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A Small Kitchen Garden in Your Lawn

Ideally, you can use a straight-edged spade to cut the sod away for a garden bed. I’ve used an edging tool, and even a round-point spade… though the extreme curvature of the blade makes it hard to create a straight edge with a round-point shovel.

I hope your small kitchen garden plan is starting to take shape in your mind. So far, you’ve figured out where to put your planting beds, and you’ve thought hard about how big to make them: will you need to walk in your planting beds to work them, or will you be able to work them from the sides? The next decision is a biggie: Will you plant directly in the ground, or will you raise your planting beds above ground level?

Start by setting pins at the corners of the new garden bed, and stretch twine between them to mark the perimeter. If you’re cutting a bed with curved edges, use a bunch of pins to define the curves… or eyeball it if you’re not concerned about precision.

Your yard may impose an answer to that question; if the soil is rocky, constantly wet, or unworkable, you may need to build raised beds on the yard rather than cutting planting beds into the yard. If you’re lucky enough to have soil you can work relatively easily-and that will support plant life-you need to choose between in-ground and raised beds.

Making the choice might be easiest when you’re familiar with the steps involved in building each type of planting bed. This post examines steps to take when preparing a new traditional-style planting bed in an established lawn.

A Planting Bed in the Lawn

The least expensive planting bed you can create is one that you pay for with sweat equity. For such a bed, you mark the perimeter of the new garden area, and then remove the sod from within that space. Sod includes all the grass and a few inches of soil (bound together by roots of the grass). So, when you cut in a new planting bed this way, the remaining lawn sits a few inches above your small kitchen garden.

There’s nothing wrong with a recessed planting bed as long as the soil drains efficiently, though there are a few other liabilities:

  • The lower your planting bed, the farther you need to bend down to work in it.
  • It’s tough to mow grass along a drop-off.
  • Set the shovel blade against the turf, aligned with the twine along one edge of the new planting bed. Aim the shovel blade straight into the turf. This may mean angling the handle well forward (away from you). Then push down firmly with the ball of your foot. You may need to stomp on the shovel several times to get it to cut into the soil. (Hold the top of the handle firmly in position while you’re pushing the shovel into the ground with your foot.) Cut along the entire length of one side of the new bed—or cut all the way around the perimeter since you’re going to do that eventually anyway.

    Step into the garden bed, turn around, and cut a line parallel to and about a foot away from the first line you cut. Each time you cut the blade into the turf, lower the shovel’s handle (pull it toward you and down) so that it pries the turf up off of the underlying soil. If the sod doesn’t come up easily, you may need to cut the shovel in deeper and pry again.

    Notice how the existing lawn acts as a fulcrum, turning the shovel’s blade into a lever. Exploit this by working your way backward across the planting bed you’re creating.

  • The edge of the lawn along the garden bed will break down as you step and kneel on it.
  • Being a low spot in the yard, an in-ground planting bed may collect water during heavy rain; a wet season could result in failed crops.
  • Weeds and other plants that propagate through stolons and rhizomes can easily cross the line between an in-ground planting bed and the adjacent lawn.

Peel the sod off of the soil. This may be easiest if you cut perpendicular lines between the parallel cuts you’ve already made… but if you start at the side border of the new planting bed where you’ve already made a cut, the sod should come up in large pieces that tear away from each other easily. There’s a lot of nutrition in the sod, so add it to your compost pile… preferably grass-side-down.

As you work the soil and amend it (add stuff to improve the soil’s characteristics) in a new planting bed, it’ll mound up a bit and be nearly even with the soil supporting the lawn. However, the planting bed will settle in time, and stepping in the bed will compact it; it will never be even with the lawn until you add back as much soil as you removed.

Raised Planting Beds

An in-ground planting bed is simple to describe and easy to create. The alternative raised bed is only a little trickier. A raised bed offers several advantages over a traditional in-ground planting bed… but it also introduces some minor challenges. We’ll explore raised bed gardens in the next post, and look at at least one technique you can use to build your own raised planting beds. In later posts we’ll talk about amending soil and otherwise preparing a new bed so it’ll be ready to go in the spring.

When you finish one pass across the planting bed, make a second pass, cutting a line parallel to the first swath, prying the sod away from the soil, and peeling the sod out. Eventually, you’ll have a hole in your lawn that provides stark contrast to the green grass (and dandelions).

Machine-Made Planting Beds

Don’t rule out using a machine to cut in a planting bed. A powerful walk-behind auto-tiller can cut through sod and turn it over enough to prepare a lawn area for repurposing. Generally, you’ll need to “lift-and-throw” chunks of grass and roots out of the way after cutting a bed this way.

A lawn tractor with a drag-behind plough attachment can cut sod, but also leaves chunks of grass and roots. Following up with a disking attachment will break up the sod chunks, and repeated raking will remove a lot of the them… a task you must complete to prevent them from coming back as a “weed” problem in your new planting bed.

Chemicals Anyone?

With organic gardening being seriously in vogue, it’s hard to recommend this solution, but it is still a popular tool for farmers—especially those practicing no-plough, low-impact methods. A week or two before you plough (or auto-till) a planting bed into your lawn, carefully (if you slop, you’ll have some seriously dead patches of grass where you don’t want them) apply an herbicide (Roundup is very popular for this) to the area you plan to till. Turn the sod after it is completely dead; the grass leaves and roots become humus in the soil and the planting bed stays level with the surrounding lawn.

If you’re not in a hurry, there’s a much more organic way to achieve the same end… but your new beds might not be ready for planting until well into the next growing season.

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3 Responses to “A Small Kitchen Garden in Your Lawn”

  • tina:

    Ah, my favorite thing to do…digging in the dirt. Great set up of pictures and pretty nice looking soil.

  • admin:

    Tina: Thanks for your comment. I haven’t evaluated the soil yet, but the rest of my yard is heavy clay. You’re right that the photos make this hole look pretty rich–but I didn’t pay attention when I cut out the sod.

    An upcoming post will get in really close to the soil and discuss amendments it’s likely to need. We’re going to get dirtier!

  • Very nice detailed post. I lack 1 of those tools though. I love your shots and description. Your dirt looks great there!

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