How To Till A New Vegetable Garden

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There are several options for converting an area that was once just grass into a new vegetable garden. One option for starting a new vegetable garden is building raised beds from wood or other materials. Using planters or containers to grow vegetables is a superb option for apartment or townhouse dwellers, or those that do not have large yards.

For those that do not have the money or tools to build raised bed boxes, the next option is to till the area to create a new vegetable garden space.

Vegetable Garden Tilling Basics

Tilling the vegetable garden is the process of breaking up the soil in order to make it easier to work with for planting and sowing. Cultivating the soil in this manner also helps to loosen up the soil which creates a better environment for root development and growth. If starting a new garden from scratch in an area that is covered in thick grass, tilling is necessary most of the time to remove the sod.

Sod can be removed by other means, such as removing it with a shovel or laying a tarp over the area to effectively kill the grass. Removing the grass with a shovel can be back-breaking, tedious work, and using a tarp to kill the grass can take several weeks.

If you plan to grow your vegetable garden directly in the ground, the quickest and most efficient way to remove sod and prepare the vegetable garden bed is using a garden tiller.

Removing the Grass Using a Garden Tiller

So you have an ideal place to start a new vegetable garden in your yard, but it’s covered in thick grass. If you want to cultivate the new area using a garden tiller, the first step is to remove the grass from the area.

Removing the grass can be the toughest step in preparing a new garden bed. Most grass is very thick and very difficult to remove.

Soon To Be Vegetable Garden Filled With Grass

The above picture shows an area in my yard that I want to use for part of my vegetable garden. It is a thick patch of grass and weeds and will be difficult to remove by hand, or by using a shovel. I will need to use a garden tiller to break up the grass and prepare the bed.

You can buy a garden tiller if you feel you may need it often each year, or you can rent one from a tool and equipment rental business. I only use a garden tiller a couple times a year, so I typically rent one.

Setting The Garden Tiller Depth

Once you have the garden tiller, set the depth adjustment bar (usually located in the rear of the garden tiller) to the highest setting.

Setting the Depth Adjustment Bar On the Garden Tiller

Setting the depth to the highest setting will cause the garden tiller to just “graze” across the top layer of the grass, dislodging it from the soil. This will make it much easier to remove the grass after the first pass with the garden tiller.

Make The First Pass With The Garden Tiller

Now you are ready to make the first pass with the garden tiller to remove the grass. Let the garden tiller do the work. Just guide it along, allowing it to chop away at the layer of grass.

Vegetable Garden Area After First Pass With Garden Tiller

The above picture shows what it should look like after the first pass with the garden tiller. Notice how the grass is now in large clumps. You don’t want to dig down too deeply with the garden tiller at this point. Digging too deeply will cause the grass clumps to mix in with the soil, making it very difficult to separate the soil and grass.

Once you have made the first pass, use a garden rake to rake out as much of the grass as you can.

Rake Out As Much Grass As Possible

It may take several rakings to remove most of the grass. You probably won’t be able to get all of the grass out, but that’s ok. Just as long as you remove the majority of it.

Dig Just a Bit Deeper

Once you have most of the grass removed, lower the depth adjustment bar a couple more clicks down. This will give you the ability to cultivate the soil a couple of inches deeper. Make two more passes in the garden area with the garden tiller at the lower depth.

The Vegetable Garden Space After Three Passes With the Garden Tiller

Once you have cultivated the soil at the deeper setting, the soil will start to become more loose and appear to be light an fluffy. It is now time to form the new garden bed or rows. For this new garden area, I will be planting pole beans so I will form it into a broad bed.

Forming The Vegetable Garden Bed

To form the new garden bed I take a steel or aluminum garden rake and begin hilling the soil up on each side. I want the bed to be about three feet wide and six feet long. I continue to rake and hill up the soil until I have a bed that is three foot wide, six foot wide and about six inches tall. I then take straw to use as a mulch to cover the pathways around the bed.

Finished Vegetable Garden Bed

Now the new garden bed is ready for planting. You can sow seeds or set out transplants in the new vegetable garden bed. Once the seedlings have grown some, I use the same type of straw to mulch around the plants.

Some Recommendations For Tilling A Vegetable Garden

I generally till my vegetable garden once, when first preparing the beds. After the initial tilling (like the one explained in this article) and forming of the beds, I do not till the vegetable garden again. Over-tilling can cause damage to the soil structure and the soil ecosystem.

Good garden soil contains beneficial microorganisms and earthworms which are vital to maintaining a high level of healthy soil. Over-tilling exposes these important critters to sunlight which can kill them. The soil will rebuild itself, but it takes time to do that and you do not want your soil to go through that rebuilding process each year.

If tilling a new garden space, I will till the area once to break up the soil. I will then form the new bed(s), then never need to till the area again. I just replenish the beds with good compost and other organic matter from there on.

So, even though tilling is a great way to remove sod and break up the soil so it is workable, I highly recommend to avoid over-tilling your soil.

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Comments

  1. Nick Petersen says:

    You did a great job of explaining how to go from grass to garden. Once the garden is created I prefer to plant in rows because it can be maintained much easier. We just use this simplewheel hoe to loosen the soil in spring and weed all summer. Very easy on our backs!

  2. Great article! I’m wondering what type of tiller you used. I’ve heard that only “front” churning tillers can break up sod.

    • Hi Erin – I use a small Honda front tine tiller. I rent it each year from a local equipment rental place. The rear tine tiller can work just as good. The ones that are self-propelled are really nice because you saves you from some of the grunt work and is much easier to use.

    • I had to break up the sod in my garden and used a rear tine tiller, because that does a better job getting the sod and such….

  3. Thanks so much! I can’t wait to get outside and get started. It’s been a long winter!

  4. Loved your information and pictures! Even tho I’ve gardened a bit for over 30 years, I’m still a rookie, always welcoming new information. I battle vine type weeds that nothing- and I mean nothing- kills or even damages them. Nobody seems to know what they are and I live out in the country surrounded by crop farmers! They don’t seem to have any roots, just a long white tail comes out of the ground when pulled. Tilling only seems to spread them further. My veggie garden is about 25′ x 150′ so pulling by hand is back-breaking! Any ideas?

    • Hi Ginger – I’m not sure what type of weed that is. I’ll need to see a picture of it, but still not certain I’ll be able to ID it. You can email me an image of it and I’ll see what I can find out.

      What I would try is this – try to remove as much of the weed from your garden area as possible, then put down a weed fabric/blocker material down. I would then put down about 4 to 6 inches of straw, or some type of mulch. I would also use a shovel and dig a small trench (around 3 inches deep) around the perimeter of the garden. You will need to maintain the little trench throughout the season, but it will help keep the weeds from spreading into the garden.

      It’s a little grunt work in the beginning but really can help keeping weeds at bay during the overall season.

      I hope this helps!

  5. I have real sandy soil and this will be a first time garden spot. would you please tell me what type of fertilizer to use. p.s. great web site and thank you! GOD BLESS

    • Hi Mike, Thanks for the kind words and thank you for your question.

      If you have sandy soil then you really don’t need fertilizers, you need compost, my friend.

      Lots and lots of compost. I don’t know how big of a garden you plan, but I would try to add as much compost as possible, then add more compost. Try to add at least 1 cubic foot of compost for each square foot of garden space.

      Compost will improve the drainage and nutrients that sandy soils lack.

  6. I just moved into a new home and this will be my first garden. I’ve just completed tilling my garden area (3 passes with the tiller.) I’m in Virginia so I have a lot of red clay. Thanks for this article and the photos.

  7. Nancy Leavitt says:

    I live in Riverside County, California. It can get up to 113 degrees in the summer, but mostly its 100-110. In the winter months it can get as cold as 55 degrees in the day, but the usual day temps are 75-85.

    I live in an apt complex that has a large area for gardening. I have a 12 x 20 plot. I want to get a larger plot on the other side, but it is full of weeds & I’ll have to rent a rototiller for it.

    My question is:
    1) After rototilling will I have to sit on the ground & pick out the weeds like I’ve done with my current garden plot (my husband turned the soil with a shovel & I picked out the weds)?

    2) Is it too late to start a summer crop of Corn?

    3) When do I plant root vegetables like beets, turnups, potatoes & sweet potatoes?

    Thank you so much for your website. Its the first I found that was so down to earth, helpful & easy to understand.
    Nancy

    • Hi Nancy –

      1) Yes, you probably will. You can till up the weeds, but you still need to remove them from the area after the first pass with the tiller or they will probably just grow right back unless you cover the area with plastic or something similar.

      2) You still have time to plant corn although it will come in a later than corn is normally harvested.

      3) Beets like cooler temperatures, so you want to plant them in very early spring or late fall for your area. Turnips tend to grow better when planted in late fall and taste better after a light frost. They can also be overwintered and harvested in early spring. Potatoes should be planted in February or March in your area ( I typically plant around St. Patrick’s Day). Sweet potatoes should be planted as soon as the soil is warm enough to plant in your area. Sweet potatoes take a long to to mature – about 120 – 140 days so they need a long growing season (which I believe you have).

      Hopefully, this answers your questions. If you have more just let me know! :)

  8. Hi this was really helpfull, tobad that i didnt read it before my husband till my new garden! he till true and now the grass is everywhere! how do i take all the grass out once its mix with the soil?

  9. Thanks for the great info! It was exactly what I was looking for.

  10. I’ve heard of people burning the grass off first to prepare a garden bed. Any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Charmange – Burning the grass first is an option you can use. Adding the ashes can also be a good amendment for your soil. I’ve never done it permanently, but it is a good alternative to deep tilling.

  11. dana edwards says:

    i have finally picked out my spot for my first veggie garden and tilled it…do i need to add any top soil ? i have raked off the grass, rock and roots. what about fertilizer…i live in the south (georgia)

  12. great articles. Question,we have our ruff cut lumber for the raised beds. But we find that we need a lot of additional soil to full the beds up. Question? Should we till the ground and then place our raised bed into the till soil and then add our additional soil an then our plants. Weed block layed down or stapled to the bottom of the planter boxes. also,we are planning to use cement block and make a raised bed planter. Let’s say 3 block high and perhaps 4-5 block long. So what say you? Are we on the right track ? Thanks. SP

  13. Help! We bought a home that has a 25 x 28 garden spot that I thought I was excited about – I love fresh veges and the outdoors. However, our lives are busy, I have a small family (none of whom are interested in the garden) and the time commitment seems to be more than I can handle on my own. Is there any such thing as a low maintenance garden…or do I need to succumb to my husbands wishes and tear it out?!?! I’ve been resisting because I love the idea of healthy, organic, homegrown veges. I just need to find a way to simplify it, and my gardening knowledge and experience is limited.

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