Grass to Garden Experiments Part 1: Hugelkulture

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We have ALOT of lawn. Like 2-3 acres of it. That’s a lot of mowing!

We would like to turn this grass into things that nourish us as well as the system of plants and animals we are creating on our homestead. And we would like to avoid the aforementioned mowing 🙂

Most Americans have lawn. Something that requires a lot of water, mowing, and other time-chemical-oil intensive upkeep techniques without alot of return in terms of nourishment for you or the earth.

Why turn grass into garden?

Here are a few facts I found at Homesteadrevival.blogspot.com:

40 million acres are currently covered in turf grass

17 million gallons of oil are spilled to maintain this grass per year

700,000,000 dollars are spent on pesticides for lawns

5 billion dollars is spent on fossil fuel derived fertilizers per year

30-60 percent of potable water is used on lawns which is 60 million acre feet of water per year which is enough to cover 60,000,000 acres in one foot of water.

40-50 million americans have allergies related to grass but they spend water and money keeping it alive.

Just a thought….if you have lawn why not grow some food with that space! Save money, save the planet … you wont spend much more time on maintenance AND YOU GET THE ADDED BONUS OF FRESH FOOD FOR YOUR FAMILY. No better ways to get kids to eat their veggies then to let them pick them from your own garden….they taste better and are better for your family’s health Then the produce at your grocery store.

Here’s an article with some great pics and tips for turning your front lawn into a garden….why an HOA would prefer boring lawn to this beautiful garden is beyond me….and what if every city block had a few homes that did this? Food for all. Check out this cool movement to spread the word that Food is Free and anyone can grow it (And they have some great simple tutorials)!

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We used to live in a development where all the houses looked the same…like so much the same that we often drove past our driveway without recognizing our house.

We could, however, recognize our house in the heat of summer because our lawn was the only lawn that was not green And often had weeds, clover, and wild plants growing in it. We did not believe in using the precious resource of water on keeping our grass looking like the stepford wives’ lawns. We did not believe in using chemicals to keep dandelions or clover from growing.

Our neighbors and homeowners association did not like us for this as they sneared at us from behind their lawnmowers and spray bottles of round up weed killer.

So grass can be difficult to get rid of for more reasons than just the manual labor (we know the wrath that can be in a homeowners association!). However, if you do live in a community that allows your yard to reflect your values and you desire to have that yard be nourishing to your family and the planet, anyone whether urban or rural, can turn even a small space of lawn into a place to grow some veg, house some chickens, grow a fruit tree or some berry bushes or plant some fresh herbs. You can feed an entire family on less than a quarter acre (check out the book The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year) or just supplement your diet (and reduce your grocery bill) with your favorite home grown produce.

When we started on this endeavor of turning large amounts of grass into things that nourish us, the instructions available for how to go about doing this were very mixed and confusing. Obviously a rotatiller will do the job and is commonly recommended but we read a lot about how this method can disrupt the soil.

So we thought we would share our experiments with how to turn grass into garden and other things that nourish us (such as pasture for our livestock, meadows for our wildlife and pollinators, ponds for our fish, etc).

Warning: This series may be spread out over several years as we have a lot of grass to turn into nourishing landscape!

This year we are focusing on our personal vegetable garden.

Our first experiment included using hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is basically a technique for growing plants that involves burying wood. The decomposing wood, and other decaying organic matter such as twigs/leaves/grass, break down over time and provide nutrients for plants and improve the fertility of your soil. Hugelkultur also acts to retain moisture and raise the temperature of the soil to aid earlier planting and less frequent watering. Hugelkultur reduces the amount of water and fertilizer needed to grow plants. Adding additional compost, manure, or mulch on top of the bed negates the need for synthetic fertilizer and reduces weeds. Ultimately this is better for the environment and our own health. Building hugelkultur as a raised bed (even up to 6 feet tall) reduces the need to bend over or kneel during harvest, which prevents back strain. And while digging out your grass is not necessary, and adds extra work up front, it is a good source of nutrients by placing that grass upside down on the piled wood. Likewise, without rototilling, you avoid compacting the soil; instead leaving your soil with the benficial structure of loose soil, with water, air, nutrients, worms, bacteria, and microorganims that all aid healthy plants.

Here’s a video tutorial of what we did for our project (have a hiphop dance party while learning about permaculture!):

Step 1: cut and dig out grass sod with shovel….put aside

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Step 2: lay down chicken wire mesh if you have gophers

Step 3: layer decomposing wood

Step 4: layer decomposing twigs and leaves

step 5: layer your grass sod on top upside down (so grass side down)

step 6: pour 6-12 inches of soil/compost/ manure/mulch on top (BTW some people build their hugelkulture mounds up to 4-5 feet which may make it unecessary to take out grass before piling stuff on top because no light is getting through 5 feet of stuff to keep grass alive. Plus, then your food grows at an easy picking height).

 

We have 2-3 acres of dense forest to collect decomposing wood and leaves from so if you don’t have access to these perhaps this method isn’t for you! Instead just build raised beds on top of the grass and layer cardboard or weed barrier before adding your soil compost mix. This article shows a very simple way to turn your grass into garden.

Our soil/compost mix was delivered from a local soil company and manure was given to us by our neighbors who run a horse training facility. You do not need to build a bed around your hugelkultur mound so you can save money on wood compared with bustling raised beds (We ended up removing the cinder blocks we originally had in video and just out lined the bed in some logs). Plus this method is supposed to heat up your soil with the decomposing wood so you plant in the ground earlier!

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After doing one bed in this manner, Ian was exhausted so we opted to try just building a raised bed directly on top of the raised be to see if this worked instead of digging out the sod first. On some of the other beds he did a hybrid of digging some grass and putting it on top of wood for added nutrients but not digging up all the grass! We’ll see which beds are most successful in a few months when our plants start coming up. (update: we have now done 3 more beds without using raised beds…just digging grass out and adding a little soil/compost. Lots of work and still have 4 more beds to dig!)

We also have laid cardboard around our beds to kill the grass and gotten free wood chips from craigslist to pour over the top of the cardboard for our walking pathways.

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I am ok with using cardboard under our pathways but feel a little uncomfortable with using it under our veggies since we don’t know if the cardboard has flame retardants, dyes, plastic coating, etc. Many people on the trusty google search do use cardboard or newspaper to kill grass under veggie gardens , but it’s just not something I am personally comfortable with so that’s why we are exploring other methods!

Next, we are going to lay some black plastic over the larger area of our garden to see if we can kill the grass enough that the chickens can come in and finish the job before we layer on soil and manure for planting. Again, some folks leave plastic or landscape fabric and just layer soil and manure on top of it to grow veggies but we don’t jive with the idea of having plastic in the earth permanently or having it under our growing veggies. Instead, we plan to leave the plastic on long enough to kill the grass and then remove it before we layer soil manure. Then maybe plant cover crops to avoid grass growing back.

Cover crops can help reduce the amount of grass and weeds while at the same time building up your soil for your future veggies. We plan to plant cover crops in any part of the garden that we don’t get to planting this year so that next year we have nice healthy grass-free soil to work with!

We also plan to utilize ducks and chickens for managing grass in the areas under our fruit trees. They are amazing little lawnmowers so we have heard but can be destructive so we’ll have to keep an eye on them!

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Of course, as we get more grazing animals, we will be able to utilize them for more grass management experiments! Stay tuned.

So that’s what we have been trying so far in the Grass to Garden Experiments. We are not experts and will definitely not do everything “right”. Just sharing what we are doing.

Do any of you have grass to garden methods that have worked for you? Please share in the comments below!

Boldly Standing For Your Happiness,

signature pic - Aza

 

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