Lawn is unsustainable. For all its demands of water and mowing energy, it gives very little in return. Space that could be used for growing food, or even simple wildflowers, is dedicated instead to endlessly demanding, non-native grass. On a suburban cul de sac, there may be ten or more homes, each a sprinkler system for irrigation and each with at least one machine for manicuring lawn. Several of these households may also sprinkle their lawns with chemical fertilizers that wash into the broader environment.

So how can these spaces be converted into something simply more useful? Removing sod by hand and replacing it with topsoil is very hard work. Most city landfills (including Vancouver’s) will not accept sod, so it needs to be disposed of by composting over time. Clumps of sod can be stacked grass-side down, and this eventually kills the grass, but it takes a couple of years to break down the structure of the sod, and most often, the soil clinging to it is not very fertile.

Converting Lawn into Vegetable Garden

Build up by lasagna gardening.

Also referred to as no-dig gardening or the Ruth Stout’s Technique, the idea of layering instead of tilling, digging, or plowing came to this American woman in 1944 as she waited for the ploughman. Over the years she refined the minimalist approach and became known as the No-Dig Duchess. She lived to ninety-six years of age, presumably because of the nutrient rich soil her vegetables grew in. There are a few ideas of origin. Credit has also been given to Esther Deans, an Australian woman who first used the technique about the same time as Stout. Japanese gardener Masanobu Fukuoka described the process in his book One Straw Revolution. He lived to the age of ninety-six.

How to make a lasagna garden

The process is easy. No need to remove existing sod or weeds. No need to dig or till. A simple layering of materials in a selected area for a garden, or in a boxed container, means simply gathering enough green and brown materials. Use stakes or a garden hose to mark the designated area and space them so the centre of each bed can be reached from the outside.

1. Place brown corrugated cardboard or three layers of newspaper on the sod or the soil.

2. Water the cardboard or the newspaper (nothing glossy) – this kills the grass and weeds and attracts earthworms that will help till the soil.

3. Layer brown and green materials alternatively, using twice as much brown material. Be sure not to step on the layers or otherwise compress a lasagna garden. Alternate layers just like in a compost pile.

Brown Materials (materials that add roughage)
Fall leaves
Straw (sometimes carries seeds)
Wood ash from the fireplace
Soil (bagged soil from a local nursery)
Composted herbivore manure (rabbit, cow, horse)
Shredded newspaper and junk mail (again, nothing glossy)
Worm castings

Green (materials that fuel the composting process)
Vegetable scraps
Garden trimmings
Grass clippings that haven’t been exposed to pesticide and herbicides
Blood meal
Coffee grounds and paper filters
Tea leaves and tea bags

Keep layering until the lasagna bed is about two-feet tall. It will shrink down in a matter of weeks on its own. Maintain by adding mulch around the growing plants, and watering as needed.

When to make a lasagna garden?

A lasagna garden can be started at any time of the year, although fall is the preferred season as the amount of materials available at that time are abundant and free. As well, the lasagna garden can break down over winter and will be ready for spring planting of seeds or transplants.

When starting a lasagna garden in spring or summer, use peat or topsoil within the layers and as a finishing 4” layer so it can be planted as soon as it's built. After a year or so of a lasagna garden, the beds will have a more stable soil structure than if the soil had been loosened by regular digging.

What are the benefits of a lasagna garden?

Fewer weeds
Better water retention
Requires less fertilizer
Produces fluffy, nitrogen-rich soil
Produces chemical-free vegetables and herbs
Improved quality of harvests

Another way to build soil up, over top of lawn, is to build raised beds in order to “frame” the soil. Raised beds have numerous advantages. They warm up earlier in the day, and earlier in the year that soil at ground level. They provide ample drainage, even in very wet weather. Read more about raised garden beds.

If you’re not ready to launch your farming career, but still want to replace your lawn with something less demanding, consider wildflowers. To plant a wildflower meadow, you need to start in early spring. Read more about planting wildflowers.