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How to convert a 1/4 acre of grass into a community garden?

 
master steward
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I'm working on implementing a community garden for this summer.  If we get the site, it's a field of grass with sandy loam soil.  Funds will be limited and we'll have a few weeks to fence it and make plots.  I have a few ideas and I'm looking for input on them or other better ideas to consider.  The only equipment we currently have available is a tractor with a tiller.  We can probably get a skid steer but I'm not sure at this point.  It sounds like we can rent a compost spreader.

One goal I have is for the garden to be easy on new gardeners.  Tilling in the grass will likely lead to millions of buried grass chunks that people will have to weed out as they attempt to regrow.  Or fail to weed out and it will be a grassy mess.

Idea #1:  Get a metric shit ton of cardboard.  And a bunch of compost.  Cover the grass with cardboard, soak it down well and cover the cardboard with 2-3 inches of compost.  Plant into the compost.

Idea #2:  Rent a sod cutter.  Cut the sod out for the whole area.  Flip it over and pray for a few sunny days to dry out and kill the grass roots.  Spread a couple inches of compost.  Plant into the compost.

Idea #3:  Rent a sod cutter.  Cut the sod out and relocate it to somewhere in need of sod or a compost pile.  Replace the removed soil with a few inches of compost.  Till it in a bit.  Plant like a normal garden.

Idea #4:  Same as #3 but don't add the compost.  Just till up the remaining topsoil and plant.

The first three ideas involve 60 cubic yards of compost which I'm not looking forward to.  Idea #1 requires a crazy amount of cardboard which may not be feasible.  Idea #3 requires moving tons of sod around.  Idea #4 may create a low spot in the landscape to drown out the garden.

Thanks for reading and please hit me with some feedback!  
 
pollinator
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I bought a retired rental sod cutter for $800 and love it!

What has worked well for me is to cut 4 strips about 3" thick and have in order: pile of the 4 strips flipped over, cut planting area, cut walking area, cut planting area

The 4 strip pile can still grow potatoes the first year.
The planting area should be pretty grass free.
The walking path can be weeded with the same sod cutter on 1.5" depth, especially if there are some wood chips on it.
 
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Newspaper also works well.
And you can get it for free from the locals if you're willing to go pick it up from them after a few of them pile up that would just end up in the trash anyways.
 
Posts: 377
Location: West Midlands UK (zone 8b) Rainfall 26"
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I would rent the turf cutter but pile the turf on site.  I can't envisage how much piles that would make.  But then you have the option to return the resultant loam to the growing area in due course.  In the meantime it makes dry soil bank habitat for pollinating and predatory insects and could create sheltered microclimates.  I would not leave very much if any grass intact as walking paths.  It creeps back in.  I would import wood chip for paths, first turning some of the soil from the paths onto the growing area.  I would take that initial hit of lost organic matter from locking the turf up in piles and compensate with importing compost or manure for the new gardeners to incorporate through the first year.
 
Mike Haasl
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Thanks everyone!  I think getting enough newspaper would be nearly as hard as the cardboard, unfortunately.

For the sod cutter, I was hoping to scalp off as little top soil as possible.  Could I get away with just removing an inch?  Would that get all the grass crowns or do I need to go deeper?  Every inch down I go is another 40 cubic yards of replacement material I'd need to buy and spread.  FYI 40 cubic yards is a lot of material!

If it was 1" thick, the removed turf would also make a pile 3' high, 6' wide and 60' long.  That is also quite huge  But it could act like a wind break and hugelkultur.....

I'm not sure about the gymnastics of this, but in a perfect world, I could sod cut the entire area (paths and plots), magically lift the sod out of the way, dig 40 cubic yards of topsoil from the paths and spread that top soil on the plots and then put all the sod piled up in the path excavation.  Then all the material stays in the garden.  But I can't really see how to make that much material move around in a coordinated and efficient manner...

Hester, one suggestion from a fellow gardener was to leave grass in the paths and dig a trench to keep the grass from getting into the beds.  Apparently a 3 to 4" deep straight sided trench will keep the grass from going past it.  Like a moat of air.  I like the idea of grass since we could mow the clippings onto the plots for mulch and it wouldn't require spreading new chips on it every few years.  The city has a huge chip pile a mile away that we could probably get delivered if we asked nicely.

I crudely sketched up one possible layout below.  Double row of plots with a wide enough path between them to drive a truck or tractor down (if needed).  The rows would probably be longer than shown but my monitor wasn't big enough.  I'm guessing 15'x20' for the regular plots with maybe some double plots for ambitious gardeners.  Probably 40 plots total but I'd want room to expand if the demand exceeds our expectations.
Potential-garden-layout.png
Potential garden layout
Potential garden layout
 
Hester Winterbourne
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Mike Haasl wrote:Thanks everyone!  I think getting enough newspaper would be nearly as hard as the cardboard, unfortunately.

For the sod cutter, I was hoping to scalp off as little top soil as possible.  Could I get away with just removing an inch?  Would that get all the grass crowns or do I need to go deeper?  



The shorter the grass, the shallower the roots?

Mike Haasl wrote:
Hester, one suggestion from a fellow gardener was to leave grass in the paths and dig a trench to keep the grass from getting into the beds.  Apparently a 3 to 4" deep straight sided trench will keep the grass from going past it.  Like a moat of air.


Yeah, that'll work for sure.  But the trick is making sure all your newbie gardeners keep it maintained, all year round!
 
gardener
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I am quite happy with the garden I made though cutting sod and removing it, but it's a lot of work. Hope it's easier with the right tool! I would scalp it with a lawnmower set as low as possible before starting, then take 2" or so off to get the rhizomes roots.

As for what to do with the sod - do you need a new root cellar? I was fascinated as a child by the sod houses the pioneers used to make on the prairies - you could make a small one with all that sod as a storage area that would just melt back into the ground when you are done.
 
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I would plow manure into the entire plot. The best soil you have is in the sod in most locations, so I'd retain it. And I would obtain free wood chips for the gardeners to spread instead of paper or cardboard.
You need paths so that the gardeners can access their plot without walking thru the plots of others. So I would run a path just above the big plots in your drawing to the edges, and then along the edge. You may be able to skip a path along the edge on the far side from the entrance.
You may find a source of assistance in your community. Here their is, or was, an organization called the Allegheny Conservancy that would provide a foot or so of rich black topsoil for community gardens. The garden I was involved with had fencing which, I'm guessing, was provided by them. They also ran a question and answer session for the gardeners. You may also be able to obtain assistance from municipalities for other help. Access to running water is one idea I'm thinking of from them.
Good luck with your gardening and I thank you for providing this valuable asset to your community.
 
Mike Haasl
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Good idea Catie!  This will also be a demo area for permaculture ideas so we could make a sod sun trap, a sod hugel or the like.  A root cellar would work if we had a north facing shady area but this is pretty much flat and full sun.

Yes John, I am loath to remove any of the soil that is currently there.  I hadn't thought of plowing it (like with an actual plow).  I'll have to find a farmer around here and see if they have some ideas...
 
John Indaburgh
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Mike
You don't really need a farm plow. A rototiller would get the job done. Perhaps not as deep. Myself I'm in the 3rd year of converting lawn to a large garden. I'm using a spade. I'm on my second spade and may finish by next year. The tree roots I have account for the spade casualty.
You're considering a few large gardens. Some gardeners may also only want to tackle 1/2 of your smaller gardens.
 
Mike Haasl
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Thanks John, I do have the offer of a tractor with a tiller.  I'm worried that, based on personal experience, the tiller will cut the sod into a bajillion pieces and then some fraction of those pieces will be close enough to the surface to return to life.  Then all my new gardeners will have to stay on top of plucking the chunks of sod before they get re-established.  On my own large garden we "harvested" a couple wheelbarrows full of small sod pieces.  I'm not sure I want to rely on new gardeners to stay on top of that task.

But it would keep all the soil and fertility on the plots so it's definitely an option...
 
Catie George
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Mike Haasl wrote:Thanks John, I do have the offer of a tractor with a tiller.  I'm worried that, based on personal experience, the tiller will cut the sod into a bajillion pieces and then some fraction of those pieces will be close enough to the surface to return to life.  Then all my new gardeners will have to stay on top of plucking the chunks of sod before they get re-established.  On my own large garden we "harvested" a couple wheelbarrows full of small sod pieces.  I'm not sure I want to rely on new gardeners to stay on top of that task.

But it would keep all the soil and fertility on the plots so it's definitely an option...



I have had the same experience with tilling (in a neglected community garden bed I had one year that was tilled once) in the spring) - but this year we are doing something different than I have done on my own beds.

I am gardening with my mother, who is a traditional "rototill and weed it" kind of gardener. Based on her experience with starting new beds, we are doing one rototilled bed in a grass area.We just had the first till, then raked out all the grass. We will till it again one more time in a month, a week or so before planting and rake out any surficial grass again, then hoe out any other grass on planting day.  Admittedly not ideal for soil health - but it should do a good job of killing the grass. Our new 15 x 50' bed took maybe 2 person-hours split over a few days to rake? My family has always tilled multiple times in the spring on a new bed, to kill any grass that pops back up.
 
Mike Haasl
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I hadn't thought of tilling twice...  Yes, not the best for soil health but could the second tilling be just a few inches deep?  Or does it have to be full depth for some reason/function?
 
Catie George
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It's just to kill grass, so I can't see why you couldn't just use a shallow depth. Maybe till 3 times 2 weeks apart, and dont bother raking?
 
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Mike,

First, best of luck with your community garden. Would time allow for tarping over the area to kill off grass? Where I did bio-intensive gardening beds on my farm, I would tarp them off for about 4-6 weeks before proceeding with the double dig method. (Wet the ground down real well first, then tarp and hold down with pavers/bricks/rocks.)

I do my bio-intensive beds a little bit different, since I double dig them one time to remove any large rocks and help loosen up the super thick clay I had. I can say having done it both ways, putting the tarps/plastic down and letting the sun kill the grass for me worked best for me. Not the most ideal, but you can get the plastic painters drop cloths used a lot of time for almost nothing, and then often wash them and use them as season extenders over garden beds for a season or two before they get too damaged and have to be recycled. Most of the ones I got were headed to the landfill, but I wasn't in any sort of a time crunch.
 
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I'd cover the entire thing in 10 inches of wood chips.  What ever grass that grows through will be easily pulled.  It would be a shame to pull all that carbon (the grass and roots) out.  Bury it and it will quickly decompose.
 
Mike Haasl
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Thanks Aimee, that is an option.  Maybe.  If we can get the plan approved by the land owner and get tarps in time.  Planting season is about 5 weeks away right now and it will be at least a week before we have approval.  I'm not sure if there are other hurdles before we could start work on the site.

So it sounds like you used clear plastic?  I've seen opaque plastic used before in videos.  Does one work better than the other?  Getting 1/4 acre of plastic could be a struggle.

Hey Marco, since this is going to be for beginning gardeners to use this summer for annual crops, I don't think the wood chips will work.  Maybe I'm wrong though?
 
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What will be the source of irrigation for the plots (Sorry if it was mentioned and I missed it)? Since new gardeners may not consider the importance of water conservation, my thought would be to have some water holding methods in place from the beginning. Maybe a few pieces of wood buried in each plot, deep enough to minimize the chance of a hoe or tiller hitting it (plus that would get some carbon in the soil). I also like the idea of the wood chips. Even if they're just left in a pile near the plots, one could provide an example and cover his/her plot then, once the benefits of mulching become obvious, the other plot-holders may decide to cover their own plot with some chips.
 
Mike Haasl
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We're still working on the irrigation plans.  The hope is to have a few spigots spread around the garden for folks to use.  We get decent rains here so in my garden I usually only have to water about 8 times a year on average.

Some of the community gardens in my region prohibit wood chips in the gardens.  I think it's because if someone relinquishes their plot and someone else gets it, they may not want to remove the chips if their garden plans/style is different.  Or someone may till them in and be dealing with them in their soil for a while.  I'm going to encourage mulching with grass clippings and chipped up leaves.  
 
Aimee Hall
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Mike,

    The opaque plastic works better in my opinion but getting that in large quantities can be difficult. You can use many free sources, such as veg markets that may be willing to give you used bags but then those would take forever to lay out and need a ton of material to hold down. Unfortunately most low cost options have added expense in labour or other needs.

The wood chips are a good idea but would make it extremely difficult for new gardeners as things would not grow well this season. Also, some may worry about any herbicides or pesticides that the city may allow into the free wood chips. And as you said Mike, would sort of pigeon hole you into that style of gardening for everyone. Which, I think the deep mulch gardening is amazing in many, many ways so please do not think I am speaking ill of it! Just trying to think of what may work best in your particular situation.

That would be a lot of plastic to try to get in a short amount of time, and obviously plastic is not an amazing option in and of itself. I have used it to keep it from going to a landfill. Since your planting time is so close it would not be guaranteed the plastic could smother out all the grass, would perhaps combining the methods work? What if you tilled it, and then put the plastic over it to kill the re-emergent grass instead of trying to smother it all? I do not know for certain, but it seems that it would maybe be the lowest work method? Then plots could be uncovered and planted as people were ready for them. That would keep them from getting overgrown with weeds in the mean time. And keep all that lovely organic matter and good topsoil in place.  Sorry if that is a terrible idea, just sort of thinking out loud...
 
Mike Haasl
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Good thoughts Aimee!  We did some noodling last night and I think we hit upon a solution.  Maybe.

Our idea is to rent the sod cutter and remove the sod.  We'll roll it up and put it on pallets and hopefully get a local landscaper to buy it from us.  Or ideally, cut and remove the sod themselves  Then we can bring in a few inches of compost with the cost defrayed from the sale of the sod.  Then use the tractor and tiller to work in the compost along with any other amendments suggested by a soil test.

That way we wouldn't have to worry about grass, we'd be replacing (to a degree) the lost top soil with compost, the seed bed would be pretty darned good for new gardeners and we don't have to source a lot of cardboard or plastic.

I need to call landscapers this morning to see if any are interested...
 
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How about a staggered approach? It would help the beginner gardeners not to plant everything at once.
Compost for spring garden.
Lasaga Garden or wood chip with cardboard the summer parts, or compost and tarp.
Wood chips with or without cardboard the autumn garden parts plus a bit of compost below. Move tarp over once summer parts are planted.
These methods mean less weeding!
For beginner gardeners, it's important that they understand the soil health and decomposition cycle. Also, you are likely to get pests the second year and boosting the biology right away gives you a head start.
Lastly, I'd recommend to get the gardeners involved in making the garden. You could take advantage of the high energy that comes with starting something new and working towards a common goal really brings a group together. Which will make cohesion easier in the long run.
 
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Hiya, I think whoever chooses to garden in the CG will be lucky. My community garden experience wasn't quite that.

I'm not really sure, at that scale, there's a better way to set up a relatively clean slate that then allows people to people.

Maybe set aside a smaller plot divided into a few different strategies for setting up a new garden in sod? That would then allow you to talk about those strategies and where to source the resources to employ them.







 
Mike Haasl
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Thanks folks!  A lot of this could hinge on if we can plant seeds this year or not.  The insurance and legal bits may take longer than I was hoping.  So if it has to wait until next year, we can spend the fall/winter with it sheet mulched and make beds that way.  Susan, our season here is pretty short so we plant peas in early May and tomatoes in early June.  If we want a fall crop it can't be on the same ground that a spring crop was in since they'd overlap by too much.

We are planning to start small (40 plots I think) so we could always be sheet mulching the next section for future expansion.

And teaching will be a large part of this whole garden complex, better yet if students would pay to help build the garden  

And lastly, I talked to another local landscaper who got me to adjust the plan slightly.  Now I'm thinking of:
  • cut the sod and remove it
  • give it away, make a big pile for future use as soil or build sod berms
  • till the plots to get the quack grass roots loose (he said there's a lot of quack grass in this area)
  • rake out the quack roots
  • add compost, lime and any other needed amendments
  • lightly till once more
  •  
    pollinator
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    In my decade of experience with community gardening I can tell you that a certain percentage of your gardeners will not manager their weeds or grass if it gets in the beds. We have bind weed here even after ten years. Do what you can about the grass, then move on.
    If you mulch with wood chips in a dry climate they don't break down. If they get Incorporated into the soil they bind nitrogen, which is a bummer for new gardeners. We mulch out paths with chips and which later becomes great soil.
     
    pollinator
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    Wether as community garden or your own garden, plots have to be well marked. A sod cutter can be rented to clean an area of weeds. The problem is the regrowth: Sod cutters typically decapitate the top 3" but in looser soil, I've had quack grass reach down to 6", under my raised beds. Folks who come to work in community gardens do not live close enough to do all the weeding necessary, and they can get discouraged mighty fast, especially if they don't have or cannot bring the tools they need to work the soil.
    To isolate the planting area from the grass, there has to be a deep, solid barrier after all of this hard work is done.
    I have not tried it but I'm thinking about digging a 12"deep trench and stand up a solid metal film like they use for roofing. Metal flashing, I think they call it. These things come in different widths and lengths. Here is one 10" X 50 ft. at Lowes for just under $30:00:
    https://www.google.com/search?bih=560&biw=1106&hl=en&tbm=shop&sxsrf=ALeKk00YmRWM7TUO2oZzCZjwyegLAdjtLw%3A1588533506250&ei=AhmvXrLjDpnatQbLx4bIBg&q=rolls+of+metal+roofing+Lowes&oq=rolls+of+metal+roofing+Lowes&gs_l=psy-ab-sh.12...7117.12513.0.14574.6.6.0.0.0.0.134.635.3j3.6.0....0...1c.1.64.psy-ab-sh..0.2.238...0i13k1j35i304i39k1.0.mE2ET11OfQM#spd=9793319293192739163
    It is not cheap, and you might have to rent a trencher but 50 ft goes a ways when you realize that the stuff will not rot away in your lifetime and it may save you a lot of chiropractor bills and time/ frustration fighting the quack grass, it may well be worthwhile. Ideally you could let it stick out a couple of inches and protect that flimsy edge with a 4" X 4"timber surround to make a neat edge. I have a nice hand held [no wheels, all electric] Ryobi tiller to work inside the beds if I need to [I try using as many bags of leaves as I can carry in the fall. In 2 minutes, I have a beautiful bed, weed free and ready to plant. Yum!
     
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    It sounds like the sod is likely going to be useful to you as a resource, but if that plan doesn't work out and you go back to considering sheet mulching, you could leverage community labour in gathering materials and laying them down. People are so hungry for gardening knowledge and hands-on experience. The community garden I used to manage did this a couple of times and promoted it as a hands-on workshop. It works especially well if you can also have a cardboard/newspaper-collecting drive for a week or so beforehand, but that depends on whether people are able to drop materials off any time.
     
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