To Get a Garden Going

Last summer I experimented with a better way to convert sod to garden. In past years I had tried manually removing the sod with a mattock, or spading it up and turning it with a shovel, or rototilling. However, a new method has proven to be an easier and faster way to convert wild ground to garden ground than anything I had tried before. The biggest requisite is enough materials on hand. What you need:

  • Straw or old hay to cover the area at least 4 in. deep, two times.
  • Enough brown paper (such as from feed bags) to cover the area once (3 layers of newspaper would also work).
  • Seed for a vigorous, spreading annual vegetable such as neck pumpkin
  • My favorite soil amendments (gypsum, rock phosphate, wood ash)

Neck pumpkins on July 18 '08 nearly fill the new bed on the left, but their spreading has just begun.Our new garden area was on a sloping hill with healthy sod on top of fertile but shallow soil (about 8 inches deep) above a base of clay. It was a 65 foot row being added to the uphill side of our existing garden.

Middle to late April: The first step was to mow the area.

The second step was to prepare 10 spots, evenly spaced down the row, for seed planting. Dig up each spot, about a foot in diameter, chop up the sod with a shovel and then mix in a sprinkle of each of the soil amendments. (Carefully choose the amendments you use based on your particular soil type or soil test results.)

The third step would be to cover the area with one layer of brown paper and then a thick 4 inch layer of hay or dried grass. Mark each of the prepared spots with a stake that will show above the mulch.

7-13-09 It won't take long for these vines to cover the mulch Middle of May: Pull back the mulch and paper at each of the 10 locations and plant the neck pumpkin seeds. This date is based on our average last frost date. In a different section of the country, this date will have to be adjusted.

Early or Middle of July: Mulch the bed with a 2nd 4 inch layer of hay. By mid July the squash plants were spreading out (and just about to begin blooming) and had to be lifted up to spread the mulch under them. Only a few weeds had gotten through the initial layer of paper and mulch, mostly violets.

Neck Pumpkin harvestThe second layer of mulch kept the weeds down well for the rest of the year, with help from the dense leaf cover of the crowded neck pumpkin vines. At each leaf the plants would send down a root which had no trouble penetrating the mulch to the fertile decomposed sod below. They were so crowded in fact that it may have inhibited the blooming and productivity somewhat. Some of them escaped under the fence and got  eaten by the deer. We harvested over 265 pounds of pumpkins, their average weight being 10 pounds each but definitely fewer pumpkins per plant than I had seen in the past.

Kale, onions, cantaloupe, and calendula in the row this year.The following spring, the first thing that came through the old mulch was wild onions, followed by more violets. The hay had decomposed to the point that it was easy to chop up with a shovel or tiller, and the sod beneath had completely decomposed. I spaded it up to add more soil amendments and make a seed bed for seed sowing, which became an easy task with no tough sod to deal with, and the soil was rich and crumbly. As the seedlings emerged and grew, I was surprised how few weeds sprouted up. In the areas where I was able to put down another mulch of hay in a timely manner (as soon as the seedlings were 4 inches tall), weeds were no problem for the rest of the summer. The new bed was established.

No matter what method I use, I like to keep the garden mulched, add soil amendments, and spade it up in the spring. The difference between this new “mulching method” and other methods is simply laying down paper and extra mulch to smother existing plants instead of using heavy machinery, tools, or chemicals to remove or kill them. More material is required, but getting 30 bails of hay doesn’t take much more time than getting 15 if you can still get them in one trip. We already had the brown paper left over from other jobs. All told this method saved time and energy, and yielded better results. The best asset is probably increased fertility from the decomposed sod and mulch, not to mention no erosion, almost no weeding at all, and significant productivity.

Garden 7-13-09Here’s a tip: If you wanted to start a garden but were unable to find time in the spring, it turns out that summer would be a great time to start! Just mow your area and put down two layers of paper and a generous mulch of hay. By next spring there should be very little remaining of the sod below and the mulch should be easy to incorporate into the soil when you dig or till your seed beds. Have another batch of hay ready to mulch again. Most of the success of a planting lies in the planter’s preparation – Psalm 80:8-9.


  1. Allen P. July 14, 2009 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks for sharing, Michael! That was a new approach that I had never seen. It makes me want to go out and plant a garden!

  2. Joshua July 14, 2009 at 7:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing a tried and proven method Michael. I believe plans have been made to extend the garden for next year. This would be a perfect method to adopt.

  3. Robert July 21, 2009 at 4:11 pm #

    Excellent advice, Mike!

  4. Mom July 21, 2009 at 8:14 pm #

    I am appreciative of the wonderful vegetables that you have been able to grow. Weeds can sure take over a garden quickly. I’m glad we do not have to spend a great deal of time weeding!

  5. James July 22, 2009 at 11:54 pm #

    I never did get around to commenting on this post when I actually read it, but because it was so good I just wanted to drop a note by to say that I learned a lot and am happy that you are learning a lot too. 🙂 I remember those days when we prepared new garden areas by taking off the sod manually with a pick and shovel; I’m so glad you found a new and better way!!

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