So many people are elbow deep in transforming their lawns, front yards, backyards, patios, and balconies into flourishing gardens. In the process, they are increasing food security, getting fresh air and sunshine, moving more, and reducing their stress. Connecting to where our food is coming from is one of the best ways to stay grounded and healthy. Local food also helps reduce fossil fuels used i transportation of fruits and vegetables. Having less time between harvest and consumption means more nutrition availability.
Before digging up your lawn though, there are some things to keep in mind. Let’s go over a few of them and talk strategy on grass removal. There will even be some tips on maintaining a healthy garden at the end!
Lawn to Garden Considerations
Knowing the history of your land can help you make important decisions on the best way to move forward with your growing endeavors. If there was a previous home on the lot with lead-containing paint, that could have chipped off and contaminated the soil. If you are near a highway or freeway, there may be historic pollution from when gas was leaded. It is a good idea to get a soil test for potential pollutants such as heavy metals or hydrocarbons. Knowing potential sources of pollution in proximity to your location is also important so you can put up buffers to your yard or other forms of bioremediation.
Dilute and Complex
This one is important if your results indicate low pollution and you would like to plant in the ground. By bringing in clean soil and/or compost and incorporating it into your soil, you effectively dilute any potential contaminants and is a good idea to do in all urban or suburban areas. For areas where contaminants are a concern, there are ways to bioremediate the soil for future growing. One way that has been studied is with the application of ground-up fish bones with 6 inches of clean soil applied on top and mulched. The phosphorus immobilizes the lead making it non-dangerous. Contaminants present in mobile forms are dangerous when stirred up in dust particles that we come in contact with.
Cover and Build Upward
For those who do have a contamination issue, a great option is to cover and build upward. Combining this with a bioremediation strategy is most beneficial. The most common way to avoid contact with contaminated soil while still being able to grow food is to apply a thick layer of cardboard over the affected site. This is then topped with at least six inches of mulch such as wood chips. Landscaping fabric would also work in place of cardboard but is not as environmentally beneficial.
Once the soil is tucked away, a raised bed can then be installed with another layer of cardboard at the bottom and then clean soil and compost added to it to plant into. Make sure the depth of your raised bed is appropriate for the crops you are looking to plant. I like to make mine 18 inches or a little deeper to accommodate most crop options.
Pick Higher Up
Another great option for avoiding contamination (especially when choosing to grow in the ground) is to select crops and varieties that grow more upright. Instead of bush varieties, you could choose cucumbers and beans to grow on a trellis. When choosing greens go for a taller variety of kale, collards, or romaine as opposed to one that is touching the soil. Upright fruiting crops like tomatoes in cages are another great option. Growing root crops like carrots should only be done in non-contaminated soil, or in raised beds/containers. Heavy metals in contaminated soils are going to affect roots the most and fruits the least.
The danger of contamination can be greatly reduced by removing all the visible soil from your harvest and by washing thoroughly with running water. A salad spinner is great for this.
Now that we’ve gotten some cautions taken care of, let’s cover ways to convert all that grass into a garden. We already covered the building up method of raised beds. Lasagna Gardening is another method to build upward but make sure you process the materials well before planting.
Other methods, are smothering, cooking, and tillage/manual removal. Smothering is pretty simple, you just cover the grass to cut off sunlight, and then the grass will die back in a few weeks. The cooking method or thermal processing method is used in the summer in sunny locations. You spray down the area and cover the grass with clear plastic. This really heats things up and breaks down the grass and potentially kills roots and seeds in the soil.
The tillage option involves going over the area with a shallow till of 1-1.5 inches to cut the grass and clump it together for easy manual removal. Normally, this is followed by the addition of organic matter and minerals, and then formed into beds. I prefer creating permanent beds in this kind of system and then just loosening it with a broadfork as needed in order to avoid major disturbances of the microbial ecosystem the crops have built.
Tips & Recommendations
Finally, here are my top tips and recommendations for maintaining a healthy and easy garden system. The first one is mulching. Mulch your paths (unless you make them wide enough for mowing or sheep) and mulch your beds. This helps reduce the need for weeding and also holds in moisture. Keeping the soil covered is critical for keeping the carbon in the ground and protecting the beneficial microbes.
The other tip is to install an irrigation system the incorporates a water filter. The hoses can even be hidden under your mulch for aesthetics. Having a filter that removes chlorine and chloramine is important in order to support beneficial microbes in the soil. Installing systems such as soaker hoses, drip tape, or sprinklers will save you lots of time. It also ensures that the ecosystem supporting your plants is healthy.
The last recommendation is to provide your plants and soil with adequate nutrition so deficiencies don’t lead to the uptake of heavy metals into the plants’ cells. Getting a soil test to check for deficiencies and using organic and biological methods to address them is important. If you are converting a yard into a garden, the soil you are starting out with isn’t usually as good as you want it to be, that will take a couple of seasons of healthy plants and awesome gardening to achieve. During these initial seasons, using a foliar organic nutrient and biostimulant application, as well as seed and root inoculants is very beneficial in speeding up the creation of a thriving soil ecosystem.