grass to garden, ASAP/cheap?

deandreamgreen(6)April 2, 2007

Hi. I am moving to a new place in a few weeks and will have a yard for the first time. I've never had a garden before, but want to start gardening organically. All I have there is a small raised bed that was gardened last year, small patches of blackberries and rhubarb and alot of yard.

I've been doing some researching on the internet and started posting in another forum; and have gotten some ideas but also getting confused. I like the idea of sheet composting/lasagna gardening; but don't have the financial resources for buying a bunch of peat moss, vermiculture, organic mulch or tons of straw or hay bales.

What I do have is, free access to plenty of horse manure and alot of tall pasture grass that I could cut down and use. Is there a way to make this work in terms of getting a garden planted in a few days/ a weeks time?

Thanks in advance to anyone for any help/ideas.

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

You don't need any of those things, in my opinion. The secret of organic gardening is to improve the health of the soil microbes. They eat food. They need protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes in order to thrive. My favorite foods for them are corn meal and alfalfa pellets. With the price of corn going up, this year I'm using alfalfa pellets at a rate of 10-20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. For shrubs I use a heaping handful scattered under each plant every month.

Horse manure and finished compost don't have much remaining protein, so I stay away from those. What they do have is an incredible quantity of microbes, so if you think your soil needs microbes (doubtful unless you are on sugar sand or have had a chemical spill in the past 3 months), then you can start right away with the protein supplements.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 12:49AM
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You do not need, or want, peat moss. In Illinois you may have access to lots of organic matter that others think of as waste and throw away, tree leaves, grass clippings, etc. although getting them from where they are to where you need them could be a challange.
There is no real good way to get from grass to a good garden in a few short weeks although by layering first newspaper and then other material you could be gardening relativel soon.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 6:56AM
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Do you have any idea what the soil in your new place is like?

You can create a garden area very fast and the only expense will be your own labor. It may not offer optimum conditions initially but it will be sufficient to get a start for this season and you can continue to improve it as time goes on.

Define the area you want as a garden and remove the sod in that location - cut into narrow strips and use the flat blade of your shovel to sever it at the roots. (save the removed sod and use it, root side up, as the beginnings of a lasagna bed elsewhere, or the start of a compost pile) Loosen the soil adequately and add whatever organic matter you have at hand - the horse manure is great as long as it has been aged well. You are ready to plant!

This is really the fastest, simplest and least expensive way of creating a new garden bed and it has been done in this manner for centuries. You will need to continue to add to the soil conditions over time with whatever organic matter/compost you can obtain, starting with mulching your crops this growing season. Plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop after harvest as well. In a couple of years your soil should be pretty much ideal.

IME, dchall's "food sources" are not all that necessary unless you are doing intensive, heavy cropping. Compost or composted manure will provide the bulk of the nutrients plants need as well as the fodder for the soil microbes. But it never hurts to have your soil tested before planting and address directly any obvious deficiencies through specific amendments. The cost of these should be minimal unless you are planning a massive garden :-)

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 8:51AM
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maupin(z6 So. IL)

Hey Dean--

Zone 6 Illinois here (Marion), organic since 1992. Agree on no peat moss. You are starting on the journey that I began in 1996 when I bought my current property. My soil was heavy clay and acidic.

If you don't do a lasagna garden (I didn't) I would, in this order: rent a sod cutter and remove the sod layer (wish I had done that--would have saved a ton of later weeding), get a soil sample at your County Extension office, buy a tiller, till in the horse manure (make sure it's aged and not hot), start a compost pile for your grass clippings, and locate your nearest source of cheap municipal compost (for me it is in Carterville and sells for $10 per cubic yard, which is 1 full scoop of a bucket on a New Holland tractor).

The compost and manure will be necessary to improve the tilth of the soil. My guess is you will need to lime as well, but don't until you get your soil test results.

Avoid nutrient specific fertilizers, although a little bone meal beneath the planting hole and earthworm castings in it would be a good idea. Compost and aerated compost tea heals all.

I have a bunch of organic heirloom tomato starts in cells--many more than I need. If you are near Marion you are welcome to a couple of them (Lucky Cross and Uncle Mark Bagby), as you will not find heirloom starts at Rural King here. Email me at

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 8:52AM
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There are at least 3 issues to consider.

1. Remove existing vegetation. Dig, till or smother. All work, just pick the one you least dislike ;-)

2. Nutrient availability for the plants. Fertilizers whether the grains some use or a store bought mix can compensate for any deficiency until the soils fertility is built up over time.

3. Soil structure. Some plants will grow in the hardest, most compact soils, but most plants will show significantly more vigor if the soil is soft, loose and workable by hand. If the soil isn't that way, you will benefit from getting it that way. Lots of manure and compost and other organic matter is a terrific way to do it, but if you need to move fast and don't have ready access to materials or if the manure is real fresh then peat is an easily found and not too expensive amendment that works wonders on soil tilth.

You can focus on building a great garden over the years. AS someone on the forums once said, 'Loam wasn't built in a day' ;-)

Th quick and easy method is rent/buy/borrow a tiller and get rid of existing vegetation. Make another pass and work in peat until the soil is so easily workable that you can do all planting by hand without tools. Add fertilizer to crops the first year.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 10:32AM
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Dibbit(z7b SC)

I would cast my vote in favor of getting rid of the existing grass/weeds/etc. BEFORE you till. While you can just till, unless it is a pure stand of ONLY grasses, you will also have weeeds. If you have weeds, you also have their seeds. Removing the sod first will remove many of the seeds, and will also remove any grasses that, like the original, unimproved, evil Bermuda grass, spread by rhizomes - each small bit of root will grow new grass! Tilling over the grass does cut up the grass, but it also cuts up the roots - I've been there and done that one!

If you don't want to buy a tiller, and I would wait on buying one to be sure you really want one and what one you want, there should be a place you can rent one - local lawnmower/small engine repair shops usually have them to rent. Once you get the sod removed, whether by hand, which IS hard work, but only costs time and effort, or by a rented machine, then get whatever organic matter amendments you can - I don't really like peat, for any number of reasons, but for a one-time use, and if it's all you can get, then use it along with aged manure, etc. - spread them out after you have made a couple of passes, so the ground is beginning to get loose and till them in. If you can get a soil test done between now and then, you can also till in whatever amendments recommended by the test. The place here that rents tillers throws in Sun. for free with the Sat. rental, since they aren't open on Sun. for you to return it. If there isn't a rental place in a reasonable distance, then ask around your neighbors - I am sure you would find someone to either lend/rent you a tiller or who will do it for you - for free if you are lucky.

Oh yes, one other bit of advice - you should, this one time, till as much as you can, as deep as you can, so you have loosened the soil and added the amendments, to a depth of at least 6", 8-12" would be better, especially if you want to grow root crops. Make multiple passes, in both directions, and then do the same at right angles to the first directions. My other advice is not to get too big a tiller - I don't know how big nor how strong you are, and if you are a large, strong male, ignore this - as a relatively strong, 125 lb. female, I have trouble managing a full size, major horse-power tiller that weighs more than I do. If it 'decides' to go left, I can't usually make it go right, which is why I have a baby, Mantis tiller. I grant, my vegetable garden is on a slight slope, but still....

To get a soil test done inexpensively, contact your county agriculture extension agent - call the county office and find out the procedure. It may take longer than youi have time to wait for, but you can add the things recommended later, as side-dressings to the plants.

The other thing I would start at once is a compost pile. You can start with the stripped-off sods, laid face down, and then add everything else you can lay hands on. Keep it moist, etc., etc. Go to the Soils and Compost Forum to learn a LOT more...

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 11:10AM
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maupin(z6 So. IL)

One more idea-- In year 1 plant lots of inoculated legumes (peas and beans) and put your plants to work for you fixing nitrogen. You can buy inoculant from Johnnys Seeds.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 12:24PM
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Thanks for the responses. This is my Grandmother's old house, where much of the area I am looking to convert to garden, used to be garden to begin with. As she got older, more and more was planted over with grass.

I like the lasagna idea but, especially for a large garden, it seems like it will be difficult to scrounge up enough newspapers, leaves, etc. and too expensive to buy all the necessary other stuff.

The idea of removing the sod and using it to start my compost pile was mentioned to me before and sounds good. I guess though I'm a little intimidated with the thought of using a sod cutter. I have very poor mechanical aptitude as I am borderline autistic. I guess I could give it a whirl though, what's the worst that could happen?

My Grandmother does have an old tiller. As issues regarding what to do with her possessions are still to be worked out this week, I don't know if it will still be there by the time I am able to move in later this month.

I am thinking I will use the existing raised bed to plant some carrots and beets. I want a bed ready ASAP to get some spring greens in the ground. Then, I'd have a few weeks to get another area ready for summer stuff (tomato and pepper starts, squash, cantaloupe). And then, a few months to work up an area for fall greens, brussels sprouts, which I'd like to cover with a hoophouse in the fall. Maybe some daikon radishes to follow the beets and carrots in the existing raised bed.

For the soil test, would I have to have the sod removed before it could be done? Any idea how much we are talking here to do it, $20, $200, $2000? I have no idea.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 12:45PM
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Dibbit(z7b SC)

For the soil test, you just need to dig out some of the soil, usually from several places and at a depth of about 4-8", mix it together, and then package up as much as is called for. The kit will come with directions. If you are planning on gardening in the same area as the "old" garden, then take your samples there. You can always get another test done in whatever other area you decide to use. The cost SHOULD be well under $100, closer to the $20, for the Extension agency office test kit. Privately done, probably closer to the $200.

As far as the lasagne idea - you can usually get newspaper or cardboard boxes for the asking. If there are farms in the area, you should be able to get animal manure - if you can get aged, great, and if not, get it ASAP and age it in piles yourself. The farms may well have spoiled hay or feed - too moldy or that got wet, so it's no good for feed, but is perfect for layering - just be careful, if it's moldy, to wear a breathing mask - the spores won't be good for you, but will give a headstart on the material rotting. Ask at the local grocery stores if they will save any spoiled veggies and fruit, as well as the veggie trimmings. Ask the local coffee shop - or the 24 hr. gas station - if they will save used coffee grounds for you - provide them with a 5-gal. bucket with lid, and pick it up every few days. There are lots of ways to get stuff for compost piles or for lasagne gardening.

Worse comes to worst, and the old tiller goes to someone else before you get there, what are the odds of asking whoever (cousin, uncle, whoever) takes it to till an area up for you before they load it up and take it away? It won't be ideal, and you may not be able to pick the area, nor the size, but you WILL have a minimally tilled area to start with. Digging in amendments to an already tilled area is a LOT easier than hand digging and then adding amendments - if you can't or don't want to rent a tiller.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 1:31PM
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maupin(z6 So. IL)

Hey Dean--

I think Effingham is in Zone 5. The Extension Center of the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service is in Effingham at 1209 Wenth Drive. Good luck.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 4:46PM
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girlndocs(8 WA)

Don't waste your removed sod; pile it up, wet it down and cover it with black plastic and let it turn into compost for you to use later, since you don't intend to let it decompose in place where the new beds would be.


    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 5:29PM
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Well, when I do that enter the zip code to get your zone thing, it comes up zone 6; but I think it's right on the border.

I've been looking at the extension website and getting some good info about what varieties work best and it's just a matter of finding those varieties in organic seed. I need to order some seeds this week as I don't know how difficult it is to find organic seed in local stores.

The site also says that they don't do soil testing. It just has a list (last updated in 2004) of private labs.

I meant to thank you for offering the tomatoes; but looking at a map, we are still quite a distance from each other. Anyway, I get acid reflux issues with tomatoes, so I won't be planting much. My Dad planted those yellow ones a few years ago and they didn't seem to bother me; but I just read the other night that they actually do not have a lower acid level than the red ones. Must have been placebo effect or something.

What I am most interested in growing/eating is broccoli, brussels sprouts, and a wide variety of greens. I definitely want to have a good area ready for later this summer to get some fall greens and hopefully through the winter, if I can get a hoophouse (with the extra layer of insulation) over them.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 5:31PM
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galcho(z8 Northwest)

Lasagna gardening is the fastest and backsaving way to harvest something from your garden.
YOu will need some amendments any way to improve soil after you remove sod, so why not to use them without removing sod at first and enjoy later benefits of raised beds?
So, what i did: bought brown paper that painters are using to cover floor, mowed grass short, made a long narrow (4X10 feet) bed using 2X6 lumber, covered grass inside with brown paper, watered it, put on top everything that I had: manure, grass cuttings, unfinished compost, pet moss and so on, covered with thin layer of soil and planted veggies. I gave them fish fertilizer at first but then when things decomposed, my veggies got only occational compost tea and i enjoyed harvesting them.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 8:49PM
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hamiltongardener(CAN 6a)

Till it over, add that manure and peat moss. Peat moss is extremely cheap.

Is that horse manure aged or fresh?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 9:07PM
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I'm not sure about the manure. I'll have to check with my uncle. He's raised miniature horses for many years so I imagine he would have some aged. I read somewhere else that it has to be atleast 6 months old to use directly on the garden.

galcho, I hadn't thought about that brown paper painters use. Could be an option if I can't track down newspaper. You didn't do any other "brown" layers in your lasagna other than the paper on the bottom?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 10:14PM
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You can add browns & greens to your garden without spending anything.

I get coffee grounds from Starbucks, tea leaves from a restaurant, horse manure from a neighbor, & I toss all the weeds & grass clippings into the mix as well.

For browns, you can get tons of cardboard (I like it better than newspaper; it doesn't mat down or fly away so easily, & you only need one layer) at places like the dollar store, fast food places, liquor stores, grocery stores.

Find out when the stores get their merchandise delivered.

When they unload the delivery truck, they stock the shelves & throw out the cardboard.

Best luck, & enjoy your garden!

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 10:19PM
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So, Sylvia you also only do the one layer (the initial cardboard) of "browns" in your lasagna? I was under the impression you needed one layer of green, than brown, than green, etc.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 1:27AM
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Contact your local office of the University of Illinois USDA Cooperative Extension Service and the will outline for you how to sample for a soil test. Usually it will be to take a soil sample from the top 6 inches, clear out all large chunks of organic and mineral material (grass and stones), and bring enough into the office to make a 1 pint sample.
Removing all of what is growing in that space now is a waste of good organic matter and tilling does not clean up "weeds" but instead will turn up more "weed" seeds to grow. The grass that is growing in those planting beds now will help feed the Soil Food Web and eventually the plants that you want to grow there. Simply covering the area with newspaper and covering the newspaper with something to hold it in place (and hide it) will go quite far in getting the needed organic matter in to your soil faster than you could by tilling.

Here is a link that might be useful: University of Illinois CES

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 6:58AM
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sorry, didn't say that well.

One layer of cardboard is easier to manage than several layers of newspaper.

Yes, you can layer materials, just like making a cake:

But there's no rule as to how many layers the cake has to be, or how thick each layer is, as long as each layer gets completely "cooked".

I don't have a hard & fast rule about how much of this, how many inches of that, I just try to put down enough carbon/cardboard to suppress weeds and/or kill grass & then add enough nitrogen/greens to get the process going without smelling like ammonia, & I always try to keep a layer of carbon on top, just looks better & I have neighbors.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 11:15AM
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Like I mentioned earlier, according the extension service website they do not do soil testing. All they have is a list from 2004 of private labs who will.

sylvia, when you say you keep a carbon layer on top do you mean as a mulch after you plant? Something like sawdust or wood chips?

I'm still a little confused about what would be the top soil in terms of what I'd plant the seed into. Would I be able to use all that free stuff (cardboard, manure, grass, etc.) to build the layers until the top and then I need peat moss to actually plant in?

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 12:57PM
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Yes, wood chips are great, as are shredded tree trimmings that I get by asking the guys in the big orange trucks if they'll drop their trimmings in my driveway instead of going all the way out to the dump.

There are some things that'll grow in unfinished lasagna, potatoes come to mind, but I think most plants need soil of some sort.

If you make a planting hole in the lasagna, supplement with a little soil from somewhere else (maybe another area of your lot), & plant your plant, it'll do fine.

If you're starting from seed, you may need to be a little more careful about the medium at first:
I have hard clay soil, & even with amendments, it's too hard for seeds.
I have to buy potting soil to start seeds (still cheaper than buying plants or groceries).
Once they're established, they can go right into the garden.

If you can water with a fish & seaweed solution (gotta buy that stuff, sorry!) or a compost tea, especially if you use them as a foliar feed as well, your garden should grow!

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 1:50PM
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ok...I guess I was hung up on the layering connotation of the word "lasagna". Basically, all I would really need to do is put down the newspaper/cardboard layer, then one thick layer of the manure (assuming it's aged atleast 6 months), then top it off with some shredded tree trimmings or similar, poke holes where I'm going to plant, fill them with potting soil and plant the starts/seeds?

Or assuming I am able to get enough shreddings or similar from a tree trimming place, would I be better off with two thinner layers of the manure with a layer of the wood shreddings both in between the manure layers and on top?

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 2:44PM
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Here is a link to the postings I made last year while making my first lasagna bed last year. I am in Wisconsin, so almost neighbors. It has pictures also.

If you have any questions about it, just contact me.

Good Luck!!


    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 10:48PM
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keeping the wood chips on top as in mulch wood be best to keep weeds down moisture up

    Bookmark   April 4, 2007 at 10:35PM
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girlndocs(8 WA)

Relying on corn/grains, which have to be grown in one patch of soil, to fertilize another patch of soil, does not strike me as very sustainable.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2007 at 4:36PM
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