Lawn removal the hard way, and more tales from the vegetable gardening battlefield



Have you been following the NYTimes blog The Starter Garden? Oh, you must. It’s kind of like watching someone climb Mount Everest or walk around the Great Lakes for some symbolic reason and you think, “Boy, glad I don’t have to do that.”

It chronicles the adventures of writer Michael Tortorello, who is starting a vegetable garden from scratch in an empty lot next to his Minneapolis house. The purpose of this seems to be for the fledgling farmer to be the straight guy, innocently fumbling his way through every rookie mistake and pratfall possible. (He even says at one point, “come fail with me.”) All for our entertainment.

So far, we’ve watched Tortorello test his soil, discover organic seeds, and struggle with the seedlings; next is the actual ground prep and planting. Last week, options for grass removal were mulled over, including plastic sheeting, spade-removal, pouring vinegar, and, finally, building raised beds. It reminds me of when Susan removed her lawn (she dug out the turf by hand). He decides that it would be too easy to build beds with soil from elsewhere or suppress the lawn with newspaper and layers of organic matter, but I suspect any readers who might be following as they build their own new gardens (which I hope is at least partially the purpose here) might disagree and go right ahead and truck that dirt in. I know I would.

What will be the alternative? Double-digging? Though it’s too bad that he has to make it all seem so difficult, even painful, I do appreciate that this is all happening in real time. Readers in similar zones can follow along, learn from the mistakes—and, especially, the reader comments—and grow along, right up to harvest.

Or they can be like me and just think, “wow, glad I don’t have to do that.” Thankfully, I know from all my friends who do it that vegetable gardening isn’t quite such a worry-riddled affair.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I was just ranting about this guy to my partner last week. What a great way to discourage anyone from ever attempting to grow a tomato. I rank him with the lady who calculated she spent umpteen million dollars to produce a Brandywine tomato last summer. That was after the automatic watering devices, the gourmet compost, the teak-enclosed raised beds, and the expensive grow-light setup. Sheesh. Seeds WANT to grow. Plant them and step back. Give a little of your produce to the animals who share your land with you. Stop complaining.

    Normally, I’m not this cranky! But that article series irritates me.

  2. I’ll have to check it out – or start my own reports.
    Now about removing sod by hand. People must assume that’s awfully hard work but it’s really not. Maybe I’ll do a video showing how – put my Flip to good use.
    The sod spent a few months sitting on top of my leaf pile and I’ll tell ya, it turned into the best compost I’d ever had.

  3. I agree with susan. I’ve removed a lot and its not that difficult.

    One of the UK gardening shows even showed a motorised turf remover you could rent which frankly looked like great fun.

  4. I’ve removed sod by hand and it is doable. It does also require the bringing in of more soil or compost to even out the ground level. I’m heavy into cardboard right now, but its going in my new paths (mostly over weeds) and getting covered with the new FREE public wood chip pile in my town.

  5. This guy seems disingenuous, over-complicating the gardening process, like insisting on trying to grow artichokes from seed. And he’s just now thinking about the soil for his garden? I think it’s more the case that he’s playing up his fretful naivete for this assignment. And it’s true, removing sod isn’t so hard, certainly not for a healthy young man! C’mon.

  6. See, I’ve heard mixed reports on the sod removal thing. My friend Ron did it, hated it, and is now suppressing and layering instead.

    That being said, I just pulled out a whole bed of ground cover and it was hard work, but rather enjoyable in a way too.

  7. As a general rule, I am tired of reading pieces about vegetable gardening written by complete idiots. Why not ask an experienced gardener to blog instead? They are not passing out food columns to people who don’t know how to fry an egg.

    J, you are talking about William Alexander, whose memoir The $64 Tomato is unbelievably unself-aware and unpleasant. He spends $16,000 making his garden, drenches it in pesticides, catches small animals in his Havaharts and tortures them to death by leaving them in the sun for days with no water–and then carries on as if life and the garden are treating HIM unfairly.

    Sod removal is a miserable job if you are gardening in heavy clay.

    Layering compost on the soil as an alternative to digging is easy–if you have an entire year to spare.

    To me, the how to make a vegetable garden question is obvious. Use gasoline-powered tools just this one time in the life of your garden. Rototill, or for a big garden, hire a handsome guy with a tractor to plow up the sod. Dump on organic matter, shovel it in loosely, picking out any visible clumps of grass as you go.

    Voila. A garden.

  8. I am with E’s friend Ron and Michele — sodbusting is ncredibly hard and miserable way to start new beds. As a noice gardener that is what I did on my front yard slopes — never again! Layer/lasagna gardening is the answer and gets a better result to boot.

  9. Contrary to some of the other opinions, I find the Starter Garden series entertaining, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and not intended as a primer on starting a garden. Lighten up people! That could be part of Tortorello’s plan…poking fun at gardeners who take it all waaaay too seriously! And I do like reading blogs about the novice gardeners’ experiences, mainly because I’m one myself. Sometimes novices bring a fresh perspective to a situation, whether it be gardening, cooking or using technology, that the experienced folks don’t have. And for what my 2 cents is worth, I say he should be layering and using raised beds…but it isn’t cheap!

  10. I’m a newbie to blogs so please bear with me. I have a sod spade from Lee Valley that works great for slicing sod off the ground. You can slice as deep as you want and reuse the sod elsewhere to fill in low spots or whatever. The spade looks like a hoe only horizontal.
    Now I have a question. I am building a flower pot/rock bed directly on the north side of my house. It’s damp at times, the soil is crawling with earthworms and hard as a rock, and it gets no sunlight. I got rid of the sod (that barely grew), levelled it and covered it with landscape fabric. I started to put field rocks on for top cover but I’m not happy with the results. I want to change it to bark chips. And I’m wondering if that will become a bug haven. And will they start to rot? I have bark chips on the sunny side of the house and no problems there. Any comments?

  11. Removing a lawn is very difficult if the only grass which grows there is Bermuda. Yes, it’s Oklahoma, and we have Bermuda everywhere there’s sun. Ick. I can’t wait to go and watch him work so hard at this. Thanks for the heads up.~~Dee

  12. The pain is part of the gain! That’s one of the reasons that I blog — I’ve even got a category in my blog called ‘failures’.

    Which reminds me, I need to take pictures of my impressive sunburn from this weekend when I get home.

  13. I haven’t been following the site, but this quote made me laugh:

    “I need good, rich, fluffy soil with a lot of hummus in it.”

    Soil with chickpeas, tahini, garlic, oil and lemon?

    Mmmmmm good!

  14. Thanks for the tip Elizabeth. Very pretty pictures on that website you sent me, thanks. But that isn’t the look I’m after. All my flowers are in pots/planters set around in rock or bark beds. Saves weeding and saves a lot of water. I also have a lot of ornaments, both old and new that I sprinkle around for effect. I want to add a couple hostas and bleeding hearts to the shady bed too.
    Is anyone else sick to death of this cold weather we’ve been having in Alberta?

  15. I’m a believer square foot gardening. Raised beds allow you to control the soil. While I could spend time removing sod (which, in my yard is the green stuff we mow once in a while) but I’d just be left with nasty soil.

    Plunk an 8″ deep, 1 square foot frame down and fill it with soil. Mark it off in fourths and plant four veggies in each fourth. Stake the things that vine. Water. Done. You can even use hardware cloth to ‘cage’ out the varmints, if that’s a problem.

    I think the biggest mistake made is starting too big.

  16. Yeah, soil busting is not thankless buisness, but it is hard. I’ll admit it. I once spent about three hours removing bermuda grass from a 9′ by 3′ site for a raised bed. I am 26, a gardener by trade and surely not in the worst shape of my life… nor am I incompetent. (and I know what you are thinking, weed block, but I like my plants to have acess to the soil below the bed as well) But some plants (bermuda especially) only come out with good old hands on grubbing. So I agree with the statement that went something like “tractors and trucks of soil”… Ms. Owens i think…

    If he persists in being all

    “I can do this with a pick and shovel! It’ll “build character” and even be good exercise!”

    Then my experienced advise is to

    1) sharpen the spade (it really helps)

    2) let the weight of the pick work for you

    3) Dig with your center and breathe in sync with your chopping

    4) MOST IMPORTANT!! Only look at the area thats done, not what is left to be done.

  17. Gerg (or should that be Greg?) raises an excellent point – technique is very helpful in doing this sort of thing quickly but efficient (and healthy) digging technique is just one of those things that is hard to teach in these newly enthused times when people get their info through books and t’internet.

  18. To Kathleen. I was interested in your questions, especially this about bark chips: “I’m wondering if that [bark chip ground cover] will become a bug haven. And will they start to rot?” Here’s my experience with bark chips. First, they’re supposed to “rot.” As in, break down over time. Second, anything organic that’s “rotting,” or breaking down, will attract bugs. But both of these are good things because they will enrich your soil. Before I started gardening I always thought that those bark chips were meant to be a kind of permanent ground cover. Like a lot of non-gardeners I was full of this kind of misinformation. There are a number of ground covers that will thrive with shade, rich soil (which I assume you have b/c you mentioned the abundance of earthworms), and on a moist slope. Periwinkle and English ivy are two of them, but both can be invasive (which is a good new-bad news thing) and neither is native to your area (many believe that planting non-natives is criminal — I’m not among that camp).

  19. Another thought about bark chips Kathleen. The ones I use don’t like slopes. Gravity works on them and they slowly, over weeks/months, slide down hillocks and slopes. (I use them but wish I didn’t b/c I’d prefer to recycle something from my yard instead. Bark chip mulch is a hard habit to break. In my experience.)

  20. That sounds like my father’s method of gardening. Growing up, and we always had a garden, sometimes a very large one. But we NEVER amended the soil. Its a wonder my parents kept at it when we were digging clay and fighting bermuda grass for years.

    I bought a house and I put in a raised bed. Its easier to amend the soil, and I won’t have to worry about the grass, dandelions, or clay under 8″ of good humus and some top soil.

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