ASK PLANET DETROIT: How do I start a garden on a vacant lot?

Dear Planet Detroit, 

I’m interested in starting a vegetable and flower garden on several lots in the city. Right now, it’s grass, I want sunflowers and vegetables. I wouldn’t even mind if someone else wanted to plant on the property. Do you have any advice for me?


In Search of a Garden

Dear In Search,

Killing sod and installing planting beds for either vegetable or flower production is one of the more challenging things a beginning gardener will have to do. Luckily, fall is an especially good time to do it because there’s so much free organic matter lying around–i.e. leaves–which can be used to smother grass and start the process of growing healthy productive soil.

But before you do anything else, you should get a soil test. Soil contamination is scattershot in the city and it’s a good idea to check the soil to make sure lead levels are below 320 parts per million, especially when growing food. The test will also show the pH and organic matter, important knowledge you can use to improve soil health. Tests are available through the Garden Resource Program operated by Keep Growing Detroit, which also helps thousands of family and community gardeners every year with seeds, transplants and other resources. Regardless of how the soil test comes back, it’s a good idea to follow practices like thoroughly washing produce–especially root crops­–before eating them and leaving dirty shoes and clothing outside the house.

As for killing that sod, you can use a roto-tiller to break it up, but this can require multiple passes to kill perennial weeds and grass. And it can be hard work on city lots that often contain bricks, rocks and concrete. Yet, if you want perfect beds that can be seeded into in spring, roto-tilling may be your best bet.

Renting a sod cutter is another option, although this too can be laborious. Finally, you can cut out patches of sod by hand using a straight-edge garden spade, after mowing down or weed wacking the grass as much as possible. Like rototilling, this is hard work and maybe only necessary for what needs to be put into production immediately next year.

As for this gardener, I prefer to use sheet mulching whenever possible to kill grass and build soil with a minimum of work. It’s an especially good approach when putting in flowers or perennials. It might even work for planting next year’s transplants if done properly. The basic technique is to “burn down” the existing sod as much as possible with a weed wacker, cutting it to bare dirt if possible. Then you place a thick layer of either newspaper or plain-brown cardboard down to smother weeds over the coming seasons.

Once you’ve prepared the bed, it’s time to amend the soil. If soil tests show that either dolomitic lime or elemental sulfur are needed to raise or lower the pH, these are best added before putting down the smothering materials. If using newspaper, make sure to have water on hand to wet it down and keep it from blowing away. 

Since you want to get going next year, newspaper may work best for you because it breaks down the fastest. However, cardboard is better at killing weeds and will add more organic material over time.

Either way, once the newspaper or cardboard is in place, you can put down any range of organic material to create a planting bed and improve the soil for the coming seasons. A layer of compost covered with either straw or leaves that have been chipped with a lawn-mower is a good combination. When planting perennials or trees, a simple mulch of newspaper and then wood mulch will often suffice.

Sheet mulching for next year’s vegetable garden is trickier. Yet, the combo of newspaper, compost and either straw or chipped leaves could work with vegetables grown from transplants. (For a list of crops commonly grown from transplants and those grown from seeds, look here.) 

It should be fairly easy to cut through the newspaper and sod in spring with a trowel and insert the transplant plugs. But bear in mind that the sod and other materials in the sheet mulch will still be breaking down and the plants will likely require additional nutrients to offset the nitrogen that is temporarily tied up in the breakdown of those materials. Fish emulsion and chicken manure are two fast-acting, organic fertilizers you can use for this.

If you have a large space, a piecemeal approach may best, sheet mulching some areas for growing transplants and perennials crops and removing sod for direct-seeded crops in others. The soil will likely require amendment with compost, as Detroit’s lots are often low in organic matter and nutrients. Some of these resources may be available through the GRP, which provides them to family and community gardens for a nominal fee. Transplants for commonly grown plants like tomatoes, peppers, kale and cabbage are best obtained through a greenhouse or the GRP for your first year, because growing your own starts can be tricky.

When considering what to plant in spring, think about what you or your family actually eat and prioritize those things. This may sound like simple advice, but it’s always better to have more of the things one wants than to grow things simply to feed the compost pile. However, it sounds like you could be welcoming others into your garden so planting a mix of vegetables that might appeal to your neighbors’ tastes may be in order. If a community garden takes shape, there will be plenty of space for people to collectively decide what to prioritize and tend to.

Here is a checklist of things to consider when starting a community garden.

Keeping Growing Detroit also hosts a number of classes on topics ranging from how to start a garden to cooking and preserving produce. These are an invaluable resource and serve as a helpful reminder that becoming a gardener is a life-long process. It’s not hard to get started and grow some food, but there is always more to learn. Good luck


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