I don’t know about you, but starting to prepare our market garden plot in the spring of the same year that we want to be in production was NOT our initial plan.

We wanted to be ahead of the game and start in the fall of 2020. 

Well, that didn’t happen and it’s January 2021, so it’s time to figure out how we are going to get started ASAP!

Luckily, Curtis Stone has outlined how to start a market garden plot in the spring in his book The Urban Farmer. 

I will be outlining his process of starting a market garden plot from a lawn. 

Our situation is a little different, where we are starting from a hay field, so I will also share what our plan is to get going once the snow melts!

Starting a Market Garden Plot in the Spring

Since you are starting your plot setup in the spring of the same year you want to be in production, you will probably want to take an aggressive approach.

You will want to remove grass as quickly as possible so you can get right into the soil to start working it.

First of all, if your ground is too wet or frozen, you won’t be able to work the soil until it’s somewhat dry and/or thawed. 

If the ground is really dry too, you may want to wet it down a night or two before you start the process.

Turning a lawn into a market garden plot during the spring can be done in seven stages, possibly over the course of several weeks, depending on whether there is a lot of invasive grass or not.

Assume you’re turning over 2,000 sq. ft. of land with regards to timing for these 7 stages.

1.Remove the Grass

Go to your local machine shop and rent a sod cutter. This may cost around $60 for the day but is well worth it.

Run the machine in straight lines across the lawn so that you can roll the sod off. This should take you a couple of hours for a 2000 sq. ft. area.

Then, with some help, removing the sod and getting it off-site might take another half day.

If you don’t have much grass, you can skip this step and move on to step 2.

2. Rototilling

Once you removed the sod, you can start rototilling the ground.

Make sure to go over the ground multiple times to loosen it nicely. This may take an hour or so.

You will want the soil to look really ground up.

For larger grounds of ¼ acre or more, consider bringing in a tractor to do the initial tilling. This is what we are doing since our workable land is more than a ¼ acre of hay right now. 

As well, if the land is really uneven, you may need to take a landscaping rake to level out some parts that are uneven.

3. Form Beds

After the ground has been tilled well, you can start to form your beds.

To make perfectly straight beds, you might have to use a string as a guide. There may also be a fence or something you can follow.

To make beds, you will walk next to your tiller so you are not stepping on the soil you have tilled.

The width of the beds you form should be the width of your tiller. If you’re not using a tiller between 24 and 30 inches, you’ll have to form your beds with a rake.

You should use a 30-inch tiller and go with 30-inch beds as they are the standard size for small-scale, intensive farms.

The width you set for walkways is up to you. Curtis sets his from anywhere between 6 and 18 inches, based on the size of the site and what is going to grow there.

Forming out beds can be done within a few hours once you get the hang of running the tiller in straight lines. 

raking out plot

4. Rake Out Debris

Depending on how much debris is in your soil when you form your beds, it may be a good idea to let it sit for a few days.

After some rain and when the soil settles a little bit, some debris will actually float to the surface.

After this happens, it’ll be a lot easier to rake things out.

If the ground has a lot of invasive grass in it, this process will probably have to be done multiple times.

Sometimes it is helpful to till the beds again, then let them sit for a few days, then go back and rake the debris out again.

If there are nearby trees and you’re covering a lot of roots, you might have to use a shovel or pitchfork to pull them out. 

Small rocks will float to the surface over time and will make it easier to rake them out or dig them out in the case of big ones.

5. Loosen Subsoil

Now that your beds have been worked and cleaned out, you need to loosen the subsoil underneath.

Most sites that were lawn before will have a certain level of subsoil compaction, especially after you have rototilled.

For this job, you can use a strong pitchfork or a broadfork.

You’re going to need to drive it into the bed as deep as it can go, then pull it back gently.

Do this up one bed, driving it down every foot, and then down the next bed.

This is a time-consuming task that may take half a day or so.

6. Add Amendments

Your beds will look a lot messier after step 5 but that’s alright.

At this point, it’s time to bring in a lot of good finished compost and organic fertilizers.

There is no particular recipe here, except that the main soil amendment will be compost.

The worse the soil is, the more compost you add. It’s best to buy compost from local businesses that make it.

Add a two-inch layer to each bed, and only the beds, not the walkways or perimeters.

7. Prepare Beds for Planting

At this point, you can either rototill again or use a tool such as the tilther to mix your amendments in.

One pass over each bed with a tiller or tilther is all you need at this point.

Starting a Larger Plot

If you are preparing an area that is ¼ acre or larger, you might want to bring in some heavy machinery to help speed up the process.

Rototilling a large plot of raw land can be really back-breaking and take more time than is necessary.

If your land has lots of open access, consider hiring someone with a tractor for an afternoon to do the first three stages.

For land that is ¼ acre or more, these are what the steps look like:

  1. Remove the grass with a front end loader or tractor.
  2. Loosen subsoil with a tractor.
  3. Till with a tractor.
  4. Form out the beds with walk-behind tractor.
  5. Rake out debris.
  6. Add amendments.
  7. Till the beds again to prepare for planting.

It’s going to take a lot of work to get your market garden plot up to snuff, especially if you are starting in the spring of the same year you plan on being in production. 

Why not make it easier on yourself and hire a tractor if the size of your land permits it.

By breaking down the plot preparation process into 7 steps, I feel less overwhelmed and ready to go come spring. Hopefully, you do too!

We definitely plan on hiring a tractor to help speed up our process this spring.

Don’t worry, we will document the process and share our first-hand experience right here on the blog.

How did you prepare your market garden plot the first time? Let us know in the comments below.

Stay Local,

Kathy & Jon

your friendly neighbourhood growers


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