Removing turf for garden beds

January new garden bed

In Scotland, where I am, Spring is hinting at its presence with lighter mornings, daffodils in flower and tulip buds swelling on rising stems. But weather wise, winter’s grip is still quite strong – with snow storms the week just passed and continuing strong winds.

Nevertheless, the lure of the garden, is proving irresistible.

I’ve been trying to create some additional garden beds. In some cases I have been removing turf by hand. The best thing I can say for this job is that it is good exercise. The worst part is that you’re left with piles of turf to deal with.

This isn’t much of a problem in a large garden. You can find a sheltered corner where you can store the turf for a year or two, whilst it breaks down into a useable and valuable topsoil. But it is a problem in a smaller space, because there is so much less room to spare.

One approach I could have tried, is a variation on the double dig method, where you effectively bury the turf deep enough for it to be killed off. But this is probably even harder work than just removing the turf. It also relies on the area being fairly free of sizeable tree and shrub roots, which mine isn’t.

I haven’t yet worked out the best solution to this problem, so I’d be interested to hear any suggestions in the comments.

Anyway, because of the growing pile of turf I was accumulating, in another area of the garden I’ve decided to experiment with a variation of the no-dig method.

removing turf for garden beds - no dig cover

This is involved laying down a two or three inch thick later of compost/soil on top of the turf and then covering this with sheets of weed surpress fabric. This was a bit trick in high winds, but I weighted it down with rocks and banged in some hooped pins that are made for the job, and so far everything is holding in place.

This means I need to be patient, as it is likely to take a couple of months for the grass to die off. I expect I will need to do a fair bit of loosening of the soil as well when it comes to planting, as the dead grass roots will still be binding together.

Nevertheless, this was a lot easier than removing about 20 square metres of turf and should ultimately be better for the soil. This is because all the organic material in the turf is retained, and adding the layer of compost between the grass and the sheeting is also likely to attract worms and other soil fauna. Their activity will help improve the soil structure.

removing-turf-no-dig
Even Otis the cat is interested in this method

Update

I’m writing this update a year later and I can report that basically it worked a treat. This is what the area above looked like around 4 months later:


Some perennial weeds did survive, even after about 8 weeks under cardboard and compost, which is a good illustration of the tenacity that makes some plants weeds. But all I needed to do was keep on top of the weeding.

One other point to note is that although the grass was dead, what was left was a layer of tightly woven dead root material. So it was a bit of a job to dig this over and break up the soil. Nevertheless, it was easier than removing turf by hand. If I had been growing vegetables, I might have been tempted to take a completely no dig approach and heap up more compost and organic matter on top to plant seeds into, then allowing the root layer to break down naturally over time. But because I wanted to grown perennial plants, I needed to dig the soil over to allow the plants to put down their roots.

So, if you have time and you plan ahead, this is definitely the best way to create a garden bed from an area of lawn

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3 thoughts on “Removing turf for garden beds”

  1. Good morning Martin;
    I live in Canada (New Brunswick) and I am attempting to plant a relatively steep slope which is currently a mowed lawn area, with densely planted ornamental shrubs and perennials. Have you ever tried your layering technique in areas other than flat locations? If so do you feel this technique would work over the winter months or does it require intense heat to create the desired effect?

    Reply
    • Hi Lynn I think it will work over winter. As long as light is cut out the grass can’t photosynthesise so over time should die off. It might be hard to do the slope as the compost may slide or be washed away.

      Reply

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