Lawn be gone

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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.

Traditional front yard landscape
My house in 1999 a year after we moved in, landscaped with lawn, trees and foundation plants and flowers.

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.

Parkway garden
First bit of lawn removed from parkway strip.

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.)

back lawn removal
Digging out a bit of lawn and inching out the rock border – on the sly

Neglect

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.

side yard lawn removal
Dec 2004
side yard lawn removal
July 2007
side yard lawn removal
August 2008

Smother

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.

Front yard with lawn
St. Augustine lawn, old avocado on west (left) and deodar on east side (right). (Oct. 19, 2011)
Tree damage from windstorm
Windstorm does serious damage to area trees. (Nov 30, 2011)
Wood chips moved off tree and spread
Woodchips are spread in thick layer on lawn. (Dec 25, 2011)
Festuca rubra 'Patrick's Point'
Fescue cultivars planted. Notice that grass is still alive beneath the mulch. (Mar 2, 2012)
All lawn is gone and decomposed with almost no weeds or grass emerging. (Aug 22, 2013)
All lawn is gone and decomposed with almost no weeds or grass emerging. (Aug 22, 2013)

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.

The Future

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.

lawn
Green lawn in January The plan is to start on the right side, making little change under the western sycamore. Next year we will rid the area below the sycamore of lawn, planting shade loving natives in that area. Irrigation and planting will be set to keep the tree healthy.
mowing
Kids try to mow in March
browning lawn
Grass dries out in June
brown lawn
Browning lawn

Earlier posts on this website showing my evolving garden

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.

6 thoughts on “Lawn be gone

  1. Excellent article!

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Thanks, Pamela. I appreciate your support!

  2. Liz Kummerle

    i have used the lasania method with great success just south of sacramento. this is how i did it.1.i let the lawn be overgrown. 2. i wateres heavily. 3.cut lawn and left it in place. 4.put down all kinds of organic matter and when i had it my own compost.and some garden dirt . 5. tear off most tapes and such from cardboard..find someone who sells appliances or get large boxes delivered. soak cardboard thouroughly..in wheelbarough or sm kiddie pool. 6.apply with good overlap.and overlap the edgesnext to sidwalk and driveway 3 to 4 inches. weigh down with bricks and stepping stones…so that grass wont find itself out by the edges.7.cover cardboard with leaves, bark chips, compost and garden dirt if you have it
    .keep watered..lawn will die.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Hi Liz. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the lasagne method (layered mulch) will kill lawn. My concern is that it will reduce aeration near the surface. Many people, like you, have related their successful use of this technique. I have mature trees in my yard, so I have always taken special care to avoid disturbance or reduced aeration for fear of stressing the trees. Stressed trees can take years to exhibit the damage done to them. I think it is good to have these discussions so people can make decisions based on the experiences of other gardeners, as well as scientific studies. Enjoy your garden!

  3. Liz Kummerle

    Duh after 15 to 20 yrs of growing mostly habitat gardens with mostly natives ,going thru 2 drought periods..it has come to me that gardens supporting habitats using Keystone plants ..known to support wildlife be exempt from strict water restrictions!

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Our city requires that residents only water 2 days per week and no more than 15 minutes per zone. Unfortunately this is a terrible practice for trees. They should be watered much less frequently and for a deep soak. There are exceptions for low-volume/drip irrigation but this also is not necessarily appropriate for trees. I agree with you that we should be watering as efficiently as possible with the goal of keeping trees and important habitat plants alive. However, it is a relief to see lawns going brown with the hope that they will be replaced with keystone plants and low water use trees.

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