What To Know When Taking Out A Lawn

What To Know When Taking Out A Lawn

An expansive green lawn may be a hallmark of our landscapes, but with the water restrictions we have been having over the last few years, a growing number of people are looking for more water-wise, wildlife-friendly or low-maintenance alternatives. If you’re ready to embrace a different landscape look, your first step will be to remove the existing lawn. Here are the steps to take to lose your lawn as well as other tips and ideas for transforming your landscape.

Reasons For Losing Or Reducing The Lawn

The reasons to remove a lawn can vary. Homeowners in arid regions may want to conserve water. Wanting a more natural-looking or wildlife-friendly yard, such as a meadow or a native garden, also may be a factor.

Location and terrain also play a role. Grass in shady areas or riddled with tree roots may be sparse and unhealthy. A slope may make it difficult to mow and control runoff. In these circumstances, the best move may be to replace the lawn with plants that are better suited to the growing conditions.

Lawns also require regular and sometimes extensive maintenance, from watering and mowing to feeding, reseeding and dealing with weeds and pests. A large stretch of lawn does not provide the biodiversity needed for a healthy garden and soil.

Whom To Hire

If your lawn area is small, you may consider doing some of the work yourself. However, even simply digging up a patch of lawn takes time and effort. Some removal methods require extra preparation and equipment, additional materials or both, compared with just digging with a shovel or spade.

A landscape professional can provide the expertise and experience to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Look for contractors who focus on eco-friendly and sustainable practices, as they also can help you with eco-friendly lawn disposal options.

If you’re working with a architect or other professional as part of a larger outdoor renovation, he or she will be able to help you and recommend pros for the project.

Design Considerations When Removing A Lawn

Deciding to remove the lawn is your first step, but you’ll also want to consider what you want to replace it with. You can browse through the landscape photos to find ideas or, if you already have a style in mind, to narrow your options. Create an ideabook to capture what appeals to you to share with your designer.

Walk through your neighborhood or surrounding areas as well. Are there front yard designs you like? Do any plants call to you? Snap some photos as a memory aid. A knowledgable landscaper in your area will be able to help refine your vision and get you started.

4 Methods For Removing The Lawn, And When To Do It

There are four basic methods for removing lawns in an eco-friendly manner. Each has its pros and cons, depending on the amount of lawn you plan to remove, your timeline and your personal preferences.

The first two options listed below will allow you to replant fairly quickly. The second two require more time until you can replant. Whichever method you use, you will want to incorporate fresh soil and compost to help the new plants thrive.

Dig It Out

If you have a fairly small patch of lawn, digging out the sod with a spade or flat-head shovel may be the logical choice. You can do it yourself, if you feel able, or hire someone with experience to take on the task for you. Some pluses include not having to rent equipment or maneuver it into place. You also can replant fairly quickly.

This process will take time and a great deal of physical effort, even for small spaces. You’ll need to work in small sections and remove enough of the grass to get the roots out without taking out too much of the good soil beneath.

Pro Tip: Water the area you want to remove beforehand so it is moist but not soggy, to make digging easier.

Cut The Sod

For larger areas that you want to replant immediately, using a sod cutter is the best option. The sod cutter will cut the grass out in strips, allowing it to be easily removed. You can also transplant grass removed this way.

While both digging and cutting the sod out will remove the majority of grass seeds, some may still remain and germinate. You will need to watch for wayward patches of grass in the future and weed them out.

Sheet-Mulch It

This method smothers the existing grass while adding nutrients to the soil. It works in sun and shade. Layers of organic materials, including cardboard, newsprint and compost are laid over the grass, topped by mulch. The layers cut off the sunlight, causing the grass to die. The organic materials also decompose, adding nutrients to the soil.

Sheet mulching is not a quick solution. Plan on a minimum of six months to a year before you can replant. You’ll also need to keep the layers of materials in place throughout that time. While you can install new plantings in the space, you’ll need to protect them and their roots from being smothered as well as ensure that they get the water and nutrients they need to grow.


Solarize It 

This lawn removal method uses sun power to kill the grass and sterilize the top few inches of soil. A sheet of clear plastic is placed over a wet lawn and held in place around the edges. The heat of the sun, accelerated by moisture, kills off the grass as well as any weeds, pathogens and bugs in the soil.

This process is best done in summer and takes about six to eight weeks from start to finish. After the lawn dies off and turns a straw-like brown, wait another two weeks and then remove the plastic. Add amendments to the soil to ready it for planting.

While solarization is effective and faster than sheet mulching, some garden experts question the process, as it kills off beneficial insects and bacteria.

Other Considerations When Losing The Lawn

Regulations And Permits

Check for any local regulations or Strata rules regarding landscaping before removing your lawn. Also, make a plan for disposing of the resulting soil and lawn outside of a landfill.

You’ll also want to note underground electrical, plumbing and irrigation lines as well as sewer channels, to avoid disturbing them.

Local Incentive Programs

Many cities, have programs to encourage replacing lawns with more eco-friendly options. These often specify a ratio of hardscape-to-plant replacement and include recommended plant lists, which can be extensive. 

Good places to learn about these programs are local gardening stores and universities. They can direct you to resources designed for your locale.

When To Do This

Where you live and the method you choose will determine when to start this project. In all cases, if you live where it snows or is very rainy and muddy during winter, you’ll want to wait until the snow melts or things warm up.

If you’re considering digging up the lawn or cutting the sod, any time you can work the soil is fine. Keep in mind that you’ll want to replant relatively quickly after you remove the soil, so choose a time that’s optimal for putting in new plants — generally spring or fall.

You can sheet-mulch year-round whenever the soil is reasonably dry. You’ll ideally want to be ready for either spring or fall planting. Solarization is best done in summer, to take advantage of the summer sun.

How Long It Will Take

Digging up the soil or cutting the sod generally takes a few hours to a day or two, depending on the size of the project. You can do it right before you plan to plant.

With sheet mulching, it can take up to a year for the soil to be ready for planting. You can add some plants during this time, although you’ll need to be sure they get moisture and sunlight. Plan on six to eight weeks for the entire solarization process.


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