How to convert a hay field into a garden. This spring our Community Garden offered us to do a no-till garden trial. We were immediately on board. We have been using a no-dig or till method in our home garden quite successfully. To convert a hay field is a bit of a different story, but eh, we are up to a challenge.
To till or not to till
We already covered this question in our blog articles no-dig or double dig, and to till or not to till the garden. Most no-dig gardening advice says that in the case of converting a hayfield or lawn into a garden it’s better not to till. And we would agree with it if you don’t want to plant the garden right away.
In our home garden, we have done both. Not to-dig is less work, but you don’t get as quick results.
For the trial garden, we decided to do a shallow till, just so the weeds and alfalfa are discouraged from growing, and we can plant potatoes immediately into that soil.
If you decide to till, make sure that your topsoil is at least as deep as the tiller goes, otherwise, you will end up mixing topsoil with subsoil, resulting in poor quality soil.
To prevent weeds from growing you have to cover the soil. What you cover it with and how much depends on your preference and material available.
Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty in their book: No Dig Organic Home & Garden share a very helpful chart on what material can be used for a no-dig garden and how much would be needed. It is a go-to book for no-dig gardeners.
For the 20 by 50-foot trial plot, we used 3 different coverings.
The area where we planted potatoes we covered with only wood chips. To prevent weeds from growing by using wood chips only we would need 6-8 inches. We did not add them all at first, because we also wanted the potatoes to still be planted in soil, and actually grow. We added about 3+ inches on top of the freshly planted potatoes and will add more as the potatoes grow.
For onion seedlings and beans we used different types of compost, about 4-5 inches. We used mushroom compost, horse manure and the top layer is also wood chips.
In the area where we planted cabbage, celery, and squash (which will be planted in June), we added a layer of cardboard under the wood chips. Cardboard is great for preventing weeds from growing, however, we only used it where bigger seedlings were planted (read more below).
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
A no-dig garden is a mulched garden. To give you an idea of how much is needed here is what we used: In the main area of the new garden, we used a layer (1 pickup truckload) of mushroom compost, a layer of horse manure (2 pickup truck loads), and wood chips on top (2 pickup truck loads). All of this made about 5-6 inches. In the potato area, we used 3 pickup truck loads of wood chips and will bring in more as the potatoes will need it.
That’s 8 truckloads of natural composted material for a just under 1000 square foot (92.9 m²) garden. We were lucky to get all of it for free, with just a lot of labor.
Other materials that can be used are hay, grass, straw (all weed-free), wool carpet, cardboard, and newspapers.
Planting a new no-dig garden
Ideally, a no-dig sheet mulched garden is started in the fall and left to settle over the winter before planting in spring.
It can also be planted right away, but it is good to lower your expectations for a brand-new garden.
We did not plant any small seeds, instead, we used mainly seedlings, plus some beans and sunflower seeds.
If using cardboard make a hole in the cardboard and plant the seedling. Make sure to water the hole and the seedling to make moisture available for the plants. Because of the cardboard, light rain might not get to the roots, be aware of that.
We planted the potatoes into the soil as per usual, just more shallow. We mulched the area after the potatoes were planted, planning to add more mulch as the potatoes grow.
Long term care
A no-dig garden will get better over time. The best time to start to convert a hayfield or lawn into a garden is now, even though it might not perform as great now, but later.
A no-dig garden has fewer weeds with more weeding. Let me explain: If you till a garden you get a fresh start every spring even though it might be overgrown in the fall. Not so in a no-till garden. You get what you worked for. If you keep it clean, you will eventually have a no weed garden. If you let the weeds grow, they will. It will be easier to weed the no-till mulched garden though.
The garden will need a fresh layer of mulch every year. After a few years, it will not be needed us much, but mulch is essential for a no-dig garden. It is good to build your own compost to have free mulch available right at the garden site.
We will keep you updated on this trial to convert a hayfield into a garden. If you have had any experiences with a brand new garden, please share it in the comments below.
Read the update on the field garden here.