Turning grass into gardens

How to turn lawn into garden

More people are dedicating areas of their front or back yards to growing food and flowers. If you are making a new garden in an area that is lawn, there are several ways to do this.

Start by choosing the best place for your new garden or flower bed. If possible, locate your garden close to your house to make it easier to tend to your vegetables and enjoy the pleasure of gardening.  Avoid areas with a lot of tree roots which can interfere with growing plants. Other things to keep in mind are sun, water, size and compost accessibility.

Sun considerations for flower beds (or mixed flower beds interplanted with vegetables): Flower beds tend to be located where they make sense design-wise. Choose a location that looks best and then select plants that will thrive in the available sun. Full sun is considered to be 8 or more hours of direct, unfiltered summer sun daily. Partial sun is 4-8 hours of direct sunlight daily and the remaining daylight is filtered (likely by a tree). Partial shade is about 4-6 hours of direct sun daily and the remaining light is shaded by heavy cover (like your neighbour’s house). The shorter the direct sun period is or the more filtered your sunlight is, the closer you get to deep shade. Once you figure out how much sun your selected location has, you can select plants that need that amount of sun. Keep in mind that plant tags often say things like “Full sun to partial shade”. This usually means that the plant thrives in full sun, is okay in partial sun, but in partial shade your plant may still be alive but will likely have lower yields or fewer flowers, be more prone to pests or diseases, or look less lush than the same plant grown in a sunnier spot. If you’re interplanting vegetables and flowers stick with vegetables, a good rule of thumb is that vegetables that produce something edible from the flowering part of the plant (ie. a tomato or cucumber) need full sun to be healthy and vegetables where you’re eating the leafy bits tend to be healthy in partial sun and alright in partial shade (ie. spinach, salad crops).

Sun considerations for vegetable beds: While flower beds are usually placed where they make sense design-wise, it’s important to place a vegetable bed in a practical location. Vegetable plants tend to be more sensitive to location than flowers so they will be far less forgiving than your perennials if their sun and water needs aren’t met. To keep pests and diseases low and yields high, make sun and water access your key considerations for locating your vegetable bed. Most vegetables need a lot of sun so place your new vegetable garden where you get the maximum amount of full sun. A site that gets over 8 hours of full sun a day is ideal for potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans, corn, melon and squash. Some leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and swiss chard can grow in less sun, but they do better with at least 4 – 6 hours of sunlight a day. Keep in mind that even if your yard is south-facing, tall trees, fences and other buildings can cast a lot of shade.

Water: Locate your vegetable garden close to a source of water like a tap or a rain barrel. Vegetables, especially “wet” vegetables like tomatoes or cucumbers, need consistent water, especially when they are fruiting. Mulch and consistent (weekly) watering will allow the healthiest plants and the highest yields. If your flower bed is a perennial flower garden, you are less tied to a water source once the plants are established. If you choose to plant your perennial bed away from a water source, you must mulch it and have a watering plan in place for the first year or two after planting until your perennials have established.

Size:  Whatever size you choose, don’t take on a really large garden if you are just starting out. Remember, you can always make your garden larger in the future.

Size your flower bed according to the scale of your yard and home. A general rule of thumb is that a flower bed can comfortably be a third of the available yard space with two-thirds of the remaining space being negative design space such as groundcover, hard space like a patio, or lawn but there are many beautiful exceptions to this. Flower bed shape should match the style of the home. A traditional home generally looks better with a curving border whereas a very modern home generally looks better with straighter lines and square corners.

A manageable vegetable garden size is 3 to 4 metres (10 - 13 feet) wide and long – about the size of a small bedroom. You can grow a surprising amount of vegetables in a garden that size. A square or rectangle is a practical shape for a vegetable garden, but go ahead and add some curves if you feel creative. If you’re looking at building raised beds, make sure they’re no wider than you can comfortably reach into the center of the bed so they are easy to work in.

You can lay your garden hose on your lawn as a temporary guide to test out some sample bed shapes and sizes until you find what works for your space. Once you’ve settled on your appropriate size, use string and pegs to stake out the area.

Compost: Don’t forget to have a place for a compost bin or pile in your yard. This is a good place to put grass clippings, leaves and trimmings from your garden, and vegetable food waste from your home. In time, you will have compost that you can put back on your garden to enrich your soil and nurture your plants. For more information about making compost see: How to Compost


Here is how to make a garden that you can plant into right away.

  1. Cut the lawn (sod) as short as possible and rake off the clippings. Save the clippings for your compost pile. Remove as many weeds as possible.
  2. Remove the lawn. You only need to remove the topmost portion of the lawn without removing a lot of soil. There are two options for removing lawn:
    1. Use a sod cutter, a machine that cuts just below the lawn and removes it in long strips.
    2. Use a sharp shovel to remove the grass just below the thatch. This requires a lot of labour and is better if you have only a very small patch of lawn to remove. To make it easier, water the lawn two to three days before to make the soil and sod softer to cut into. The soil should be moist but not soggy. Cut small squares of lawn with the shovel. Lift the squares and shake off excess soil.

*Keep the sod you remove with either a sod cutter or a shovel. Add them to your compost pile or use them to smother a new area of garden (see Smothering section below).

  1. Remove any leftover weeds like dandelion and quack grass. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil if needed and pull weeds by hand.
  2. Lightly rake the soil to smooth and level it. Rototilling or deep digging is not recommended.
  3. If possible, top the soil with 3 cm (1 in) of compost.
  4. You are now ready to plant.
  5. After planting, water well and place 10 to 15 cm (4 – 6 in) of mulch on top of exposed soil. You can use shredded leaves, herbicide-free grass clippings, straw or shredded arbourist wood. Take care not to let the mulch touch the crowns or stems of your plants. For more information about mulch see: Mulch

Another way to make a garden is the ‘smothering’ technique. These methods will kill the grass as well as most of the weeds. It takes time to kill the lawn – as long as two months. The advantage of this method is that it is less work, and there is no loss of soil and organic matter. This is a good method to use in mid to late summer. By spring, the soil will be ready for planting.

  1. One way is to lay sheets of black plastic on the soil. Secure the edges with heavy objects like rocks, bricks or wood to keep the plastic from blowing away. Black plastic (like black garbage bags) works better than clear plastic for killing lawn and weeds. If you don’t have black plastic, use cardboard, a tarp or pieces of carpet. Remove the covering in spring once the lawn is dead and you are ready to plant.
  2. Another way is to lay newspaper (several sheets thick) on top of the lawn. Newspaper is printed with vegetable-based ink and will not damage the soil. Avoid using shiny newspaper or cardboard which can take a long time to break down. Wet the newspapers and then top that with 10 to 15 cm (4 – 6 in) of organic matter like leaves, grass clippings or mulch. 
  3. You can also use sod removed from another part of the garden to cover the newspaper; simply lay it upside down on top of the newspaper. In this way, you can expand your vegetable garden for the next growing season. If the sod is fresh and still growing, cover it with mulch or black plastic to kill the weeds.

Please see our article about No-till Vegetable Gardening for tips about managing your vegetable garden. The same principles apply to managing your flower bed - you certainly don't want to till your perennials!

Tip: Wireworms are a potential problem in new vegetable gardens that were previously lawn or pasture. Although wireworms prefer grasses, they can also infest tubers or root crops such as potatoes or carrots. Before you plant, find out how to test for wireworms here.