Hayfield to vegetable garden - how?
September 29, 2009 4:39 AM   Subscribe

How to turn an abandoned field into a productive vegetable garden?

We built a house in an old hayfield. Last year I tried planting a vegetable garden (about 100' x 20'). I used a rototiller to break up the soil and planted lots of good stuff but the produce was drowned by the grass which grew up around it -- far too much to weed out by hand.

How do I kill the weeds and grasses before planting next time? It's not just the plants -- the ground is absolutely full of seed. I would rather not use a herbicide if possible.

I've considered laying down tarp but it is a pretty big area. I could get a neighbor to plough it over but I'm concerned that's not gonna solve the seed problem.

Things I have -- 40 Hp tractor, rototiller. I can rent most any implement.

The weeds are mostly hay grasses, alfalfa, clover, vetch, ragweed and canada thistle.
posted by unSane to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sadly, there's no quick solution. This project will take time and labor.

First, get your soil tested, so you know what you're dealing with. Call your county ag extension for help with this. Ask your neighbor to plow, till or disc your field. Lay down a tarp to let the sun help solarize the plot. (You might consider planting a cover crop; I just seeded my gardens in clover and rye. Again, consult your ag extension on the best cover crop, which may vary depending on what the soil test turns up.) In the spring, amend as needed, till the plot, and treat it with a pre-emergent weed preventative, such as organic Preen. I know you're not happy about herbicides but this might not be an awful option, given the condition of the field. Doing things from seed will be a tough go, so buy seedlings and use black plastic mulch around them to help keep the weeds down even more. Sadly, any thistle will probably have to be hand-pulled. That's painful on many counts, but has been effective for me.

Finally, good luck! It's wonderful that you're rehabilitating this patch and you'll enjoy the results (eventually!).
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:55 AM on September 29, 2009

The weird thing to me, is that I never had that problem in a vegetable patch. The only non-chemical method I know to control weeds, is called a 'hoe'. Get yer hoe out there and say 'get rid o dem weeds!' Sow sorry. Puns just cropped up.

Otherwise, did you do anything to treat the soil? Composted manure, and/or Ph adjustment? I seem to recall that a good patch of soil will have the good stuff choking out the bad stuff. Otherwise, just walk down the rows working the soil with the hoe, to keep the soil 'disturbed', and dash the schemes of the grasses.
posted by Goofyy at 4:59 AM on September 29, 2009

Wow, that's a huge garden. I have more produce than I know what to do with, from a garden less than a tenth that size. But, I don't freeze or can much of anything.

Other than herbicides and solarizing, the only thing I can think of is cover cropping. The whole area gets thickly sown with a fast-growing crop that chokes out weeds and also enriches the soil. You mow it down and turn it under before it produces its own seeds. Lather, rinse, repeat a few times.

Note that you'll still have to weed and cultivate. If you're just gardening for your family, it might be easier to maintain a smaller, more intensive garden.
posted by jon1270 at 5:00 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Goofyy: What's a Dutch hoe?

Not the same as in town, evidently.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:18 AM on September 29, 2009

You can kill all the seeds if you are willing to dig deep enough. Dig out the first two feet of soil in a square. Now, dig out the first foot of soil from the next square, and put that in the hole you just made. Dig out the second foot of soil from the next square, and put that on top. You have now effectively put the top layer of soil from the second square under the second layer. The seeds will be too deep to survive.

There are probably very few viable seeds in the second layer, which is now exposed to the sun.

If you can run all the soil through some chickenwire, it'll screen out grass roots, which you can compost.

Of course, this is a lot of digging, but it does give you some fresh soil without seeds to plant in.
posted by musofire at 5:39 AM on September 29, 2009

A slight tangent - if you plan on composting for your patch, make sure that your pile or mound gets hot enough to kill weed seeds and whatnot, or you run the risk of re-planting stuff when you amend your soil with all your beautiful compost.

'Course, the other side of the coin is that sometimes nifty things will grow out of the sides of your pile. We've gotten cantaloupes that way.
posted by jquinby at 5:45 AM on September 29, 2009

This is going to be a big job, especially since you don't want to use herbicides.

You need something to stop the weed seeds from growing. Once the soil warms up, they'll start to germinate. So you need to stop them from seeing the light once they do germinate. That means black polythene, or a thick layer of cardboard followed by a much thicker layer of manure on the top. Plant through both layers into the soil.

You could also try keeping pigs on there for a season. They'll eat pretty much anything vegetable, but you'll need to run them to eat this seasons growth and next seasons too.

Tilling will only bring more seed to the surface. Unless you do it several times a season to continuously break down the new growth, you're fighting a losing battle. You might actually make things worse by doing this, as you have perennial weeds that may shoot from root cuttings.
posted by Solomon at 5:51 AM on September 29, 2009

You don't want to till it deeply, as Solomon says. What you want is to make shallow passes with a spike harrow every time the grasses start coming up. Just disturb the top inch of the soil, dragging out the roots. Do that consistently all next summer and the year after that the weeds and grass will be, not gone, but manageable.

If you want to improve the effectiveness, go behind the harrow once in a while and pick up all the root clumps and get rid of them. I wouldn't compost them in the regular compost pile, though.
posted by bricoleur at 6:51 AM on September 29, 2009

Oh, and you can often find an old section of spike harrow on Craigslist for a hundred or so, not thousands, of dollars.
posted by bricoleur at 6:54 AM on September 29, 2009

You shouldn't really need to use herbicides. If you just cover the area with say some black plastic for a while all the grass will die. then cover with newspaper and a layer of compost.

plant into the compost.

Do a search for "No Dig Garden"
posted by mary8nne at 7:12 AM on September 29, 2009

Been there, done that: I strongly suggest doing a smaller area at first. It's possible to do it all (I'd solarize with black plastic, myself) but starting a productive garden that size will take a lot of time. You'll just knock yourself out if you don't do it in stages.
posted by anadem at 7:37 AM on September 29, 2009

Along with pigs, I've heard of chickens being used to clear areas. They're put into largish enclosures that can be moved around as needed. Chickens get fresh greens, fresh air. And, hey, eggs!
posted by jquinby at 8:21 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

With such an enormous area, try some different stuff-- some of it weed with constant tilling, some leave for a season covered with heavy black plastic, some of it dig it out, lay down newspaper and cardboard, then put soil back on top, etc. Next year, use the method that worked the best.

Another thing to consider is to lay it out in raised beds of about 4x4 feet each, with large paths between. In a plot that size you've got room for 30 to 40 plots (raised beds larger than 4x4 ft are too hard to reach into), depending on how wide you make your paths more than enough for a single family's needs. Raised beds will completely obviate the need to get rid of the grass somehow, as you'll lay down a thick layer of newspaper, cardboard and soil in each of the plots-- trust me, no grass is going to come through this. Let the grass in the paths grow, and scythe it before it goes to seed, leaving it to mulch the paths. You'll get nice heavily mulched paths, and the mulched grass itself will both kill the future generations and help strengthen the soil. Here's a large garden laid out in this scheme. Google "build a raised garden bed" for lots of how-to goodness.

Martha Stewart's large raised-bed vegetable garden. (She just piles the dirt rather than building containers, but it's a similar principal, and an example of a large garden-- even bigger than yours obviously-- that does this.)
posted by nax at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go slightly against the grain here, and suggest something that worked on a large community garden my husband started this year (it's got about 1000 sq ft of raised beds).
Last winter/fall he rototilled the entire plot, then covered it with heavy cardboard (from appliance and mattress shops).
Come spring, he and a group of volunteers double-dug all the raised beds, just as mounded beds, with no boards or anything (this is cheap, and we had very little money to work with).
At the same time, they dug in large quantities of composted horse and llama manure (donations from folks in the community).
Planted the seeds a few weeks later (to give time for the manure to get incorporated into the soil), and then volunteers weeded, with sharp hoes, twice a week all summer. By mid-July, there were virtually no weeds left. Hoeing weeds is much, much easier than hand-pulling, and more effective. Steve Solomon describes the technique in his book (which I've flogged before) Gardening When It Counts.
So it might be more work for just one person, but if you can devote the time, this will work really well. We're in the Northwest, so our weed-sprouting season begins in earnest about now - many of our more troublesome and prolific weeds actually sprout in the winter.
posted by dbmcd at 8:33 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

When my husband's family was pulling up grass on their farm to make way for a garden, they rented a small cement mixer. Dig up a section of grass/weeds, drop it in and spin it, and you get grass sections with all the dirt knocked out of them, plus a big pile of dirt.

This probably doesn't get out seeds and works better on grass than weeds.

You may also have better luck if you build your garden into a raised bed, because then it's physically separated from grass.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:01 AM on September 29, 2009

I feel your pain. I've busted about an acre of sod and pasture in the past two years and it sucks. One guy I spoke to on the phone said that he'd lent a spader to some folks who went from sod to row crops in a season.

The traditional way to deal with this problem is to plow the bejesus out of it. This is really hard on your soil structure and I wouldn't do it more than once. In my case, I'm farming on the side of a hill so even doing it once wasn't an option. What I've done instead is multiple passes with a tiller and used plastic mulch on the rows. To suppress grass growth in the paths I've opted to kill it with fire.

Actually, now that I think about the problem and your (drools) 40 hp tractor, I wonder if a no-till approach might work. It'd take a season, unfortunately, but what might work is to grow a dense cover crop to choke out the grass(i.e. buckwheat in my region, consult your local extension/canadian extension equivilent) and crush it with a no-till crimper to kill of the plants and form a dense layer of mulch to suppress grass and weed growth over the winter. The next spring you'll plant through the mulch using either a no-till seed drill or, perhaps more sensibly considering you working in a large garden, not a small farm, hand sowing or transplants. These are obscure tools and I've no idea if you can beg, borrow, or rent them locally. If it were me, I'd look for a local organic farming organization that'll know who in the area owns the implements. Early adopters being what they are, it's likely the farmer will be thrilled to show off/evangelize their equipment.

You might want to consult Managing Cover Crops Profitably which, in fairness, I've only skimmed but was recommended earlier by pilibean and looks like a great resource.

As for chickens, we've got around 200 and I wouldn't use them to kill sod. Goats might work, horses will eat all of the good plants and leave nothing but invasives, but, as mentioned upthread, I know folks that have gotten excellent results with pigs. A friend of mine used a couple of pigs to root out a stand of blackberries and scotch broom and ended up with delicious pork and a patch of bare dirt. For this to work, you're going to need to manage the pasture pretty intensively and likely use portable electric fence. On the upside, you've likely got neighbors with hungry pigs who would *love* to have access to some free forage for as long as it takes. Maybe you can get some bacon for your trouble.
posted by stet at 10:18 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Goats won't kill sod. They actually prefer the weeds to the grass, for the most part. If you are looking for a livestock solution, pigs are, indeed, the way to go.
posted by bricoleur at 9:03 PM on October 8, 2009

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