Whether your lawn is a hot mess of weeds, you want to start a vegetable or pollinator garden, you want to make your chemical-guzzling lawn more eco-friendly, or you’re just hoping to get off the endless cycle of lawn care, you know one thing – your lawn has to go. So how do you get rid of your lawn for good?
The best 3 natural ways to get rid of your lawn is solarization, sheet mulching, and a sod cutter. Before you use any method, mow the grass as short as possible to scalp it. If you have tap rooted weeds or aggressive rhizomatic grass like Bermuda or crabgrass, then only use solarization or sheet mulching.
However, you don’t need to remove the entire lawn all at once. You may still have a use for a bit of grass – your children may love to play outside, you may like to host the occasional family barbeque, or a household member isn’t ready to give up the idea of a lawn, even if they never use it.
When combined with organic lawn care methods, grass is still better for the environment than concrete or asphalt, as grass is still a living plant that cleans the air, keeps soil from eroding, absorbs rain runoff, and cools you in the summer.
Instead, you can cut away parts of it to create garden beds or other landscaping features. It’ll also give you more time to try out replacement options and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t before you spend the time and money converting your entire lawn.
You can also combine different methods for different spots, like the long-term sheet mulching for the main lawn with a quick double-dig for a quick garden.
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How To Get Rid Of Your Lawn
So why would you want to get rid of your lawn in the first place? You may wish to:
- Reseed or resod with a different grass species or a grass alternative that is lower maintenance, more eco-friendly, or otherwise better suited to your yard’s conditions.
- Create a new garden bed for growing flowers or vegetables.
- Get rid of an ailing lawn, one that’s thinned, succumbed to an untreatable disease, or been entirely taken over by weeds.
- Reduce or eliminate your use of synthetic fertilizer, gas for the lawn mower, herbicides, and pesticides that are damaging our local waterways, causing pollution, and eradicating beneficial insects.
- Replace your existing grass with a more drought-tolerant grass.
But not all lawn removal methods will work for you and your yard. Before choosing, consider:
- What kind of grass do you have? You can use any of the below methods to get rid of clump-forming grass like fescues, but if you have Bermuda, Kikuyu, or another aggressive rhizomatic species, then you need to steer clear of methods that chop up and leave rhizomes like double digging and sod cutters.
- How big of an area are you removing? Double digging is free and quick on a small area, but it’s too much labor for large areas. Solarization and sheet mulching can work on large areas, but only if you have enough tarps or cardboard.
- How much time do you have? If you’ve got time, solarization and sheet mulching are the two most effective methods against all types of grass with the least amount of labor. But if you need to get planting now, you may need to invest in a sod cutter or use double digging.
- What are your physical capabilities? Be realistic. Your mind might be willing to double dig to save money and get a garden bed immediately, but your body may not be. You may be better off recruiting a volunteer or hiring someone to remove your grass for you. Also, remember that you don’t need to convert your entire yard at once, but you can start chipping away at it. This slow approach ends up with a better garden.
Double digging is flipping the sod so its grass side is down and the soil underneath is on top. This process kills the grass by starving it of sunlight and enriches the soil with decomposing grass matter.
- All you need is your muscles and a sharp shovel.
- Fast results – it takes as long as it takes you to double dig the area.
- By flipping the sod, the grass will decompose and become plant nutrients. It’s also less disruptive to the beneficial microbes and insects living in the soil than using a tiller.
- Double digging is hard work! You may need to recruit some other family members or friends to help or hire someone. (If you recruit volunteers, treat them to something special afterward!)
- Not effective for rhizomatic grasses (like Bermuda) or weeds with deep taproots. They will breach the new surface. For these grasses, follow up with sheet mulching to kill them off. You can still plant through the sheet mulch.
How To Double Dig:
- Make sure your shovel is sharp, and if needed, sharpen it.
- Mark out the area you need to double dig, either using markers and/or scoring into the sod with a shovel.
- In the first corner, cut out the shape of the first piece – it’ll be the same width and length as the width of your shovel. The cuts should be 10 inches deep.
- Use the cuts to dig under the piece – 10 inches deep – and lift the piece free.
- Set the first piece aside.
- Move on to the next square and repeat the cutting and lifting process.
- Flip that piece onto the hole left by the first piece with the sod down, soil up.
- Repeat that process until you have finished the area. You’ll have one hole left.
- Take the first piece and flip it into the remaining hole.
- Rake the soil until it’s even.
Walk-Behind Sod Cutter
A walk-behind sod cutter is a motorized piece of equipment that cuts down between one to three inches deep and rolls up the sod.
- Less laborious than double digging, although it can still require physical labor.
- Fast results – you can remove your lawn in less than a day.
- You can compost the remaining sod, use it to create a mound, or flip it over grass-side down like in the double digging method to compost in place.
- Works great for large areas.
- Renting a sod cutter is expensive. You also need to drive out to the hardware store to pick it up and take it back.
- Doesn’t cut deep enough to remove deeper rooted, rhizomatic grass species like Bermuda. So long as even one inch of rhizome remains, Bermuda will come back.
- Can damage shrub and tree roots.
- Still labor intensive.
- Motorized sod cutters use gas, adding to the cost and environmental impact.
How To Use A Sod Cutter:
- Remove all the debris from your lawn.
- Mow your grass using the lowest setting possible.
- Water your lawn a few days before removing it. The grass should be dry.
- Measure and mark out the area you want to remove and mark any sprinkler heads or other features you need to watch out for.
- Test a small section of sod to check that the depth is set correctly (between 1.5 to 3 inches) and that the blade is level with the ground.
- Run the sod cutter over the rest of the area, overlapping with the previous area to avoid leaving strips of grass.
- Cut your sod rolls into smaller sections for composting or roll it out grass side down if you’re going for a double digging approach.
Solarization is the grass removal method that turns the sun into the grass’ greatest enemy. It uses sunlight to heat the soil to boiling temperatures that kills plants, weed seeds, nematodes, and even pathogens.
- Faster than cardboard sheet mulching, requiring only a couple weeks.
- Heats the existing grass and other plants to boiling temperatures, and the plants decompose to provide nutrients. It also kills weed seeds, pathogens, nematodes, and weed seeds.
- Pretty inexpensive – all you need is a plastic tarp.
- You can reuse the tarp, provided it has UV protection.
- The soil further down is unaffected. Beneficial microbes and fungi can survive or bounce back quickly after solarization.
- Takes a couple of weeks and only works during the summer heat. Great if you have long summers and intense sunshine, not so great for areas with short summers or cooler temperatures.
- You’ll have the plastic tarp leftover. Great if you need to do this more, but if you don’t, it’s essentially trash. You can also keep the tarp in place for a mulch and cut holes into it for planting.
- You may need an assistant to help put the tarp in place.
- Need a windless day, as a windy day makes it harder to get the tarp to do what you want.
- Clear tarps are not effective on some warm-season grasses like Bermuda, which like the higher heat. In that case, look at sheet mulching, or use a black tarp for a combined solarization and sheet mulching approach.
How To Use Solarization:
- Obtain a plastic tarp (or several) that’s big enough for the area you wish to remove. Clear plastic is usually better than black, because clear plastic traps heat rather than absorbing and deflecting like black plastic, but in cooler, cloudier regions, go with black because weeds can’t grow underneath them like they can with clear plastic. Thinner tarps (1 mil) will provide greater heating, but thicker plastics (1.5 to 2 mils) are less susceptible to tearing from the wind or animals.
- Remove any debris, mow the grass short, and break up any soil clods to create a smooth bed that the plastic tarp can fit snuggly. Otherwise, air pockets form, which can reduce the amount of heat and cause it to flap in the wind.
- Dig a trench 4 to 6 inches deep around the area to bury the edges of the tarp.
- Water the soil at least 12 inches deep. You may need to water shallowly multiple times to get the soil moist enough without runoff.
- Apply the tarp immediately after watering to prevent evaporation. If the soil dries, you’ll have to water again – any additional irrigation will lower the soil temperature, meaning it’ll take longer.
- Bury one edge of the tarp in the trench using soil.
- Holding the other edge tight so the tarp lies flat over the soil, bury that edge under the soil.
- Continue this process until the tarp is fully secured.
- Leave the tarp in place for a period of time. How long depends on the soil temperature and the weather. The area needs to maintain a daily maximum temperature between or above 110F to 125F in the top 6 inches. For most sunny and hot conditions, you’ll need to leave it in place for 4 to 6 weeks. Under cooler and cloudier conditions, you may need to leave it in place for up to 8 weeks.
- Remove the tarp or cut holes into it for planting (like a plastic mulch). Avoid cultivating the soil, as you may bring up viable weed seeds and pathogens.
Sheet mulching, AKA sheet composting, uses a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper to kill grass, weeds, and other plants by starving them of sunlight.
- Effective all year round, regardless of how many sunny, hot days you get.
- The cardboard breaks down over time, enriching your soil with carbon.
- You can use it in combination with other methods, like solarization, allowing you to grow plants while sheet mulching around them.
- Very cheap. All you need is cardboard or newspaper (non-toxic ink), compost, and a mulch or rocks to hold the cardboard down.
- You can do this effectively by yourself with very little labor.
- The beneficial microbes and fungi beneath the surface remain intact.
- Effective on all grasses, including Bermuda and crabgrass.
- Takes much longer than the other methods – between 6 to 10 months, or at least one growing season.
- Need to install on a windless day.
- Won’t eradicate pathogens or weed seeds.
How To Sheet Mulch:
- Remove any debris and mow the grass at its lowest setting.
- Water the soil. You may need to water shallowly multiple times to water the soil deep enough to prevent runoff.
- Spread 1 to 2 inches of compost over the area.
- Apply cardboard or newspaper that’s 5 to 8 sheets thick over the compost, overlapping them so there are no gaps or holes. If you’re using newspaper, you’ll need to water it lightly to hold it down.
- Use rocks or 4 to 6 inches of mulch to hold the cardboard down.
- Wait 6 to 10 months. Before fully removing, check underneath to see if the grass has died. (Note: you may find rhizomes in the soil, not because the grass is necessarily alive, but because it takes much longer for these to decompose.)
- You don’t need to remove the mulch to plant, just pull it away from where you wish to plant.
Removing your lawn doesn’t have to be difficult with the right method. And don’t forget – you can combine any of these methods with each other, whether on the same patch of ground or in different places. It’s really up to you.
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