How to Turn Your Lawn into a Garden

Your property is what you make it, so why not fill your front yard with fruit trees, flowers, and veggies and sell your lawnmower? 

Whether you’re just starting to grow your own food, or you’re ready to let gardening take over your life and landscape, there are plenty of benefits from exercising your green thumb. 

No matter the size or condition of your yard, you can turn your lawn into a garden. You can also start small by turning a portion of your yard into a garden, and watch it grow year after year. 

Read on to learn how to turn your grassy lawn into the glorious garden of your dreams. 

In this article:

Assorted colorful flowers grow attracting butterflies
Leigh Patrick | Pexels

Why turn my lawn into a garden?

Lawns filled with beds of vegetables and wildflowers are more than a trendy landscaping project – they promote an eco-friendly lifestyle. 

With the pollinator population threatened, many homeowners are making their yards a haven for bees and butterflies. There’s no better way to do so than getting rid of your lawn and filling it with native plants instead of nonnative turfgrass. 

Switching to a garden might be a good idea for you if you’re sick of the grass allergies and high water bills that come with a healthy, green lawn. 

Here are some other benefits of turning your lawn into a garden:

  • Less mowing and other lawn chores
  • Grow and harvest edible produce
  • Grow and harvest aromatic and decorative flowers
  • Supports local pollinators
  • Reduces your carbon footprint by decreasing travel for store-bought food
  • Gets family members involved in nature
  • Gives your landscape a unique, vibrant look
  • Increases household health by providing more fresh fruit and veggies

How to turn my lawn into a garden

Mother and child picking red pepers
Yan Krukov | Pexels

1. Pick the type of garden

If you’re new to gardening, it can be intimidating to decide what type of garden you should plant. For inspiration, here are some common and unique types of gardens:

  • Edible garden: a garden full of edible vegetables, herbs, fruits, and even flowers, best planted close to the kitchen
  • Feed plot gardens: a garden dedicated to feeding critters like deer and rabbits, can help keep them out of your other garden(s), best planted by the edge of your property
  • Rain garden: for homeowners with wet yards, filled with water-loving plants to reduce flooding
  • Sensory garden: build a garden to tickle your senses, appealing to sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound
  • Native plant garden: a garden that’s typically full of low-maintenance plants that attract birds, bees, and butterflies
  • Butterfly garden: a garden that specifically attracts butterflies and also feeds their larvae
  • Cutting garden: a garden filled with flowers grown to be cut and arranged
  • Container garden: a garden built above the ground in containers
  • Succulent garden: a low water-use garden that features succulents, cacti, and rocks
  • Moon garden: to be enjoyed after-hours, a garden that blooms at night
  • Cottage garden: a thrifty or whimsical garden, often associated with English homesteads

Will you be planting your garden directly into the ground or in planters and raised beds? This will determine whether or not you’ll need to complete the most challenging step — getting rid of the grass.

Sunny spot in the grass by a tree
Pixabay | Pexels

2. Pick a location

Select the garden size

Are you converting your entire yard into a vegetable garden? Maybe you just want to do half the backyard or are imagining islands of flowerbeds decorating your outdoor living space. 

If you’re new to gardening, it’s a good idea to start small and grow your garden area each year to avoid dead plants, tears, and time wasted. If you’re planning on running a self-sustaining homestead, you’ll want to make the most out of the land you have.

If you have a pet, you’ll want to keep a section of your lawn where they can play (and relieve themselves). Choosing a grass type that’s more resistant to pet urine for this area will ensure it stays green.

Decide on sunlight requirements

Take note of which sections of your lawn receive ample sunlight. Most flowers, vegetables, and fruits require six to eight hours of sunlight per day to thrive. South-facing gardens often provide the most sunlight as long as there aren’t any trees or roofs blocking the rays. Use washable chalk spray to outline ideal sunny spots to begin a garden. 

If your backyard is shaded, don’t fret. Stun your neighbors with an abundant vegetable garden in front of your house, or use what you’ve got and design a shade garden. You can try to reduce shade in your yard by removing or trimming large bushes and trees. 

Digging up grass
Greta Hoffman | Pexels

3. Get rid of the grass

Give your lawn one last mow and say goodbye. If you’re planting your garden directly into the ground, you’ll need to get rid of all the grass first. 

Why should you remove your grass?

If the soil layer on top of the grass is not dense enough, grass shoots or weeds might pop through and disturb your garden. If you have a strong, healthy lawn, your grass roots can be up to 2 or 3 feet deep. Take the time to remove all grass and weeds in the area where you want to grow your garden. 

Not all gardening projects require you to get rid of your grass. If you’re building raised garden beds, you don’t need to remove your lawn. However, it will be difficult to mow around and between raised garden beds. Consider planting low-growing cover crops like clover that don’t need to be trimmed, and will attract more bees to your garden. You also can surround the raised garden beds with hardscaping elements like gravel and paving. 

Before you remove grass

  • Call 311 to make sure you don’t accidentally cut or dig into any utility lines
  • Remove your sprinkler system if you have one
  • Check local guidelines or with your HOA to see if there are restrictions for removing your grass

How to approach your last mow

Set your mower to its lowest setting and feel free to scalp the grass. Cutting your grass as low as possible will speed up the decomposition process and make it easier to remove or kill the remaining grass blades.

How to remove grass

You probably won’t want to kill your grass off with herbicides, since you’ll likely be planting some edible herbs, vegetables, or fruits in your garden. Thankfully, there are some chemical-free ways to get rid of your turf: 

  • Dig out the sod by hand
  • Use motorized tools to remove the sod
  • Smother the grass
  • Solarize your lawn
  • Sheet mulching

If you’re turning your entire lawn into a garden, you might want to smother, solarize, sheet mulch, or use power tools to get rid of the grass. 

If you’re doing just a section of your yard or building a few garden beds, you can quickly and easily remove grass by hand with a hoe or sharp spade. 

Removing grass/sod busting by hand

Cutting and removing sod by hand is the most labor-intensive process for removing grass. It can be beneficial in jump-starting your garden if you’re short on time and don’t have too much area to cover. 

What you’ll need:

  • Sharp spade
  • Hoe or half-moon edger
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Soil
  • Compost

How to remove grass:

  1. Water the day before to soften the ground
  2. Stretch thoroughly — your muscles will thank you later
  3. Dig the spade into the ground and cut out sections that are about a square foot in size and 1.5 to 3 inches deep
  4. Use the spade or a hoe to peel the sod back and pull it out from the ground
  5. Use a wheelbarrow to store and transport the sod until you can discard or compost it
  6. Pull out any remaining weeds
  7. Fill in any cavities with soil
  8. Rake compost into the soil
  9. Garden away
Remove sod with a sod cutter

If you just want to dive right into transforming your entire yard into a garden, you’ll probably need some tools to avoid serious back and knee pain from digging out all the sod. 

Use a sod cutter or other motorized device like a rototiller to quickly cut and remove patches of your turfgrass without breaking your back. 

What you’ll need:

  • Chalk spray
  • Sod cutter or rototiller
  • Wheelbarrow

How to remove sod with power tools:

  1. Clear the lawn and mow
  2. Water up to three days before removing the grass to soften the soil
  3. Mark out the area you’ll be cutting with chalk spray
  4. Test out the sod cutter or rototiller by cutting out a strip, making sure it’s cutting at least 1.5 to 3 inches deep 
  5. Continue cutting strips of your turfgrass
  6. When done, cut the strips into manageable pieces (3- to 5-foot sections) 
  7. Transport the sod in a wheelbarrow to your compost bin
  8. Fill in empty spots with soil and compost
  9. Garden away
Solarizing grass

Use the power of the sun to get rid of your water-wasting grass through solarization. This method is great for weed-ridden lawns and is not very labor-intensive. Keep in mind that solarizing can take up to 12 weeks to work, so start in early spring. 

What you’ll need: 

  • Clear or black plastic tarp
  • Rake
  • Bricks or rocks

How to solarize grass:

  • Anchor the tarp down on your desired garden area with bricks or rocks
  • Leave for about four to 12 weeks
  • Rake away dead grass
  • Add compost and other soil amendments
  • Plant some seedlings
Smothering grass

This method is similar to solarization but instead kills the grass by cutting off oxygen. It’s recommended to start the smothering process in late summer or fall to allow enough time for it to work because this process can take months. 

What you’ll need:

  • Rake
  • Mower
  • Biodegradable (unwaxed) cardboard or old newspaper
  • Garden hose
  • Mulch

How to smother your grass:

  1. Outline your desired garden area
  2. Rake away rocks and debris
  3. Mow (even scalp) your lawn
  4. Remove any lingering weeds
  5. Cover area with cardboard, overlapping the pieces generously to prevent weeds from popping through
  6. Drench the cardboard with water
  7. Add a layer of mulch to keep everything weighed down and looking nice
  8. Wait until the grass has died and cardboard has decomposed to start planting
No-dig lasagna gardening
illustration explaining how the lasagna gardening method

Lasagna gardening, also known as sheet mulching, is an easy no-dig (or no-till) gardening method. You should start your lasagna garden in late summer or fall to allow enough time for the garden layers to begin decomposing. You’ll want to allow at least six months before you begin planting. 

What you’ll need:

  • Biodegradable (unwaxed) cardboard or old newspaper
  • Broken branches and twigs
  • “Brown” organic materials:
    • Shredded newspaper
    • Shredded leaves
    • Pine needles
  • “Green” organic materials:
    • Compost
    • Grass clippings
    • Decomposed manure
    • Scraps of fruit, vegetables, vegetation
    • Coffee grounds
    • Teabags and tea leaves

How to sheet mulch/build a lasagna garden:

  1. Rake the grass/soil after scalping the lawn
  2. Add a layer of broken branches, twigs, and leaves on the ground
  3. Cover with newspaper or cardboard, and don’t be afraid to overlap generously
  4. Drench this layer with water
  5. Add 2-6 inches of brown organic materials
  6. Add 1-2 inches of green organic materials
  7. Continue layering to the desired height, ending with a brown layer on top
  8. Wait about six months before planting

4. Test and amend your soil

Healthy soil is necessary for growing healthy plants. You wouldn’t want to waste all this time and energy for your yard to be filled with dull, wilting plants, so get your soil tested and ensure that it’s full of nutrients for your plants to absorb and enjoy.

Soil Texture Infographic - Soil texture is based on clay, sand, and silt percentages and coarseness

The soil is different depending on your geographic region. There are many different soil types, but most vegetables, fruits, and flowers prefer crumbly soil that’s full of organic matter, humus, and microorganisms, and has a neutral pH. 

Your soil might be: 

  • Clay: too dense for gardening, can be improved over time
  • Loamy: fine-textured and ideal for gardening
  • Sandy: unable to retain water or nutrients
  • Silty: medium-textured, soft soil
  • Chalky: lumpy, large-grained soil, often with chunks of stone
  • Peat: spongy soil found in wetlands

If your soil is heavy and clay-like, you’ll probably want to invest in raised garden beds. It will be difficult for many plant roots to grow deep in dense clay soil. 

How to test soil 

You can conduct a DIY soil test at home or have your local Cooperative Extension Office take a look at a soil sample and send you a report.

  • DIY soil test: tells you the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
  • Lab soil test: provides a nutrient breakdown and more specific information about your soil, including its pH

Your soil test will let you know if you need to add any amendments to improve your soil quality.

illustration showing the pH levels of soil

How to improve soil

Soil amendments can improve both your soil’s texture and nutrient levels. They also can change your soil pH. You can try different organic and inorganic soil amendment methods, below are some of the most common ways to improve your soil. 

Mix in organic soil amendments

  • Compost — improves clay soil, sandy soil, and silty soil
  • Aged or composted animal manure — improves sandy soil and silty soil
  • Straw — improves clay soil
  • Peat moss — improves clay soil, sandy soil, and lowers pH
  • Wood chips — improves clay and silty soil
  • Wood ashes — raises soil pH
  • Blood meal — increases nitrogen
  • Bone meal — increases phosphorus
  • Seaweed — increases potassium

Mix in inorganic soil amendments 

  • Pea gravel — improves clay and silty soil
  • Shredded rubber — improves clay and silty soil
  • Gypsum — improves clay and silty soil
  • Sulfur — lowers soil pH
  • Garden lime — raises soil pH

If you noticed some grubs or pest larvae while digging up your turf, you might want to consider arming your garden with some organic pest control methods like neem oil, Diatomaceous Earth, and beneficial nematodes to keep pests at bay. 

Pro Tip: Avoid mixing sand and clay, which could create a thick concrete-like layer instead of loosening up the soil as you intended. 

Plant Hardiness Zone Map (USA)
Plant Hardiness Zone Map (USA) | USDA | Flickr | Public domain

5. Choose your plants

Now your landscape is like an empty canvas, ready to become a beautiful work of art. Fill the space with a field of wildflowers or a colorful vegetable garden. You can attract butterflies and bees to your garden with native plants, and have your backyard buzzing with life. 

Decide what plants you’ll be growing ahead of time to make the most out of your garden design. When buying plants, check to see whether what you’re buying will last just a season or for years to come. 

  • Annuals — live for a certain period of time, often just a season
  • Perennials — survive summer and winter to grow year after year

Cut down the work of having to replant every year by filling your garden with some perennials. Figure out your USDA hardiness zone ahead of perennial shopping to determine whether or not the plants can withstand your region’s environmental conditions. 

Before you go plant shopping, know your:

  • Hardiness zone
  • Garden sunlight levels
  • Average regional rainfall
  • Yearly temperature lows and highs

Here are some common garden plants, for inspiration:

Edible herbsCommon vegetablesCommon fruitsFlowers

6. Build your garden beds

Now that you have your plants picked out and your yard is ready, it’s time to finally build your garden. 

Your garden can be planted

  • Directly in the ground
  • In containers or raised beds

Build in-ground garden beds

Be sure to include pathways through your garden so you don’t accidentally trample through your prized veggies while watering the flowers or on the way to get the mail. Leave room for pathways that are at least 2 or 2.5 feet wide, and cover them with mulch to keep them intact. 

If you have an idea of the plants you’ll be growing, you can personalize the garden design to best suit their growth. Some plants, like onions and carrots, can thrive with companion planting, while others require ample space to spread out.

What you’ll need:

  • Garden soil
  • Mulch

How to build garden rows:

Use the classic vegetable garden bed design by forming a series of growing rows. These rows should be formed with garden soil to be 16 inches wide and 10-12 inches high. Be sure to add mulch around the beds to keep them intact.

Build raised beds

Raised garden beds won’t require the labor-intensive task of getting rid of your grass, and makes gardening easier for folks who can’t easily bend down to plant and prune. Raised garden beds also can be made accessible for gardeners who use wheelchairs. 

This form of gardening is ideal if you have poor quality soil (sandy, clay, or acidic soil), and is great for keeping pests out of your garden. It can be a little more expensive than planting directly into the ground. 

What you’ll need:

  • Wood, stone, or similar materials
  • Garden soil
  • Compost or peat moss

How to build raised garden beds:

  1. Outline the area where you’ll be building the garden beds
  2. Use wood, stone, or other materials to build a border 8 or more inches high around the desired garden area
  3. Fill in the raised bed with garden soil
  4. Mix in peat moss or compost
  5. Plant away
Seniors Gardening
Greta Hoffman | Pexels

7. Plant flowers and veggies

Head to your local plant nursery or gardening store and purchase all the plants you had in mind. Research and read each plant’s instructions carefully to ensure it will thrive in your yard. Happy gardening! 

When should I plant my garden?

Your plants will have a better chance of surviving if you start them off as seedlings. Use plug trays or small pots to get the seeds started about six weeks before the last frost in your region. This could be between December and late May, depending on where you live. 

Read the seed packets carefully, or research the plant type on your computer if you purchase it in a container. The plant should come with information about sunlight, water, and spacing requirements. Follow the instructions while planting and voila! Your garden will be blooming and ready for harvest in no time. 

When should I water my garden?

Your plants will have different watering needs. Try to organize plants by watering needs, also known as hydrozoning, so you don’t accidentally overwater or underwater any of them. Most plants will need to be watered once or twice a week. 

Install a drip irrigation system to take the hassle out of watering and save both water and money. 

spring hyacinth growing up through wood mulch
Coernl | Pixabay

8. Mulch your garden beds

If you don’t have raised garden beds, little to nothing is keeping the soil from eroding away until your plants reach maturity and have deeper roots. After planting, scatter mulch around the plants to hold the soil in place and keep weeds from popping up. 

Mulch can be organic or inorganic

Types of organic mulch:

  • Wood chips
  • Tree bark
  • Leaves
  • Pine needles

Types of inorganic mulch:

  • Gravel
  • River rocks
  • Rubber pellets

Experts recommend using organic mulch because it will decompose and replenish the soil with nutrients. Choose your mulch and spread it around, leaving 2-3 inches of mulch-free soil around each plant.

Benefits of mulch:

  • Retains soil moisture
  • Regulates soil temperatures
  • Prevents erosion
  • Keeps weeds out

9. Add some personality

Make your landscape yours. Decorate your gardens and landscape, install outdoor living spaces, and grow your garden with a touch of personality.

  • Add mulch to your garden pathways, or consider installing something more permanent like pathways or pavers. 
  • Fencing can make your garden look more cohesive and helps keep out hungry critters like deer.
  • Lower your garden care by designing a low-maintenance rock garden.
  • Install a unique sensory garden to keep family members of all ages engaged in the outdoors.
  • Use flowers grown in your garden to add a splash of color and personality to your porch or home.

FAQ about turning your lawn into a garden

When’s the best time to transform your lawn into a garden?

The ideal time to remove your lawn and start building your garden is from the end of summer until the end of fall. If you live in a warm, temperate climate, you also can work on it through the winter. 

You can start your garden in the spring, but you won’t have much time before you’ll be putting seedlings in the ground. Start early to avoid rushing through the project. The earlier you start before spring, the less likely you are to be pulling weeds from your garden in the spring and summer.

How do I start composting?

A compost pile is a gardener’s best friend. Composting is an eco-friendly way to recycle organic waste and provide fresh nutrients for your budding flower garden. 

From composting grass clippings to your veggie scraps, you are already producing enough organic waste to begin composting. You can buy a compost container, build your own, or begin a compost pile in your yard. The options don’t stop there, here are some other forms of composting:

• Aerobic composting — requires oxygen to decompose
• Anaerobic composting — does not require oxygen to decompose
Bokashi composting — anaerobic composting through fermentation
Vermicomposting — aerobic composting with worms

How much does it cost to use a sod cutter or rototiller? 

Renting costs depend on the size of your garden space and how long you’ll be out there removing grass. 

• Rent a walk-behind sod cutter for up to $110 per day
• Buy a square-edge sod cutter for up to $80
• A rototiller can cost between $80 and $150 to rent per day

Grow your green thumb

Gardening takes time and effort to master, and everyone’s bound to make some mistakes along the way. Your first year growing a new garden can be filled with challenges, but with some good luck and hard work you can have a bountiful harvest by the end of the year.

Need help completing your last mow? Lean on a local Lawn Love pro to help with all your lawn care and landscaping needs. 

Main photo credit: Zen Chung | Pexels

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.