Lawn Be Gone (2)

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Follow our progress as we convert a thirsty front yard lawn into a vibrant, beautiful habitat garden. We are doing all of the work ourselves, keeping the project as affordable as possible. And we are learning as we go. We’ll be honest with you about what works well and what we could have done better. We look forward to sharing our experiences, and hope you will comment on your own garden adventures.

The project

My son and daughter-in-law (D&K) bought a house in the fall of 2021. The landscaping is neat and tidy, though a bit tame for my taste. And so, I was delighted to learn that they were interested in replacing the front yard lawn with low water use native plants. They want to both save water and provide a good home for neighborhood birds and butterflies. Given the ongoing drought, the time is right to make the change. Cities, including theirs, are giving rebates for turf removal. And so the project begins.

Thirsty turf before the lawn removal began
Tidy lawn in front yard with a beautiful western sycamore that is enjoyed by birds, insects, and other critters.

Removing the lawn

The first step, of course, is to remove the lawn. I wrote about this process earlier (Lawn Be Gone), and so I won’t harangue you again on why I am not a fan of the lasagne method. Suffice it to say, we dove in last spring by mowing the lawn low and cutting off the irrigation. Next we started to cover the lawn with wood chips. We could have bought bags of mulch from a big box store or had a truck load delivered from a landscape supply store. Both options, however, are costly and consume a lot of energy for packaging and transportation. But there was an alternative. Recently, we had some tree work done at my house, and as usual, I asked the arborists to leave the wood chips in my driveway. So with each trip to see my grandkids, I haul a load of mulch.

Wood chips from tree work
Most of the original pile is gone, hauled can by can to D&K’s yard.

Is it working?

According to The Garden Professors, an effective method of lawn removal is to mow the lawn low, pile it high with wood chips and moisten the whole thing to promote decomposition. A thick layer of wood chips cuts off photosynthesis, and the moisture promotes the breakdown of the organic material. Alas, we are in a drought, and we didn’t get the mulch delivered all at once. Our method was to mow low, stop watering, and dump mulch as we can. I am undaunted and patient. It may take a bit longer, but the lawn will die!

Removing the lawn by covering the dried out grass with mulch
Lawn in August. In places, the layer of wood chips is not thick enough to kill the grass, and a thick layer of thatch has not decomposed because the conditions were dry.

The grass dried out during the summer. Heavy rains in early November helped decompose the thatch. The grass is making a feeble attempt to return where the mulch layer is thin, so we are adding more mulch. I wish it would rain again so it would decompose faster, but there is no rain in the forecast for the next few weeks. In order to overcome this minor setback, we are digging out bits of grass along the edges and wherever the grass is poking through the mulch.

Removing the lawn by picking out bits of green grass
Picking out green bits of grass.

Help is on the way

In the next few months, two things will happen that I expect will speed up the magical lawn disappearing act. First the sycamore tree will start to drop its leaves. Last year it did this right after D&K moved in. As new homeowners, the massive quantity of fallen leaves was overwhelming. This year we are counting on the leaves to block the grass-sustaining sunlight. If it doesn’t rain, we will hose the leaves down to keep them in place and to encourage decomposition of both the leaves and the dying lawn beneath them.

(A note on Bermuda and other weedy lawns: As written in the earlier blog post, this technique may not work for Bermuda grass. This weedy urban surviver can grow from small stems deep in the soil. If you have a weedy lawn, you can try what we are doing, but be sure to cover the lawn thickly, and expect to be digging out stragglers for years to come. Do not rototill this kind of grass, since that only chops it up and replants it, effectively revitalizing it.)

Mulched front yard is almost ready to plant
We have been piling on more wood chips and digging out grass along the edge of the garden. The rocks in the center of the yard are the beginning of a swale. During heavy rains, water will collect and infiltrate in this shallow, rocky depression.

Trees matter

Before signing off, I’d like to remind you that one of the most important considerations when making big garden changes is how they will affect existing trees. Trees provide critical habitat, sequester carbon, and add great beauty and serenity to the land. Hence, we decided to continue watering the south side of the front path for the sycamore tree. I know that the roots of that tree extend north of the path where we have stopped irrigating, but water from surrounding neighbors and continued irrigation nearer to the tree will hopefully allow it to continue growing without too much disturbance. Its fallen leaves will cover the lawn beneath it. If it does not rain, we will irrigate the tree through the winter. The thickness of the leaf cover will overwhelm the grass, and the resulting conditions will be healthier for the tree.

More to come

Clearly, there is more to creating a habitat garden than just removing the lawn. Last spring, we not only cut the irrigation on the north half of the front lawn, we also created a plan, and submitted paperwork to the city for the turf-removal rebate. The city approved the project. In future blog posts I will describe the application process and the garden and irrigation plans. And of course, I will honestly report on how well – or not so well – our battle with the grass is going.