Turning Lawn or Land into a Garden Bed

Removing Grass and Weeds to Restore the Soil

May 9, 2020
Garden Without Digging

Want to start a garden from scratch? Here’s how to clear your land—whether it’s replacing lawn grass or reclaiming a weedy field. If the soil is spent or neglected, we’ll also help you restore the soil to make it productive again!

Your Garden Location

Before you clear your lawn or land, let’s start with four basics in terms your garden location.

  1. Sun! Most plants need sunlight. If you’re planting a vegetable garden, crops need 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight so it can’t be too shady.
  2. Avoid land that has lots of rocks or lots of invasive grasses (such as Johnsongrass and invicible Bermudagrass) as it will be very difficult for your garden to be successful.
  3. Avoid floodplains or steeply sloped areas, as they can present challenges related to water and access.
  4. Heavy clay soil is also going to be challenging; in this case, we would recommend raised bed gardens.

We’re going to break this section into two areas: 1. simply removing lawn grass for a garden and 2. clearing unused land for a larger-scale garden or small farm.

Removing Lawn Grass for a Garden

Ideally, you start this project in the fall. If you need to need to start your garden immediately, see our “quick versions” below.

We prefer to use the first “smothering method” with cardboard, but we’ve included two other methods which gardeners use for a no-chemical approach: solarization and manual digging. 

Smothering Method

  1. Define your garden bed. Take a hose or string or rope and outline the garden’s shape. A rectangle is easiest. 
  2. Start by clearing the surface of any debris and any rocks larger than a hen’s egg. Mow down grass or cut back weeds to the ground.
  3. If there are lots of weeds on the ground where you want to grow, lay down a layer of cardboard or 8 to 10 sheets of newspaper, overlapping the edges by at least 6 inches. If you’re using newspaper, make sure the sheets have black ink only (no color) and cardboard needs to be unwaxed. Mark out paths between the beds using thick cardboard laid with generous overlaps. This will help to kill off the weeds between growing areas. You can cover the cardboard with bark chips or similar later.
  4. Thoroughly wet the cardboard to help it break down. The cardboard will serve as a further barrier to weeds, exhausting and eventually killing most of them off. Once the growing season gets underway, you’ll find that any weeds that do manage to make it through will be much easier to remove.
  5. Now add a thick layer of well-rotted organic matter. Add compost 3 to 4 inches thick over the paper or cardboard to hold it down. Fast forward a few months and any grass and weeds below will have rotted down, returning all that wonderful nitrogen back to the soil. Earthworms will work to gradually incorporate the organic matter into the soil below. You’re left with loose, dark, moist soil with no weeds.

If the organic matter in your bed is still lumpy at planting time, start vegetable seedlings off in plug trays or pots to plant out once they’ve grown a sturdy root system. This will also make it easy to space plants out at exactly the right distance, saving you time thinning out rows of seedlings.

See our full video showing you how to create a no-dig garden.

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Solarizaton Method

Use the power of the Sun! Cover the area with a clear or black plastic tarp; the ground beneath the plastic will heat up so high that it will scorch living grass, as well as weeds, seeds, and soil bacteria. Within about four weeks, your grass should be dead and beginning to break down. You can then dig the dead grass into the soil, adding compost or other soil amendments if you wish, and plant your garden bed.

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Manual Method

Though this method requires more physical effort, it’s also very effective and quick. Have a sharp spade on hand. Water the lawn a day prior to grass removal then use the spade to cut the lawn into 1-square-foot sections. Remove each section by sliding the spade beneath the segment and levering it up and out of the ground. Discard grass (because it will have weed seeds).

Work compost into the soil when you first start a garden to give plants the food and nutrient they need. Then ensure the soil is raked so it’s level before planting. Do not step on your soil or it will become compacted.

Quick Versions to Converting Lawn to Garden

Smothering technique

Follow the smothering technique above, using layered newspaper. This quick techique assumes you have good soil (versus weedy, neglected, spent soil).

  1. Soak the newspaper layers with water. 
  2. Place plants at proper distance (as indicated by your plant labels)
  3. Cut through the wet newspaper to dig a small planting hole for each.
  4. Plant and spread excess dirt on paper
  5. Cover all newspaper with a few inches of mulch. If you are planting a vegetable patch, covering with straw (versus mulch) is another option.

If you have clay soil, you can also build raised beds right on their lawns, and line the bottoms with cardboard to smother the grass – a technique that makes it possible to fill the beds and start gardening right away. 

The next step is to ensure your soil is healthy. See our advice on soil preparation and testing

“Back to Eden” technique

A common variation is to use materials that are readily available to nourish and build soil. Popularized by organic gardener Paul Gautschi in his “Back to Eden” method, materials such as woodchips are used to mimic Mother Nature’s infinite ability to recycle nutrients.

Build a bed with thick layers of newspaper over cleared ground. Wet it down. Top with about four inches of compost, then add a layer of woodchips about two inches deep, taking care not to mix the two layers. Then simply push aside the woodchips to plant into the compost beneath. You could of course use other materials such as leafmold or hay in place of woodchips. The secret of this top layer is to slow down evaporation and constantly feed the soil below, so that no additional fertilizers are ever required.

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Clearing a Field or Land for Crops

If you’re planning a larger garden or small farm, you’ll want to ensure that you also take the time to restore the soil for planting. Most fields of weeds indicate spent or neglected soil, but we can reclaim that land!

  1. The first job is to cut brush and small trees back to the fence line. Even if you can’t do anything else right away, do this before these trees get the soil acclimated for the pine cycle that will follow. Each bush and tree is part of the cycle and prepares the soil for the next stage. Catching it before the soil has changed significantly is half the battle.
  2. Using a heavy-duty pair of lopping shears, cut small growth straight across and as close to the ground as possible. A sharply cut sapling stub will go straight through a tractor tire or the sole of a shoe. Larger sapling and tree stumps will have to be pulled out. 
  3. Walk the area and mark the location of any rocks. The larger rocks were probably plowed around once upon a time, and you may choose to take the route, but it’s best to remove as many rocks as possible.
  4. To see how big a rock is, hit it with a crowbar. If it makes a high-pitched *DING* that normally indicates a larger rock that needs to be dug or pulled out; if it makes a duller sound it should be a rock that you would be able to handle with a normal shovel or even your bare hands.

Restoring Your Soil

  • To stimulate the soil, plant manure crops or “cover crops.” Even if you don’t use them for food or forage, they help restore the soil to make it better suited for crop growing. 
  • Rye is the best known green manure crop. Others that enrich the soil include cowpeas, mustard, oats, alfalfa, clover, winter peas, and timothy.
  • The legumes return nitrogen to the soil along with organic material, and are a good choice for long-term soil development. Winter rye is good to plant in the fall and plow two to three weeks before spring planting. White clover is good for bees if you let it flower before plowing under. Alfalfa is expensive to plant, but its deep roots do wonders for your soil. Treefoil is a good choice for wet areas.
  • Cowpeas, mung beans, and mustard are good for spring planting. They germinate in cold soil and are planted as soon as the ground thaws. In four to six weeks they can be plowed under, and these are good for preparing vegetable garden if you couldn’t get to your land in the fall.
  • Allow two or three weeks between plowing under and planting. A rear-tined roto-tiller will chop up the vegetation well as it incorporates it into the soil. The principle of a green manure crop is that as it decays after being plowed under, it returns to the soil all the nutrients it used while growing. It also adds vital organic matter, so all types of soil, from sand to clay, respond positively to this treatment. 
  • The return of organic material to the soil, sadly, isn’t a one-time project. It must be continuous in the form of planting or fertilizing with compost, leaves or animal manure, if the decay process is to continue. 

Rotation Planting

  • Once you’ve fertilized your field (each year’s mulch plowed under helps, so do shredded leaves) you can further improve it by rotation planting. This means dividing your land or garden into several areas and planting different things, changing them each year. Alfalfa, corn, and wheat are good choices to rotate. Even if you don’t use the crops for food, your soil will be improving instead of deteriorating. 

That’s about all you can do your first year. Repeated each year, however, this process will turn even solid clay or sand into a fine garden in about five to six years. If that seems like forever, don’t worry about it! That doesn’t mean you have to wait that long to harvest vegetables. Most gardens grow under less than optimum conditions, and the harvest still turns out great! Your garden will be easier to care for and more productive each year. 

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Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Established unwell veggie/herb garden

Hi,

For the last 2 seasons (it's currently in the middle of summer in Perth, Australia) I've been planting various veggies and herbs around my garden. As this is the first time doing anything like this half the plants have some soil conditioning where the other half just have a little compost under the hole I dug for the specific plant.

What is the best way to improve the soil around the established plants? I know my seasonal plants will die in a month or 2 (if our current heat wave doesn't do the job sooner) but a lot of my herbs are long lasting and they are not doing very well. They're all dry (not because of lack of watering!) and unhappy.

Can I dig around my plants to add aged manure and encourage worms/bugs etc or should I just leave it until they die and start again?

Thanks for your time and assistance.

Cheers,
Cyndi

A friend says that if we weed

A friend says that if we weed our gardens on a certain side of the moon. We will have very few weeds in our gardens. Where can I find the information. Thanks

Cris G

Hi Cris, Your friend is

The Editors's picture

Hi Cris, Your friend is referencing the Best Days by the Moon timetable. You can find the full year in The Old Farmer's Almanac. As a courtesy, we provide the current and next month here: http://www.almanac.com/bestdays/timetable
Hope this helps.

I am starting a new raised

I am starting a new raised vegetable garden (4'x8'). I am filling the bed completely with new (not native) soil. What should I purchase?

Hi, Rachel, We have several

The Editors's picture

Hi, Rachel,
We have several pages on this web site about raised beds.
• This one defines the soil really well, and provides many other bits of advice:
http://www.almanac.com/blog/ga...
• Here's one with advice as well as a suggested plot plan (understanding, of course, that you may prefer different vegetables):
http://www.almanac.com/content...
• And another: http://www.almanac.com/content...
We realize that you only asked about soil but at any stage of your season/experience some info on any of these might be exactly what you are looking for.
Good luck with the bed!
 
 

I live in Georgia ....!!! and

I live in Georgia ....!!! and I've turned half of my front yard into a garden (which gets full intense hot August sun and which my tomatoes like but nothing else) the past few years it hasn't been doing so good ... And I'm wondering if it's been over worked... So I was going to try fertilizer ... It's too late for manure ... Any suggestions ?? And is it a good idea to plant earlier than normal since summers are so hot... And the winters aren't so bad??

Your soil can be upgraded

The Editors's picture

Your soil can be upgraded with aged manure and compost at almost any time. Do a pH check (pick up a kit for a dollar or two in a garden supply store and amend accordingly). Fertilize based on the pH report.
However, your problem more than that: You do not rotate the crop; you plant nothing but tomatoes. Growing one crop/plant in the same place for YEARS will deplete the soil. This year, plant a variety of other crops there (watch this video http://www.almanac.com/video/h... ) and plant your tomatoes elsewhere in your yard in good soil (improved per above) OR in deep pots/containers with the good soil in front, if that's where the sun/heat is best. (You will have to water more frequently because containers dry out faster than ground soil.)
Planting the same crop again and again is a common problem (and it's often tomatoes; everybody loves tomatoes). We are tempted to suggest that one other solution would be to remove the soil in your front yard (several to many inches deep) and replace it with aged manure and compost—but that would be an expensive and extreme measure...and not necessarily guaranteed and certainly not for long.
Sooner or later, you have to realize that you can the soil bring back, and the bounty of tomatoes, if you begin to practice crop rotation and amend what you have. Who knows?! You might come to love other vegetables almost as much as tomatoes.

Tomato garden

I too love tomatoes, and plant them year after year in the same location. I usually add compost/manure every 4 years and in between make manure tea/liquid kelp, fish tea (which you just add water to the manure, or dead fish and let it set and water the plants with it. You can also put manure in a can with the bottom taken out of it next to each plant for continuous feeding when it rains or you water. This works great for melons too.

I would like to grow carrots

I would like to grow carrots in old cardboard coffee cans.

What is a good mixture of sand, potting soil, compost, lime, perlite?

I have read that carrot are attacked by
bugs in clay soil. Anyway to screen them out organically?

Thank you.

Carrots prefer loose, light

The Editors's picture

Carrots prefer loose, light soil. Use an equal mixture of soil, compost, and sand.

We had trees removed from our

We had trees removed from our land behind our house and I have tried for 2 years now to grow a vegtable garden there, it starts godd then after a few weeks it looks like the growth of the plants are stunted and grow very slow there after with no real end result of vegtables on plants or vines. Have done some fertilization but maybe I am not doing something right. Could you please give some suggestions. Thanks

You have to ammend your soil

You have to ammend your soil until it becomes a good medium for your veggies. What I have done is lay down a 4" layer of rotting leaves etc, basic yard waste, then cover with a 50/50 mix of compost and top soil and plant into that. The composting leaves etc are a nutrition barrier between the new soil and the old soil you had originally. Eventualy the soil below will begin to change from all the goodies above.

trees

It would depend on the trees removed. Pine trees and walnut trees can really make the soil horrible for veggies. You would have to check the soil to see what it needs for best results.

I have two questions. When

I have two questions. When (or rather should) removing weeds be done in order to stop them from regrowing? Then with dead greens would it be efficient if I were to put the dead foliage and greens under the topsoil (or possibly further?) in order to help new plants grow? Or just make a compost bin but at the expense of space and smell.

The general rule of thumb is

The Editors's picture

The general rule of thumb is to remove weeds when they first appear and before they set seed. Some weeds are harder to remove than others. It's important to get all the roots. You can turn the weeds into the soil if you only have the top greens of the weeds (no seed heads and no roots).
You can also cover your soil with black plastic in early spring, before the seeds start growing, to smother them.

Hi, Rob, The suggestion in

The Editors's picture

Hi, Rob, The suggestion in the text above (cut brush and small trees) to reclaim a garden will allow vegetables to get the sun they require and set roots without competition from other plants.
Gardening is somewhat experimental; opinions abound and we (and other gardeners) learn new things all of the time. Thank you for introducing us to the Fokuoka farming philosophy of letting nature take control.
Best wishes for a hefty harvest!

I don't understand how you

I don't understand how you can recommend taking out all bushes and trees. They hold the soil in place.
Do not plow land or plow as little as often. Plowing only destroys the land. Alfalfa or green manure doesn't need to be plowed in. You should use chickens to prepare the soil and use the alfalfa or rye to cover seeds and soil so as to minimize evaporation of the soil.
Fokuoka never touched his soil and recommended this technique. Soil should never be kept uncovered.

I need help, I have a large

I need help, I have a large area for a garden but it is sloping hillside. The soil is rock hard clay and the tumble weeds and other unidenfies weeds are taking back what I try to claim.

Without seeing exactly what

The Editors's picture

Without seeing exactly what you've got, it certainly does sound like you need help and/or have a lot of work ahead of you. Many people turn slopes into terraced gardens. That mean planning (mapping/layout out exactly—or even roughly—where you want “steps”) and then, moving the earth to create “flat” areas. The degree of difficulty (and range of possibilities) will depend on the pitch of your slope.
Your soil will need to to be amended with compost, humus, sand—after you have removed the weeds.
You could create some terrace/s and then establish raised beds on them. Clear as much of the weeds as possible, getting roots, if you can. Then layer newspaper on the bottom/floor of the beds. (This will keep the weeds from pushing through if you get most of them out.) Into the raised beds put good soil, loaded with compost. Then set in your plants.
We have to admit, this sounds like a big project. Make no mistake about it, though it’s doable, depending on your time, resources—everything. Keep in mind that any job begins with small steps. So start small, think big, and stay positive.