Ask the Expert: How do I remove my lawn?

By Bruce Reed, SBBG Horticulturist

Originally published as "Ask the Expert: How can I remove my lawn?"
This article is reprinted from Ironwood Vol 20, No 1; Spring 2012

Q: How can I remove my lawn?

A: Your turf grass may be tough, but even the pernicious Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum), is not tougher than you are! Unwanted lawns, or other large expanses of groundcovers and weeds, can be converted to a more diverse, native landscape by concerted efforts of the average homeowner. Although herbicides definitely work, for those who wish to avoid repeated chemical applications, there are other options.

Manual Removal

Manual removal, simply digging it out, is possible but yields mixed results. To eradicate cape primrose (Oxalis pes-caprae), kikuyu grass, or English ivy (Hedera helix), it may be necessary to remove over one foot of soil to eliminate all roots and rhizomes. How thorough your removal efforts are will make a big difference to the outcome. The disposal and transportation of so much soil is problematic, as is the replenishment of your garden soil afterwards.

Sheet Mulching is an effective way to replace your lawn and prepare your garden for a native plant, drought-tolerant landscape

Sheet Mulching is a gentler approach that basically starves unwanted plants to death. In addition this method recycles the dying plants as nutrients, saves precious soil, is easy and requires no particular preparation. To begin, lay down flattened cardboard over the entire area — packing tape can be removed now or later — just make sure the cardboard overlaps significantly so that no lawn is visible. Next, lay down 4-6 inches of wood chips as mulch on top of the cardboard. And then water!

The buried plants continue to grow but cannot penetrate the cardboard. Once you have blocked the sun from the plant, it must use the energy stored in its roots to produce new shoots. Allowing green leaves to form at this point will let the plant replenish its depleted energy. Some vigorous shoots will always find their way between the cardboard, so the success of this method relies on the gardener diligently removing these upstarts. Shoots will get weaker and less numerous, often within the first month. This can mean total control in less than a year, even for tough grasses. To help enrich the soil and speed up the breakdown, consider adding a layer of compost or an organic fertilizer before you begin to lay the cardboard.

Download the "Sheet Mulching from the Ground Up" flyer by Santa Barbara City Water Conservation Program

Planting through Cardboard

You can jumpstart your new landscape by planting right through the cardboard. Clear the mulch where you want to plant, slice the cardboard and plant directly into the turf. Lay the cardboard back down flush around your new plant and reposition the mulch. Keep a close eye and remove weeds as they grow around the new planting. The cardboard usually breaks down within a year.

Certain species are very resistant to eradication. Consistency and tenacity can win over intense opposition.

You may want to take pictures as you go along! Enjoy creating your new garden area!