CF asks about removing grass so she can start gardening:
“What do you recommend for removing sod when starting a grocery row garden? We’ve had tons of rain this September, which is unusual. I’m in Southwest FL and have a yard. Do I need a broad fork? What about removing sod? What do you recommend? It’s a big job! I’m planning to test the soil by the company that you recommend. I’m very excited. I have Echo close by, I’m in Elise Pickett’s seed club and I’m coming to ScrubFest this year. I have a few young trees planted in the spacing that you recommend, but now I’m thinking of doing a grocery row garden ( I have many of your books, which I’m currently reading-composting, grocery row, Florida food forest) 2 beds for grocery row, I’m thinking. In addition, I already have a new raised bed (not planted yet), but it’s pretty shaded, so I was reconsidering. What can I grow in slight shade? It gets morning sun, but by afternoon it starts to become shaded. Also, how do you keep rabbits and squirrels from eating everything you plant? Any help would be appreciated.”
There are four main methods we’ve used to remove grass before starting a new garden. These apply whether you’re Grocery Row Gardening or just putting in beds or a row garden.
1. Using a Broadfork to Remove Grass
We have used a broadfork to remove the grass and create all our garden beds. In sandy soil, it’s not terribly difficult but it takes a long time. In clay soil, it’s a full-body workout that takes a long, long time. We’ve done it, though!
To remove sod with a broadfork, we just fork into the ground, lift the soil, and grab the grass in clumps and throw it to the side to dry out. Later, when it’s dead, we throw it in the compost pile or use it as mulch.
It takes a while, but the soil is loosened well and the grass and weeds are completely removed, giving you a nice, loose area and a fresh start without lots of rhizomes remaining in the ground where they can resprout. You can also use a fork and a spade, but a broadfork is faster.
2. Using a Tarp to Remove Grass
Tarping the ground is a really nice zero-till way to prepare a new garden area. It does not invert the soil and it makes all the grass rot down beautifully, leaving all that organic matter there for your upcoming garden.
On the down side, using a tarp to kill grass takes months. It’s great to do in summer or fall, in preparation for putting in a new garden in the spring. When it’s hot, it works a lot faster. My favorite tarping material is DeWitt Sunbelt woven nursery fabric. We’ve used that in our nurseries and it lasts a long time and kills off weeds and grass while also allowing water to pass through.
My friend Leo used a big tarp to kill off a big patch of grass in his lawn, laying it down multiple months before we installed he and his wife’s Grocery Row Garden the following spring. You can see what the ground looks like at the beginning of the film we made documenting the process of installation.
We probably didn’t even need to till. We could have just dug out the paths and put that topsoil up on the beds. Tilling did break a lot of tree roots, though, which was helpful. And the ground here is harder than Florida sand, making it difficult to dig up dirt for the beds.
3. Using a Tiller to Break New Ground
We’ve also used a tiller or a tractor to break up sod and install new gardens. It’s very satisfying to tear up a big patch of grass and turn it under in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, if the ground is moist, the grass often re-roots; plus, an abundance of dormant seeds are turned up by tillage. If we need to get a garden in fast, this is what we do, but it’s not ideal.
Once we till, we spend a lot of time raking and pulling out obvious clumps of grass that have been turned over by the rotors so they don’t re-root.
If you manage to till right before a long drought, it works much better since the grass roots dry out and die. But you can’t plant right away in that case, either.
When we use tillage to start a new garden, we have to be vigilant about chopping out grass and weed as they emerge, and keeping the ground well-mulched to stop weed seeds from sprouting.
A small area works better than tilling a big area and having to hoe it all the time.
4. Starting with Lasagna Gardens
The final way to remove sod and start a new garden is to sheet mulch, or “lasagna garden” the area, as Patricia Lanza calls it.
Just cut the grass, water well, then lay down cardboard over the ground, followed by a thick mulch of whatever you have, with as many organic ingredients as you can add. Leaves, unsprayed hay, wood chips, compost, manure, chop-and-drop green plant material, seaweed – all these are good.
The cardboard acts as a weed block and knocks out the grass when combined with a thick layer of mulch. That grass then rots down and makes nice, rich soil beneath the layer of mulch. The mulch also rots down and feeds the soil, bringing in lots of fungi and worms to your garden. This is really useful in poor-quality sand and hard clay.
The soil improvement is noticeable:
On the down side, it’s a lot of work sourcing and hauling in lots of mulching materials, so we’ve never done this method on a large scale. Perhaps if we had truckloads of mulch we would.
However, if you’re only doing two Grocery Rows, this might be the best option. The plants love it. Just plant your trees and shrubs first and mulch around them, then make pockets in the mulch to plant your other plants.
Here’s a lasagna gardening demonstration we did:
All of these methods have their ups and downs, but they will all work. Do what looks good to you – you will have success with any of them, provided you put in the hard work at the beginning.
As for your final questions:
- Everything grows in your area in slight shade. Full sun in South Florida is insane, and a little shade often improves rather than decreases yields. In full shade, you can grow ginger.
- The best way to exclude rabbits is with fencing. The best way to deal with squirrels is to shoot them all.
Thanks for writing, and God bless. Send pictures when your garden is growing!