Garden Quest #4 – Breaking Sod on a Budget


When faced with a landscape of inedible grass that you want to transform into an edible garden, there’s the spendy way and the frugal way. The former requires you to spray the grass with Roundup and allow the chemical to work until the lawn areas are completely brown. Next, buy or rent a rototiller. Now, this machine spews pollution and bucks around, but does (eventually) turn sod into arable soil.

Rototillers can be powerful, but I hate them. Either they are underpowered smoke beasts with 2-cycle engines that vibrate like a sex toy on turbo, or they are high-torque beasts which could devour a limb if you let them.

Let’s say, like me, you don’t have them as an option at all. Either you can’t afford them, or you’d prefer to avoid the petroleum-based pollution inherent in their operation. Unless you’re living in the 19th century or you’re Amish, animal powered plows aren’t an option either.

Meet your new friend: the round-point spade. I’ve used this type of shovel for more hours than I care to count. This particular shovel is a hand-me-down from my parents’ garage, where I grew up helping my Dad till quite a few hundred square feet of garden space every year after a cover crop of winter wheat was mulched down. So I’ve been using this shovel for almost two decades.

Step 1 – Turn the grass upside down. Shove your foot onto the shovel as hard as you can. You want the point as deep as possible. Bend the spade down to the ground, flip it over upside down.


Step 2 – Cut it into as many pieces as you have patience for. Chances are, the piece of sod and soil you just flipped over isn’t exactly the loosest piece of soil out there. With this garden project, I typically chop each turned sod into 3-5 pieces using the spade and my foot power. Yes, it takes time, but it costs zero dollars and zero pollution compared to the gas-powered rototiller.


Step 3 – Inspect and send any recalcitrant sod chunks to the compost bin. Sometimes, no matter how much you chop with the spade, clumps of sod remain. Instead of chopping some more, I add them to the current compost container. The microbes in the soil help speed decomposition, and while my compost is always nitrogen (green) rich, more organic matter never hurts.

Step 4 – Amend the soil, then repeat steps 1-3. We only generate so much food waste, and have been composting for only so long. For the latest 70 sqft of garden space, I amended the soil with store bought mushroom compost. This is ~30% more expensive than cow-manure compost but I remember my Dad having great results with it back in their veggie garden heydays. To get the maximum benefit from your compost addition, you have to till it back into the soil. Thankfully, this takes less than half the time of the initial sod-breaking.

If we have the funds next year, I’ll enclose and purchase enough soil in bulk to create more raised beds, but this year I’m already dipping into my personal $ to fund additional garden expansion. I think this may be it.

I’m not sure how well seeds keep even when cool and dry, but I still have quite the surplus left over. Whatever I till for the remainder of the year will get planted in unamended beds. This is it: I’m drawing the line. No additional garden expenses excepting water and time.

If nothing else, further tilled beds give me a few extra months for the sod to rot for next year, right?


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