Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
I usually divide my gardening time into two categories: chores (the stuff I don’t much care for, like weeding, watering, and Japanese beetle-picking) and projects (the fun stuff). And of all the projects I get into each year, my most favorite one is starting a new garden: figuring out where it should go, what shape and proportions it should have, and (best of all) what plants I can fill it with. Even an enjoyable project like this can have some associated chores, though, and the biggest one is getting rid of the grass.
Sometimes, I use the smothering approach – piling whatever organic matter I can find on top of the grass to kill it. I usually do this through the winter, as I regularly clean up the hay that my alpacas have picked through and then left uneaten. One problem is that there’s never enough left to mulch all of the areas I’d like to cover. The second problem is that what they refuse to eat is mostly stemmy stuff and weed seedheads. Last year, that was a lot of Canada thistle; this year, several bales were almost entirely composed of buckhorn plantain seedheads. It’s easy to imagine how spreading this seed-laden waste hay often causes me more problems than it solves. The third problem with this approach is that it takes time to kill the grass. And usually, when I get inspired to start a new garden, I want to get going rid away.
So mostly, I rely on my handy kick-type sod cutter to help me remove unwanted grass and create a blank slate ready for almost immediate planting. Using a manual sod cutter is a real workout, but I like using it much better than trying to lift the sod with a spade; in fact, it’s so addictive that I often get carried away and end up making gardens much larger than I originally planned.
Stripping the sod, then, qualifies as a project, because it’s fun. But then there’s the chore of figuring out what to do with all of that neatly cut sod. In the case of normal lawn-type turf grass, I suppose the usual advice of adding it to your compost pile could work. But what I’m dealing with is a mixture of turf grasses, meadow grasses, and whatever else grows and tolerates mowing. I tried the old-time advice of piling it in an out-of-the-way corner to decompose. It was supposed to leave behind a wonderful pile of loose, loamy soil that I could use in potting mixes. Instead, I ended up with a big pile of dirt (and yes, it was dirt, not soil) covered with grass and weeds, and trying to get rid of it was a huge and nasty chore. I suppose it would have worked better if I’d covered the pile with a tarp to prevent the weeds from growing, but I didn’t think of it at the time, and I’m sure not brave enough to try again. And besides, we’re talking about a whole lot of sod to pile up. What’s shown below is just a start for this year’s sod crop.
Out of desperation, I finally came up with a solution that’s worked out rather brilliantly, I think: Instead of creating one new planting area, I make two. One is the site I remove the sod from. The other I create by turning over the sod strips and laying them brown side up. First, I outline the edge of the new space, moving the sod around as I need to until I like the shape and proportions of the area. Then I fill in with the rest of the sod, still brown side up. Usually, I lay only one layer over the area, but if I want to create a raised bed, I’ve piled them as many as five layers thick.
Instant garden it’s not, not by a long shot. I usually leave the upside-down sod beds open to the sun as long as possible, in the hopes that most of the exposed roots will dry out and die. The grass and weeds can be pretty persistent, though, so within a few weeks, then I have to cover the site with something else. When I tried this technique to create my orchard borders last year, I topped the sod beds with about 2 inches of topsoil, covered the spaces in between (the paths) with newspaper and bark mulch, then planted annuals. (The picture above shows the site just after planting.) The plants performed surprisingly well, and when I pulled out the remnants this spring, I was left with perfect, loose soil that’s going to be a treat to plant in – much nicer than the areas I tried smothering with hay, which are now still compacted and weedy.
This year, I’m using the sod to create beds around the individual shrubs in my “shrubbery,” to eliminate the need for tedious trimming around each one. In the process of outlining the beds, I realized that I was also creating paths out of the space between them, which has required a good deal more thinking than I’d expected. (I ought to have remembered that from last year.) But overall, the project is coming along quite nicely. And I have to think that the only way to improve on the fun of creating one new garden is creating lots of them.