Lawns are now the number one irrigated crop in the U.S., covering over 40 million acres, three times the land area covered by corn and more than wheat. That is a pretty startling fact. We have gone from a nation of growing food crops to ornamental grass. The statistics on water use, maintenance costs and materials, fertilizer, and other resources for lawn care in this country is even more astounding.
For example, in the U.S.:
- 800 million gallons of gas is burned in lawnmowers every year
- 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on lawns
- 238 gallons of water/ person/ day is used during the growing season
- Outdoor watering accounts for more than half of municipal water use in most areas
From a wildlife perspective, the lawn is a barren wasteland- a monoculture that supports very little insect and animal life. The only animals and insects that do use the lawn are referred to as pests, and most are invasive, or non-native, and people in the U.S. spend millions annually to control them. Certainly, deer, robins and some other wildlife species will feed in or on a lawn, but the reason is often that there is little else left for them.
Removing all or part of your lawn and converting it anything else is one of the best things you can do for sustainable landscaping, increasing biodiversity, and fostering wildlife in your garden. The smaller your lawn, the less stuff you will need to maintain it- we get by with a small reel mower, that takes up little space, is quiet, does not need fuel, is inexpensive (compared to a gas-powered lawn mower) and is fun to use.
Removing a lawn and keeping it away is not that simple, but not that difficult either. It takes care, prep work and patience. It can be done without herbicides or with a very limited amount of herbicides, or with a lot of herbicide if you are so inclined (though I am not). Below are several steps to ensure sucess.
Step one- Rent a sod cutter. If you have an area >100 square feet, I strongly recommend a gas powered sod cutter, if the area is smaller, you can get by with a kick style, manual sod cutter. The reason for using a sod cutter rather than a shovel is that a sod cutter removes the sod just below the rooting depth of the grass and removes very little- just a thin veneer of- soil. This saves (literally) tons of soil. Also, by using a sod cutter the sod is reusable (see below). Whereas if you were to just dig up the sod one shovel-full at a time, it is in a less desirable state for reuse. If you are really determined to use a shovel, use a square-bladed shovel and aim to just skim the sod layer off, as opposed to digging straight down.
Cut and roll up the lawn, and get it away. This is a very satisfying step- instant gratification.
A couple of notes here- do not try to “solarize”, cover, smother, or spray herbicide to kill the lawn. These methods take too long to be effective (if they are ever is effective at all). It just takes a small bit of grass root left behind for the lawn to come back. I am sure there are some situations where it may work, but I do not recommend it. In our climate, the lawn does not really ever die from covering it, maybe after a few years, but who really wants to spend that long. I suspect even after a few years, once it gets some rain, it will re-grow. Still if you do manage to kill it (either with herbicide or from covering it), then you still have to deal with the sod that is there- it is not like the lawn will just decompose to soil.
Once you have cut and removed the sod the best thing to do is to get rid of the lawn. I have tried composting it, turning it over, etc… It takes a really long time to break down and consumes a lot of space in the process. Even if you keep it in a covered pile, there is always the possibility it will start to re-grow.
People want sod and my advice is to give it to them.
The best thing to do is…put a "free" ad in the newspaper (so 1990’s) or Craigslist (so 2008) or MySpace (so 2009 if you under 30). People love sod, and it will be gone before you know it.
Install lawn edging to keep adjacent lawn from getting into beds (if applicable). Use the largest edging you can find (at least 5-6”).
Spot spray herbicide to any roots or things that the sod cutter missed (or dig them out). For example, sometimes the sod cutter will just knock the top off of a huge dandelion. At this point, it might be best to water the site, wait a week, and see if anything germinates, and then remove it or kill it (dig it up, apply herbicide, use a torch, or something), but often is nice to just proceed to the next step, and a lot more gratifying than having a large patch of dirt to watch for a week, while you are waiting for unwanted plants to show themselves. Add any soil amendments, if necessary – the nice thing about native plants here is you do not need this- though you may want to form hills, or raise the elevation of the newly stripped soil
Then, plant your plants- the fun part. Depending on your garden plan, I recommend adding a layer of some sort of weed mat depending on your garden plan. We like to use newspaper, or cardboard. When you lay down newspaper use several overlapping sheets and wet it with a hose to help conform to the contours of the landscape. The thing with newspaper that I like is that it will be around for a few years while things get established, but eventually it will decompose. Landscape fabric is more or less forever but it could be really useful in an area when you do not want any plants to grow (we have some under our clothesline). Finally, mulch heavily! Don’t skimp on mulch- go for an initial 4-6” application of some sort of mulch. Mulch is a really important step; mulch limits weed growth, retains soil moisture and eventually will break down (this can be good, depending on what your plan is). Some people have concerns about mulch, in particular cedar bark, acidifying he soil. I have not found this to be the case, and maybe that is due to our dry climate, but it does decompose in a few years in our yard. In our front yard prairie, we initially added a lot of mulch (see photo above), but this broke down and now you’d be hard pressed to find any (a good thing, see photo below). Mulch is critical for the first year or so to get plants established (even xeric species), and keep out weeds. Even though we chose native, drought tolerant plants, you have to plan on one season or a year (depending on when you plant stuff) in order to get plants established (that means watering and weeding), beyond that, we have not found a need to water. Mulch really limits the amount of time you will spend weeding.