The LA Times has been posting articles on how to garden responsibly during this severe drought. In particular, they are reporting on how Angelenos are replacing thirsty lawns with low water use and native plant gardens. I started delawning my yard 24 years ago. Below is the story of how I went from green to brown without breaking a sweat (I lie, I sweat a lot!).
For those who will not read to the end of this post, here is the simple method that I think works best for getting rid of turf grass. 1. Mow it low; 2. Stop irrigation; 3. Pile on a thick layer – 8-12 inches – of arborist wood chips; 4. Wait; 5. Plant in Fall/Winter; 6. Stay ahead of weeds. At the end of the post I briefly discuss the “lasagne method” and why I do not use it.
My disappearing lawn
I moved into our South Pasadena home in 1998. The yard had five mature trees underlain by a carpet of thick, green St. Augustine lawn. I marveled at how the previous owners kept the lawn so green, but I also knew that I would not water, fertilize, and mow and blow enough to keep it that way. Because I was new to southern California, having moved here two years earlier from the East Coast, I did not feel confident in my knowledge of gardening in this very different climate. So I started slowly.
Dig it out
My first lawn removal project was the side parkway on our corner lot. I dug out small patches of weedy Bermuda grass (no St. Augustine here!), and planted little by little. This was an excellent way to experiment and learn, though my failures were prominent for all to see. I learned that digging out Bermuda grass is back breaking. Furthermore, you have to dispose of the weeds and top soil. In addition, the job of weeding out the stragglers is ongoing. However, I could do it in little pieces, digging, planting, and learning as I went along.
I continued to use this method in little pockets throughout the yard. It was especially helpful in that it allowed me to “disappear the lawn” while my husband – who was not on board with this lawnless philosophy yet – was traveling for work. He’d return from a trip and mention that he noticed the shrinking backyard lawn. At least I didn’t have to get agreement for a wholesale stripping of every piece of turf – though I knew, and I suspect he did too, that that was where I was headed. (It must be said that my husband is now one of my biggest supporters. He absolutely loves our native garden and all of the birds, lizards, butterflies, spiders, moths, and more that reside with us.)
The next project was a small side yard in the dense shade of a large cedar tree. The lawn was pretty nice when we moved in but within a few years (okay, maybe months) it thinned out. Not enough sun, and not enough water. So I stopped watering it altogether and guess what? It just disappeared like magic. I spread oak leaves, created a path, and started to plant what would become the secret woodland garden. Even though this area was a snap to delawn, I thought it was mostly because the conditions were so poor for the struggling turf.
The next lesson in lawn removal came following a big windstorm. In 2011, on the night of November 30th, Santa Ana winds blew through the Pasadena area. Many trees went down. Though we did not lose any trees at our house, the front yard avocado tree was badly damaged. An arborist removed broken limbs so we could see whether the tree would make a comeback.
Because I did not want to send any debris to a landfill, a large pile of mulch and many thick pieces of wood remained after the trees were cleaned up. I spread the mulch on the western half of the front yard, directly on top of the robust St. Augustine lawn. Although I was afraid the lawn would die leaving a thick, impenetrable mat, this did not happen. Yes, the lawn died, obviously, but it all just disappeared into a nice layer of organic soil. The soil organisms did their jobs well.
I think that the message is clear; our climate is not supportive of turf. Gardeners have to work hard to maintain a lush, green carpet, so if life support is removed, the lawn will die. Weeds, whether Bermuda grass, oxalis, or nutsedge, will continue to appear. You must be vigilant, especially in the beginning, to remove these undesirables before they can spread throughout the garden. This is true, however, for any method of lawn extirpation, whether it be cardboard, digging, solarization or even chemical warfare.
I have not started a new garden in many years. My son and his family, however, just moved into a new house. The landscaping is lovely… and green. Alas, we are in a serious drought, and the future does not bode well for the jarring green we have come to expect. Brown is the color of the future here in southern California!
When my son and daughter-in-law asked for my help in turning the front lawn into a low water use garden, I jumped in with both feet. This is the moment I have looked forward to for so long. In fact, I wrote a book, Wild Suburbia – Learning to garden with native plants, with this in mind. It was my way of passing along my gardening experience to my kids and all of the young people who are just starting gardens of their own. (The book is out of print but you can get an e-book on Amazon, and there may be some copies available at Theodore Payne Foundation, California Botanic Garden, or The Huntington Gardens Book Store.)
As I examine the browning turf grass, I wonder whether I am being foolish. How can this dense mat disappear without at least digging it out? But I will stay firm and hope that my kids are too busy to start digging. I will keep you apprised of our progress so you will see whether this lazy, simple, direct approach is the right approach.
Earlier posts on this website showing my evolving garden
- Lawn-less Sustainable Garden Finale, Apr 10, 2018
- Lawn-less sustainable garden, Jan 13, 2018
- Smother it, Mar 6, 2015
- Disappearing lawn, July 10, 2013
- I used to have a lawn but now I have less, Sept 24, 2009
- Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lawn, Jan 24, 2009
A Word About The Lasagne Method
The lasagne method of lawn removal has been featured and recommended frequently in newspapers and on social media. However, this, like much in horticulture, is not without controversy. I am a big fan of Garden Professors for science-based horticultural information. Way back in August 2015 Linda Chalker-Scott wrote a short piece explaining why she thinks that using cardboard as mulch to transition from lawn to garden is a bad practice. Chalker-Scott’s main reason for opposing layers of cardboard and mulch is that they interfere with air and water exchange beneath and above the soil. Cardboard is a tough material designed for shipping. It may be coated to make it moisture resistant. It contains adhesives, and though not included in the article, reused cardboard frequently has plastic tape and labels on it. The article includes a link to a study on gas permeability beneath mulch and cardboard.
The Garden Professors’ post, How to get rid of your lawn, recommends an easy, cheap and effective method. It is the method that I have used with great success.