HomeDIY5 Ways to Remove Grass for a Garden or Flower Bed
5 Ways to Remove Grass for a Garden or Flower Bed
May 10, 2019
One of the first steps to making your own vegetable garden or new flower beds is to remove the grass. This isn’t the funnest job to do, but necessary before you can create your flower bed or garden. There are many different ways to do this, each with their own pros and cons. I will cover several common methods in this article that I have used over the years and found to be the most effective.
Steps you should take before you begin removing grass
If you plan on doing any digging at all (more than an inch or two) you should check with your utility company to make sure there are no dangers. Electrical supply lines, cable, internet, water, gas……if you hit any of these with a shovel you could be liable for damage. Or worse, you could be injured. You should not plan a garden in an area that these lines cross. You can call 811 (in USA) to have them come mark your lines for free. Check with your local utility company to find out how you can identify line locations (if outside USA).
Measure and mark off the area
Also, before you do anything you need to mark out the area where you want to remove the grass from the lawn. I generally use twine and stakes or flags. You can also just lay down rope if working by yourself. I’ve found that having a friend help measure the area makes the job easier.
If doing a square or rectangle, you can measure the corners diagonally to make sure the corners are at 90 degrees. This way you make the garden nice, neat, and square.
Once you have your profile, rectangle, or whatever shape you want you can then choose one of the methods below.
1 – Remove the grass by hand with a shovel
I’ve previously written about this method before. For a more detailed step by step process with other tips, see this article on the best way to remove grass with a shovel.
This is by far the easiest method to remove grass with a shovel. I’ve found it to have the least strain on my back, as it minimizes the amount of dirt you pull up with the sod.
But in general, the simplified process is as follows;
Water the area thoroughly the day before you wish to remove the grass
Get a garden spade, flat shovel, or scraper
Use your shovel/spade to cut the outline of a sod pad. I recommend 1’x2′ to 2’x3′ pads, as if it gets larger than this it becomes difficult to handle.
Gently lift up the leading edge of the pad
Cut your pad out by gettingdown on your knees, and slicing the pad out by cutting parallel to the pad, entering through the leading edge. You want to get at least 1-2″ of soil, about the same thickness as a sod pad that are commercially available.
Taking at least 1-2″ (3-5 cm) of dirt will greatly reduce the amount of weeds that are present in the soil. This is because weed seeds arrive to your lawn from the air, and germinate on top of the soil. Removing this top layer will take most weed seeds away.
Once your pad is free, dump it onto a sled, tarp, or wheelbarrow.
In this video, you can see that I cleared 36 square feet in less than 20 minutes. That is equivalent to a 3′ x 12′ area.
Do not attempt to just roll up the sod! I’ve done this, and stopped once I realized I was just moving the same grass, over and over and over. You will find out that making a ‘roll’ of sod is much harder than cutting pads.
One other thing to consider, is that depending on your soil conditions you may want to top-dress the area with compost, straw, or leaves. This is so that organic matter will slowly be added back into the dirt. I usually just amend compost while planting individual plants during the growing season. Also, for my vegetable garden I top dress the whole area with leaves in the fall (free mulch!).
Another nice thing about this method is that you can use the sod pads around your property. I’ve done this when expanding a mulch ring around a tree. I removed the grass in pads, then placed them along a sidewalk that had its grass displaced by a lot of weeds.
Pros – This method is fast with instant results. The amount of weeds is low, as you remove most weed seeds. This is also very low cost, as you just need the shovel or wheelbarrow.
Cons – This method is labor intensive.
2 – Use Cardboard or Newspaper to smother the grass
Grass and other plants need sunlight and air to survive. This method takes the longest, but is also requires the least amount of effort. If you need to have grass cleared within a few weeks, it is better to use a different method that will have faster results. If you are reading this post during the fall/winter, then you can probably use this method and be ready by early Spring!
However, this method works great if you are just preparing a new flower bed, and will be mulching on top! You just need to move the mulch back, then make an ‘X’ with a knife and plant away!
We have a really detailed article with before/after photos. You can see our results, our dos and don’ts. Click here to check it out!
Save up cardboard or newspaper until you have accumulated enough to cover the area of your flower bed/garden. You can also use black plastic or a tarp. Anything that will smother the grass.
Lay out the cardboard over the area on a calm day when the wind is not blowing much. Then put bricks, rocks, or stake the cardboard to the lawn to prevent it from blowing away. You just need to make sure it will stay in place during a heavy storm or a very windy day. If using newspaper, make sure it is 7-10 sheets. I tried once only using 3-4 and I still had some perennial weeds poke through.
*If making a flower bed, just place mulch right over the top of the cardboard. It will hold the cardboard in place. You can still plant your flowers by cutting a cross through the cardboard. The grass will still die beneath the cardboard, and compost itself overtime.
Then just wait one to three months. Start checking it after 4-6 weeks, but wait until all the grass is dead and half-decomposed. But once complete, the grass will have all died, and decomposed! You can now plant directly.
Pros – Cheap & Easy – this method generally just uses old newspaper or cardboard. Using cardboard to smother the grass also requires the least effort.
Cons – This method takes a long time. It also is unsightly to have a bunch of cardboard in your yard for a couple of months.
3 – Rent a sod cutter
A sod cutter can be a low effort way to get rid of grass quickly. However, there will be a cost. In addition to cost, you should take care to remove/avoid rocks as they can damage the sod cutter.
Motorized Sod cutters are available for rental from many companies. They usually charge by the day or hour. You will need to have a vehicle capable of transporting the sod cutter, or pay for them to deliver it for the day.
Motorized Sod cutters are large and heavy. But they make quick work of removing the grass and provide instant results. They only work where they can go in straight lines, as they need a decent amount of area to maneuver.
If you are going to use a motorized sod cutter, make sure you read the manual before starting. Familiarize yourself with the controls, how it works, and check fluid levels, etc. Then just use it to quickly and easily remove the grass. You should end up with long strips of sod, so for final removal you will either need to roll it up (very heavy) or slice into pads for reuse on your property.
Mechanical Sod Cutters are also available for rent or purchase depending on your area. They typically cost between $200-$300 to buy. So if you have a large property it may be worth the cost. These are ‘kick’ style cutters.
To use one, you will line up the cutter where you want to dig. Then you push down and get the cut started. Finally, you will step onto or kick the base of it as you walk behind. It will slice through the sod about an inch at a time.
Just like a motorized sod cutter, you will be making long strips of sod. For final transport, it might be easier to slice into pads using a shovel rather than making a giant roll that weighs 100+ pounds (50 kg).
Adding organic material – Just as using a shovel, you may want to consider adding compost to help improve the soil.
Pros – Fast results, and less effort than using a shovel
Cons – Cost, and risk of damage if you have rocky soil
4 – Use a rototiller
A rototiller will use spinning blades to ‘churn’ the grass back into the dirt below. It is a power tool that does require some effort to use, but the majority of the work is done by the spinning blades. There are both walk-behind and push models available. When tilling up new grass, you need to have one with rear tines, and it should be heavy duty.
For an efficient operation, you need to have the soil be medium moisture to dry. If your soil is too wet, it can get stuck quite easily. But you should go slow, as the blades need to make several revolutions to effectively tear up the grass. These can start to change direction a bit, depending on how compacted the soil is as the tiller pulls to one side or the other.
Tilling can increase weeds
A fair warning though is that tilling will raise many seeds to the surface of the soil. Weed seeds that haven’t seen sunlight in years, but are still viable. So just be aware that you will likely need to perform some extra weeding than if you did one of the other methods. This is because the tilling will basically mix several inches of soil up, where as the other methods will only expose a new layer.
Tilling can have an overall negative effect on soil
Tilling can destroy the soil structure. Why this is a problem is that inside your soil, there are many micro bacteria and fungi that aid the roots of you plants in absorbing nutrients and minerals. Tilling mixes them all up, and breaks them up, making it more difficult to ‘restart’ the growth of these micro bacteria.
Don’t hit rocks with the tiller
Like a sod cutter, rocks can damage the spinning tines of a rototiller. The tines spin at a high speed. The abrupt stopping of an embedded rock can easily sheer off the bolts that attach the tines to the tiller. So you should take a few shovel fulls of dirt, or some method to know if rocks will be an issue.
Tilling provides fast, instant results. There isn’t too much effort involved either.
Tilling will require extra weeding than other methods.
Additionally, the damage caused to your soil structure is will likely require you to supplement with extra fertilizer and compost.
Also, you can’t till when the soil is very wet/saturated in early Spring. So, you will not be able to plant cold weather plants as early.
Cost – This method isn’t free, as you need to buy/rent a tiller (or borrow one if you are lucky)
Like with a sod cutter, rocks can easily damage or break a tine. If you rent one, you will likely be responsible for the repair cost.
5 – Apply herbicide
I generally don’t use this method, as I try to avoid using harsh chemicals because of the adverse effects on the ecosystem. However, I can’t deny that it is an effective way to remove grass. You can apply a number of herbicides from Round Up to Finale to a mixture of Vinegar/Epsom Salt to kill grass. Just make sure you protect yourself when applying, as well as other plants you wish to keep.
Apply when dry
You just need to spray the area you wish to kill when the grass is dry, and it isn’t too hot out. I find the chemicals to be most effective when they aren’t in direct sunlight. Although sometimes it isn’t possible to apply the chemicals in the shade. But definitely make sure the grass is dry, as if the blades are wet, the herbicide may not stick effectively, and you will then have to reapply later.
Also, don’t apply if rain is expected. The chemicals need to be absorbed by the grass, and if they get rained on they might wash off.
Thick healthy grass can be tough to kill
If you have a yard that is the envy of the neighborhood, then it may survive a single application. Be aware that more than one application may be necessary. Also, if you have plants nearby that you want to keep – make sure you don’t spray, or that the wind doesn’t carry the herbicide onto those. Herbicides are non-selective, meaning they have the potential to kill or harm any plant they touch.
Follow the label instructions to the letter
Most of the chemicals are harsh to people as well as plants. Some chemicals have found to be cancer causing, so make sure you take all necessary precautions before using them.
Pros – Low Effort required. Also, somewhat quick in that you only need to wait a couple of weeks
Cons – Potential damage to other plants, or yourself. Cost, as you need to buy the chemicals.
So, there are 5 effective ways for clearing out your grass to build a garden or flower bed. Each one has different advantages or disadvantages. I hope you find these summaries helpful in selecting the best method that meets your needs. Got another way that I didn’t list? Tell me in the comments! Thank you all and good luck!
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Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you!
Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!