How to Use a Tiller to Remove Grass and Make a New Garden Bed

Prepare your plot for a new year of growing with this simple yet effective technique.

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by Juliet Blankespoor

Want to start a new garden bed this year? Learn how to use a tiller to remove grass for your garden bed and discover how tilling a garden for the first time can help get your soil off to the right start.

Tilling refers to digging up and turning over the soil. I’ve used a double-tilling method many times to create new garden beds out of lawn or field. If you’re blessed with fertile, loamy soil, you may not need to till. But for compacted soils that are relatively infertile, tilling at the outset of a garden’s formation will yield dramatic results for decades to come. Tilling is an easy way to incorporate large amounts of organic matter into the soil and increase soil porosity.

Fall or early spring is an ideal time for tillage, because grass and other existing plants are less likely to sprout up from roots. If you can prepare your garden in fall, consider planting a fall cover crop — a planting designed to protect the soil from erosion and build soil fertility — after tilling to suppress weeds. This is the best way to ensure you’ve eradicated the grass, especially if you have a particularly invasive or tenacious grass species. Come springtime, you can till or dig the crop into the soil to build its fertility and structure. Contact your local agricultural extension agent to find out which fall cover crops are best for your area. Planting a bean-family cover crop will help build nitrogen levels and contribute organic matter to the soil. You can rent tillers from local equipment-rental facilities, borrow a neighbor’s, or hire a local farmer or landscaper to come out and till for you. If you have a small garden and tilling isn’t practical, use a pointed shovel to break up the soil and incorporate amendments.

Double-Tilling to Create a New Garden Bed

How to Use a Tiller to Remove Grass

Step 1: Prepare for your garden’s creation by testing your soil’s pH and nutrient levels and deciding which amendments you’d like to add. In general, I like to add as much organic matter as possible to new garden beds, along with a smattering of organic fertilizer. In the past, when I’ve added only organic matter without fertilizer, plants have been stunted during the garden’s first year. It takes time to build soil fertility, and fertilizer can help nurture plants in a new garden bed until the soil matures.

In general, sandy soil benefits from the incorporation of leaf mulch, pine bark fines, and aged manure and compost. Clay is also a useful addition and helps with water and mineral retention. Many of these amendments are available by the truckload from mulch yards, farms, and nursery supply outfits and can be delivered to your site. If you aren’t familiar with the wonders of pine bark fines, prepare to become a convert! They’re a by-product of the pulp and logging industries, consisting of the ground-up bark of pine trees. Also sold as “soil conditioner,” this extraordinary brown fluff assists with drainage and water retention, has a near-neutral pH, and slowly degrades into the lushest of organic matter over time.

Compacted or clay soils benefit from materials that assist with drainage, such as coarse sand or pine bark fines, in addition to aged manure and compost. You’ll often hear that you should never add sand to clay soils because it can create a near-concrete hardness, but in my experience, if you add enough organic matter with the sand, it shouldn’t be a problem. Coarse sand is especially helpful if you want to grow plants that thrive in well-drained soils, such as Mediterranean herbs. Let the results of your soil test dictate which organic fertilizers and amendments to use.

Step 2: Till your garden area with a walk-behind rotary tiller (a rototiller, for example) or a tractor. If you’re working with a shovel, you can similarly turn over soil and break it up into smaller pieces. If you have large clumps of soil or plants left behind, break them up with a hoe or shovel. Using a hard rake, gather any sod and compost it. Let the ground sit for 2 to 3 weeks.

Amending Soil After Tilling a Garden for the First Time

Step 3: Add the organic matter and amendments you chose in the first step, and till a second time to mix them in and further break up the soil. Wearing safety goggles, spread powders or lightweight fertilizers on a relatively still day. After the initial tilling, the exposed roots and unearthed seeds will have sent out a flush of greenery. This second tilling will knock back the emerging weeds and grass. If your soil is still relatively compacted, run the tiller through a third time.

Step 4: After the equipment has run through the beds a few times, you’ll want to come in with hand tools to finish the job. Use a hard rake to gather any remaining sod and compost it. Rotary tilling breaks up a shallow layer of the soil, leaving the deeper layers untouched. Use a shovel or a hoe to break up any large clumps and lightly loosen the lower layers of soil, or double-dig the garden beds by removing the upper 8 inches of topsoil and placing it aside. Then, break up the subsoil layer, loosening the soil to about 8 inches deep. Replace the topsoil and break that up too.

Mulching and Planting New Garden Beds

Step 5: Prepare and flatten the beds to 3 to 4 feet wide. Flattening and shaping garden beds is best achieved with a flat, hard metal rake (often called a “bow rake”). Stake out the ground using strings as guides to help keep the beds straight and of equal width if you’re going for uniform beds.

Step 6: Mulch the prepared beds if you’re planting seedlings right away. If you’re planting seeds or a cover crop, there’s no need to mulch. Mulching soon after disturbing the soil will keep sprouting weeds to a minimum. If you originally had tenacious grass in the garden area, mulching will keep any remaining roots from emerging. After mulching, you can plant your seedlings right into the mulch. Behold the pictures of my most recent garden, created with this very method.

Ongoing Maintenance After Tilling a Garden for the First Time

After this initial tilling and garden bed creation, you may not need to till in subsequent years, especially if you generously add mulch, frequently plant cover crops, and side-dress (add amendments and soil conditioners around the bases of established plants) with compost and manure. The primary advantage to not tilling is that you’ll maintain the integrity of the soil strata, with their finely tuned communities of beneficial soil microbes and earthworms. Tilling compromises the structure of soil and disrupts soil microbe communities. That said, the pros of initial tilling in garden creation outweigh the cons.

From The Healing Garden by Juliet Blankespoor. Reprinted with permission of Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The book comes with an online portal of free gardening charts, 10 video tutorials, and regional herb gardening profiles. For booksellers and book bonuses, visit Healing Garden Gateway.

Juliet Blankespoor is the founder of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. She has a degree in botany and over 25 years of experience teaching and writing about herbal medicine, botany, plant propagation, and organic herb cultivation.

Originally published as “Tilling a New Garden Bed” in the March/April 2023 issue of Grit and regularly vetted for accuracy.

  • Updated on Mar 10, 2023
  • Originally Published on Feb 25, 2023
Tagged with: garden planning, rototiller, Tilling
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