So, you found a spot that has water and gets good sun. Your soil test has come back clean and the neighbors actually like you. It’s a quarter acre and full of mixed grasses, weeds, debris, and potential. You want to plant your tomatoes, peppers, and kale, but all that turf is in the way. Now what?
Unless you’re building raised beds, then it’s time for turf bustin'. Regardless of the method, what you’ll quickly learn is that grass that’s easy to kill at your home in your yard by accident is difficult to kill on purpose. There are six basic methods. Five of which are recommended. They vary in the technicality of the tools used.
1) Mattock or Shovel. With these tools, you basically scrape the vegetation and roots right off the soil. This method is best used for small areas like personal gardens or individual tree plantings. It gets tiring, heavy, and old quick. Before starting, it is best to consider where the newly scraped off turf is going to go.
2) Thick Black Plastic. Giant black plastic tarps are laid and weighted down over grass areas for several weeks to several months, thereby killing and choking out the turf. This technique works fabulously; however, the tarps are invitations to neighbors’ complaints. It may be beneficial to make neighbors aware of your plans and reasoning before starting.
3) Mower, Weedwhacker, Rake, Tiller Combo. For most people, this and the black plastic are the most available and cost-effective options. In this scenario, you begin with a short mowing. Ideally, your mower will have a bagger. Otherwise, you will need to rake out the grass clippings from the to-be tilled area because these clippings will prevent your tiller from getting into the soil. From there, the weedwhacker is used to “shave” the grass as close to the soil as possible. Pants and eye protection are recommended for this process. Depending on the quality of your tiller, you may be able to go straight to tilling or another raking may be necessary. With the tiller use the shallowest setting first. I like to go up and down a row and then zig-zag in order to dislodge stubborn roots. Rake again. Lastly, go to the deepest tiller setting and till some more until turf is satisfactorily busted.
4) Walk-Behind Tractor. Walk-behind tractors are the true workhorses of small scale-agriculture. Their only problem is that they cost about $5,000. Walk-behind tractors are like big powerful tillers, where the tiller attachment can come off and be replaced with other useful implements (like woodchipper, rotary plow, garden cart, and snowblower). The difference between a normal tiller and a walk-behind tractor with a tiller attachment is almost like night and day. A walk-behind tractor will make short order of turf bustin’ and normally just a few passes up and down will be necessary. A close “shave” weedwhack is optional before starting.
5) Herbicide. In general, I’m personally against the use of herbicides. The reason I include it here on this list is because I’ve heard more than a handful of certified organic farmers say that if they were to do it all over again they “woulda sprayed everything” at the onset of their certification period.
6) Tractor. If you have the ability to rent a tractor or a farmer with a tractor, by all means do it. This will be money well spent.