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Easiest Way to Convert Lawn to Garden? Try Sod-Top Gardening

To make a garden bed over an existing lawn, simply cover the mowed area with six pages of newspaper and cover the paper with compost.

To make a garden bed over an existing lawn, simply cover the mowed area with six pages of newspaper and cover the paper with compost.

Checking off the items on my Mother’s Day honey-do list I found expansion of a garden front and center. For years, converting lawns to gardens was one of the most back-breaking tasks of the year. I used to dig up or rototill all that sod before working in compost or manure and hoping for the best with vegetables and flowers.

Several years ago, I learned about sod-top gardening from Maine Cottage Gardens, a top-of-the-ground method that is “non-invasive, quick, relatively painless, and does not require hours of work with a spade, or the use of a noisy, smelly, huffing, chuffing, power rototiller. It opens gardening to that segment of the population that is … ‘Machinery and Tool Challenged.’”

Here are the easy steps: Pick your site; mow it low to the ground; cover the area with wet newspaper or cardboard, but first soak the paper in warm water. A five gallon plastic pail works well. Lay the newspaper on the ground six layers thick, and over-lap it generously. On top of the paper put a layer of old horse dressing, manure of any stripe, municipal compost, or any of the commercial potting or planting mixes four to six inches in depth.

Except for the planting, your garden is done. Very few plants in the sod will be able to penetrate this layer of newspaper and manure, compost and/or soil. The result is that the grass and weeds die. An ambitious set of worms with an interest in digesting the news will turn the remnants of the sod, the newspaper, and the covering into a rich friable humus in a matter of months. At that time nothing is left of the sod or the newspaper and if a one inch layer of old manure is added yearly, the weed problems will be nil. Fall is the best time to do this so that the area is ready for planting in the spring.

With “Sod-Top Gardening” there is none of the character building aggravation of delayed gratification. You can plant immediately after laying down the newspaper and horse dressing. You can have your garden NOW, and build your character and tool handling skills elsewhere!

To plant, open a hole in the layer of newspaper, put some good soil in the opening, and set the plant in a depression in the newly placed soil. Small plants can be set in a shallow depression on top of the newspaper. Be sure to use good soil directly around the plant, and poke a few holes in the paper for drainage.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Brian

    Could this work for killing weeds and replanting a lawn too? This could be a lot easier than using herbicides to kill the weeds (strip the bank) and then seed?

  • george

    I’m wondering why horse manure kills weeds? please let me know. I have Bermuda grass growing into other garden beds, and in the gravel layer. If I just top it off with horse manure, it will kill them?

    • Paul Tukey

      The horse manure doesn’t kill the weed in sod-top gardening. It’s the newspaper that smothers them.

      • Donald

        You mention the idea of adding an inch of manure each year to, among other things, keep the weeds away. I think that is what the question was about.

        Great article, by the way. I have used sheet mulching for a perennial garden — the same method as you describe, except we probably used a little thicker layer of newspaper (and sometimes cardboard), and we topped the whole thing with mulch. I highly recommend getting a group to work together. This makes the work bearable, and everyone learns the sheet mulch technique.

  • Kitty

    I saw a TV show where they put down a layer of wet leaves on top of the newspaper. Then compost on top of that. I think the most important layer is a thick enough layer of newspaper. I have used this method several times to increase the size of a flower garden. It has been very successful. Thanks for the tip about soaking the paper first. I have been hosing it down after placing it – meanwhile trying to keep paper from blowing away.

  • Teresa

    Paul, I have seen this type of gardening fail more times than succeed. I presently have a job because someone tried this and now the weeds are coming through the newspaper (he put down 10 layers).Firstly, a word of caution, do not poke a hole in the newspaper (until you know for sure the weeds have been suffocated and killed) as that creates an open channel for the grass/weeds whatever you were trying to cover, to get an exit point and really nice soil to grow in and then the grass starts to grow in the perennial that you have just planted.
    I must say I shudder when I hear this procedure recommended.
    What does work, is put down your layers of cardboard, with as you say a good overlap, a put a layer of soil on top which allows you to plant in the soil without poking a hole in the bottom. You do have to consider the edges and you may still have to get out the spade to dig an edge so the grass/weeds can’t migrate onto the nice new soil you have piled up.
    That’s my 2 cents worth!

    • Paul Tukey

      We’ve been using this method in my family and various companies for years with great success. I do agree that holes should be avoided and go with more, deeper soil whenever possible.

      The cardboard is a great alternative.


  • Megan O’Malley

    This method is WAY better than trying to strip away the sod, or worse, trying to till in the sod. In both of those cases you’ll be overrun by weeds within a month. The sod-top method will keep weeds down except maybe in cases where the weeds poke up through the holes in the paper. But that’s minor compared to having weeds everywhere.

  • Robert Lee

    I was wondering if I can use the card board method to keep weed from growing between my strubs I would top the card board with mulch to ferther keep the weeds down. My only issue is I had moles resently and I don’t want them to reappear livig beneath the card board.

    Question… Would I have to wet the cardboard first before mulching?

    • Paul Tukey

      The cardboard can be used in this way. Wetting it is a good idea, too. Dry paper or cardboard runs the risk of repelling the water and drying out the plants below.

      Don’t let any of the mulch material touch the trunk of any of the shrubs. That can rot and eventually kill the shrubs (or trees).

  • Kenton Seydell, AOLCP

    Hi all, We just did an entire new community garden on Sairs Ave in the West End section of Long Branch, NJ using cardboard, aged horse manure and compost with wood chips as a border. The main garden is a large circle devided into quarters with a key hole access from the outside into each quarter. Several smaller gardens were added around the lot. The workforce of the Boro gardener Lisa Bagwell, Wendy from Front Yard Gardens and ten volunteers had it all done in under six hours. We also built a three bay compost station on site out of used pallets. I’ll post the link to the pics when I find it.
    This is the second community garden that Long Branch has in operation utilizing abandoned lots and local materials from the boro and nearby horse farms.


  • Kenton Seydell, AOLCP

    Hi, Me again, Sorry I’m not to good at this computer stuff. If the second link dosn’t work, Try Wendy’s Yahoo group’TransitionForward: A new paradigm in enviromental/agricurture/education & food safety.


  • Diane M Olson Schmidt

    As a professional organic landscaper, I do use this sod technique all the time. Cardboard is better than newspaper, so is heavy duty paper used in the outdoor recycling bags, but of course, use what you have on hand. Also mow the area before very short will help. Weed out any dandelions prior as well because some of the dandelions will still come up through the the composted moistened cardboard. So still in the first year, any hand weeding is critial. also another layer of hardwood mulch will help, after that, usual maintenance. As for vegetable gardens, add composted mulch/soil mix, composted leaves as well as any organic matter you can find(not wet or moldy). Families usually hire me out to help out in getting started and I’ve put in 5 vegetable gardens in this year alone. Diane LaceWing Gardening Services.
    Milwaukee, WI.

  • judy

    Will this method work to elimate a grassy type groundcover?

  • Ashlie Ferguson

    I want to start a garden this year where there is currently lawn. I live in Victoria B.C and it is April. Can I still put down a bunch of newspaper now and build up the soil on top then start my seeds in the greenhouse and move them into the garden spot in 6 weeks or so?


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