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Preparing a Planting Bed

The best way to tear out grass to make room for flowers, shrubs, or vegetables

Ask This Old House Crew
Photo by Matt Kalinowski

What's the best way to remove grass for a new planting bed? I've tried several different methods with mixed success. I've tried to dig up existing grass manually with a bent-handled tool with a spade edge (I think it's called a sod cutter). This worked pretty well, except it's back-breaking work and generates a big pile of old grass that I don't know what to do with. It's also not practical for a large bed (15 x 25 feet) because it's so time-consuming.
I've also tried spraying the area with Round-up, letting it mostly die, then grinding up the remains with my rototiller. This method has problems as well: The dead grass chokes up the rototiller tines, and grass and weeds seem to grow back from roots that aren't completely dead.
Hiring a contractor at hundreds or a thousand dollars to prepare a planting bed is not an option for me. Do you have a better method?
– Heidi; Chelsea, MI


Roger Cook replies: The machine I like to use to make a bed out of an area covered with grass is called a sod cutter. It cuts a16- to 18-inch-wide swath of grass, and it can be adjusted to a depth of 3 inches. It's a heavy piece of equipment that requires some muscle to maneuver, and it can be rented for between $70 and $100 a day. It will do a great job of getting rid of the grass, and if you are slow and careful you can cut a nice, clean bedline.
The grass you cut out can be rolled up and put in the compost pile, or better yet, it can be reused. If the grass is good and healthy and you have a lawn area that's weak or needs new grass, you can move it there. First prep the area by removing the old grass. Then sod cut the grass from your new bed, cut it into 3- to 4-foot lengths, roll the lengths up and move them to their new location. Lay them out and water.
In the new plant bed, rototill or spade the area, add compost, sand, and lime if needed, and re-till or re-spade. Then you're ready to plant.


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