Best practices for turning a yard into a garden
September 11, 2016 11:41 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I just bought our first house. Woo! We would like to turn the grassy front yard (15 ft by 20 ft) into a vegetable garden next spring. What is the best way to go about doing that?

I live in Oregon and I am looking for the best way to get rid of the grass so we can plant vegetables this coming spring. Should we use cardboard and a thick layer of compost/mulch and let it sit over the rainy winter? If we go this method, should we add a cover crop to prevent the compost from washing away? Or should we wait until spring and rototill up the grass and mix in compost then? Any suggestions are welcome!
posted by source.decay to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In Oregon I would probably just go the till route in the spring, and then put in raised beds with paver or brick or cement walkways (not gravel, it's a pain in the ass to keep weed-free and tidy). If you were anywhere but Oregon I would say also put in an irrigation system, and if it would not be a financial hardship you should still consider either a sprinkler system or at least a feeder line/bib you can attach a drip system to.

Basically build out a community garden architecture but in your yard. It looks nicer and it's easier to work with/amend/turn over every year/protect from pests and frost/rotate crops.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:48 AM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Test. Your. Soil!!!

If it's a front yard on the street and an older home in a rainy area you could have quite the lead levels in there between traffic fumes and paint chips from the house. If it's a newer house and they hauled in fill, you don't know where they got it. First off get it tested for as many things as you can but mainly lead. Second thing to look at is the type and quality of soil: clay, sand, old pine trees on the property, anything poisonous plant wise that'll kill your veggies etc

If it's good then I'd just rototill in the spring, lay out some beds and start planting. Don't leave bare earth over winter, no reason to. If it's contaminated, or not great type of soil etc it's you'll need to remove it and replace or amend it or put a barrier and build raised beds. This is where your local master gardeners assoc or possibly ag service can help.
posted by fshgrl at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

Any particular reason you want to do this now instead of in the spring? You could get started building raised beds (which I think is a great idea), but there's no reason to do all the work now.

I might suggest starting small, with one raised beds. Veggie gardens take a lot of work, more than mowing every week or two. You might want to start small.

Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 11:57 AM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Raised beds are a terrific way to start. In my area, tree companies give away woodchips, which are attractive and effective for between raised beds. You want good soil and to suppress the grass. If the turf is in good shape, lift up what you can and redistribute to a place where you can use it. A bed raised just 1 foot will take a lot of soil. Start with a layer of newspaper - it will suppress grass and will decompose well. Maybe a layer of leaves if they're easily available. When leaves and other materials compost themselves, they really shrink, so several inches of newspaper and a foot of leaves will just be a few inches. Then you'll need soil and soil amendments like composted manure. You have a Cooperative extension Service somewhere near you - they will have lots of local information and maybe some master gardeners to learn from.
posted by theora55 at 12:37 PM on September 11, 2016

I have done this, in Oregon, and you will need to take more aggressive measures to thoroughly kill the grass. Well established grass has deep roots. Just burying the tilled sod was not enough. A summer of solarizing under black plastic? Mostly good enough.
posted by janell at 12:58 PM on September 11, 2016

Roundup. Layer of cardboard and then cover with at least 4 inches of soil.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:15 PM on September 11, 2016

If you have an HOA check and make sure it's not going to cause problems.
posted by COD at 1:26 PM on September 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I hired a petrol turf cutter and used that to strip the turf from the (quite large) area where I wanted raised beds. I stacked the turf grass side down in a corner of the garden, and covered it with a plastic tarp. A year later, the old turf had basically broken down to soil, so I mixed it with a bit of compost and used it to top up the beds. No need for any herbicides.
posted by pipeski at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2016

Congrats on the house! I totally understand your new house excitement, and as a fellow urban gardener, I applaud your zeal about revamping the front.

I've done this three times before, and here is my advice.

1. This is your first house. I presume you have to move and have a lot of homeownership stuff to get accustomed to. My first suggestion is: let yourself spend the winter ruminating on it, before you dive in and commit. There may be other stuff you need to prioritize, effort- and attention-wise, and it will let you start to get to know your yard a bit before you really invest time/money/effort.

2. Figure out what you're working with. Get the soil tested, as suggested above. Draw out a map to scale, to use to back up your scheming. Spend some time looking at what's already planted, think about what's going on with your exposure and your light and your water. Where does your hose connect? Would it make sense to put in a rain barrel?

3. Let yourself learn a bit about living with your yard. How do you move through it, like to the back/side yard? That might influence your layout and paths between beds. What else is already growing there? Keep in mind, we're at the end of the summer, there may be some springtime surprises that you're not aware of (bulbs, oriental poppies, whatever). What's the foot traffic like on the street? Do you have a border that puts a barrier between the sidewalk and your garden? Do you need one?

4. Scheme all winter to figure out your layout. Look up some plant and seed sites (Raintree Nursery is awesome for the PNW) and let yourself have some time to figure out your approach. Then deploy in spring.

Super fun to have a blank slate. Take your time and enjooooyyyyyy filling it in!
posted by Sublimity at 2:59 PM on September 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

We did this in our Colorado back yard, and laid a double layer of landscape cloth to stop grass, and some insidious tree shoots from getting back into our raised beds. Has worked like a charm.
posted by nickggully at 3:01 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

We have had raised beds in a couple of our past rentals, but we wanted to skip the hassle and just plant directly in the ground.

It looks like we will wait until spring and till the grass and supplement the (tested) dirt with compost.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by source.decay at 6:44 PM on September 11, 2016

Test the soil now, and start taking photos to track where the light hits at different times of day. Figure out how many hours of sunlight different parts of your yard will have around when your last frost date rolls around in spring. (Remember axial tilt.) If you're at all considering lasagna gardening, save cardboard to put down on top of the sod and cover with compost/manure/etc. Don't wait too long in the spring, unless you're sure you have a good source of fully composted manure. Most places giving away free manure aren't composting it that long, which can "burn" your plants, so there is some benefit to testing soil and doing some preparatory work in the fall, even if you just haul compost and stick it in a pile elsewhere in your yard.

Also: not vegetables, but if you're itching to garden a little bit buy a couple bulbs and plant them, and then kick your veggie efforts into high gear once the daffodils poke their little heads up in 2017.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:04 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some types of grass are much harder to get rid of than others. I'm not familiar with what is common in your area but I'd try to identify the grass growing in your yard and then go on some gardening forums to see how other folks got rid of it. This was especially helpful to me when I attempted to remove a lawn composed of Bermuda and Crab Grass. Good luck!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:24 PM on September 11, 2016

I haven't tried it all myself, but square foot gardening seems really appealing. The book has really simple instructions for really simple small beds, with landscape fabric below. I know you said you didn't want raised beds, but I would still recommend at least looking at the book. Perhaps you can just dig deep and put new soil on top of landscaping fabric.

We build a tall raised bed over grass that we had tried to kill, and it was terrible. We were pulling grass from our bed every year. Grass is terrible. It covers lawns for a reason - because it is basically an invasive weed (that thankfully you can prevent from spreading by seed by mowing).
posted by lab.beetle at 7:50 PM on September 13, 2016

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