Category Archives: Tools

Suncoast Sodbusting

Laying outProverbs 20:4

The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing.

I was planning on starting work in the garden at first light this morning. But it was too cold (about 64° F)!

In ancient Israel early autumn was the time to till the ground and sow the seed for the grain crop (barley and/or wheat). This was also the time of the early rain—perfect for getting the crops off to a good start. It’s understandable that people with a high time preference would prefer not to work out in the fields during a time of cool weather and cold rain. Giving into this impulse, however, would mean no crops to harvest in the spring.

Fortunately, I don’t have whole fields to plant so I can afford to wait and do my planting in the afternoon. By then the temperatures will be up in the 70s – a great advantage to living in South Florida!

I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss how I break established sod for garden plots.

Growing up in Connecticut my preferred technique was to turn the soil with a power tiller. This shredded the grass and weeds and buried most of them. This plant material would then die and rot away to add its fertility to the soil. Florida vegetation is not quite so polite. Any bits that get buried tend to sprout roots and start growing again.

I’ve tried several different techniques over the past decade and I’ve finally settled on one that works well. It isn’t the fastest in the short run but, in the long run, seriously reduces weeding time.

One of the great advantages, from my point of view, is that this technique requires nothing but a shovel. I’m not sure how one could duplicate this technique with power tools (someone probably has and I just haven’t heard about it).

Cutting Strips1In my yard most plants send out runners or underground rhizomes in order to spread quickly. If I dig up a garden bed in the middle of the lawn and then ignore it, it will be lawn again next year. Plants spread very quickly! Because of this web of runners and roots and rhizomes it is very difficult to get all the vegetation (weeds) out of a new garden bed.

My technique overcomes this difficulty by cutting through the web, allowing the grass and weeds to be removed in sections along with their associated “web”.

Since I don’t need a power tiller I “splurged” on my shovel, spending nearly thirty dollars. I could have gotten a cheap shovel for about ten bucks but, in a year or two, the blade would bend or the handle snap. I expect mine to last for a decade or two. Another important feature is the very wide flange on the shoulder. This makes it easy and comfortable to jump on it with both feet when cutting through tree roots hiding under the grass (double-click the third photo to see this detail).

Cutting Strips2I start by laying out the shape of the bed using stakes, string, and/or old garden hose. Then I go around and edge the entire plot to the full depth of the shovel’s blade. Each vertical cut must overlap the preceding one to cut through all the roots and runners.

This edging process might be a bit easier if I used a spade rather than a shovel. Spades have flat blades, not curved, and cut a straighter line. I probably wouldn’t have to overlap the cuts as much, but I’m happy with what I’ve got.

CultivatorAfter edging, I cut the sod into strips about 6 to 9 inches wide. Each cut goes from one edge of the plot to the other. Sometimes I cut (and remove) one strip at a time. On other days I cut a number of strips ahead.

While cutting these strips I drive the shovel vertically to the full depth of the blade and then press forward on the handle to slightly loosen the soil. This loosening will make the next step easier. Remember, each cut should overlap the last one.

Don’t forget to keep your shovel sharp to make your work go faster! In my soil I never need to use a grinder—just a file (no rocks).

Shake it upNow for the fun (dirty) part! It doesn’t matter if the ground is wet or dry—I know I’ll get either muddy or dusty.

Starting from one edge of the garden plot I peel back one strip at a time. Depending upon how tight the sod is I sometimes use my long handled cultivator for this part of the job. In areas where the weeds and grass are pretty sparse it is simplest to just use my hands. Then, squatting down to ground level, I pull off chunks of sod from the strip and shake the soil loose. I continue until I reach the other end of the strip. The vegetation I throw to one side – it will go in the compost pile.

It’s important to peel back only one strip at a time. If I get in a hurry and try to do two at once I’m sure to bury vegetable matter that will regrow as soon as my back is turned.

EggplantsLook at the picture of the section where I planted eggplants. I prepared that bit of garden eight weeks ago and have not weeded it since. In my northern gardening days most weeds came from airborne seeds. On the Suncoast the toughest weeds grow from roots that were left behind or creep in from the edges. The “edge” weeds are easy to take care of. Every once in a while I simply re-edge the garden with my shovel as described above and then peel the strips of vegetation loose (also as described above).

I developed this technique through long experimentation. Try it yourself—I think you’ll find it most satisfactory.

God bless,



Plugging Away

PlugsThe “lawn” in my front yard was sparse, scraggly, and neglected. In February I raked up the huge accumulation of leaves and discovered a desert landscape. This was in the dry season, of course. Mowing did little but raise a cloud of dust. The culprits, besides neglect, were the two large Oak trees growing close to the street. I’m certainly not getting rid of them; I love the shade and, when I return from work each afternoon, they help make my street look homier and more inviting. Shade, however, is not good for growing grass.

LabelI did a bit of research both online and at garden centers. A very knowledgeable Home Depot employee recommended a variety of St. Augustine that can tolerate shade – Palmetto. Unfortunately they had none in stock. The Lowe’s store down the street had one flat of plugs. When I left, they had none. This was on Saturday, June 29. I didn’t bother to buy a special plugging tool since each flat has only eighteen plugs. I used a trowel.

I watered the plugs once or twice by hand – “everybody knows” you should water new grass daily. I stopped because it’s been raining almost daily. After a week the grass was starting to look Pluggingpretty nice. Palmetto has darker green leaves than most other varieties of St. Augustine. It’s said that this allows it to absorb more energy from low-level light. After two weeks the plugs were starting to spread. I declared the experiment a success.

Last Saturday, July 13, I discovered that Home Depot had gotten a shipment – one pallet – of Palmetto plugs. I bought ten flats (180 plugs) for $47.90. This wasn’t enough to do my whole front yard (40 flats might) but, along with the rest of my weekend chores, I felt I wouldn’t have time to do more. Besides, St. Augustine grass spreads.

BrokenI also bought a plugging tool ($19.97) recommended by an employee (not the same one I’d spoken to earlier).

Making holes with the plugger was much quicker and easier than bending over to dig. For a while. I had to finish the last twenty holes with my trusty trowel. The fancy, high-tech plugging tool wasn’t  as durable as one might wish. The steel jaws were hinged to each other with flimsy, hollow aluminum rivets. These rivets didn’t last long. I returned the tool to Home Depot for a quick, cheerful refund.

I had thoroughly watered the plugs before planting them. The root balls were soggy wet. I had read that one should leave no air pockets when plugging-in grass so I carefully pressed the dirt around them with my fingers – and stomped on each one for good measure! I figured this couldn’t hurt since they Looking Goodare shipped piled up on a pallet. They were already squished when I brought them home.

Within a day the leaves were springing erect and looking quite healthy. It’s now a week later and, once the grass dries, I’ll get to mow!

God bless,