Chipping Away at the Grass: How to Remove Lawn, a Little at a Time

By now, most of us know that the lawn isnt exactly Americas greatest contribution to landscape design. The postage stamp lawns in front of our homes are a dead zone for wildlife barren of pollinators, sucking up precious resources, and taking up room that could be used for a more positive contribution (food? Natives? Beauty?).

But while the alternatives to lawn are beautiful and inspiring, they can be costly and time-consuming to implement all at once. On a limited budget and with limited time off, it can be hard to justify removing a lawn to replace it with a more eco-friendly lawn-like surface, though the benefits are definitely great.

So even though many of us wont be replacing the entirety of our lawns anytime soon, most of us will admit we DO have way more lawn than we use, so reducing our lawn a little bit at a time can be an inexpensive and non-intimidating way of greening our landscapes.

But whats the best way to reduce our lawns? There are a few great tactics that have worked well for me and for my clients, and none of them are difficult or cost much money at all. Here are my suggestions:

If youre lazy but get a lot of parcels in the mail:

Try sheet mulching. This is a tactic I have used to great effect for both myself and clients. You basically put down a neat layer of flattened brown cardboard over your lawn (dampen it first), cover it with 3-6 of manure or compost, and let it sit for a couple of months. The photo below is obviously of a big project, but you can choose to extend your borders a foot at a time if you wish, using this method.

sheet mulching

Its most effective in the damp times of the year, because the worms will enthusiastically chomp through your cardboard and break it down faster when its moist.

Once the lawn is dead and the cardboard has mostly broken down, you can plant whatever you like in whats left, and add whatever mulch you prefer.

The only reason I dont add chips from the beginning is that I have had issues with raccoons burrowing about under the cardboard to find the worms and grubs underneath, and while they dont hurt the cardboard or manure, they really mess up a pretty layer of wood chips.

This is one of those techniques which takes a tiny bit of time before you can plant and finish the area off, but it really works quite well.

That said, I would not use cardboard over and over again in a bed because recent research has indicated that long-term use of cardboard as a weed suppressant can make micro-organisms and worms unhappy, because they cant get enough oxygen. But as a temporary solution, it can be an effective way of getting an area under control.

If you like to eat curry or have one of those crazy zucchini-recipe books:

Plant some squash or pumpkins in your borders and let them travel over parts of your lawn. They are such insane, rampant growers that they will travel over your lawn, shade out portions of it, and give you loads of food for your effort.

get rid of your lawn via squash

The problem here is that while they will kill off the edges of your lawn, they dont do so in a completely predictable, straight-line sort of fashion. I mean, you can trim the shoots to direct their growth, but you will end up with a bit of a wobbly edge to your lawn that youll have to address at some point.

Even so, this is a technique I used in part of my garden to eradicate a 10 by 20 section of lawn between two apple trees. I got a lot of adorable pumpkins and zukes, ate winter curries of pumpkin and coconut milk and found ways of adding frozen zucchini to nearly everything, and thoroughly enjoyed having a clean slate come fall to plant some natives (could the timing be better?).

If youre a perfectionist and have some time:

You can just straight-up hack new lawn borders and buy yourself some extra garden bed space. I did this in a few sections of my own lawn, and I help clients widen beds all the time. If your perennials seem to be constantly spilling into the lawn come summertime, you have two choices: prune the perennials, or remove a bit of lawn (untidy lawn/ perennial co-mingling is not an option I love).

It also works great if youve just come back from a plant sale and need some room to put your new scores, as recently happened to me when my local nursery had a sale on some native perennials!

how to get rid of lawn

To do this, youll need a pulaski (its got an ax on one side of the head, and a sideways ax (called a mattock) on the other side) to hack at the lawn, and some spray chalk or marking paint (both available in the hardware stores spray paint section) to create a pretty line.

First you use the ax side to slice into the lawn along your pretty line, then use the mattock side to peel away the sod (take about 1 of roots as well as the top of the grass). Once youve finished, you can do any planting you like and mulch right away; the lawn shouldnt return.

how to get rid of lawn (2)

how to get rid of lawn (3)

Youll want to be extra-careful to weed for the first few months, because any time you disturb the soil, you may expose new weed seeds. But if you put down a good layer of mulch (3-4) and check for weeds twice monthly, youll be in excellent shape in only a few months.

A word of caution:

Dont forget to think a bit about what your final, ideal garden will look like before replanting any new areas.

If youre planning on removing 3 of lawn every year for 5 years, your borders will end up 15 away from where they are to start, which means that youll need to plan your plantings with that in mind (in other words, dont plant tiny groundcover after tiny groundcover if your bed will eventually be quite deep, as it may look out of scale!).

Want to read more about lawns?

Check out the Garden Designers Roundtable posts on the topic of lawn. Today, theyll be partnering with the Lawn Reform Coalition to blog on the topic of lawn and lawn alternatives.

Photo credits: sheet mulching photo by Hank Chapot on Flickr, zucchini photo by net_efekt on Flickr.

© 2011 2012, Genevieve Schmidt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says

    Wonderful advice. I have waited until the lawn is deeply watered by showers and then have removed turf quite easily. You have given me more food for thought as I weigh my options to lose more lawn.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Thrive

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Donna, so true. The autumn rains are of great benefit in ripping out parts of the lawn.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Lawn Hacks for Organic Gardening Geeks: Garden Designers Roundtable on Lawn Alternatives

      Reply
  2. Kelly Bennett says

    I used the sheet mulch method with great success last fall to create three big island beds in my (small, rented) lawn. I used shipping boxes from a local business, broken down and flattened out, and then the edges trimmed to the desired shape. I then piled all the leaves I raked, plus the leaves that the neighbors on both sides were happy to donate, onto the cardboard, and left it through a rainy Oregon winter. This spring I added added a layer of garden soil to the top of the decomposed leaves, and planted into it. It would have been a huge job removing all that turf; this was so easy by comparison.

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Yay! Isnt it wonderful when people have spare leaves? Im always grateful to certain gardening clients who always have leaf litter to spare. Cant ask for a better winter mulch, and yes its wonderful in sheet mulching!! Holds the moisture in beautifully.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Lawn Hacks for Organic Gardening Geeks: Garden Designers Roundtable on Lawn Alternatives

      Reply
  3. Calvin says

    I replaced my miniscule front lawn with synthetic, which I love (I realize this isnt for everyone, but I had some compelling reasons for it, you can check my blog). At my previous garden, when my wife would travel on business I would cut away several feet of lawn and add plants and boulders, then see if she would notice (she is a lawn lover, me not so much). I found that using a half-moon spade to cut the contour I wanted, then removing a 6 inch or so section of turf just behind it, allowed me to take larger portions of lawn out: I would turn over the removed turf on top of the leave behind, cover that with several layers of wet newspaper, and fill/mulch over the top. The result was a more vertical profile to the new bed area. Because it was at the front of the bed and I generally planted these areas with groundcovers and grasses, I could plant right away. Hooray for lawnlessness!
    Calvin recently posted..Dominion over the land

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Calvin, what great advice. I am with you, 6-inch sections just seem to peel out effortlessly. Sometimes smaller steps make the project much more fun.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants With a Giveaway!

      Reply
  4. Carole Sevilla Brown says

    My next door neighbors house has been abandoned for about a year now, and while it is kind of fascinating to see what is now sprouting in the unmown mess over there, its become quite an eyesore. Im saving up all of my cardboard now and Im going to use your sheet mulch method to squelch the lawn and random weeds. Then Im going to extend my wildlife garden into that yard. It will look much better, and the birds, butterflies, bees, and more will have more habitat. Seems like win-win to me!
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Lets Just Eat the Invasive Plants

    Reply
    • Kathy @nativegardener says

      Carole, how fun.. extending your wildlife garden into another entire yard! Yay!
      Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Topanga is a Special Place

      Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Yay!!! I bet the eventual new owners will be pleased to have some habitat on their land.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants With a Giveaway!

      Reply
  5. Kathy @nativegardener says

    Great post. Makes getting rid of a lawn little by little seem so easy :-)
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Topanga is a Special Place

    Reply
  6. Loret says

    What interesting advice; it all just makes such great sense in a nice slow fashion that would be doable by just about everyone. I love the zucchini/pumpkin plan.
    Loret recently posted..My threatened species.REALLY?

    Reply
  7. Debbie Roberts says

    Gen, Weve used a modified version of the cardboard trick with great success. Instead of cardboard we lay out several sheets of regular newspaper (just the black & white sections), wet it and then add mulch on top. Its so easy and works beautifully. When I tell people about it they usually look at me like Im crazy but then tell me a few months later, hey, you were right
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: A Connecticut Yankee’s Guide to Socially Acceptable Lawn Alternatives

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Awesome! Thanks for the newspaper tip, Debbie! Id rather have people do a paper product than landscape fabric, which I have seen done.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants With a Giveaway!

      Reply
  8. Julie Stone says

    Im extremely eager to get rid of as much of my lawn as possible, but we have bermuda grass, which is constantly creeping back into the flower beds. We have to dig it up, going several inches deep anytime we create or extend a new bed since bermuda has such deep runners. Has anyone had success with the cardboard/newspaper smothering method and bermuda grass?
    Julie Stone recently posted..Some of Our Mammal Friends

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says

      Julie, if I had a deep-rooted grass like that, Id first spray liberally with Blackberry and Brush Block, which changes the pH of the soil slightly to make it less hospitable to plants, then do the smothering technique. Before planting, do a quick soil test to see if you may need to add lime to counteract the Blackberry and Brush Blocks change to the pH.
      You might also benefit from using some deep landscape edging, like headerboard or deeply-set stone or bricks of some kind.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants With a Giveaway!

      Reply
  9. Diane St John says

    Great post! I have a great way of doing this too and have great soil where I have done it. I ask a local landscaper in the fall to dump his big box truck of chopped up leaves in my yard. At first he thought I was crazy but now sees the results! They smother the lawn perfectly in fall and in spring I just dig into them, plunk in a plant and add compost to the hole. The leaves are the mulch. Over the past few years I have made a beautiful large habitat garden in my back yard. Landscapers have to pay the local dump to take these truckloads of gold but in my yard dumping is free! These also feed my compost bin all summer when I need some brown material. I look forward to my fall deliveries this year and covering another good size portion of lawn.
    Diane St John recently posted..Weed and Feed or Asthma? Maybe a little splash of a learning disability? You make the choice.

    Reply
  10. Rebbeca says

    Great post. I was checking constantly this weblog and Im impressed! Very helpful information specially the last section :) I take care of such info much. I used to be looking for this particular information for a very long time. Thanks and best of luck.
    Rebbeca recently posted..Rebbeca

    Reply
  11. Brad Weatherbie says

    I used the sheet mulch technique this spring, & it worked great!

    The area I am converting from lawn to garden this winter is on a steep slope. It is 10-12 feet wide, but it falls about 5-6 feet. Im afraid that whatever I put on top of the cardboard will slide down the hill before spring. Any thoughts on this?

    Also, in the area I did this spring, I used mostly dirt over the cardboard, & I planted the same day. If I use compost (leaves or wood chips) in the fall, will it have decomposed by spring, or will I need to put dirt on top of the compost early next year.?

    Reply

Trackbacks

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