Designing with Sod

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.

Smothering sod with waste hay April 8 08

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.

Stripping sod from new long border April 8 08 

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.

Orchard beds spring 2007

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.

Outlining new beds with sod April 8 08

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.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sylvia (England) on April 10, 2008 at 6:23 am

    Useful post. Most of us seem to like digging up grass for more beds/borders!

    I piled lots of sods on top of one another and covered with weed control fabric and got some lovely soil, but I did leave it for two years.

    Now I don’t have the room for this, I think your idea is one I can use. I have two areas I want to develop and had intended to do one this year and one the next so I am definitely going to do them both together. (I had intended to start last year and the year before!). That way I will have one area to plant this year and one next!

    Now after I put in all the plants I have in pots will I have room to buy some more…

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    If I’ve not only encouraged you to start yet another garden, but also given you an excuse to buy more plants, then my work here is done. I wish you success with your project. And here’s another project for you, Sylvia: You really need to start a blog too!
    -Nan

  2. Wow, I am impressed with your physical stamina there as well as the large amount of space which with you have to garden. Turning the sod upside down in situ, (is that the right spelling or even usage), is what I did in our front yard, but the weeds and grass were barely even set back by the sun exposure to their roots. Maybe it should have been mulched afterwards. Over time it does work though, with lots of weeding by the gardener. Can’t wait to see what you plant in the latest new bed.

    You raise an excellent point, Frances: I imagine a technique like this might be a really bad idea with some of the seriously rhizomatous grasses, unless you’d use the newspaper- or cardboard-and-mulch approach to further smother it. And maybe it would be best to wait a full year to plant? (Yeah, as if.) I can usually get away with waiting from spring to fall or fall to spring.
    -Nan

  3. Great idea, Nan! (And I also enjoyed your original post, and, of course, the impossible-to-resist title. It brought Blackadder immediately to mind!) I didn’t know there were manual sod cutters, but it sounds like a great solution to a nasty chore.

    Ah, you liked “Sod Off”, did you? Yes, too much time spent watching British comedy, in the days when I had the technologly to do so. Ah, well. It still comes in handy. I have a fantastic Monty Python line that I’m just dying to use, once the right subject comes along.
    -Nan

  4. Sounds like a brilliant idea. Sod is such back-breaking work.

    Thanks, Nancy. After reading some of the suggestions from the various commenters here, I’m beginning to see a book idea: 100 Superb Uses for Sod (101 if you include planting it green side up). Or…maybe not.
    -Nan

  5. I really like your post! I have used my sod when making new gardens as well, and flip it upside down just like you do . It contributes to the new garden, and also gives a place to deposit the sod from your other gardens.I generally put lots of soil and mulch on top to keep the old sod from growing up. Thanks for sharing!

    Greetings, Chey, and thanks for the comment. It’s neat to see how many of us have come up with the same solutions for the sod dilemma.
    -Nan

  6. Hi Nancy. I’m dealing with the same thing right now with a large pile of removed sod. I’ve had an idea that I’ve been playing around with in my head and getting ready for. I think I’m gonna shape the pile like a fish and plant the right plants in the right places to give it detail. It should be a topic soon on our own blog, if you are interested in the result. Thanks for posting about this. -Jen :)

    Welcome, Jen! Your idea sounds a little fishy (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I love it. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. And hey, thanks for adding me to your favorites list on Blotanical.
    -Nan

  7. Good ideas Nan. I like to use the sod wherever I can. Right now it’s just been used to fill up holes and prevent drainage problems around my hemlocks. We have a water runoff area around them so I built up the sod to divert the water in another direction. It’s working so far but there is still more to do.

    Good one, Dave! I too have used sod to build small berms. And filling holes is a perfect use for it as well.
    -Nan

  8. Posted by Nancy on April 10, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Nan – Do you have quack grass? I’ve tried this upside down technique and just wound up with more quack grass. The stuff will grow through sidewalks, after all. We use our sod rectangles to build 3-sided composters, open to the south. The quack grass roots are a bonus in these, because they quickly bind the whole works together. Our 6 x 8 foot rectangular composters are also handy as mini greenhouses and hotbeds with just a little adaptation. They’re also good holding areas for potted plants.

    Hey, you! Oh, yes, I have quackgrass, and you’re right: It can be a nightmare. If I see some in the sod I lift, I try to use it for the lowest level of a multi-layer raised bed, or else I cover the whole area with layers of newspaper and mulch after the drying period and let it sit until the start of the next growing season. But I think your idea of sod compost bins is even better! Now, how about trying to make sod furniture?
    -Nan

  9. This is great Nan. I’m currently using cardboard and woodchip mulch to rid my side yard of grass. But I want to cut out sections in the front and disposing of sod is always backbreaking. But where does one find the manual sod cutter?

    Thanks, Melanthia. I included a few links to sources for new manual sod cutters in this post I wrote over at Gardening Gone Wild. They’re not cheap, though, so if you don’t have a whole lot to do, check out local rental places to see if you can rent one rather than buy one. Or, ask if they have any used ones to sell.
    -Nan

  10. Hi Nancy, What a great way to utilize the sod. I agree, it’s never more exciting than planning for a new garden. You have such a pretty setting for your orchard border. I can’t wait to see more pictures of its progression. Last year I made a tough decision to downsize my gardens to a few. My physical strength isn’t what it used to be. I have to control myself constantly from the desire to dig up sod, and start another garden.

    I understand, believe me. It’s not apparent, but I am trying to plan my newer gardens with an eye toward less future maintenance. The site where I’m currently removing sod includes many dozens of tiny little trees, which I had to mow around individually. My newer idea was to use perennials to fill the space around them instead. But now, I’m thinking of removing the woodies and making it all perennials. I’m finding that my all-perennial plantings are incredibly much easier to care for than mixed borders.
    -Nan

  11. Is the Python phrase “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”? I have sod mounds killing grass in the front lawn to expand the no-grass area within the dripline of a tree. It’s not as if I thought up this fantastic new method; it just worked out that way.

    Nope, that’s not it. But now you’ve got me pondering how I might be able to work that one in somewhere.

    I’d be interested to know what you do with your sod mounds while you’re waiting for them to smother the grass beneath: Do you cover them with mulch, or newspaper-and-mulch, or some other treatment?
    -Nan

  12. Hi Nan! This post was so incredibly cool. We’ve been stewing over how UGLY our lawn is–and how we could put in more veggie and flower beds if we got rid of it. Now we’re on a quest to find a manual sod cutter we can borrow or rent. Woohoo! –Curmudge

    I think you’ll have a blast using the sod cutter! You may have no lawn left at all!
    -Nan

  13. Just looking at the photos gives me a sore back. I can’t tell you how much sod I’ve dug up to create planting beds. Previously I used a pick mattock but I tended to dig up too much dirt with it. I just use a regular garden shovel now and use a shallow angle so I cut the roots with just a little dirt instead of digging up a whole chunk. I usually just turn the clod over like you do and since I’m mostly digging the sod to create another raised mound I just dump topsoil over the upturned grass and smother it. I dug into some old berms and the grass did nicely decompose and created a very nice friable soil full of earthworms.

    Hi, Ki! A friend of mine swears by her mattock for grubbing out sod, so apparently it can be pretty handy, at least for small areas. But sure, a shovel can work fine too. The flat blade of a spade can make an even cleaner cut.
    -Nan

  14. Nan .. I have forgotten to come back here periodically and I have miss the great pictures and information !
    It is funny that right now we are going to remove more of the lawn (I would love to get rid of it altogether and plant “steppables” and herbs .. but you know men .. they have to have some grass, golfers in particular ?) .. in any case .. great post and it has me thinking !
    Thanks !
    Joy

    Hi there, Joy! Oh, believe me, I know how challenging it is to keep up with blogging and blog visiting when there’s so much to be done outdoors. I’m glad you stopped in, though. I’m lucky that I don’t have anyone else to answer to in regards to my sod removal: I’m limited only by my own energy. I wish you luck getting rid of more of yours!
    -Nan

  15. Posted by Lisa at Greenbow on May 7, 2008 at 10:11 am

    I wondered how you removed all that sod. A manual sod remover. Hmmmmmm I don’t think I know what that looks like. I have seen the noisy sod removers with gasoline engines. They look like too much work just keeping them in control.

    The sod use to go around existing plantings is a good idea. We could do some of that. On our last big bed I piled leaves and then chicken manure on top of the sod. It seems to have worked well. I am still scratching my head over what to plant there though. I know what I want just not how I want it. This may not make sense. Not even to me so…you can see my delimma. Ha..

    Hi Lisa! I have a photo of my sod cutter in an old post at Gardening Gone Wild: Sod Off (in an Eco-Friendly Way). You know, if you aren’t positive about how you want to organize the plants in your new space, how about growing annuals there this year? Then you’d have another year to decide about the perennials….
    -Nan

  16. This was such an inspirational post to read, and makes me go off into the Land of If Only. If Only we could actually do something useful with sod we remove for garden beds.

    We have a manual sod cutter that is even more work than yours. . . it is a grubbing implement that Jim operates, rather like a pick axe with a broad head. It gets quite a lot deeper than your tool, and it is seriously aerobic exercise, not for the frail or elderly at all. We need it because we have the above-mentioned rhyzomatous grasses, which are a huge pest, and we have to go down at least four to six inches to effectively remove them. We don’t dare do anything with our sod except pile it up, I tried the upside down technique with mulch once and got a horrible mess as a result that I spent hours weeding and ultimately abandoned to its fate. We now pile that sod up in a specific area and as a result we have a HUGE dirt pile covered with weeds and rhyzomatous grasses. I’m not sure what we are ever going to do with it. We would need a back hoe and a dump truck to move it.

    If anyone knows how to deal with getting rid of bermuda grass organically, I really want to hear about it, because that is our specific warm weather rhyzome grass, and it is such a huge pest around the gardens that I am actually to the point of abandoning my principles and using Roundup or some other chemical killer on it. And that is saying a lot, believe me.

    Gee, and I’ve been muttering to myself this year that my approach maybe isn’t so smart, because I’m having some problems with creeping grasses where I used the turned-over sod. But yikes, my problems are nothing compared to yours. That explains why you emphasize digging out an edging trench in your post about preparing a new bed. I hope you do find a way to deal with the Bermuda grass – perhaps with an organic herbicide? – but well, if Roundup is your last resort, then maybe that’s what you have to do. Good luck!
    -Nan

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