Bartlett on Gardening: Sod Busters

Historic photo of a Midwestern sod house, or "soddy."

At this time of the year some gardeners feel like throwing in the trowel while others are ready for the next project. For those in the first category, take a break. For the latter group, this is a great time to lay the groundwork for expanded planting areas.

The most physically difficult garden task for me is creating a new bed. Exhausted from digging out the sod, I then face the chore of hauling it somewhere. Actually, my husband has become quite adept at turning it over in place and then planting seedlings through the roots. The grass dies over the season, creating new soil. Very effective if you’ve the strength to do it. I don’t.

Many years ago, I was advised to spray glyphosate (e.g. Round-Up) on the grass to be removed and mulch over it. My neighbor Roy had been saving his grass clippings in black plastic bags all year. I asked if I could have them for my project. Glad to find a place for them, he immediately lobbed them over the fence. I never got around to buying, let alone spraying, the chemical. I just emptied the bags of clippings where I wanted a flowerbed. The piled clippings came almost to my knees. The following spring, they had decomposed, killed the grass and created the lightest loam I’ve ever had.

After I moved to another place, I wanted the lawn gone yesterday so I could install a garden of antique roses. A guru of grass from the university recommended that I apply glyphosate to the turf with a long-handled paint roller. This alleviated the problem of the chemical drifting onto beloved plants or the neighbor’s yard. It took two applications to kill the grass and weeds. I planted right through the dead grass. Over the growing season, it acted as a mulch while decomposing and enriching the soil.

Marilyn Sachitje writes about her “killer mulch.” First spread six inches of grass clippings over the area to be cleared and cover it with carpet. (Yet another great way to repurpose something difficult to dispose of.) Leave this for one year. Remove the carpet, add compost and dig or till this organic matter into the soil. It is like cutting through butter with a hot knife.

Rodale’s Low Maintenance Gardening Techniques suggests “the soil building layer cake.” First set your mower blade to its lowest level and scalp the turf to be removed, leaving the clippings on the area. Cover them with newspaper at least 12 sheets thick. Top the paper with an organic mulch such as leaves or grass clippings. Let this “cook” through the summer. In fall, add more mulch. The next spring, plant through the mulch. I’ve inadvertently done this. The paper is completely gone and there are few weeds.

(Illustrations from WikiHow)

My experience with Roy’s clippings proved to me that advance planning is the easiest way to bust sod. However, gardeners do not always want to wait a season before growing something. The quick techniques allow for immediate, effective action, but are more stressful on the joints.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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