How to remove grass / clear sod for a garden by hand

Remove Grass Shovel Cut Sod

How to remove grass / clear sod for a garden or flower bed using a shovel, by hand.

A Dirty Job….Removing Grass

One of the hardest jobs in the 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.

grass removed with shovel sod
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.

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

So, to start, (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 from.  This method is particularly great when you can cut straight strips of grass. What you will do, is to 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.

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.

Now to cut the sod pad……..

Next, and this is important, get down on your knees.  With one hand on the handle, and the other on the shaft, cut parallel to the surface of the grass until the sod pad is free.  This allows you to have good control the thickness of your pad. 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. See this video for an example.

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.

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.

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.

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