Illustrated guide how to remove grass / clear sod for a garden by hand

Hello!  And welcome to our Illustrated Guide on How To remove grass / clear sod for a garden or flower bed using a shovel, by hand.

***If you are interested in other ways to remove grass (besides just a shovel) see this new post!  ===>  5 Ways To Remove Grass for a Flower Bed / Garden

A Dirty Job….Removing Grass

One of the hardest jobs in the building of a garden is to remove grass to build a flower bed, vegetable garden, or to clear an area for a patio.  There are many different methods you can find online to guide you from renting a sod cutter, to placing cardboard over the grass in the fall so that the grass is all dead/decomposed come next spring.  

I have found an easy and efficient method for removing grass/sod.  It doesn’t take too much of the soil, and although it is still work – much easier on your back/body than other methods that I have seen and tried.  The method to remove grass I will teach you just requires a pair of gloves and simple garden shovel.  It is by far the fastest method to remove grass or cut sod/turf by hand.

Remove Grass Build Garden How to Cut Sod By Hand with shovel
Our vegetable garden is ~ 300 square feet, or nearly 30 square meters. It is the ‘smaller’ of our gardens.

With a bit of gumption and patience, you can clear a large area by removing grass with a shovel.  I’ve tried many, many methods, and this is BY FAR the EASIEST method to remove the grass.  This method is particularly great when you can cut straight strips of grass.

Tools and Materials

The materials you will need are pretty straight forward.  I’ve listed them below;

  1.    D-Handled flat garden spade
  2.    Leather work gloves
  3.    Wheel barrow (for moving sod pads)
  4.    knee pads (optional)

The Method to Remove Grass

  1. Create Your Layout.  Before you put shovel to turf, (and I’m sure you already know this if you are reading this article) lay out the area you want to remove the grass/sod.  If making a vegetable garden, some stakes/flags and twine or rope help greatly.  A 25′ (8m) tape measure can help too in setting out the distances.  Also, if doing a square or rectangle you can help keep square corners by measuring the diagonals (aka corner to corner).  If the distance between two corners that are opposite/diagonal are the same as the distance between the other two corners, you can be sure that your garden will have 90 degree to check for square corners
  2. Prepare the site and get your tools.  Get your shovel.  Also, don’t forget to water your grass if it isn’t really moist already.
sod cutting spade shovel
A good sharp, flat shovel makes the job easier.
  • Determine your sod pad size.  Layout a strip based on your shovel width.  I generally make a strip 2 to 3 times the width of the shovel blade. For the shovel I am using, this is 12”-18” (30-45 cm). Cut the sides of the strip, going the full length of the garden/flower area you wish to excavate.  From here, go to the ‘far’ side of your strip, and cut the first pad. I usually keep the pads to 1-1.5 lengths of my shovel blade. It is important to start at the ‘far’ side, and the reason will become clear as you make progress.  But, I’m a big guy – so you need to choose a size that works for you.  It is easier to take two smaller pads than one large pad.
  • mark out sod pad shovel
    Cut the outline of your sod pad
  • Lift the leading edge.  Once the lengths of the strip are cut, move to the far side of the area to begin to remove grass.  You will be removing the grass ‘backwards’ in a sense. Cut/stab the width of the strip with your shovel to form your pad.  Then insert the shovel just underneath the grass, and pry back to lift the edge.  It may be helpful to place your foot on the shovel end to push it under the edge a couple of inches.
  • cut sod pad 1
    Start to lift the pad. Gently pry it up to create a gap between the sod and soil.
  • Cut/Sever the grass roots.  Next, and this is important, get down on your knees.  With one hand on the handle and the other on the shaft, push the shovel into the cut and slice parallel to the surface of the grass.  Keep stabbing like this until the sod pad is free.  This will allow you to have good control the thickness of your pad and not take too much soil.  It is best to take about 1-2” (3-6 cm) of soil for your pad. Grass roots don’t penetrate beyond this much, and you won’t lose as much soil.  It also keeps the weight of the sod pad to a manageable level. As you are cutting, it can be helpful to lay the shovel blade down, and push down on the handle to pivot the shovel blade and lift the grass.
  • cut sod pad 2
    Once on your knees, slice through the roots about 1-2″ below the sod/grass
  • Remove the pad.  Once all roots of the pad are cut and severed, remove the pad.  Place it into a wheelbarrow or tarp.
  • lift sod pad
    Carefully pick it up and move it away. Just like moving a heavy pizza in an oven!

    After that, it is a matter of repeating this process until your strip is done.  I don’t cut the width of the pads until I’m ready to remove them.  As when you work backwards you can ‘hide’ the cut you previously made.  It also changes up the work a bit, which makes the job easier in the long run.

    Related – This is also a great method to use for fixing low spots in your lawn.

    More helpful tips

    The reason to work ‘backwards’, in that you take pads in a backwards direction, is for leverage.  Specifically it is that you the grass available to use for leverage when prying up the pad as you go backwards.  If you work in a forward direction, you won’t have this leverage available. And lifting of the grass will require more effort and be harder on your back.

    You can use the sod removed to fill any low spots in your yard, or even give them away to neighbors or friends.  I was able to fill two large depressions in my yard, then to top off with some topsoil (for leveling) and seed grass on top.

    For more details, and to see the method in action, watch our video below.  I’ll show you how long it takes to clear a 12′ x 36′ flower bed. (It doesn’t take as long as you think!)

    Other Methods to Remove Grass

    Still need some other ideas for your grass removal project? Check out OUR 5 WAYS TO REMOVE GRASS FOR A GARDEN OR FLOWER BED

    Read more gardening tips here

    Joe Foster

    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 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: 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!

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