Friday, January 29, 2010

On The Verge

I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and a large Garden.
~Abraham Cowley, The Garden, 1666

A bit of lawn can be nice to have. It’s soft to rassle on, restful to look at, but it takes a lot of mowing, edging, water and fertilizer to maintain, especially if you just gotta have it like a putting green. Do you want to put in a garden and reduce the amount of lawn you currently have? Maybe you want to get rid of all your lawn or just whittle it down to a little patch surrounded by more garden, or put a perennial bed smack in the middle of it. Do you have big dreams but the back breaking thought of digging up all that tough turf has smothered your dream for years? Well un-smother that dream and smother your grass instead! You don’t have to do ANY turf digging. Here’s how.

First, figure out where you want the new garden space to be. Outline it with stakes and twine or simply lay out your garden hose in a square or a nice curvy pattern till you get the size and shape you want. If you do a curved line and the garden will be bordering grass, be sure not to make the shape too tightly curved. The example in the photo is too tight. Keep in mind you’ll be mowing and mowers don’t like tight curves, nor do most edging materials.

Next, figure out how much soil/compost you’ll need to smother the grass. Buying it in bags is fine if you’re doing a small plot. But for larger plans getting a cubic yard or more delivered may make more sense. One cubic yard = 27 cubic feet. Delivery companies can help you with the square foot calculations if need be. Some companies have delivery minimums, so if you don’t need 3 yards but that’s their minimum, ask around, maybe a neighbor with gardening aspirations will go in halfsies with you. Most soil and compost delivery companies have specific mixes depending on your project. If you’ll be growing food in the bed, definitely shop around till you find a certified organic source. For vegetables a light mix of compost, sandy loam and sand is great (often called a three-way mix). For ornamental plants and trees, a 50/50 mix of compost and sand is perfect (often called two-way topsoil).

If you want a raised bed you can simply pile 12 inches or more of the soil/compost right over the turf. The thicker the better. If the layer is too thin, any of that grass poking through will grow. If you don’t want to buy that much soil/compost or don’t want it to be raised you can put 1 layer of cardboard (get those boxes out of your recycle bin) or 3-4 sheets thick of layered newspaper down first. Next, put 4-6 inches of soil/compost on top of the cardboard/newspaper layer. Be sure to cover everything, even the edges where grass blades poke out. It will take a few months for the cardboard to decompose enough to be able to dig through it. Years ago I used the cardboard method in my backyard to cover my grass in July and by late September most of it was soft enough to dig holes in to plant trees and big perennials. The soil/compost is fluffy, so as it settles the volume of height will go down so don’t be skimpy if you want a raised bed. Never use plastic for this smothering method. Garden soil hosts many living organisms. Plastic sheeting will starve them of air, water and nutrients and can create water runoff catastrophes for your home.

Seeds, shallow rooted vegetable seedlings (save the root veggies for next year), annuals or small potted perennials can be planted into the new top layer of soil/compost providing it is thick enough. Six inches should work here.

If you piled six inches to two feet you can also plant veggies or bigger potted plants, provided it is deep enough to support the root ball and plant itself. For big potted plants, shrubs or trees wait till the cardboard and turf is soft enough to dig through. You’ll need to go deeper and wider for those. Be sure to stake shrubs and trees for the first year so the roots can reach out and the soil will settle and hold them up.

At some point you may want to put in some sort of retaining system to hold the dirt in if you haven’t already. You can choose from a wide variety including brick edging, plastic rolled edging you can mow over if this bed is adjacent to grass, or for raised beds concrete blocks, timbers, or plastic ‘wood’ edging all work well. Please never use any wood that’s been soaked in creosote and pressure treated wood is ok if no food will be grown in the space. Both contain chemicals with differing levels of toxicity, harmful to the soil organisms and you. In my opinion, nothing with chemical treatments is best. Most edging material will be easier to set after all the turf is smothered and cardboard is decomposed because most edging material does have to be dug down abit for stability. It’s so much easier to dig after decomposition than to dig through turf. There are also rigid plastic or flexible steel edgings that can just be hammered into place, no digging needed.

Some gardens that border grass are simply defined from the grass by a “V trough edge”. With the back of a shovel against the lawn, slice straight down 3 inches, then scoop the dirt up and into the garden bed. Do the whole edge length this way. The 3 inch cut will prevent the grass roots from spreading into your garden bed, pretty effectively corralling it. A motorized blade edger can then keep this edge nice and clean. Otherwise you’ll have to go over it each spring with your shovel like I do, as the trough can fill back in as dirt shifts and settles.

So what would you like? A little patch of lawn, grassy paths meandering through your garden or no lawn at all? I’d love to hear what your future garden ideas are.

In bloom in my garden today: Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose, Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Author’s photos


Shari B. said...

Hi Joan! I would never have even thought about treated edging materials and their affect on not only the organisms in the soil but also any FOOD I might grow! So glad I know this now so as not to make that mistake (especially since my future garden will probably be in some sort of wood surround) - thank you for sharing!!

Joan said...

Hi Shari,
Glad to give a heads up. The pressure treated boards are treated with copper amonst other chemicals. For years the manufacturer claimed they were safe but I believe reports came out later contrary. Best to use untreated cedar or what ever 'hard wood' that is rot and bug resistant and plentiful in your region and replace it when it rots.