the weeds are more than a foot tall, you probably want to do something about that before you start breaking into the sod. Sod, by the way, means the top layer of lawn dirt - the part with all the grass, weeds, and roots tangled up in a big thicket.
Scything Isn't Just for the Grim Reaper Anymore
If you have a lawn that gets out of control, or you hate using lawn mowers, consider the old-fashioned scythe. You can scythe in the rain, you can scythe for just 5 minutes, there's no big equipment to operate or store, and, well...it's therapeutic, a gentle workout, and fun!
Scything isn't mandatory, even if your grass is out of control. I mean, if you like to use (or aren't intimidated by) a string trimmer - also called a "weed wacker" or "weed eater"—to handle that level of roughage, then go ahead and use that. The idea is simply to get the grass and weeds down to less than a foot, and ideally just a few inches high.
Because I am intimidated by power tools, I opted instead to use a scythe to mow my lawn to a reasonable level. I'd started scything our field last year. The grass had grown out of control and was taking over the property, along with some Himalayan blackberries, thistles, and other aggressive intruders. I found scything to be incredibly efficient, cost-effective, and convenient.
So when I went to tackle the neglected lawn area to turn it into a garden, the scythe was my first tool for taming the highest weeds and grasses.
What is This...Scythe?
A scythe is a long crescent-shaped blade attached to a long handle called a snath that you swing along the ground from side to side to cut grass and weeds. It's not the same as a sickle, which is typically short-handled and wielded anywhere you put it. You need to keep the scythe well-sharpened, which means peening (hammering out the edge of the blade) periodically and honing with a whetstone every ten minutes or so. It's not as intimidating as it sounds, honestly!
One advantage of using a scythe is that you end up with the grass cuttings that you can use for compost. In my case, some of the cut grass went into little compost piles, and the rest went toward my own version of lasagna gardening in another area of our property, which is another kind of composting.
You have two choices if you're going to use a scythe: American style with the grass blade or European style. The European scythe is lighter. We have both. I use the stronger, heavier American scythe where there are a lot of thick blackberries and coarse weeds to cut. I use the finer, more easily honed, but needing more frequent honing, European scythe to cut regular grass and light weeds like wild peas, thistles, and SMALL blackberry vines.
How to Use
Scything is kind of an art, and I highly recommend this site by a long-time scything family for learning how it's done.
Raking and Piling All The Weeds
After you cut the grass, you need to do something with it. Raking is almost an afterthought. You forget you're going to need to do it, but after scything or hacking down an abundance of weeds, you're left with a huge, messy pile of foliage, and you realize it's in your way.
You can discard the foliage for composting, or use it on your own compost pile. I raked much of it onto other sections of field, covered it with black plastic sheeting, pinned the mulch to the ground, punctured holes in the mulch with my pitchfork to let in moisture and air, and that area is destined to be a lasagna garden.
As to style of rake, I used a rock rake/bow rake. DO NOT USE A LEAF RAKE. the kind with long metal tines that flex. For this job, such a rake is a wimpy, difficult, and ineffective tool. Use instead one of those long, wide rakes with short, rigid, widely spaced tines.
A pitchfork is useful, but not necessary, for heaving the mass of grass onto the compost heap. It all depends on your volume.
Step 2: Digging Out the Sod
This is the step you've probably been dreading: removing the actual grassy layer.
This is where things get hard. Literally. Dry soil can be tough to break up. If your soil gets very hard when it's dry, then try to choose a digging day after a light to medium rain. Water-logged soil after a hard rain, too, can be a pain to dig and turn. Sometimes, though, you just want to work with whatever you've got, because you're in the mood to dig. That's a good reason to have durable tools. It's on days where the digging conditions aren't optimal that it's easiest to break flimsy tools.
Here is a video of me using the Prohoe Rogue hoe 55A to turn the turf over.
Note: Sorry for the awful quality of the video. I took it with a 15-year-old digital camera, and to compound the matter, I took it by swinging this hugely heavy hoe in one hand and holding the camera in the other. The first attempt had me knocking the handle against my shin. This version is professional cinematography by comparison.
Me Swinging My Firefighter's Hoe: With One Hand! (Don't Try This At Home)
How to Dig With a Firefighter's Hoe
Why did I use a Rogue firefighter's hoe? (55A) It was very similar to the trenching hoe (40X). Both of these are heavyweight and have blades on both ends. Both have a handle the right length for swinging. The 55A I liked slightly better, because the big adze end is wider and sharpened on three sides. But really, both worked equally well. Just for kicks, I've included some photos so you can compare them.
The Rogue Gardening Hoes I Used to Cut out the Layer of Grassy Lawn
To dig out the sod, this was my technique:
- Holding the handle at a comfortable place, raise the hoe high overhead, but not so far back that it upsets your balance.
- Swing the hoe to the ground. This movement is a combination of at first letting the hoe fall and then adding to the building momentum at the end with a surge of power. So by the time the blade hits the lawn grass, it sinks in deeply below root level.
- With the blade sunk into the dirt, pry the grassy chunk of dirt out by pressing/pushing on the handle. Flip over the dirt, using the blade as necessary to chop any remaining strands of grass.
You now should have dirt exposed in one small area with a clump of upside-down grassy sod. It has begun!
There are a few things you can do at this point. You can dig a long trench down the length of the lawn using this kind of stroke, then follow your cleared trench at an angle with this hoe, flipping over more sod kind of like peeling a carpet of turf. Or, you can rinse and repeat, taking the tool madly to the lawn and making it look like moles have had their annual party there. I, an undisciplined sort, did the latter.
Bending Woes and What to Do About Them
I don't know about you, but I have chronic back troubles. To be specific, I have spondylolytic spondylolisthesis and neural foraminal stenosis. It was critical for me to keep good bending posture the entire time I was doing this, or my back would go "out." Now, I learned last year that the supposed "correct" way to bend - at the knees - wasn't actually good for me at all. So I learned the truly ergonomic way to bend at the hips (not the knees and not the waist) and that's made all the difference. If you want me to describe how I do it, just ask in the comments.
Loosen the Dirt From the Grassy Clumps
Once your lawn is filled with these intimidating but satisfying clumps of upside-down grassy sod, then you must do some bending. I used a heavyweight trowel (the Wilcox All-Pro 14"), the Hoedag, and the Japanese Ika Hoe to loosen the clods and break the dirt apart. (You may need to wait a day or so for the clumps to dry out if they are very damp.) I used a chopping motion to break off big clumps, then picked up the main clump, gave it a shake, spat out the dirt that came into my mouth, and threw the grass and root part that was left onto a pile to compost later. Rinse and repeat.
If bending isn't so friendly, you could use the long-handled 80S scuffle hoe, or better yet, a heavier hoe like the one that stayed in my garage, to break up and loosen the clods. That was a smaller garden hoe by Prohoe. I've used it for that purpose before, but when I was doing the yard I was too lazy to make the trip to get it out of the garage! How you use it is you both chop with the broad end, then turn the hoe so the sharpened flat end is on the clump and chop with that, too. Because it has a long handle, you can stand up straight while you work. Rogue 70G
Composting the Weeds
I won't say a lot about composting here, mostly because I do not know a lot. I do know, though, that what I did was fairly easy to do, and cheap. It hasn't had a chance to fully compost yet, but I don't see why it wouldn't. I basically stuffed a huge black plastic contractor's bag full of the dirt & weed clumps, then turned it over so the open face was on the ground. Pierce a few holes in the top to let in water and air, and then...voila, instant composting bin.
Using the Rogue Triangle Scuffle Hoe
The scuffle hoe is a push-pull weeding hoe. That means you don't so much chop with it as pull it toward you and push it away from you. I used the Rogue 80S, one of the bigger scuffle hoes, and got fairly proficient at using it after about an hour. The main thing to know is it's actually harder to use when you keep it level and exactly horizontal. At that angle, you have to press down to make it effective. However, if you tilt it at an angle, then push and pull, it slices under the plants at the roots with its sharp blade edges and points. It's very satisfying. Not what I'd call effortless, but not too hard, either.
Step 3. Prepare the Beds
With the hardest part over, what you do at this stage depends on your soil, the size of your garden, and what kind of garden plot you want. What I did was this:
There were still a lot of weeds in the now-bare-faced yard. I weeded these stragglers mostly using the Rogue 80S scuffle hoe (it's shaped like a triangle) and the hula hoe - actually called a stirrup hoe or loop hoe - by Glaser. I also chopped at them with the Hoedag and ika hoe. Then I rather laboriously raked the weeds into the compost pile.
Note that while I tried to get out all of the roots, many small bits and pieces of weed and grass remained. This was as good as it was going to get, though, as I didn't see myself sifting the soil pint by pint.
Then, when the dirt was mostly dirt at last, I took the 70F Rogue field hoe and the rock rake and moved dirt around. Most of the dirt I was dealing with had been soil enhanced the previous year, so I was mixing that with the natural clay ground. If your soil needs enhancement, this is the time to add it.
The 70F cut and moved dirt like a dream. I took a short video and have included it here, but I don't think it adds much because the quality of the video camera and my filmmaking was lacking. Note, though, that this huge hoe was cutting dirt even though I was only wielding it one-handed (using the other hand to hold the camera).
Me Using the 70F Field Hoe By Rogue
Using the Stirrup Hoe
Unlike the Rogue 80S, the Glaser stirrup hoe - and I presume any hula-hoe style tool - takes just a few minutes to figure out how to use. You lay the sharpened blade end of the head (the bottom part) on the ground and begin sliding the hoe toward you and away. The hoe is ratcheted in such a way that it rocks back and forth on the handle - that's how it works, slicing patiently at dirt and plants. Although it's easier when you start on a patch of dirt, you can actually get to work on top of short foliage, and if you do it long enough, you'll eventually scrape away the weeds and hit dirt.
Sometimes the hoe will catch on a root or stem; when this happens, don't try to force it. Just keep sliding back and forth, and if that doesn't work after a few tries, get a different tool, like the Wilcox All-Pro trowel, the 55A Rogue garden hoe, the Red Pig Tools hand hoe or dandelion weeder, or anything that chops or pries and is convenient.
Note that this push-pull weeder, and the Rogue 80S, both are for removing weed tops and only roots that are just under the soil, not deep.
Hoes I Used to Move Dirt and Weed in the Almost-Ready Garden Plot
At this point, I piled dirt a couple of feet high into long hills about 2-3 feet apart. Then I walked along each hill with my rock rake and spread out the dirt, pulling it toward me (easier) and occasionally pushing it away (harder). The goal was to create beds 3-4 feet wide, with a foot-wide path between them.
As I smoothed out the raised beds, I removed additional weeds as they came up. I mostly left the grass blades and leaves, and focused on those ominous white, slim root strands that are so tenacious with grass.
Cutting or Prying out Surprise Roots
Underneath the surface, lawns are messy, busy things, with lots of meandering, active root systems that will surprise you. Occasionally, I'd see some thick roots sticking out of the ground. I'm not sure if these were grass roots (we have every inhospitable kind of grass there is in our yard, I suspect), or other weeds' roots. Whatever they were, I disposed of them by wielding the heavy ika hand hoe, the Red Pig hoe (that thing is MIGHTY) or, when the big guns were needed (usually, when the roots went deep into the clay soil), the Rogue 55A or 40X again, as described above - raise tool overhead, control the fall-swing, pry out of ground.
Amazon Carries Some of The Tools I Used
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 Chris Telden