Our first year on the land, we were overwhelmed with projects. But at the top of our list was starting the annual vegetable garden beds. The question was – how do we transform overgrown grass and weeds into usable soil for tender new vegetable seeds and plants? We experimented with four methods for transforming lawn into garden, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each method.
Four methods for transforming lawn into productive garden beds.
- Hand tilling or double digging
- Mechanical Tilling
- Layering/Sheet Mulching/Lasagna Gardening
- Raised Beds
Each of these four methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and your choice of method will depend on your circumstances and resources.
- Hand tilling or double digging.
This method requires strength, perseverance, and a good pair of gloves! We are fortunate not to have an abundance of large stones on our property, but even so, breaking through thick grass and tough roots to create a loose soil appropriate for gardening was difficult and time-consuming. This method works well for small areas and is inexpensive. However, any kind of digging or tilling can destroy the worms and beneficial microorganisms so important to healthy soils, and although it kills most of the surface grass and weeds, some weed seeds will continue to sprout.
- Mechanical tilling. This method is great when you are working on a large area, as we did last year when starting most of our 1,000 square foot vegetable garden. We rented a mechanical rear-tine tiller which made the work of breaking through the surface layer of sod quick and easy. Similarly to hand digging, mechanical tilling can destroy beneficial soil organisms. You will also need to rent, borrow, or purchase a tiller. *A rear-tine tiller is used for breaking through tough sod. Front-tine tillers and cultivators are useful for working existing garden beds. (Learned from personal experience.)
- Layering/sheet mulching/lasagna gardening requires time (and patience). If you are in a hurry to plant, this method may not be suitable for you. The decomposition process for the layers takes time, and planting too soon may inhibit plant growth. It is a relatively inexpensive and easy method – having a resource for materials like cardboard, newspaper, compost and leaves definitely helps. And it smothers the grass and weeds below, allowing you to start your garden weed-free.
- Raised Garden Beds. The advantages of raised beds include:
- Deep, loose soils for strong root development and greater nutrient absorption by the plants
- Less weeds
- Good drainage
- Prevent erosion of garden soil during heavy rains
- Higher beds can be easier to manage for those with difficulty bending or squatting
As I wrote last year in Starting a No-Till Garden, I originally planned to start our first garden using layers of cardboard (we had plenty of boxes from our recent move), adding aged compost we purchased, and straw. But we were short on time (and patience), and ended up starting most of our garden by tilling and hand-digging, and saving some areas for the longer no-tilling method.
The results were fantastic, and our first lawn-to-garden was highly productive and resilient!
At the same time we were creating our tilled beds, we started future beds with a foundation of cardboard, covered with compost, leaves, and straw. These new beds would be ready for planting the second spring. You can read more about the advantages of no-till gardening on my post Starting a No-Till Garden.
Adding Cover Crops
Another method for creating loose, nutrient-rich soils is the addition of cover crops. Last fall I planted half my garden – both the previously tilled beds and the lasagna layer beds, with a winter cover crop. Winter rye (not to be confused with rye grass), creates deep roots that help to break up the soil and when cut and killed in the spring, adds nutrients as it decomposes. The winter rye is equally excellent at preventing soil erosion from wind and rain, both of which we receive plenty of here in the valley. Using cover crops was a huge success in my garden, and well worth the planning. Even if you have limited space, you can take advantage of cover crops. Six Reasons for Using Cover Crops in the Garden.
Whatever method you use to transform your lawn into a productive garden bed, be sure to enjoy the process. It’s exciting to see the transformation, and in the long run, the rewards will be well worth the effort!
A Green Hand – How to Break Up Clay Soil
Earth Easy Blog – Earth Easy No Till Gardening
Rodale’s Organic Life No Till Gardening
Resources for building your own raised beds:
Frugal Mama and the Sprout – How to Build a Raised Garden Bed
Deep Green Permaculture’s – Raised Garden Beds
appreciate your notes on each method. I’ve never thought about the pro’s and con’s in such a systematic way…My garden of preference is the heavy mulch/ no weed concept..started a 2nd area last Spring by covering an area with old hay/ then old tarp. I am planning to plant a pumpkin patch there in a couple of weeks. I love my earth worms and haven’t run a tiller through the soil now for a few years…my biggest problem is finding enough free mulch that doesn’t require a bunch of time (ie. let the grass grow longer, then rake it up, seems like a lot of time for the yield) Anyway, like you said, be sure to enjoy the process, regardless of what you do. Good words. DM
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
Thanks DM. Our biggest no-till bed will be planted in pumpkins and winter squash soon, and I am excited! Putting my hands into the garden beds, I am astounded at the number of earthworms (I counted an even dozen in a handful!) And we have interesting mushrooms and fungi throughout the garden. If we tilled every spring, we would destroy so much.
Alicia Owen says
I love that we are not the only ones who do this because we have no tiller! Option 5: Buy a hog to root up your garden area for you. That’s what we did and it is working fantastically so far! Stopping by from the Homesteader Hop.
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
I have seen the tilling hogs can do! Unfortunately, they are not an option for us – but good for you!! Have a great week Alicia and thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Love the compare and contrast on the different methods. I prefer to put the cardboard down to reduce weeds in the beds. Patience is a virtue!