How to turn lawn into garden in spring

illustration of garden from grass by Stofko
Photo illustration by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

It’s spring! If you want to start a new garden in your yard, you will have to remove the grass first.

Darren Cotton, founder and president of The Tool Library in Buffalo, shares the steps he followed when he and his partner Michael Reyes created new cutting gardens last year. (The purpose of a cutting garden is to grow flowers that will be picked. Reyes is a floral designer.)

Cotton, who is an urban planner and graphic designer, also discusses the tools you can use for various steps of the project. The names of the tools link to photos in The Tool Library, which is helpful if you’re unfamiliar with the tool.

See information here on how to borrow tools from The Tool Library. The library is also looking for handy volunteers who can repair items that come back broken.

Planning, then removing grass

Choose a site for your garden. Remember that you need access to water.

Cotton and Reyes created rectangular beds. They used a measuring wheel to measure out each bed. Then they used marking spray (which you can get at a hardware store) to mark the outlines.

Tip: If you are creating a curved bed, use a garden hose to lay out the curves. It will be difficult to bend the hose a great deal, so you will get wide, lazy curves that will be easy to mow around.

To cut and remove the sod, they used a mattock. (The Tool Library doesn’t have sod kickers, which are manual, or sod cutters, which are powered, but you can rent or buy those tools at hardware stores.)

Tip: Use that leftover sod to patch bare spots in your lawn. You can also compost it.

Preparing the soil

Cotton added a mixture of compost and good topsoil into the native soil. Here’s why you should add compost to clay soil. Find out more about amending your soil here.

Cotton and Reyes used a rototiller. Because we have such hard, clay soil in Western New York, “You may have to rent a heavy-duty gas tiller for all the heavy-duty work,” Cotton said. “We don’t have gas-powered tools at The Tool Library.

“The electric cultivators that we have really aren’t meant for tilling new beds. They are best for amending/turning over existing beds.” The Tool Library has manual cultivators in addition to electric cultivators.

Easier–but much slower–way to remove grass

Using this method won’t allow you to plant directly into your garden bed this spring, but you won’t have to spend time digging out the grass.

Lay down newspapers and black landscape fabric over the spot where you want your garden to be. This will kill the grass, but it will take many weeks. Cover the area with decorative mulch.

Buy the perennials you would eventually like in the garden bed. Plant the perennials in large containers and set the containers on top of the mulch. The perennials will flower in the pots and the area will look nice during the summer.

In autumn, the grass will be dead. Incorporate compost and topsoil into the new bed and transplant your perennials into the bed.

You could do this with vegetables, too. Plant vegetables in containers. For vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, keep them in the containers all season. In autumn, incorporate compost and topsoil into the garden bed. The next year, you can plant directly into your garden bed.

2 Comments on “How to turn lawn into garden in spring

  1. Another great way to kill the grass without breaking your back is to use broken down cardboard boxes (preferably without ink, and not the ‘waxy’ kind from the liquor store), then cover with 4-6″ of compost. Water the cardboard before applying the compost. The worms and microorganisms will break the cardboard down over time, and there won’t be any landscape fabric that inevitably ‘pops up’ in the future when pulling weeds or when it’s time to divide perennials. Charles Dowding has some great Youtube videos on the ‘no dig method’ that are worth the watch! Happy Gardening everyone!

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