Guest post by Beate Schwirtlich
Want to turf your lawn and put in a garden instead? It’s easy. Fall is the perfect time to create a new garden, but summer is the time to get started.
You may already know what you’d like your garden to grow. But if you’re planning on changing a lawn into a garden, removing grass and preparing the soil is the important first step.
The classic method of creating a new garden bed is this: grab a square-edged spade and start wrestling with the grass roots. The sod is cut into one-by-one squares, ripped up, then composted.
An alternative to this backbreaking method is the sod conversion. Instead of being ripped up, sod is covered with a light proof material, usually newspaper. A thick layer of compost or topsoil (six inches minimum) is applied directly overtop. Eventually the grass underneath will die off and decompose. Planting can then be done without any cultivation of the soil, which saves a lot of work.
Whether sod is removed or covered, additional soil or compost will be required to prepare a new garden bed for planting. That’s because larger plants such as shrubs and trees have deeper roots then grass, and so require more topsoil than the six inches usually found beneath lawns. This is especially true in newer housing developments where a six-inch layer is the rule. If you live in the country or an older neighbourhood, you may have more to work with.
Sod removal is hard work, but results are instant. Be ready to plant and mulch right away though: all soil contains weed seeds just waiting to sprout. If you don’t, expect to spend a lot of time weeding until plantings mature and begin to spread. If you are planting seeds, mulch around seedlings while they are still young. Also, expect to cultivate and amend the soil (adding soil to what’s already there). Lawns get a lot of foot traffic, and compacted soil is the result. Cultivation will make the soil easier to plant into, and will create pockets of air, essential for plant growth. And the soil probably isn’t rich enough to support a garden. Mix in compost and topsoil.
Sod conversion takes more time. To start a sod conversion, layer newspapers (at least seven sheets thick) or plastic over grass. Garden centres sell a thick black plastic made for this purpose, but layers of newspapers will work just as well, and they’re free and ecologically friendly. If plastic is used, it has to be removed once the grass dies, and replaced by mulch. Newspapers will simply decompose over time. Cover newspapers with a thick layer of compost (six to twelve inches). Once the grass is covered, it will decompose over six to eight weeks. The newspaper will decompose more slowly. The grass becomes soil-improving compost, and at the same time creates air pockets in the soil. After eight weeks have passed, dig into the compost, cut through the newspaper if needed, and plant or seed your new garden bed. You’ll likely want to prevent weeds by adding mulch.
This method is a lot less work than sod removal. There’s no need to get out the spade or cultivate the soil beneath the grass. But it takes patience. Don’t plant too soon: the heat generated during composting can burn plantings.
How do these two methods compare cost-wise? They come out about even. Either way, you’ll have to spend money on mulch and compost, and with sod removal, on a good quality soil mix, unless you have a huge supply already.
Whatever method you choose, plan on mulching. Mulch is amazing stuff. It stops weeds from growing, holds moisture much better than soil, and it prevents erosion too. The most affordable method of mulching is a combination of newspapers and any other mulching material. Unattractive but practical newspaper will stop weeds from spouting, so that a thinner layer of any other mulch can be applied overtop. Cedar chips, straw, and compost are three popular mulches. Cedar chips are a good-looking, but pricey, mulch. Compost works well, though weeds may take hold eventually. So does straw. It’s cheap, though a lot of people find it `messy looking’ or `unattractive’. Also, garden centres rarely sell straw, and if they do, it’s overpriced. A better source of straw is a local horse or cow farm.
Whatever method you choose, be patient. It takes at least two years for a new garden to really fill out and start to bloom and grow. It’s going to look a bit thin at first. And keep in mind that the soil in your garden will feed your plants for years to come. The better the soil, the better the garden.