Turning Your Lawn into Your Lunch Ė How to Break New Ground for a Garden - Paul Betz, High Mowing Organic Seeds Sales Associate and owner of High Ledge Farm, VT
year, more and more people are opening up new ground for gardening,
either to create a plot or to expand an existing one. I am a big fan of
smaller lawns and bigger gardens, as long as a little space is saved for
lawn games like bocce (or croquet). Having planted directly into tilled
sod (ground that was previously lawn or pasture) for a season, I have
some advice on how to approach this.
For a home-sized garden, a technique called double digging can yield
great garden soil. Itís a lot of work, and is not for the faint of
heart, but it yields great results. First, dig a trench and remove the
sod and top soil. Put it in a wheel barrow or on a tarp, saving it for
later. Then use a fork to break up the subsoil. Add some compost. Now
dig another trench next to the first one you dug, flipping the soil
over, sod down, and placing it in your first trench. Continue until you
have had enough. On the last trench, use the soil you set aside from
your first trench to finish. The benefits of this technique are both
burying the sod and increasing the drainage of the lower levels of soil.
Using the forks to break up the inverted layers of topsoil, and then
raking, can give you a garden soil that is ready to go.
tool that is most likely to be used in a home garden, and on lots of
farms as well, is the rototiller. Easily rented or borrowed, itís good
at turning fallow land into something approaching a garden. The tines
are good at chewing up sod, but they do have a downside. When the bed is
being prepped, the tool will work to a certain depth, and then beat on
the soil and create a pan, or impervious layer. This pan can get so hard
that roots canít penetrate it. Itís important to keep this in mind, to
limit your use of the tiller to when itís really needed. In a smaller
garden, a strong set of garden forks can be effective. Use the forks to
rock back and forth in the area you tilled to break up the pan. On the
farm scale, a subsoiler or chisel plow can be used to break up the
subsoil and promote drainage. I use a rototiller at our farm, but my
primary tillage is a chisel plow that I run perpendicularly to the
directions of our beds.
The use of the tiller will also chop up the roots of many perennial
grasses and weeds and can often lead to more weeds the first year. Before
they root back in, take the time to pull them out; it will be much
easier to do in the spring. I do advise people to plant bigger
spaces between the plants, because the weeds will be more aggressive,
and it will be harder to hoe. There are also lots of insects that really
like the environment of a sod based soil, and they can cause damage to
root crops. Skip the carrots and beets, and stick to greens and fruiting
vegetables the first year.
SoÖ If you are going to the trouble of opening up one garden section,
consider opening a second plot as well. Use your preferred technique,
but then plant a soil building cover crop and
manage the second plot for next yearís garden. I like peas and oats with
a little vetch thrown in. Lots of organic matter and nitrogen fixation
as well. Hard to say no to that.