Tilling a garden

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I am presently preparing my garden spot. The spot that I have chosen has never been opened up. Should I remove the grass sod before tilling or should I just go ahead and till it in? The tiller that I purchased has reversable tines that seem to break ground really well.

-- John (hiim@john.com), April 28, 1999


John, I would suggest that you till it in as much as possible providing it has not been chemically treated recently. The grass will add valuable organic matter and nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. Just bust up the sod with a few passes of the tiller making each progressively deeper. Then add your amendments (compost, manure, etc) and make a final pass with the tiller. Afterwards, rake off whatever clumps of sod remains in the top few inches so you can have a smooth bed for planting and so you don't have little clumps of grass growing in the middle of your freshly tilled garden -- grass is always easiest to grow where you don't want it :-) If you've used well-aged compost and additives, you can plant immediately.

-- David (David@BankPacman.com), April 28, 1999.

I always just tilled mine in. Biomass is biomass. Be prepared to till, retill, and retill. Also find and till in compost, straw, leaves, mushroom soil, etc. Old lawns tend to be pretty dead/nasty places garden wise. Turn in a fair amount of lime as well unless a soil test shows it not needed. If you are turning in lots of uncomposted biomass figure on putting down lime. It will help hold the nitrogen. If you turn in big masses of green stuff you'll need to add some high nitrogen fertalizer so it won't use the soils nitrogen as it breaks down.

Once you have it well tilled and plant your garden, be not surprised to see it return to lawn quickly if you don't pay attention. It takes a few years to turn long term lawns into good garden soil.

Once you have a really good soil bank laid in you can almost forget tilling and just go with cover crops and mulching

-- art welling (artw@lancnews.infi.net), April 28, 1999.

Thanks for the quick answers Art and David. What is the best manure that I should use? In my town we have one of the biggest chicken egg laying facilities in the country. They sell chicken manure very inexpensively. Or would it be better to stick with cow manure?

-- John (im@john.com), April 28, 1999.

You're probably not gonna get a consensus on that one John. I don't have the stats in front of me, but as I recall, all manures are pretty close to having the same Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphate values (which is their primary benefit). Preference seems to be based on things like odor:-) Bottom-line, my guess is that it really doesn't matter. On farms in southern Maryland where Purdue is based, chicken manure is used everywhere very successfully. Warning, if it's fresh and has not been composted for a while, you might risk burning your crops. Try to get some manure that's been sitting a few months if possible.

-- David (David@BankPacman.com), April 28, 1999.

And the debates regarding garden preparation rage on! First, if you live in the arid west, your soil is likely to be too alkaline, in which case you should not add lime. In the soggy (acid rain) east, we need lots of lime.

I agree that sod should be retained, but depending on the size area you are opening up, you might want to approach it differently. (If you are dealing with a really large area, you might want to kill it first, but there are also disagreements about how that can be safely done.)

One issue would be how deep you want to go. Most of my gardens are turned over and amended much, much deeper than a tiller would allow, like up to 2 feet. (And I dont like the idea that a tiller, at least in subsequent years, needlessly destroys the soil structure.) Deeper rooted plants will take advantage of a deeper soil, and may be worth the effort (greater production and more drought resistance, both of which could be very important next year). Depends on what you are planting, though. (Im *sure* my tomato plants appreciate it, but perhaps not the others!) I set up my beds so that I never have to walk on them, and they are never compacted.

My masochistic garden prep involves the following (youll figure out that my garden is relatively small): Its my version of "double-digging", in soil that is loaded with rocks and hard as cement. I remove the sod and set it aside. I dig out the top soil, pull out all the stones and grubs I can find, and set that soil aside. Then I start on the underlying hardpan. (One reason not to use a tiller is that it can create a hardpan layer that roots are unlikely to extend into.) The sod gets torn up and tossed in the bottom, where it can merrily decompose without reverting the top layers back to grass. If I have extra organic matter (one year it was truck loads of fall leaves), that also goes in. It is also good to work in phosphate at this point since phosphate does not tend to leach through the soil. More organic matter and nutrients are added to the top layer when that is tossed back on the pile.

I start to expand my vegetable garden this weekend (taking Friday off). I should be sufficiently crippled by late Sunday that Ill look forward to going back to work (to recover) on Monday. I might not even have the energy in the evenings to check in on you guys (bummer!).

-- Brooks (brooksbie@hotmail.com), April 28, 1999.

Dear John, I strongly suggest that you purchase and read at least two books. Growing More Vegatables Than You Ever Thought Posible by Jeavons and the Humanure Handbook by ??? which will tell you how much nitrogen various manures have in them and how to best handle them - BIG HINT: the carbon to nitrogen ratio is quite important on converting the manure to plant usable compost.

I sure hope your tiller is a rear tined unit! or that Arnold Schwarzenegger has volunteered to till with your front tined tiller.

-- Ken Seger (kenseger@earthlink.net), April 28, 1999.

Have fun Brooks! My shoulders and legs are still feeling the effects of my tilling and garden work from last weekend :-) I tripled the size of my garden. Good point about overusing the tiller and creating a hardpan. I also am constructing the garden so that I don't have to walk on it (ala Square Foot Gardening) making it so that I never have to till again (I hope!).

-- David (David@BankPacman.com), April 28, 1999.

John : If you have the time and the desire, you might check into a "Master Gardeners" program in your area . My wife went through the program a couple of years ago and the knowledge and new skills she picked up are pretty amazing. Check it out...Good Luck

-- Capt Dennis (souza@ptialaska.nrt), April 28, 1999.

If you've got bermuda grass & you just till it in, you're gonna be real sorry; you'll be fighting it for the rest of your gardening days. That said, check out Howard Garrett's dirt doctor web site at http://www.whitehawk.com/dirtdoctor/index.html for wonderful info on how to garden organically. I never thought that I'd be adding sugar & cornmeal to my soil & spraying with molasses, baking soda, vinegar, seaweed & compost tea, but I am.

-- mostly lurking (mostly lurking@podunk.texas), April 28, 1999.


If you have time, make the first pass with the tiller only to the depth necessary to expose the grass roots to the drying conditions of the air. Let this rest/stand as long as possible, it will "kill out" alot of the grass with this light tilling; exposing the roots to the conditions instead of burying them deeply in the ground where they take hold again. Of course if you are like me, you need to till one day and plant the next over a weekend...

Also, someone with more knowledge, may perhaps comment on the need for more fertilizer in a new plot such as this? Seems, if I am recalling correctly, while the grass is "decomposing" it actually robs/locks up the nitrogen in the soil, thus the need to compensate? Can't remember...

-- Lilly (homesteader145@yahoo.com), April 28, 1999.

I agree with mostly lurking. It depends on what kind of grass. Also, I'm guessing weeds would be a factor. Would turing weeds under be a good thing?

-- Deborah, who hates weeding (infowars@yahoo.com), April 28, 1999.

tilling the grass in WILL add O.M. to the soil But- it will add weeds as well- weeds being anything growing where it's not wanted such as grass in a garden. If you till it in- be prepared to retill it often. Or- till it in- then water well- and cover with clear plastic tight to the ground. Let bake in the sun for awhile(a week or more- more is better. Will kill much of the grass. or- till in and cover with black plastic. Or any sortof covering- metal roofing, plywood, old carpet, etc- Can also use mulch to help control weeds/grass- see Ruth Stout books.

Manure- we use cow, horse, sheep, goat, chicken etc- all are wonderful. Just make sure they're aged if you're using it on crops. More is better for the most part- especially if you're non-mechanized- hard to haul too much by hand.

-- anita (hillsidefarm@drbs.com), April 28, 1999.

I did the Square Foot Gardening thing last summer. It was the best garden I've ever had. I mixed flowers and veggies, and let the cukes and beans crawl up a trellis. No bugs, no blight. Truly incredible.

Good luck!!

-- GEEgee (GEEgee@madtown.com), April 28, 1999.

You will benefit from the following site: http://www.hooked.net/users/verdant/food.htm "How to grow your own food"

We have constructed this site to provide state of the art information for one to grow their own food, it's commercial free and has the information that can allow anybody to feed themselves, their community or a whole town. See especially the sections about soil.

-- christopher verdant (verdant@NOSPAMhooked.net), April 29, 1999.

The official Master Gardeners position on sod is to stack it in layers separated by layers of manure. Keep damp, and covered. It will break down into excellent soil before long.

Also, get a gardening book. Chicken shit is way strong compared to either horse or cow shit.Read all you can. Gardening is a science, but also an art.

-- jumpoffjoe (jumpoff@echoweb.net), June 22, 1999.

Jumpoff said what I was thinking as I read through the earlier posts. Chicken droppings are very 'HOT' compared to other manures and has to be used sparingly compared to amounts used of cow or horse manure.

-- Mr. Kennedy (MrK@home.tonight), June 22, 1999.

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