Home & Garden

Losing the lawn

Ever have something in your life that is high-maintenance and drinks too much?

Areas of grass in the garden are just that.

Take a look at the high water bills in the summer and the garage shelves full of remedies to keep it green and moss-free. The things that drive our lawns to be the envy of the neighborhood also are the least eco-friendly ways to garden.

Maybe now is the time. You have pondered removing the lawn. You have heard all the buzz about creating a more sustainable garden. Removing lawn is a part of that progression.

When a mission to remove the lawn is on the list, the next question is: How do you go about it?

The removal of turf is not one of the more pleasant chores in the garden, but it is the beginning to freedom from the maintenance and chemicals of grass.

There are two methods. One requires manual labor and some tools. The other requires a little sweat equity and this newspaper that you’re reading.


Mechanically removing sod is one way to remove sod. Renting a sod cutter and “peeling up” the lawn in strips is one way to remove everything. A sod cutter digs under the roots of turf and cuts it up in strips.

There are walk behind gas-powered versions that need to be used carefully, or there is a manual sod-cutting hand tool which is essentially a blade on a handle or has double handles. It is much like using a shovel. Start it with your foot and push until the blade gets under the grass, then scoot it along and tear it up in manageable pieces.

Both tools, either gas or man-powered, can be tricky on hills or bumpy areas of grass. Be sure to mark sprinkler heads and pipes to avoid damage. You also need to be aware of the location of any buried utility lines – cable, electricity, telephone.

The grass digs up easier if the ground is moist, so doing this in the spring when natural rainfall has kept the ground moist works well. Just remember the more saturated with water, the heavier the sod pieces. This is heavy work and takes help, but is better for the environment than a chemical kill, and the ground is ready to plant right away.

Rolled up old sod, depending on how much is removed, needs to be hauled away, and debris hauling is not an easy option for most homeowners.


A natural and less backbreaking approach is to simply smother your grass. Take away sunlight and nutrients and the lawn will die. The method is simple: take newspaper and cover the area you want to smother, layer compost materials on top.

Recycled newspaper as a ground cover will break down over time. The slow breakdown sufficiently allows time for the lawn and weeds underneath to die. Want to do it? Here’s how, step by step:

Start with a plan. Decide how much and where the grass will be removed. When the grass is gone; know what you are going to replace it with. Look at what it will take to make the space appealing, not just scalped of grass.

Use a combination of plants and interesting shapes; see how it complements the existing landscape. Complete lawn squashing can be daunting. Take it in manageable chunks. Consider removing existing grass areas gradually.

Creating Shape: Draw the actual shape of the area to be removed on the grass. A garden hose or long brightly color rope will do the trick. Lay out the line in the grass and step back to take a look.

You want this to become a part of the yard, not just an area that appears randomly. Look at existing lines and mirror them. Decide where the removal line is.

This will give a firm design look at what it will do for the yard. Gig Harbor Master Gardener Patty McFerran created a beautiful island of mixed plantings in the midst of her lawn eight years ago by piling on newspapers and mulch. She provides a wonderful tip: lay out the line and then dig a 5 -to 6-inch trench on the line. This trench not only will define the border well, but will help keep any remaining grass from creeping back into the new bed.

One last mow: After having a plan and creating the lines, mow the grass very short. The layers of newspaper and mulch will lie down much more flat if long grass has been scalped down.

Now for the layers: Read the news, rip out your favorite coupons and articles then recycle it back to the earth.

Lay newspapers directly on the grass you want to kill. The layer of newspapers must be thick; about 10 sheets (two sections) left closed. Overlap each stack of newspapers by a few inches in all directions. You don’t want to see any ground. Keep a wheelbarrow of mulch nearby and throw a few shovel-fulls as you spread out the newspaper to keep it from moving and blowing around.

Add the organic material: After the area is well covered with newspaper, add a thick layer of soil mix or compost. The choice of topping depends on how soon you want to plant it.

Here is the approach and materials to use for spring planting, and the approach to use later on in the fall:

Spring method and materials: This is ready to be planted in a few weeks. Add a 6 - to 8-inch layer of rich soil mix on top of the newspapers. Wait a few weeks before planting. It is best to allow the soil to become moist and the newspapers saturated underneath. This will allow the layers to settle down under the mulch and then you can dig in.

Fall method and materials: This preparation is for an area that will not be planted this season.

Follow all the steps of layering the newspapers, and then top the area with leaves, grass clippings, wood chips and compost. Use natural debris that is weed free and untreated with chemicals.

The debris eventually will break down, the grass under the newspaper should die within a few months and the debris will naturally compost into a humus. When this method is done in the fall season, this area is ready to be tilled and planted in the spring.

Now all that’s left? Plant and enjoy.

Sue Goetz, CPH, is a garden designer, speaker and writer from Gig Harbor. Visit www.thecreativegardener.com or contact by email to info@thecreativegardener.com