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How I Turned a Grass Lawn Into a Garden Plot

Chris Telden is an avid gardener of edibles. A former city dweller, she's always learning of ways to reconnect with the earth.

I used manual tools like this loop weeder to remove the grassy sod and create a nice garden plot for vegetables.

I used manual tools like this loop weeder to remove the grassy sod and create a nice garden plot for vegetables.

Turning a Grass Lawn Into a Garden by Hand (No Power Tools!)

I converted a large area of my lawn into a nice, usable garden space. It was 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 they 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.

At least, that's what I told myself 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?

Hard Work With Hand Tools

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!

Manual tools I used to turn lawn into garden.

Manual tools I used to turn lawn into garden.

A lasagna garden in progress

A lasagna garden in progress

Why I Didn't Use Other Methods, Like Power Tools or Lasagna Gardening

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. 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.

Garden hand tools I used, including Red Pig tools, a Japanese ika hoe (second to left), a mighty Wilcox All-Pro camping trowel (upper right), and a Hoedag (left)

Garden hand tools I used, including Red Pig tools, a Japanese ika hoe (second to left), a mighty Wilcox All-Pro camping trowel (upper right), and a Hoedag (left)

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. It's 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?

Sharing My Technique to Spare You the Trial and Error!

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.

Rogue 80S Scuffle Hoe - A triangle hoe sharpened on all three sides, canted at an angle to use as a push-pull weeder.  It took me several tries to learn to use it effectively.

Rogue 80S Scuffle Hoe - A triangle hoe sharpened on all three sides, canted at an angle to use as a push-pull weeder. It took me several tries to learn to use it effectively.

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Read More From Dengarden

I Needed Old-Fashioned, 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.

My Five Rogue-Brand Garden Hoes

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.

70F Field Hoe by Rogue Prohoe moves our water-logged clay soil like nobody's business, and isn't fazed by the occasional rock.

70F Field Hoe by Rogue Prohoe moves our water-logged clay soil like nobody's business, and isn't fazed by the occasional rock.

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.

How Tough Is Your Garden Lawn?

Tools I Used to Transform the Lawn Into Garden Soil

I used these tools to remove the thick layer of grassy lawn and replace it with nice dirt for planting a garden.

Tool NameUseComments

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.

Hoedag

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.

European Scythe

For cutting down high grass, thistles, and blackberries

Honing stone and peening anvil highly advised!

Pitchfork

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?

Garden Gloves

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 to Turn Our Lawn Into a Garden

To turn our lawn quickly into a garden plot, I did the following. (This is the short version.)

  1. I scythed the grass and weeds to a manageable height.
  2. I dug out the sod.
  3. I put the weeds and grass where they could compost.
  4. I added soil enhancements.
  5. I shaped the dirt into raised, sloped beds (about 10" high)
  6. I planted and mulched.
One Section of the New Garden, formerly lawn, now ready for planting in raised beds.

One Section of the New Garden, formerly lawn, now ready for planting in raised beds.