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,