I'm getting a lot of calls and emails for gardening advice these days, especially from people turning a portion of their lawn into a raised-bed vegetable garden. Please send me pictures of your conversion projects so I can share them here on the blog.
At the end of Year of Plenty there are a series of appendices with practical advice on gardening, backyard chickens, and food preservation. Here's an excerpt from the book that offers my advice on turning a lawn into a vegetable garden.
There are two ways to replace a lawn with garden plots:
1) Raised Beds: You can use raised beds constructed of two-by- eight douglas-fir lumber. Don’t use treated wood. You’ll likely get a good dose of arsenic and other nasty chemical with any vegetables you grow in a treated-wood raised bed. The ideal garden bed is about four feet wide by eight-to-ten feet long. You can assemble beds using 2.5 inch outdoor wood screws to connect the corners or use a four-by-four on the inside of each corner and secure the two-by-eights with nails or screws in the four-by-four. Build the beds, and place them directly over the lawn with landscape cloth covering the bottom of the bed where the grass is growing. Fill the bed with gardening soil and start gardening. At the end of the first growing season, use a pitchfork to loosen the soil and poke lots of holes in the fabric, which will make openings for future plant roots to go deep into the soil—don’t do that the first year or grass will grow up through the fabric. The book, All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew is a helpful resource for making the most of this kind of gardening.
2) Removing Sod and Creating Rows: The other strategy is to use a sod cutter to remove the grass. After removing the sod and stacking it somewhere to be used as compost for later, add composted manure to the soil and mix it together using a rototiller.
I recommend using a no-till method of gardening (after getting your garden bed finished) with designated gardening rows with permanent pathways. The theory is that you never step on the garden beds and stay on the path. The path gets packed down and the soil beds don’t which means you won’t have to rototill every year. That’s not just a nice break for you, it’s actually better for the garden. The mechanical vibrations from regular rototilling create a hardpan under the top six inches of tilled soil, which means roots can’t grow very deep, which in turn leads to a reduced yield. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith is a good resource for understanding this method of gardening.
My friends and neighbors Bob and Bonnie Gregson, authors of the book, Rebirth of the Small Family Farm, helped complete my education on the art of no-till gardening. They recommend the technique of using a pitchfork. Here’s how it works: to prepare your garden beds for a new season, cover them with compost, then poke the soil repeatedly with the pitchfork moving it gently back and forth with each penetration of the soil. This helps in a couple of ways: the new compost falls into the holes, helping the compost get into the soil, and it aerates the soil. It does all of this without destroying the delicate ecosystem of worms and worm holes. The worms have been working all winter and it’s a shame to ruin all their hard work.
If you choose this method of gardening, I recommend covering the pathways with layers of nonglossy newspaper, covered by a generous layer of straw. This will limit the battle against weeds to the actual garden beds. Over time, the newspaper and straw will compost into the soil. Be careful not to use hay, which is full of seeds. Bark and pine straw are also not recommended because they take longer to compost.
Here's what our conversion of lawn into labyrinth looked like back in 2008.