Turn Energy Wasting Lawn Into Nurishing Food Gardens

Converting Lawn into a Vegetable Garden with Raised Beds

Do you have an unused patch of your world that’s screaming to be turned into a veggie garden? Don’t make the mistake of throwing away all your turf and bringing in brand new soil. This project is about converting nutrient-rich lawn into the most productive vegetable garden in town!

Note to self - turn lawn into food producing garden beds!

This project covers how to build a raised bed from a gardener’s perspective. There are many plans on building the structure of a raised bed, so this will cover materials, location and soil requirements, plus planting and maintaining a veggie garden.Grow food not lawn

 Site Selection    

The most important step in building a vegetable garden is to choose the right spot. Most veggies require 8-12 hours of full sun to produce abundantly so you want to make sure your veggie garden is located in the sunniest part of your yard.How to turn lawn into raised garden beds

Being close to your outdoor water source is another consideration you will be happy you incorporated come summer when the hot, dry days can mean daily watering is required.

photo courtesy of Victory Gardens

Lumber /  Materials

Do. Not. Use. Treated. Lumber. OK good, now you get that this is important.  Treated lumber contains chemicals that should not be consumed. They will leach into the soil and be absorbed by the plants, making the food toxic as well.  There are some companies that are now making less toxic treated lumber but I would stay away from it.  If you choose to use wood, build an organic garden with untreated cedar for best results.How to turn lawn into vegetable garden beds while feeding the soil and creating no waste!

Old bricks and other found materials also make a great raised bed as seen in the photos here.  I have 2 beds, one with 150 year-old railway  ties that I was given and the other with new cedar.  Found materials make the most interesting beds but new materials can look pretty great as well.

Recycled Brick Raised Vegetable Garden Bedphoto courtesy of Victory Gardens

Bed Size

You can build a raised bed on an existing lawn or concrete patch. Just ensure you have at least 12”-18” height on a lawn and 18”-24” height on concrete to allow lots of room for roots, water, and soil organisms to share the space.

Beds can be any width and length that fits your space and growing needs. A good rule of thumb for width is that you should be able to reach to the middle from each side. Any wider and you won’t be able to work on the bed without stepping into it (and you should really stay out of the bed to not compact roots and soil).

Choose the square footage based on what you want to grow for your family.  One square foot of garden will grow 1 tomato plant; 1 head of broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage; 16 beets or carrots; or 4-9 heads of lettuce or spinach (for example).  Choose the garden bed size based on how much and what you want to grow.  All New Square Foot Gardening is great book for helping you lay out a garden plan.

Raised Garden Beds from lawn

Building the Soil

If you are turning your organic lawn into a garden bed, YAY!, you have a great source of natural fertilizer to use (if you have treated your lawn with fertilizers or pesticides skip this step and remove the turf to the city’s green waste bins).   Untreated turf grass makes great base for your raised bed.  Remove the turf from the area and set aside.  After you build your bed, flip the turf roots side up in the base of the bed.  Cover with some newspaper and top with high quality veggie garden soil or compost.

When building a raised bed on concrete or stone, drainage shouldn’t be a problem in most cases when you build a box with no bottom.  In areas where there are heavy rains and water is not flowing through the bottom, drill a couple of drain holes near the bottom of the sides.  Fill will high quality veggie garden soil or compost and you are ready to plant.

Planning the Garden

Choosing what veggies you love will be the basis of your garden plan.  Make a list of everything you want to grow then head down to your local nursery and buy seeds or veggie starts suited for your area.

When planting multiple varieties of veggies in one bed, Place tall vining plants like tomatoes, peas, beans, and cucumbers at the back of the bed, supported by stakes or trellises.  Next plant large vegetables like squash and then plant smaller veggies like basil, peppers and eggplant in front.  I like to tuck compact bunches of green onions, marigolds, and herbs all around the garden bed to ward off pests and efficiently use the space.

Be sure to space plants for the size they will be full grown so they have lots of room to mature.  Spacing information should be available on seed packets or on plant labels.

 

Crop Rotation and Companion Planting

Crop Rotation is an important factor in vegetable growing.  Planting one kind of veggie year after year in the same place will reduce nutrients from the soil and encourage pests.  Changing they types of plants so that one grouping is grown only every 3 years is a good place to start.  For example, try cabbage, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower with celery, dill, chamomile, rosemary, sage, onions and potatoes one year.  Year two grow beans, cucumber, peas, radishes, corn and melons.  Year three grow tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplants, squash, carrots, parsley and chives.  Carrots Love Tomatoes is a fabulous book that covers everything you ever wanted to know about companion planting vegetables.

Seeds vs. Starts

Depending on the time of year and type of plant you may choose to start seeds

or buy vegetable starts.  Planning your garden in the winter or spring means many plants will most likely be started from seed.  Also many unique heirloom varieties can only be found in seed catalogues.  Have a look through the many articles in the Seed Starting Series for the basis on how to do it yourself.   In late spring and summer, starts are widely available and an easy way to get an instant vegetable garden.  Varieties are limited but generally what’s available is tried and true, good for a first year veggie gardener.


asied vegetable garden bed with tomatoes

 

Maintaining the Garden

Once the bed is built and planted, maintenance is the name of the game.  Make an effort to check on the garden every few days.  Inspect the plants and pull weeds when you see them.  Check if the garden needs watering by sticking your finger all the way into the soil to check if it’s cool and wet (has enough water) or warm and dry (needs water).  Putter.  Munch.  Enjoy.   The garden is there to feed you, body and soul.  Have fun with it.

Victory Gardens Vancouver Raised Vegetable Garden Beds with poly tunnels, arbour and shed  photo courtesy of Victory Gardens

For more information on vegetable  gardening in all seasons, check out  The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live.  It has some great projects as well for adding to your raised bed like hoop greenhouses and trellises.how to turn lawn into a vegetable garden!

Or if you live in Vancouver and want to start a veggie garden but don’t have the time, my friends over at Victory Gardens will build one for you and teach you how to work it.  A special thanks to the fabulous farmers over there who shared their beautiful raised bed photos with me.

About the Author : StephanieAn artistic gardener aiming to feed the body & soul through an urban potager garden & a community veggie plot in Vancouver.View all posts by Stephanie

  1. Liz
    LizMay 25,12

    Great article: but wouldn’t railroad ties have the same problem as treated lumber?!

  2. Stevie
    StevieMay 26,12

    Hi Liz, Thanks for your comment. I’m not completely sure which year the railway ties are from but they are very, very old. They have likely been treated with chemicals, but they have had decades for the chemicals to leach out. While all found materials should be approached with caution, I had enough comfort with this lumber to use it as the basis for a vegetable bed.

  3. Stevie
    StevieMay 26,12

    I should also say that if anyone has some experience or research that denotes whether there is still toxicity issues in 70+ year old wood, I’d be happy to hear it. Thanks again to Liz for bring up the issue.

    • Jerome
      JeromeJuly 8,15

      Please don’t use railroad ties! I work for a railroad, the reason they are 100 years old and still in holding on is because of the nasty chemicals used on them. Another point I’d like to make is that we haul all the hazardous materials that are too dangerous to haul on the highway. The rail cars leak on the ground, and these ties sit in puddles of water mixed with hazardous material. Plus the locomotives leak diesel fuel and the railroad sprays the ditches with weed killer.

  4. myfudo
    myfudoMay 26,12

    Very productive. I am hoping I have a green thumb as you…I love reading your posts. I learn a whole lot.

  5. Maarten Cammaert
    Maarten CammaertMay 26,12

    Great article!
    I also started with raised beds this season. I made some pictures while building them http://www.mygarden.org/garden/5/albums/188
    I really like how clean raised beds look, and I’m pretty sure it’s much easier(or less work) to maintain a garden with raised beds.
    Can’t wait till my vegetables start growing ;)

  6. Christine
    ChristineMay 2,13

    I realize that these posts are pretty old, but in case anyone is still wondering… rail road ties (especially older ones) are treated with creosote and chromated copper arsenate (CCA), both of which are extremely toxic. These chemicals are very stable and can persist for a very very long time – they particularly love to hang around in soil. As far as I know, newer rail road ties are no longer treated with these chemicals because we now know how horrible they are, but I’m guessing that nobody’s using new rail road ties to build garden beds! I would definitely stay away from using them in your garden… unless of course you want to eat carcinogenic vegetables… ;)

  7. ratcheting cutter
    ratcheting cutterJuly 14,13

    The information at this site is truly helpful. I have uncovered lots of tips.

  8. Mal Simpson
    Mal SimpsonMarch 6,14

    Great piece on the raised beds really good practical advice!

    Any chance in the future you could write something on gardening for the elderly? My wife has first hand experience of this as she works in a care home and many of the residents used to be the avid gardeners of the past.

    Often raised beds are not practical for people who have mobility issues, some elderly people can’t even get outside to a garden. This inspired me to try and tackle this issue so that these people can get back to doing what they once loved!

    I have developed a mobile garden which in effect is a raised bed garden but with the added advantage in that elements of the garden can be transported inside and placed at whatever height is comfortable for the residents to allow them to once again experience the pleasures of gardening.

    This is also an added advantage to the care home because gardening activity can now be easily accessed by all with minimal disruption to staffing levels. I am passionate about keeping the elderly gardening, as a gardener myself I would like to think that their would something like this in place when I get old.

    This system of gardening has been well received so I decided to set up my own company and I am now distributing to care homes across the UK whilst still holding down my regular day job too, you never know I may be in a position to concentrate on this venture full time in the future? Now what a pleasure that would be!

    Mal Simpson

    Leeds

  9. Jen
    JenJanuary 31,15

    Hello this is all great stuff and we’ll be putting it to good use. I live on a boat, when the tide is out we have a fairly large space to build a raised bed and have masses if bricks to.build one with. How do you suggest building it? Should we have a solid base then build wooden planter on top or another way? I am concerned about river water leaching into the soil…thanks

  10. GrabCo.
    GrabCo.March 11,15

    This is a very informative post Stephanie – just like the rest of your gardening guides! Bookmarked and shared this with our followers.

  11. Thomas
    ThomasMarch 12,15

    Regarding zucchini plants when maturing, every year I seem to have trouble with powerdy mildew. I’ve tried all kinds of remedies such as baking soda and vinegar, and different professional agricultural treatments. None of these remedies seem to work. Is it because I am waiting too long before I use the treatment? Or can it be applied before the powerdy mildew appears? I look forward to your response.

    -Tom

  12. Jolene
    JoleneMarch 12,15

    Hey Tom,
    Have you tried using milk as a preventative spray? If you google it you will come upon some good links for info. I also started to increase my spacing in the garden and don’t plant on a “hill” to increase air circulation plus avoid wetting the foliage or splashing water while watering and always plant in a different location each season. Look for mildew resistant/tolerant varieties too. Good luck!

  13. Jon-Paul Wolfe
    Jon-Paul WolfeMay 3,15

    I have a lawn which is not “organic”, per se. I have not treated it with pesticides or fertilizers for years — how long exactly, I do not remember.

    Can I (should I) plant on top of the lawn, or should I remove the sod.

    I am prepared to do either.

    Thank you for your time.

  14. Stephanie
    StephanieMay 3,15

    Hi Jon-Paul, If it has been a number of years and you feel like it is probably pretty safe, I would use it. Sod is a wonderful natural fertilizer and you would be hard pressed to find fully untreated organic soil to purchase, as the compost material that is used in most soil you can buy is probably not certified organic either. Build your own healthy soil and keep building it without herbicides or pesticides, and you will have the healthiest soil on the block in no time!

  15. Stephanie
    StephanieMay 3,15

    I would, however, follow the steps in the article and turn the sod upside down first. That will help it break down and feed your soil.

  16. Lory
    LoryMay 30,15

    have you ever built a bed right over concrete?we took out our hot tub and now I want to have a foot bed there I inherited some garden stones from my mother not sure how to prep it use stones? I have just put a pile of twigs and things in it so far doI need lanscape fabric to keep the soil from escaping thru cracks of the stones/ Help I am so exhuasted trying to find answers online! much apprecited!

  17. Stephanie
    StephanieMay 31,15

    Hi Lory, that would be more like container gardening, as there is no soil below for the plants to root into. You would need to build the bed deep enough for the roots of whatever you plant…12″ is fine for lettuce and strawberries, but you need it to be deeper for others. I would be concerned about the concrete leeching into the soil, heating up too much, or not having proper drainage. I would recommend removing the concrete first, then starting fresh with soil.

    I hope that helps!

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