You can clear your garden area any time during the year, but the season before planting works best — clear in the fall for spring planting, or clear in the spring for summer or fall planting. You can clear the area the day before you plant, but you may have more weed problems later.
Here are the basics of initially clearing your garden spot, which I explain in more detail in the sections that follow:
- Outline the areas of your garden plot that you want to clear. You outline the areas depending on how you want the plots to be shaped. Follow these guidelines:
- To get your edges straight for a square or rectangular vegetable plot, stretch a string between sticks and mark the line with a trickle of ground white limestone, which is available at garden centers.
- For a round garden, use a hose or rope to lay out the area, adjusting the position to create a smooth curve.
- If you want several individual beds separated by permanent paths, outline each bed independently with string, sticks, and limestone so you don’t waste time improving soil that you’ll never use. But if you think that you may change your garden layout from season to season or year to year, work the entire area within the outline.
- Clear the surface by first removing plants, weeds, brush, and rock. If necessary, mow the site to cut back the grass and weeds close to the surface of the soil. (See the next section for how to handle weeds.)
- Dig out the roots of small trees and tough weeds with a hoe, shovel, or pick ax.
- After the vegetation is manageable, remove any sod. (See the section, “Stripping sod,” later in this article for details on how to do this.)
Properly preparing the soil before planting is an all-important first step toward a bountiful harvest. To learn how to test and adjust the pH of your soil, read "How To Test and Improve Your Soil." Don’t take shortcuts with your soil. You’ll be cheating your plants at their roots, and they won’t like it. You feed your soil, and your soil feeds your plants.
Killing weeds and aggressive grassesIf your garden area contains a lot of perennial weeds — like quack grass, that come back year after year — or if you need to clear an area of a warm-season lawn composed of vigorous grasses (like Bermuda grass), make sure that you first kill these weeds or grasses.
You can pull out or heavily mulch over seedlings, but many aggressive weeds and turf spread by underground roots as well as seeds; these underground roots can haunt you forever.
If you have an existing garden, you have to be diligent about weeding, or you may need to start all over again with tilling and removing as much of the weed’s root system as you can.
You can kill weeds and aggressive grasses two ways:
- Hand dig and sift: For a small garden, dig up the earth and carefully sift the soil, removing sod and root parts that may come back next year as weeds.
Apply a covering: An easy, chemical-free way to clear your garden is to cover it with clear or black plastic, cardboard, or even old rugs. After a month under these impermeable coverings, existing plants die from the lack of sunlight. You must plan ahead to use this method, and it may not look pretty, but it works like a charm — especially on annual weeds.
For perennial weeds, you may need to dig out their roots, too, after applying the plastic. You can buy plastic in rolls at hardware stores or home improvement centers; check department stores for old pieces of cardboard. Use the thickest plastic or cardboard you can find — it should be at least 2 millimeters, but 4 millimeters is even better.
- Spread the covering over your entire garden area, securing the edges with spare rocks, bricks, or boards. Let neighboring pieces overlap by several inches so light can’t penetrate. If you’re using old rugs, place them nap side down.
- After a month, remove the covering and strip off any grass or weeds. Use a shovel to cut off any grass or weeds at the root level (just below the soil surface). If they aren’t too thick, rototill them into the ground.
- Wet the area and wait about 10 days for weeds to sprout. Leave the covering off; you want weeds to sprout. You should get some growth because you haven’t removed weed seeds.
- Use a hoe to kill the weeds. Hoeing the weeds down is sufficient to kill annual weeds, but if you have perennial weeds, you need to dig out the roots. Check out the National Gardening Association’s Weed Library for help identifying the weeds in your garden.
Organic approach to killing weedsFor an organic approach to killing weeds while also building your garden soil, try a no-till layered garden technique (see the figure below). It’s like making lasagna:
- The season before planting, lay down cardboard over the garden area.
- Water the cardboard generously to keep it in place.
- Cover the cardboard with a 6-inch-thick layer of hay or straw.
- Top that with a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of compost.
Creating a no-till, layered garden
By the next planting season, the layers will have killed the grass and most of the annual and perennial weeds in your garden. You can hand pull any tenacious perennial weeds that survived.
Earthworms will have munched up much of the cardboard, turning it into valuable compost. You can plant your seedlings right into the mulched layers, and they’ll grow like weeds (even better).
Stripping sodIf you don’t want to try the techniques in the preceding section, you can immediately remove the lawn grass by stripping the sod (grass and roots) before planting.
If your lawn consists of bluegrass and other less-spreading grasses, you can strip the sod without first killing the grass; most lawns in the northern United States consist of these types of grasses. But you should kill weedier grasses, like Bermuda grass, before you strip the sod (see the preceding section for details on killing weedier grass).
Stripping sod takes a lot of effort, but it works. Just follow these steps, and have your wheelbarrow or garden cart handy:
- Water the area that you want to clear for 15 minutes for each of the 2 days prior to digging up your sod. I suggest watering this way because stripping sod is easier when the ground is slightly moist.
- Starting at one end of your plot, slip a spade under the grass and slide it under the sod. An easier method is to precut the sod into square or rectangular sections and then loosen each section with a spade. Either way, don’t dig too deep; you just want to remove the sod and 1 to 2 inches of roots. You also can use a rented sod stripper to cut the sod into rows that you roll up and remove.
- Pivot your spade up and let the sod flip off the spade and back onto the ground; use your spade to slice off the sod section, toss the sod into a wheelbarrow or garden cart, and take it to a compost pile. If your sod has healthy grass with few weeds, and you don’t want to compost it, use it to patch bare spots in your lawn. Keep it well watered, and it should root and blend in with the existing grasses.
- Repeat Steps 2 and 3 until your garden is cleared of sod.