Convert Your Lawn to a No-Till Permaculture Garden – Mother Earth News (2022)

When we bought our homestead, the only gardening area was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. Though fine for growing a winter’s worth of potatoes and squash, it’s less convenient for greens, which we harvest daily in the summer and so prefer to grow close to the house. With this in mind, we decided to turn part of our front lawn into a garden.

Having read about a method called “lasagna gardening” (named for its layers; learn the basics here), we decided to try it. Egged on by its success, we extended the garden the following year only this time incorporating hugelkultur techniques. Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Smother the Lawn

Our initial effort involved trying to dig out the grass. But with only shovels, we found the process arduous and ineffective. The grass roots were so thick we had the impression of digging wire. After several hours, we’d managed to uproot a few square feet of lawn. No doubt we left roots and seeds intact.

So, instead, we decided to smother the lawn. We began the process four summers ago by placing large sheets of cardboard onto the area we wanted to smother. (Our source of cardboard was the dumpster, but if dumpster diving doesn’t suit you, a large-appliance store may have boxes to spare.)

Step 2: Add Layers of Brown and Green Organic Matter

We tucked compostable kitchen scraps including organic coffee grounds and loose-leaf tea under the cardboard. We piled rhubarb leaves, comfrey leaves, weeds and other organic matter from the garden on top.

Next, we hauled wheelbarrows full of leaf mold and other composted material from the garden and dumped it onto the cardboard. Fortunate to have a ditch full of rich soil, we hauled wheelbarrows full of that as well. Each time we mowed the remainder of the lawn, we added grass clippings to the heap. We also added composted manure from our hens.

In the autumn, we placed leaves, branches and twigs onto the heap. (We avoided using certain types of wood, including that from black locust, walnut, and cedar trees.) Throughout the winter, we continued to tuck kitchen compost into the heap. We still do.

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What we don’t recommend are raw eggshells. We tried those and they invited skunks. So now if we’re planning to use eggshells, we dry them first in the oven.

Step 3: Plant Strong-Rooted Crops the First Year

By spring, the grass roots were dead. The soil was teeming with earthworms. We celebrated these achievements.

Since the larger branches were not fully decomposed, we shifted them as necessary and cleared small spots on the heap where there was enough soil in which to plant.

Then we planted a variety of vegetables and herbs. Radishes grew well. So did sunchokes, hyssop, oregano, lemon verbena, rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme.

Squash was a particular success since the stems takes up little space (hence, fit well into small spots on the heap), yet each plant produces a lot of fruit. Any type works well, but choose just one to prevent cross-pollination.

Some of what we planted (i.e. oregano, lavender and sage) are perennials. Not only is this wonderful because we get new crops each spring without any work, but also because they crowd out weeds.

(Video) Raised Bed Gardening

Step 4: Shape the Soil into Raised Beds

By the third spring, the branches (along with the smaller organic matter) had decomposed sufficiently to enable us to shape the soil into beds of about eight-feet long and three-feet wide. This configuration has facilitated growing lettuces, arugula, chard, pepper cress, chives, tomatoes and several other crops.

Now in its fourth season, the lasagna garden is thriving. In addition to the crops we had last year, we’re also growing pole beans along a fence we’ve installed. And though we didn’t plant potatoes or garlic (we plant those in the lower garden), they’re growing too, no doubt volunteers from kitchen scraps we’d tucked into the heap as compost.

Step 5: Continue the Composting Process

We continue to add compostable kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaves and twigs by tucking them into the beds. This method of composting not only enriches the soil, but also simplifies the process since it saves us the step of having to move the compost once it’s formed.

Step 6: Deter Weeds in the Walkways and Around the Borders

In order to deter weeds from growing between the beds, we’ve lined the narrow walkways with a combination of newspaper and cardboard and covered it with straw. We repeat the process each spring.

Since we haven’t turned our entire lawn into a garden (parts are too shady), we also use the cardboard and straw method around the borders of the garden to prevent grass from encroaching.

Step 7: Build Hugelkultur Beds

Encouraged by the success of our lasagna garden, we decided three years ago to smother more of the lawn, and then build hugelkultur beds. The main difference between the lasagna method and the hugelkultur method is that the latter involves digging trenches, burying logs closely together about a foot beneath the soil, and then building the beds several feet high.

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Other than that, we’ve proceeded in much the same way as outlined in the previous steps. We add brown and green organic matter on a regular basis (usually in the form of kitchen compost, but also in the form of rhubarb leaves, potato leaves, asparagus stems and other non-edibles from our lower garden).

An advantage of hugelkultur is that the logs absorb snow and rain, and so keep the soil moist. This is particularly useful in drier climates such as ours. Another advantage is that as they decay, the logs release nutrients and aerate the soil.

Since decaying logs draw nitrogen, we offset this depletion by filling in the gaps around the logs with grass clippings.

Adding grass clippings has another benefit as well: it eliminates the spaces where wasps can build underground hives. We failed to do so and wasps made their home in a bed.

Our rather offbeat method of having the wasps leave or die (we’re not sure which) involved placing an old boiled-wool blanket over their entrance. Though passers-by may have wondered why a blanket covered part of our garden, the process worked. And we learned our lesson. When the wasps were gone, we removed the blanket, dug up the beds, filled in the gaps around the logs with grass clippings, soil and compost, watered the area well and then reshaped the beds. Our garden is now wasp free.

Summary

Our initial reason for converting the lawn to a garden involved convenience. Quite simply, we wanted to be able to open the front door for a head of lettuce or a sprig of thyme. (In permaculture lingo, our lower garden is Zone 2 out of 5 — we wanted a zone one garden for greens and herbs.) What we have now is that and more.

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It turns out neither the lasagna nor the hugelkultur beds require tilling. This is advantageous not only because it saves labor (which we then can use elsewhere), but also because it keeps the worm tunnels intact and discourages the dispersion of weeds.

As for weeds, we have surprisingly few. No doubt this is the result of the no-till method, but also of having smothered weed seeds along with the lawn. It probably helps too that we grow certain crops such as oregano that seem to keep weeds at bay. And when we harvest a crop from its roots, we plant something else in its place. Experience has taught us that if we don’t do so, Mother Nature will. And more often than not she chooses weeds. As for hugelkultur beds that are not yet ready for planting, we cover them with cardboard and heavy flakes of straw.

Some may consider a vegetable garden in front of the house unsightly. We disagree. We created the garden to have a convenient space to grow our herbs and greens. But an unexpected gift is its beauty. In our eyes, the garden is a joy to behold.

Felicia Rose lives and works on a small homestead in northern Utah. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

FAQs

How do you make a no till garden from scratch? ›

First smother the area you want to use for planting. This will kill the grass. And weeds beneath in

How do I turn my grass into a vegetable garden? ›

The best way to start a vegetable patch is to work on one area at a time. Dig the soil thoroughly to remove weeds and stones, and rake it level so it's easy to manage. You can sow some seeds direct into the soil from March onwards – read each seed packet for instructions.

How do you make a no till bed? ›

Place a layer of compost or well-aged manure on top of the soil in your growing area. Lay 3 – 6 cm (1 – 2 in) of compost or well-aged manure on top of the soil. Do not till it into the soil. At most, just lightly scratch it into the top 5 - 7 cm (2 – 3 in) with a garden fork or rake.

What is no dig gardening method? ›

In a no-dig regime, weeds are controlled by shallow hoeing, hand weeding, contact weedkillers and mulching. Debris is gathered up rather than dug in. Mulches are taken into the soil by soil organisms, and fertilisers are washed in by rain.

How do you till a lawn without a tiller? ›

Here are 14 ways that allow you to till your small garden without a tiller.
  1. Manual wheel hoe.
  2. Garden Weasel.
  3. Garden hoe or push/pull hoe.
  4. Pick axe or mattock.
  5. Shovel.
  6. Use the Ruth Stout method.
  7. Use raised beds.
  8. Employ animals, such as pigs.
16 May 2022

Do I need to remove grass before landscaping? ›

You don't need to remove grass before laying landscape fabric, but you need to trim it as low as possible and cut a 12-inch trench around the grass. Use lawn staples to stretch and secure the fabric over the trimmed grass to prevent it from sliding around.

Can you plant a garden on top of grass? ›

Yes, you can put a raised garden bed on grass. However, you should take steps to prevent the grass from growing up into the raised bed. One way to do this is to smother the grass with cardboard or plastic and then pile up the soil in your raised bed to a depth of at least 12 inches (30 centimeters).

Can you till over grass? ›

There are special treatments for the tiller to remove grass from the land, but they can pull the job. You also will have to treat the land to get the tiller ready to take the grass off the ground. Not all the tillers can do this kind of multipurpose job, especially the low-end tillers with no adjust-ability.

What are the disadvantages of a no dig garden? ›

Cons
  • It requires a fair amount of compost, and it's not always easy to get enough good quality compost for the whole plot whilst on a budget, especially in the first season when you need a bit more than usual.
  • Quite a lot of compost shovelling/wheelbarrowing is required from time to time.
6 Mar 2020

Will roots grow through cardboard? ›

Yes, roots can grow through cardboard, but only in certain conditions. 'Firstly, the cardboard must be moist enough to allow the roots to penetrate it. Second, the cardboard should be placed in a place where there is no light or air circulation,' Melody says.

How do you break up soil without tilling? ›

How To Open Up and Improve Your Soil Without a Tiller - YouTube

How deep should a no-dig bed be? ›

The key is adding a 'thick' layer. It needs to be 3-6″ initially and then a further 2″ each year. A light sprinkling will have little to no effect so you need to go big with this one. It may be best to order a few tonnes of compost to get yourself started even with a smaller bed.

How deep should a no-dig garden bed? ›

A no-dig garden consists of eight 10cm layers - apart from compost and manure which should be 5cm. Remember to water each layer thoroughly as you go.

How long does it take for a no-dig garden to break down? ›

In both instances, wait for 6 months at least for the weeds to die down and the soil organisms to do their work. Be patient! It can take up to a year to completely weaken the weeds, especially those with deep and extensive roots like bindweed, dock and bramble.

What can I use instead of a tiller? ›

These include, a shovel, a spade, digging fork, garden rake, wheelbarrow, and a good pair of work gloves to avoid blisters.

How do I Decompact my lawn? ›

The most effective way to prevent your lawn soil from becoming compacted is to regularly aerate your lawn. Aerator machines and tools open small holes throughout a yard, creating space and loosening the soil.

How can I make my clay soil better without tilling? ›

Ways to Amend Clay Soil Without Tilling

You need to poke holes in the soil, make sure they are relatively deep and a few inches wide. Remove the clay and dispose of it accordingly. Finally fill in the holes with compost or other organic matter. In time, this will change the chemical composition of the soil.

Can I start a no-till garden in spring? ›

Spring really is a magical time for a no till garden. Especially one that has a lush, green cover crop growing over its soil.

Do I need to remove weeds before tilling? ›

If any weeds have flowered and display seeds of any developmental stage, remove them before tilling. Topsoil is full of seeds already, and one potential drawback to tilling is that you bring dormant weed seeds up from the depths to the surface where they can germinate.

Why are people against tilling? ›

Tilling helps to break up compacted or clay soil and add oxygen and organic matter to soil. It mixes amendments and compost into the soil, preparing it for use within weeks. The downside of tilling is that it destroys the natural soil structure, which makes soil more prone to compaction.

What is the easiest way to remove grass? ›

You can dig up your lawn manually with a flat shovel or mechanically using a motorized sod cutter or rototiller. If you have a small lawn, strong arm muscles, and a free afternoon, a shovel may suffice. For larger lawns, a motorized sod cutter or tiller is the way to go.

What plant will overtake grass? ›

6 Best Ground Cover Plants to Prevent Weeds
NameWater RequirementsSun Needs
Phlox Stoloniferamoist conditionspartial sun or shade
Phlox Subulata (Creeping Phlox)dry soilfull sun
Red Creeping Thymedryfull sun
Dragon's Blood Sedumoccasional waterfull or partial sun
2 more rows
25 Feb 2022

How do I convert my lawn to ground cover? ›

How to Replace Grass & Mulch With Groundcover : Green Savvy

What happens if you bury grass? ›

Burying grass robs it of oxygen needed for decomposition, so the benefits are delayed far beyond that of grass combined with other organic materials in the more difficult chore of maintaining a compost mix. More nutrients in grass are released when it is composted.

What happens when you put soil on top of grass? ›

Topdressing a lawn puts enough strain on the grass that it could kill part or all of the grass. The best time to add topsoil to a lawn is a few weeks after the grass has begun growing actively. Growing grass recovers from the strain of new soil more effectively than dormant grass.

How do I turn my lawn into a flower bed? ›

One of the easiest ways to convert lawn to garden is the sheet mulch technique. Cut the grass as short as possible, then cover it with a layer of cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Make sure the pieces overlap to keep sunlight from reaching the lawn. Cover with at least 4 inches of mulch or compost.

Will grass grow back after tilling? ›

After the tiller breaks through the remaining grass and loosens the soil, the grass remaining in the soil still can grow from its roots and/or seeds. Unless you want to fight weeds and grass throughout the gardening season, remove the remaining grass before you plant crops, advises the National Gardening Association.

What happens if it rains after tilling? ›

Avoid tilling in wet soil as soil compaction can occur and lead to poor root penetration in the growing season. If it rains, it's best to wait a few days to allow soil to become semi-dry.

How long does it take to till 1000 square feet? ›

You can do all of the required tilling in a small garden with a good small tiller, often called a “mini-tiller.” Unless your garden is extremely hard-packed, or has very dense turf or other vegetation, you should be able to till 1,000 sq. ft. in less than 2 hours.

Do I need to remove weeds before tilling? ›

If any weeds have flowered and display seeds of any developmental stage, remove them before tilling. Topsoil is full of seeds already, and one potential drawback to tilling is that you bring dormant weed seeds up from the depths to the surface where they can germinate.

What can I use as a no-till mulch? ›

Add mulches around mature plants or wait until the end of the growing season. Suitable mulches include compost, leafmold, hay, woodchips, grass clippings, straw and sawdust. Mulches also need to be weed seed-free, so they're not self-defeating.

How do you break up soil without tilling? ›

How To Open Up and Improve Your Soil Without a Tiller - YouTube

Can I start a no-till garden in spring? ›

Spring really is a magical time for a no till garden. Especially one that has a lush, green cover crop growing over its soil.

What kills weeds permanently? ›

Yes, vinegar does kill weeds permanently and is a viable alternative to synthetic chemicals. Distilled, white, and malt vinegar all work well to stop weed growth.

Why are people against tilling? ›

Tilling helps to break up compacted or clay soil and add oxygen and organic matter to soil. It mixes amendments and compost into the soil, preparing it for use within weeks. The downside of tilling is that it destroys the natural soil structure, which makes soil more prone to compaction.

Will grass grow back after tilling? ›

After the tiller breaks through the remaining grass and loosens the soil, the grass remaining in the soil still can grow from its roots and/or seeds. Unless you want to fight weeds and grass throughout the gardening season, remove the remaining grass before you plant crops, advises the National Gardening Association.

Should you turn over garden soil? ›

Do not turn over the soil just loosen it. The covered soil is maybe not as soft as freshly tilled soil at the top, but is much softer all throughout than tilled soil will ever be. You do not have to till your garden when your soil is covered.

How deep should a no dig bed be? ›

The key is adding a 'thick' layer. It needs to be 3-6″ initially and then a further 2″ each year. A light sprinkling will have little to no effect so you need to go big with this one. It may be best to order a few tonnes of compost to get yourself started even with a smaller bed.

How do I break up clay soil in my lawn? ›

If you want to naturally break down the heavy clay soil in your yard and boost your plants' growth, then organic matter is just the thing you need. In addition to gypsum, which is among the most popular remedies used on clay soil, there are multiple other soil conditioners.

How do you break up hard soil for grass? ›

Garden Maintenance : Easy Ways to Break Up Hard Soil for a Garden

How do I Decompact my lawn? ›

The most effective way to prevent your lawn soil from becoming compacted is to regularly aerate your lawn. Aerator machines and tools open small holes throughout a yard, creating space and loosening the soil.

What are the disadvantages of a no dig garden? ›

Cons
  • It requires a fair amount of compost, and it's not always easy to get enough good quality compost for the whole plot whilst on a budget, especially in the first season when you need a bit more than usual.
  • Quite a lot of compost shovelling/wheelbarrowing is required from time to time.
6 Mar 2020

Can you plant tomatoes in a no-till garden? ›

With Right Tools, No-Tilling Tomatoes A Reality

But no-tiller Steve Groff has found huge success transplanting tomatoes into a thick cover crop with the aid of a Buffalo rolling stalk chopper and no-till planter developed at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI).

Why should you not till your garden? ›

Tilling simply isn't playing the long game. It provides immediate fertility, but it destroys the soil life, the source of long-term fertility. It also opens up avenues for wind and water erosion, which takes away quality topsoil and eventually leaves growers with only infertile subsoil to work with.

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