Sod Off (in an Eco-Friendly Way)

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Manual or kick-type sod cutterYou hear a lot of talk these days about getting rid of lawns, and that’s great. What you don’t often hear about is how to actually remove that nasty turf grass without herbicides so you can go about planting more-interesting stuff. Mowing it as low as possible, then smothering it with newspaper or cardboard is one option, if you have a small area, or if you aren’t in a hurry to plant and if you have an ample supply of mulch, compost, or other organic matter to put on top. But honestly, how many of us plan that far ahead? We decide the lawn must go, and it must go now. I have two words for you: sod cutter.

Stripping sod for border extension mid-October 07It’s essentially the reverse of creating a lawn: Instead of buying pallets of sod strips and laying or unrolling them onto bare soil, you use this tool to cut 1-foot-wide strips of turf, then roll them up to expose the soil. Now, the process isn’t quite as easy as it sounds (no surprise there, right?). Well, I suppose it could be, if you hired someone with a sod cutter to do the work for you, or if you rented a powder-driven sod cutter for a day or weekend to do the job yourself. But hey, if you’re trying to do your part to protect the environment, maybe you don’t want to include a noisy, pollution-emitting machine in the project. So, consider a manual sod cutter instead. It’s an odd-looking contraption, something like a hand plow, but with a 1-foot-wide, horizontal cutting bar, along with a rolling bar, where the plow blade would be. You can change the depth of the cutting bar to adjust how deep the blade cuts. The point is to get the grass and the top layer of roots, but not a lot of soil.

To use it, you place the bar where you want to cut, then kick the cross-bar that connects the handles, while pressing down a bit to get the blade into the soil. Once you get started, you don’t need to keep pressing down, but you do need to keep kicking and/or pushing with one foot to cut. That’s where the “not easy” part comes in: It’s a lot of work, and it doesn’t go quickly. I’ve seen claims that you can cut 30 feet of sod with this in 40 seconds. Uh huh, if you’re cutting sparse lawn or using it in sandy, rock-free soil, maybe. I’m using it on tough-rooted, “whatever-grows-we-mow” sort of lawn, with plenty of palm-size rocks just under the surface, so I’d guess it takes me closer to 10 minutes to cut that amount of sod (5 minutes for cutting and an equal amount for resting). Still, I’m not complaining: It’s fantastic exercise, and results are very satisfying.

Orchard corner in late May 07Once the sod is stripped, then there’s the challenge of deciding what to do with it. You certainly don’t want to create new lawn or encourage anyone else to do that, so then what? This past spring, I needed to build up the soil level in an area for a new garden, so I spread out a bunch of sod green-side-down, three or four layers thick, and let it dry in the sun for about a week. Then I topped it with about 1 inch of topsoil, filled in between the beds with bark mulch, and set out annual transplants. As I’m pulling out the annuals now, I’m finding that the sod has decomposed into several inches of loose, rich soil that’ll be perfect for planting perennials. So, consider using your sod strips to build up low spots, or as fillers for new raised beds. Another option is to pile them up in an out-of-the-way spot and cover them with a tarp (to smother any grass or weeds that sprout), then let them sit for a year or so to break down into crumbly soil.

Sadly, you can’t find manual sod cutters for sale at your local big-box store, or even at most fully-stocked garden centers. I bought my all-metal version from Country Home Products a number of years ago for well under $200, but it appears they don’t carry it any longer. The cheapest one I could find on-line was around $250, and the next was nearly $300. I also see that some rental places offer them for around $20 a day. If you have lots of sod removal planned and want to save some money, check around for used ones. If you use a search engine, you could try searching for “manual sod cutter” (without the quotation marks), but I had better luck with “kick sod cutter” (again, without the quotation marks).

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Natalie October 21, 2007, 9:07 am

That sounds like a great tool, but I don’t think it would work well in my soil considering I live down the street from a gravel pit and basically grow rocks in my vegetable garden.

Nancy J. Ondra October 21, 2007, 10:40 am

I hear you, Natalie. You’re right, it’s not really a good choice in very rocky areas. Even though we don’t have big stones right under the grass, it’s still a challenge to use the manual cutter. But it’s worked a lot better than using a spade, or some of the other methods I’ve tried.

Carol October 23, 2007, 9:44 pm

I have a tool called a sod lifter, but it is more like a flat, half moon shaped shovel, with the handle angled so you can slide it under the sod. It wan’t that expensive, but it isn’t that easy to use. Honestly, I usually hand dig out the sod in small sections with a hand digging hoe, and then use those smaller pieces to fill in bare spots in the lawn. It takes time, but eventually the job gets done.

Nancy J. Ondra October 24, 2007, 10:17 am

Right, Carol–I should have mentioned those options too. In my previous (tiny) garden, I mostly used a spade for sod removal. Here, though, I prefer the sod cutter, because it makes the job go more quickly and does a better job cutting through the tough meadow-grass roots.

Sandi July 28, 2008, 1:16 pm

Hello All

You have all made this a bit more knowledgable for me in my idea for making a brick walkway. I have a local hardware store that has a manual one to rent for $14.00 for the day and i only need a 30′ path so i guess i will rent it.It cannt be any harder to use sence i have managed to kick and scream to get it ,now just a bit more and apply it to the tool to get the job done those (stuburn husbands). Hope all goes well.

Hi Sandi! I hope your project goes well. One tip: if the site is very dry, water it thoroughly a day or two before. I find the sod cutting goes much more easily if the soil is just moist (not sticky-wet or bone dry).

kimberly May 24, 2009, 10:42 am

does anyone know how to build a sod cutter from scratch?