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What is the best method for converting a large amount of turf/lawn into weed free soil?  RSS feed

 
Hanley Kale-Grinder
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Location: Mountain West of USA, Salt Lake City
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Hello

I'm working with a farmer in a suburban area this summer. We have a few home owners on board with us converting their large back yards into production gardens. The total land available right now is about 2 acres. The soil underneath the grass is excellent and flat. We will be irrigating with city water but we are right next to the main river/drainage for the Salt Lake City Wasatch range. This will be her (the farmer's) third season. The last two seasons utilized land mostly in the benches (rocky, unpredictable soil) and required a lot of double digging and grass stripping. We want to try and cut down on initial labor drastically. We have a very large and nice rototiller to work with.

My initial thought is to do a shallow pass with the rototiller as soon as possible (its mid February right now). Then as the grass regenerates, do another rototiller pass. Possibly wait for the grass to regenerate a third time, do a deep rototill, then plant our annuals, then mulch around the annuals with leaves and spoiled hay. Another option is to rent a sod remover and cut out the grass completely.

There is too much area to mess around with building raised beds or extensive hugelkultures, plus it isn't our land and we can't be guaranteed that we can come back the next summer. If we have the time and materials, I will put hugelkultures on some of our more permanent spots.

Any questions, comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks!!!
 
Dale Hodgins
gardener
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Alison Thomas
pollinator
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What about mulching it down NOW with a thick layer of straw? That way you protect all the little bugs and bacteria that will help you, rather than killing them with tilling. All plants need two things - water and light. Block out the light and hey presto, grass turned into organic matter. Plus you can plant through the straw AND it will help to keep the ground moist when the weather gets warmer so will cut down on water needs.
 
Hanley Kale-Grinder
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Location: Mountain West of USA, Salt Lake City
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Dale, I don't really like plastic but I'll look into that option. We won't get much "cooking" going on until May or June though and we want to start prepping ground before that.

Alison, I'll bet the ground is fairly compacted and it would do us well to loosen it one initial time. Thanks for the suggestion though.

My partners just told me that last year they had good success tilling the sod directly, and planting right afterwards. We'll probably do that again.
 
paul wheaton
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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"the best"?

Well, I think "the best" would be to set the goal at raised beds. Then lay out where the beds will be and where the paths will be. Then dig down one foot where the paths will be and toss that sod and stuff onto where the beds will be, and then mulch it as Alison has pointed out. If you happen to have some rotten wood lying around, then toss that in the middle, hugelkultur style.

The idea that anybody on these forums would consider using a rototiller makes me think that I need to work harder on education of better ways.

I'm having a really hard time thinking of any food production system where I might use a rototiller. Maybe if I were trying certain techniques in sealing a pond - but even then, i think there are better techniques.


 
P Thickens
Posts: 177
Location: Bay Area, California (z8)
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* Mark off your beds.
* Use a Sod Stripping Tool to rip up strips of lawn and replace upside down. Thus treated, they will not regrow and most weed seeds will not sprout.
* Pile on the organic material; edge your new Raised Beds if you wish/have the materials.
* Top with topsoil.
* Plant. Done.
 
Jonathan Hontz
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Location: Denver, CO
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Hugelkultur would be your best bet, but if you don't want to do that, then for the love of your land, do NOT roto-till it. I know it's tempting, but if you do it once thinking you're loosening the soil, wait a year or two and the soil you tilled last year will be more compacted (not to mention burned clean of beneficial bacteria by exposing them to the sun) than before you started. Flipping the sod is still a risky proposition, especially if there's bindweed present. Even if there was bindweed 10 years ago, in fact.

After huglekultur beds, I would go with the suggestion to mulch it deep. Call a tree trimmer or two and get them to dump woodchips, throw some organic matter (compost, rotting food, stuff with lots of fungi and bacteria in it) in there, and if you can get topsoil then do that. You'll want at least 4-6 inches of material on top of whatever you're trying to smother. You can just pull the mulch back and dig through the sod, planting in those little open areas. If you have the gear and the inclination, set a mower as low as it will possibly go and cut the grass, leaving the clippings in place before you do this, but it's not necessary. If you threw down some half-rotted compost or just old produce, those will probably re-seed themselves without you needing to do anything more. Squash is great for that.

I've tried to do something similar with a CSA group one year, and they tilled. It didn't eliminate the grass, the yields didn't really justify the extra effort, and the tilling burned the organic matter out of the soil, which means that the following year was worse, nutrient-wise. If you're trying to establish in such a place, you need to set the bar for first-year yields lower than you'd like, add organic matter and vegetable seeds like a crazy person, and keep at it for a few years.

Tilling, the quickest "solution" is, at best, a one-season bandage that will keep you gassing up that tiller every year and trying to figure out how to keep the plants fed.
 
Andrew Monkhouse
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I'm curious - isn't it a little early to be working on this (or are you still in the planning stages)? Looking out my window right now, I see snow on the ground of Mt Olympus (I work right near the entrance to Big Cottonwood Canyon), and I've been told that the ground should still be frozen for a few months to come.

Disclaimer - I'm asking because I am curious, not because I actually know anything.
 
Leila Rich
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I know having people go NOOOOOO to our ideas sucks, but talking about rototilling growing areas three times is going to get reactions on a permaculture forum!
Aside from any other issues, all that rototilling would eat into valuable mulching time
People have suggested a variety of good options, but from what I know, whatever you do, weed seeds will be there and covering them with mulch is by far the easiest option.
 
Jay Green
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I can't even imagine how much money it would take to mulch 2 acres of land. Sounds lovely to cry out for raised beds and mulch, etc., but if one is trying to be frugal while producing food, bringing in truck loads of mulch, topsoil or just dumping sawdust(which has to bind with nitrogen somehow) on some land just isn't feasible. I like the idea of flipping the sod, but at what level are the weed seeds and how deeply would one strip the sod? And 2 acres of stripping?? It'll take a good while....
 
Dale Hodgins
gardener
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Here's a good compromise concerning the use of a rototiller. --- I've used a rototiller to remove just the grass by setting it to only an inch deep and running over the same area over and over from different angles. The soil crumbles off of the grass so that it's possible to to rake it up and compost it without also raking up all of the topsoil. This does nothing about weed seeds but it does get rid of the crop in the ground so that you don't start with an established competitor to your new plants.

This works best on dry ground. If it's wet, the soil sticks to the grass roots rather than powdering off. The soil beneath 1 inch depth is left undisturbed.

This is like a powered version of a Dutch hoe.
 
Jay Green
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I've done the same and covered the scraped ground with very composted horse manure/straw bedding. Best garden I've ever had and the absolute sweetest tomatoes I've ever tasted...mother agreed and she is 77 yrs. old and an avid gardener.
 
Aljaz Plankl
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Nothing wrong with tilling for the first time, if you tend the garden the right way. If you need to do it again the next season you are doing something wrong. And it happens a lot of times. I've seen many people jumping on land with tilling, big gardens and then everything was covered with quack grass at the end of the season and soil a lot worse. Tilling makes hundreds of roots from just one root of quack grass. Not a good option on a big garden with shortage of mulch, time etc. Go small in the first year, use different garden styles, you will learn so much more.
 
Hanley Kale-Grinder
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Thank you all for the suggestions.

Andrew: We are just planning right now Last year ground prep started in March.

Just so everyone is clear or didn't read my first post, this is not a personal garden. It is two acres that should fulfill about 150 CSA shares. My personal garden is a hugelkultur topped with compost and worm castings. Trying to replicate this over 2 acres seems like a fairly absurd proposition but I could be wrong. For one thing, this is not our land (we are using it for the cost of water and a CSA share) so we need to find a balance between soil building and first year work:harvest ratio. I've worked with many organic farmers who till the same land year after year, adding outside sources of fertilizer, who consistently get nice yields.

If we bring in 6 inches of material, it will be a total of 43,560 cubic feet or 4840 cubic yards. The biggest dump trucks (not that we can even fit a dump truck into the back yards in the first place) hold 30 cubic yards. That means, with the biggest trucks, we would need 161.3 loads to cover the entire area. If we are talking about the more realistic size truck, which is 5 cubic yards, we would need 806.6 loads. Maybe there is a tree trimmer around who would do this but I kind of doubt it.

We have to work with what is there, maybe adding an organic fertilizer and any mulch or manure we can get our hands on. The ground is compacted and we can't wait for a few years as mulch and earth worms loosen it it. All of this HAS gotten me thinking though...thanks again!
 
Alison Thomas
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Hanley Kale-Grinder wrote:
I've worked with many organic farmers who till the same land year after year, adding outside sources of fertilizer, who consistently get nice yields.


I don't doubt you. Organic is a step in the right direction but from what I know of organic farming v permaculture farming, the organic farm is still a LONG way from being ecologically sound. That's my opinion.

Hanley Kale-Grinder wrote:

All of this HAS gotten me thinking though...thanks again!


Hey, that's what permies.com is all about!
 
Aljaz Plankl
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What is the best method for converting a large amount of turf/lawn into weed free soil?

When you are working on big scale field farming, much of permaculture is gone. But it can be done in much better ways than it's done now. I'm sure the tilling of the soil can be stopped, but it's a challenge.

- Start to see those 2 acres as a big garden instead of farm field.
- Till.
- In the last tilling in spring make permanent paths and beds. You should reach to the middle of a bed from one side. Do not step on the growing beds during season!
- Do not pull roots of veggies when harvesting, unless it's a root crop. Leave all the scraps on soil.
- Till again and sow cover crops.

Permaculture loves small scale growing, that's why it's so effective. There is still much to be learned and discovered in terms of big fields. Permanent paths and beds are a start, but it's again about how the land is managed, the use of mechanization etc.
 
Hanley Kale-Grinder
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Location: Mountain West of USA, Salt Lake City
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>>In the last tilling in spring make permanent paths and beds. You should reach to the middle of a bed from one side. Do not step on the growing beds during season!>>

This is our plan. The tiller is only for use on establishing new beds. We are definitely not going to row crop, many farmers are moving away from rows and into beds. All of the beds that were established last year are not going to be tilled, at most we are going to just pitch fork them. If we don't even need to do that, we will plant directly into them.

Another idea I had today is to put a separate field into mixed pasture. All of the fertilizer inputs will go into that field, once the grass grows it will be cut and used to mulch the veg field. We are going to use our time not spent on the CSA (which, for income sake, will be akin to conventional organic ag with major permaculture influences) on more experimental projects in some other plots that we have access to.
 
Leila Rich
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Hanley, I'm not very familiar with CSAs and the only ones we have here (that I know of) are farmers growing on their own farms, if you know what I mean
I want to make sure I'm envisioning this right.
Your idea (crudely simplified) as I understand it: X suburban landowners turn over X of their land for CSA.
I know it's off track, but I'm really curious: are the properties next to each other, or spread out?
Will the landowners be involved in the work? I assume there's some sort of produce-for-land type deal.
Will you rotate around the entire series of properties? I have a feeling you've mentioned rotation, but I can't find it.
Actually, I have lots of questions around that stuff and I'll stop, since it pulls the thread way off track.
Your mulch-growing idea is interesting. While having the good stuff off-site isnt ideal in a permie sense, neither is anything
A reasonable comprmise between 'organic' and permaculture is totally possible of course. I've never even seen a tiller, so I'm no help there!
Would it work to incorporate growing mulch into a rotation? Mixed annuals, especially legumes, cut in autumn, mulched over and planted in spring could be a great way to maintain soil health.
As far as I know, most of the nutrition from amendments will stay in the soil, so the actual planting area needs to be fertilised.
 
Hanley Kale-Grinder
Posts: 112
Location: Mountain West of USA, Salt Lake City
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Your idea (crudely simplified) as I understand it: X suburban landowners turn over X of their land for CSA.


This is it exactly. The first two years had back yards all over the city. This year will be different as we have a few neighbors on board who all have very large properties. They all happen to be on flat land next to a meandering river!

Will the landowners be involved in the work? I assume there's some sort of produce-for-land type deal.


The landowners typically don't do any work. We pay for all of the water we use and we give them a free full share ($700 value).

Will you rotate around the entire series of properties? I have a feeling you've mentioned rotation, but I can't find it.


The woman who started the "farm" hasn't gotten into rotation much as the most any one property has been farmed so far is two consecutive years. We plan on doing some experimental plots that will rotate and supposedly provide for a full vegan diet. These won't necessarily be part of the CSA.

Actually, I have lots of questions around that stuff and I'll stop, since it pulls the thread way off track.


I would love to answer any questions you have. Perhaps we should start a new thread?

Your mulch-growing idea is interesting. While having the good stuff off-site isnt ideal in a permie sense, neither is anything


Yes, I think the reality is that if you are exporting produce off of the land, outside sources of fertilization MUST be used. Of course nitrogen can be fixed from the atmosphere, but all other mineral elements have to come from somewhere. Perhaps we can eventually hook into a human manure waste stream. We will hopefully be beginning a few food forests, a good friend has an infant one planted last year on a property that we are planning an experimental dry land grain crop on.

Would it work to incorporate growing mulch into a rotation? Mixed annuals, especially legumes, cut in autumn, mulched over and planted in spring could be a great way to maintain soil health.


We have enough room to do this so I hope try it out.

As far as I know, most of the nutrition from amendments will stay in the soil, so the actual planting area needs to be fertilised.


I'm not sure how much stays in the soil and how much goes into the plant body. I'm sure it varies greatly between species. We are toying with the idea of soil test to determine applicable fertilizer applications.
 
Morgan Morrigan
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Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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cardboard , then heavy straw.

What- no one said One Straw Farming ?

http://www.permies.com/t/2214/permaculture/masanobu-fukuoka

 
Dave Miller
pollinator
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I am converting my 1/2 acre suburban backyard from grass/weeds/wild blackberries to food forest plus a small vegetable garden and some ponds. I am sheet mulching the whole thing (in big patches, not all at once). Here is what I use for material sources:

Sheet:
- Ask everyone you know to save their newspapers for you. Ask them to leave out the ads & slick materials. The most awesome newspaper for mulching is the Wall Street Journal because it does not contain slick pages, and each section is fairly thick.
- Look on craigslist and freecycle for people who are getting rid of moving boxes. There are tons of them. You can also post an ad saying you are looking for moving boxes. Be sure to use the term "moving boxes", not "cardboard". Some people don't like to use cardboard for vegetable gardens and I tend to agree, so I use newspaper for gardens and cardboard everywhere else.
- Cruise the alleys behind stores looking for boxes/cardboard. Ask the people in the store if you can have some of them for your garden. I have never had anyone say no.

Mulch:
- Every morning when you get up, listen for the sound of chainsaws & wood chippers. Follow your ears and give the crew a map to your site. They are usually pretty happy to have a nearby place to dump because 1) they don't have to pay to dump and 2) they don't have to waste a lot of time & gas driving to the dump site. e.g. the crew in my neighborhood filled their truck (and my driveway) 3 times so they were able to finish their job ahead of schedule which made everyone happy. I would do this even if you DON'T plan to sheet mulch, because you can always use the chips for paths or for browns in your compost pile. If the tree service does a lot of jobs in your neighborhood, they may eventually come to you asking if you need wood chips.
- I like to cut the mulch on-site with a scythe. Just let the grass grow up tall, and cut it right before it starts to go to seed. I like to put a thin layer of fresh cut grass under the sheet, and the rest on top. If you have a lot of grass, you can probably even skip the sheet as the grass will form a mat. If you don't have tall grass onsite, find a site nearby that has tall grass and offer to cut it for them.
- Bales of spoiled straw or hay are usually pretty cheap or free.
 
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