Artisinal Turf Removal

Digging up lawn is one of my favorite gardening chores. Just now I’ve been engaging in this chore because the city removed a dying parkway maple on what I refer to as our garden’s Left Bank, thus creating a new sunny area. (The Left Bank is the other side of the driveway.)

Several books contain advice on how to remove lawn, and I’ve tried a number of the recommended approaches.

I’ve done the smothering with newspaper thing. This works OK, except that you get bits of newspaper blowing around or sticking up through the mulch, unexpectedly reminding you of some headline you would have preferred to forget about. I also once hired someone (at another home) to use a sod cutting machine.

Artisinal turf removal: the work begins.
Artisinal turf removal: the work begins.

What I really like, though, is what I call Artisinal Turf Removal. This involves taking a long handled edging tool, outlining your new bed and border, and then cutting out the turf bit by bit.

Sure, Artisinal Turf Removal is labor-intensive and time consuming. However, it has several advantages. You don’t have to wait a year for the grass to be smothered, or pay someone to use a loud, scary machine.

When I practice Artisinal Turf Removal, I cut the turf into long strips about 10″ wide, then cut those strips into squares that I think of as soil brownies. I pick up each square and shake the soil lose, then throw the turf into my wheelbarrow.

This enables me attain a very intimate familiarity with the soil of my new bed, in this case a black loam with lots of worms and few grubs. This is a little surprising given that it has grown nothing but lawn for lo these many years, and has been fed nothing but grass clippings for all that time.

There are a few tricks to Artisinal Turf Removal. For example, this is not an activity where you would want to wear anything that shouldn’t get absolutely caked with soil.

Turf removal complete. Those pavers are for making an edge along the  sidewalk.
Turf removal complete. Those pavers are for making an edge along the sidewalk. Sorry this is a little blurry but it was getting dark and I used my phone.

Today I finished digging up the turf for this new bed, which was very satisfying indeed. I left some grass along the curb so that people can get out of their cars, something I neglected to do on my other parkway bed. I also left a strip of turf as a pathway through.

Now I can’t wait for my new plants to arrive in the mail.

Do you have a preferred method for removing lawn?

74 Comments on “Artisinal Turf Removal

  1. I love using the mattock – especially for areas which have running grasses (like couch and kikuyu) as it also helps loosen the soil to a decent depth….but it’s so messy!

  2. I have used a spade in the past, slicing off the top grass layer and then gently forking over the soil beneath with a handfork. I have also dug the turf in before now, simply leaving it to decompose for a few weeks, but have never had to remove larger areas, where one of those machines might be a bit quicker!

  3. I do it with a spade not having ever come across an ‘ artisinal turf remover’. I can’ t call the spade my favourite method though, because I generally think I am never going to be able to straighten up or walk again afterwards. I think my favourite method must be getting someone else to do it, but until this year I never thought of such a brilliant labour- saving device as this.

  4. Haha, “artisanal bed prep with soil brownies”, sounds very whole-grain! New beds are awesome, I admire how you prepare the bed before the plants arrive. I should try that.
    My turf is pretty wimpy. I just turn it under, plant on top and the turf decays over the growing season. The plants seem to love the turf-compost since my new beds always grow the best annuals!

    • What we have here is vampire turf that refuses to die, so I can’t just turn it over. Though maybe I should try planting garlic.

  5. I certainly enjoyed a smile at your soil brownies. I’ve backed off on making new gardens. I have too many now so am trying to accept that I’m not getting any younger and need to be be more realistic. I’ve been known to take those soil brownies and use them to fill in bad spots. LOL

  6. You are definitely in garden mode, Jason! I am jealous of your black loam. If I did that I would find about an inch of topsoil covering 8 inches of rock ‘cookies’ 🙂

  7. I use the same method. I love digging grass with a shovel. I usually dig up bigger clumps and then sit down in the grass to remove as many worms as possible from the sod. This is what I’ll be doing today. 🙂

    • I find if I shake the sod vigorously most of the worms fall to the ground. I also sometimes pull them out. Not sure which method the worms prefer.

  8. Ah, grass removal! I even tried the special Sod Lifter tool from Lee Valley (http://www.leevalley.com/en/garden/page.aspx?p=10523&cat=2,42578,40769) which did nothing except aggravate my lower back. My tried and true method is to use my trusty garden fork to take up a bit at a time, knock off as much soil as possible, and and toss the top turf away. It takes forever but at least I’m saving the worms and the topsoil.. both of which would be lost if I hired someone to get rid of the grass in one fell swoop.

  9. Great post. I love my half circle edger and have been reducing my beds every year with this method. I come out from the edge about 6 inches and edge (horizontal to the bed). Then I go back and make perpendicular cuts every few inches. So easy then to shake out the grass and I have a finished edge when I’m through.

  10. i also use an artisanal method. One of my favorite parts is looking for low areas in my yard to dump the stripped sod. I feel like it does double duty!

  11. When I was planting up a garden for a client many years ago I used one of those turf stripping machine, I wished I’d hired the man to go with it because even the machine is pretty bad breaking. It will be great to see what you plant. Do you compost the remains of what you dig out?

  12. I do the smothering thing, but instead of newspaper, I use cardboard. It’s heavier, and doesn’t take as long to lay down. And no headlines. It works great.

  13. The grass I need to remove has brittle roots that go to China. No matter how deeply I dig, or thoroughly I sift, a few escape to infiltrate and multiply. It’s a constant battle. If I ever win it, I expect a medal.

  14. I use the same edging tool for smaller areas. We aren’t supposed to put sod in our yard debris bins, so after I cut a section, I slice the bottom dirt off and shake and beat the upper part free of soil. Then I tear it into smaller pieces and feed it into my yard debris, hoping it won’t get noticed. Artisinal, indeed. For larger areas, we’ve taken the factory approach and hired someone to cut and remove it. Life’s too short: sometimes you just have to shop at Safeway.

  15. I’m of the “artisinal turf removal” club as well. I use my half mood edger and like you cut it into “brownies” and then use a small hand fork to loosen as much soil from the sod as possible. All the while trying to save the worms from being cut in half. I just completed a 30″ deep, 14-ft long section at the north end of the back-garden, next to the neighbor’s garage. More planting space!!!

  16. I think that I do exactly as you do. Mostly my husband takes pity on me and do it. What plants have you ordered for the new bed?

  17. My preferred method is to do the bit with an edging tool while my SO crawls around on his hands and knees, peeling up the sod. He’s handsome AND handy!

  18. I used a similar technique when digging my meditation circle, but you don’t mention anything here about heavy, hard-as-rock clay or days in-between of pouring rain. Actually your soil looks very nice and rich. Can’t wait to see your next move.

  19. I just cut the sod and flip it over as long as every blade of grass is underneath (so you see no green anywhere)it will completely die I just add soil on that and plant away. All of the worms are still in my garden nothing to haul away and instant gratification. I have done this for many many years.

    • I really can’t do that here as the grass will grow back up through the roots. The only way to kill the grass is to remove it or bury it under a thick layer of dirt, cardboard, newspapers, etc.

  20. It depends when I remove the lawn and how wet or dry the weather has been…wet and I will dig it out much like you have here….dry and we resort to lasagna beds…both have worked. I have to get to some turf removal this year once I have finished several other big chores…of course nothing has been started due to the very wet weather…we have had over 3 inches of rain in the last 10 days added to the snow melt…soupy still here.

  21. It’s interesting to read everyone’s responses. Looks like we all have our tried and true methods. I think I’ve tried everything to make new beds. Rented a sod cutter which was efficient for a large area but required LOTS of compost to refill the space. You lose a lot of dirt with those things. Also tried lasagne beds but find I’m still picking newspaper out of that bed 3 years later. It just never seemed to compost down properly. Mostly I just dig the grass up myself and knock off the dirt. Incredibly time consuming but I know the job is complete.

  22. One assumes that the sidewalk is the Gaza Strip? I most often use your “artisinal turf removal” method as well. However, when I have a huge amount of sod to kill (two parking strips, I used the cardboard/newspaper covered with steer manure and tagro (local biosolid product) technique. The preferred technique would be to sip something cool and refreshing (mojitos, vodka collins, strawberry margaritas) out on the veranda while someone else, charming, incredibly handsome, and topless digs and removes the sod, edges, and adds organic matter and comes to tell me that I can bring my flat of plants and trowel and plant a perfect bed. (Not that this has ever happened but, you asked about a preferred method, right?)

  23. Hello Jason, that’s exactly how I do it! Cut the turn into squares and it levers out from just the lawn edger alone. I sometimes turn the cuts upside down, let them dry a bit then use a trowel to bash of excess soil, but that’s not really necessary. From the tracks you’ve made it certainly looks like you have designs on the grass the opposite side of the road.

  24. I follow your exact same method Jason – that’s my kind of job in the garden, the dirtier the better! Having finally lifted turf to sink the stepping stones up the garden. The left overs have been buried in various spots around the garden about 1 foot deep where they can rot til their heart’s content!
    Great job and it’s always good to have a new area to plant out – good luck with your planting, can’t wait to see what you’ve got planned.

    • I have a big area in the back where turf has been turned to mud as a result of the patio construction. The grass I dig up is being put there, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it takes.

  25. It has been some years since I have tried to get rid of grass. I have almost always used the artisinal method. I have used cardboard. It takes a long time for the cardboard to break down. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a year to let it rot. Newspaper has worked ok for me. Like you say it does show itself when you want to start planting.

  26. If that is your favourite job, Jason, can you please come over quickly and remove mine??? Please 🙂 I’m preparing two new borders and find it awful, my back’s giving in….plants are ordered though so I hope to have it all ready then. Happy planting! Look forward to your new beds 🙂

  27. My preferred way is the Jamaicans that do the landscape installation work in the company I use for my designs. Otherwise I would never be digging up much for new beds. It is always work to me (and caused many of my health problems), not much pleasure other than seeing the flowers bloom and wildlife visit. That is what makes gardening the most worthwhile. :grin:.

    • That sounds like an excellent techique, but sadly the only Jamaicans around here run a jerk chicken restaurant (very tasty, though).

    • I get what you are saying, but for me there is still pleasure in creating a new bed like a blank canvas filled with black soil.

  28. How I wish I could borrow you to remove my turf for me….and while we’re at it….prune my shrubs!!! I remove turf much the same as you but I find it back breaking work! We have awful grass which is impossible to remove….funnily enough though the dogs can wreak it! Now….the burning question is….are you going to dig that stump out or leave it to rot, I imagine digging it out would take an awful lot of time and energy!xxx

    • I’m going to leave the stump – way too much work to remove. I will surround it with plants and it will not even be noticed.

  29. Soil brownies–great name! I can’t wait to see how your patch of pavers and new plants turns out! I don’t have a hell-strip, so believe it or not, I have hell-strip-envy. 😉 To be honest, I’ve had great success with the newspaper/lasagne gardening method. I don’t wait a year. I simply heap on the newspaper, then soil, then compost, then plants, then mulch. The plants seem to do just fine the first year. But in your curb area, your method might make more sense. Keep us posted on this project–I can’t wait to see the end result!

    • I have never tried the lasagna approach, though I did once build a big raised bed where I dug up the grass, turned it over, then covered it with several inches of topsoil.

  30. I don’t think there is anything better than creating a new bed! I was just thinking that today as I worked out back! I can’t wait to see what you do with this space Jason! And I dig it up similar to your method…I tend to drive my husband nuts with the piles of grass left in areas! Kind of a running joke around here! Have a great week in the garden! Nicole

  31. I do the “lasagna” method and you are right about blowing newspaper-not too pretty in the front yard, but I have done it before:-) Great new approach I have to try this year:-) I have to worry about my parkway + cars -you are so right they need a place to step out-but boy I sure want to own it-LOL

    • The parkway on the other side of the driveway has been converted into a border with no space left for people getting out of cars, which is a problem.

  32. What I want to know is …. where are you plants coming from? Do you have a favorite mail order source or sources ? Please, do tell !

  33. I am in the process of removing some large areas of lawn. But I am lazy. Well anyone would be because the soil here is hard compacted clay. The idea of digging that up is overwhelming. So instead I laid out a LOT of leaves that I collected last fall. They are slowly killing the grass and improving the soil tilth, moisture retention and fertility. Not a quick fix but I think it will work for me. This fall I will add compost and turn it over for planting.

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