Lawn Be Gone: A few tips for making sod removal less painful

They say a good friend is someone who helps you move. I want to revise that to read – a good friend helps you tear up sod. If you’ve ever tried to dig up your lawn to plant a garden you know what I mean. Yet a couple of weeks back my friend, Elizabeth, just up and volunteered to come over and help me get rid of the grass that covered half my front yard. (I tore the other half out last year.)

I’m telling you all of this because I learned some really useful things during this most recent sod-removal experience that I wish I’d known a long time ago. And I want to share them with you so you never have to go through as many tins of Tiger Balm (that’s hippie Bengay) as I have. Helpful tip number one: rent a sod stripper. Before this, I’d never tried one but I’d seen one used before by a former neighbor, a voluptuous, chatty young woman who gardened practically in the nude. (Weird.) I figured if she could use the thing, anyone could.

With its long, wooden handles and sharp-edged blade, a sod stripper looks very circa 1800s. Like it ought to be tethered to the back of an ox instead of being maneuvered by Elizabeth, who probably doesn’t weigh much more than 100 pounds.

Pushing the blade forward with her foot, Elizabeth cut my creeping-Charlie-infested lawn into neat strips in just over two hours. Two hours! I’ve been tearing out grass for years with a spade and shovel and I tell you that job would have taken me all weekend. So, all hail the sod stripper. It was well worth the $12 it cost to rent it for an afternoon.

That brings us to helpful tip number two: try to find something useful to do with the sod you dig up. The city of Minneapolis will pick up sod if you bag it like leaves and other yard waste. But you have to shake off most of the dirt because, technically, they don’t pick up dirt, and bags of sod must weigh less than 40 pounds.

If you don’t already know this from experience, let me just say that bagging up sod is a horrible, time-consuming chore made all the longer at our house by my tender-hearted husband, Mike, who has to make sure that all of the earthworms have been safely removed from each chunk before it goes into the bag.

We used our sod to build a few small berms that make our otherwise flat front yard more interesting. To do this, we laid out the sod pieces where we wanted a berm, flipping each one over so the dirt side faced up. On top of these I put three or four sheets of newspaper to help smother weeds. (Spraying the paper with water as you go will keep it from blowing away.) Then we shoveled on a mixture of topsoil, peat moss, and compost that we had delivered the day before. Finally, we covered the whole thing with mulch we hauled from the enormous free-for-the-taking pile down at Lake Calhoun.

I’ve already planted the places where the dirt on the new berms is the thickest. For the lower areas, I’ll wait about a month for the newspaper to biodegrade before planting. I don’t have a lot of other bright ideas for using sod, but I do know from experience that if you throw whole chunks of sod into your compost you will be long dead before they break down into something usable. So scratch that idea.

Oh, and here’s one last totally unrelated thing I’ve recently learned that I want to tell you about. Mary Meyer, an Extension Service horticulturist, sent out an email a few weeks back talking about the relationship between a full moon and the chance of frost. Apparently, there is a well-known correlation between the two because the full moon casts enough heat to clear the sky of clouds. This causes the Earth’s heat to dissipate quickly, allowing a frost to occur. (Snore.) No, actually, this is a great thing for gardeners to know because come next spring when you’re wondering when you can start planting, check to see when the moon will be full. If temperatures are warm like they are this year, and the moon won’t be full until late May, you’d be pretty safe to assume you can fill up your cart at the garden center without fear.

Until next time. Happy gardening!

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to