How to get rid of your lawn

With increasing interest in reducing monocultural swaths of turf, summer water consumption, and the drudgery of mowing, many people are eliminating part or all of their lawns.  We did this at home some years ago and can attest to the tangible benefit of reduced water bills during our dry summer months.

The question I often get is – how? Do you dig up the turf and throw it out, then fill in with topsoil? Or do you cut it, flip it, and then plant on top of it? Or do you cover it up with cardboard to kill it?

We’ve tried all of these methods over the years (except sheet mulch, because you already know what I think about that).  What I now recommend is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to both remove turf and protect the soil. Here it is in four easy steps:

1) Mow your lawn as close to the ground as possible. Scalp it. If you can wait until it’s not actively growing (summer here in the west), that’s even better. Don’t water it!

2) Cover it up with – yes, you guessed it – a really thick layer of arborist wood chips.  They need to be at least 8″ thick and can be as much as 12-18″ deep without negative effects. They will settle quickly, so you do need to put enough down to maintain a 6-8″ depth after a few weeks. The depth is important to suppress the turf as well as any persistant weeds (like those you can see in the above photo).

3) Wait. Turf decomposition will depend on temperature and water availability – warm and moist conditions are optimal. After 2-4 weeks, pull part of the mulch back and check out what’s underneath. When it’s easy enough to dig through, then you can…

4) Plant. Be sure to move the mulch aside and plant into the soil. Replace the mulch to cover the disturbed soil and keep the weeds down. It only needs to be 3-4″ deep at this point.

It’s that easy.

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

59 thoughts on “How to get rid of your lawn”

  1. You don’t plant anything in the wood chips. You wait until the lawn is dead, move the chips aside, plant, and then cover the bare soil with a thinner layer of the chips (or whatever mulch you like). Consider the chips a “place holder” for future plants, hardscape, etc. They just keep the area weed-free until you’re ready.

    1. I’d still be concerned about that much wood chips over tree roots if the area is large. Doesn’t sound like the best idea to me. But in an area without tree roots or a small area, sounds fine.

      I do like using thin newspaper, though, in small areas–just two sheets to slow down the grasses, etc., long enough to kill them. It’s thin enough that it doesn’t interfere with water penetration. Don’t have to move the wood chips after.

      For greenbriar, I had to go nuclear and use carpet for two years. I could not mow in that area at all to keep it down due to the slope, and there was just too much to Roundup, but that would be pretty terrible for tree roots, I’m sure.

      When I did, I’m a turf flipper. The turf is often the only real area of top soil you’ve got in a typical yard.

      1. Published and ongoing research has demonstrated that thick layers of wood chips benefit woody root systems. There are no ill effects, since water and gas transfer are not inhibited.

        You would be surprised on how long newspaper will last and how much water it inhibits. I do a demo were I put wet newspaper over a clear container and then puddle water on top of it. There’s no water movement through the paper except for an occasional drip. Air movement would likewise be impeded. You can imagine that wet newspaper over your face would not be very easy to breathe through.

        You also don’t need to flip turf, nor should you want to. It disrupts both the root/mycorrhizal network and soil structure. Best to leave it in place.

        So while I appreciate your successes, they are ultimately only anecdotal. There is no research to support the use of any sheet mulches as a superior method of weed control while preserving soil and root health.

        1. I’m glad to hear that even thick wood chips don’t inhibit oxygen and water! I’d heard that beyond 2-4″, it was a problem.

          The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but one kind of experiment doesn’t always include all cases. For example, if you want to kill greenbrier, 8″ of mulch will not do it. A foot or more won’t. I tried that. I have a very large lot and a wood chipper, and I tried using the area for storing wood chips and leaves for later use on it after cutting all the greenbrier to the ground. Greenbrier will happily pop through a pile of wood chips 12-18″ thick and then laugh at you. You have to use brush killer or REALLY thick sheet mulch to kill it, and even with the thick sheet mulch, you need heavy wood chips over it, or you’ll have to go out monthly and stomp it down as the greenbrier lifts it up. That probably does terrible things to other roots, so yes, it wouldn’t qualify as preserving soil health at all! But for us, since the greenbrier had pretty much killed all the trees around there by the time we’d moved in (except for tree-of-heaven…of course…argh), I wasn’t worried about that at that point. Nothing was going to grow there successfully until the greenbrier was gone.

          Most people want to plant pretty quickly after they establish a new bed. Careful sheet mulching, if you don’t have anything too vigorous underneath, allows for this pretty much immediately, depending on what you’re trying to smother and how well you were able to scalp or weed it ahead of time. Putting 8″+ wood chips doesn’t. So 8 inches of chips are better, but if it’s an option that people aren’t interested in because they want instant gratification, it isn’t really viable. If you’re planning well ahead, though, it would be.

          Being lazy, I will establish the bones of a shrub border just by throwing shrubs straight into our clumping-type lawn. (But this wouldn’t work in one that spreads by vigorous runners.) When I do that, I scalp, dig a hole (usually 1.5 times the size of the plant at the surface because it always tapers), and I flip the turf when I backfill. This kills the grass right under the dripline of the shrub so I don’t have to weed it later. Try that with some of the runner types, and they wouldn’t die, but the clumping ones die pretty well. Then I mulch heavily, with arborist or self-made wood chips when I have them and stuff in bags when I don’t, about 4-5″ deep away from the plants and 2″ under. With clumping grasses and clover, this is generally enough to knock them back long enough to die, but if I don’t flip the sod around the shrubs, it will grow back under just 2″ of mulch,especially with the supplemental water I give right to the shrubs (I avoid supplemental watering the rest of the area).

          Of course, if I got 8″ of wood chips and just left it on the ground for a few months, my native soil would be a lot nicer when I came to stick plants in it. Wood chips are amazing with how they transform the soil under them. But for the people who buy a rack of plants and then go, “now what?” that doesn’t work as well. And for people who decide to actually start that bed they’ve been planning for years….

  2. Ive used a ‘more labor but faster results’ method on smaller spaces. I dug up the turf with a shovel (4 inches deep or so), put it aside, dug up the soil (at least 6 inches), put the turf in the bottom of the trench, and replaced the soil on top. Then mulched. I searched a while ago for studies comparing methods (black plastic, sod cutting, herbicides, etc) but didn’t get far.

  3. I’m now sure this will work. it depends on the type of the lawn (the grass itself) and the climate conditions.

  4. There’s no doubt it will kill the grass. The mulch layer eliminates sunlight and the grass will die from lack of photosynthate. That’s why the mulch layer needs to be thick – so that the turf can’t use its last resources to push through. This method is a home landscape adaption of our restoration work (which we published in 2005) describing how to punch back perennial weeds like blackberry and give newly installed native plants a chance to get established. The only conditions I could see where this wouldn’t work would be either a desert environment or an extremely cold landscape (not enough water and too cold, respectively, for microbial decomposition). Under those conditions, you wouldn’t have a lawn, either.

  5. It’s me again. When I researched lawn removal I was told by people who’d used this method that it doesn’t take long to kill grass but for it to decompose takes about 6 months. Under this method aren’t you planting directly into the dead but fully intact sod?

  6. Hi Susan – it’s really environmentally dependent. The warmer and moister the conditions are, the faster decomposition goes. Mulching with fresh wood chips pretty much guarantees a warm mulch, speeding up decay. In my experience it takes much less than 6 months to decompose, especially in the summer. In the fall and winter, however, it will take longer. So timing is everything. The only thing left intact is that dratted mesh they use for producing sod. From a practical standpoint, you might mulch over turf a good 3 months before you want to plant. It gives you lots of time to plan! It also gives the soil a chance to recover from being compacted (as many lawns are), making it much easier to plant.

  7. So once you’ve covered the lawn with wood chips do you keep it dry or water every once in a while to help speed decomposition?

  8. Good question, Marie! I’ve never had to do this, but you can do a quick check to make sure it’s moist. (I should mention that I do this in the summer, when Seattle gets little to no rain for many weeks.) The top few inches will be dry (which is good – it keeps blown-in weed seeds from germinating). Reach down a little deeper. You should find that the mulch is moist as you get closer to the old sod. If not, you could always add water. Even though I’ve never had to add water, a hotter (and equally dry) climate might need a little water added. Good idea to check.

  9. I just found your books and this site, and I am so grateful–they’re a huge help in sorting through all the gardening folklore out there! I recently bought a house and am starting to build a garden in the backyard (Olympia, WA). I’ll use the approach you describe for lawn areas, but in a big swath of the yard (the part that would be the best site for vegetables and perennials!) the previous owners scalped off the sod, put down landscape fabric, and covered it with pea gravel. The soil underneath the fabric appears to have a hardpan layer close to the surface. What would you advise here? Maybe woodchips with a layer of compost underneath? Also, any general advice for dealing with hardpan?

  10. Kitty, the first thing to do is find out, approximately, what kind of soil you have. (Since it’s raining today, you won’t have to moisten it.) Rub some of it between your fingers. Does it feel gritty? Does it form a ribbon? Unless it’s good and sticky (forms a ribbon), it doesn’t have much clay, in which case I would do exactly what you suggest. Put down 1-2″ compost, then top off with 4″ or so of wood chips. Let it sit. It’s probably just heavily compacted and needs a chance to recover function. If it *is* heavy clay, don’t add the compost and just topdress with chips. Heavy clay doesn’t drain well and in addition is already full of many mineral nutrients. The wood chips are coarse enough not to impede water and air movement.

  11. Thanks so much, Linda! I went out and did some excavating with the help of a digging bar, and…it’s actually a bit scary. There’s the top layer of pea gravel, with the landscape fabric beneath it. Under the fabric is a thin (1-2″) layer of loamy topsoil, in very nice shape. Under that is a 4-5″ layer of hard-packed older gravel (which I first thought was hardpan), impermeable to spade/fork but which can be broken up fairly easily with the digging bar. And under *that* — is an old layer of plastic sheeting. Under which is solid heavy clay. (Dun-colored, sticky, ribboning.)

    I think, once I get the pea gravel/fabric off, I may just use the bar to loosen up the sub-layer of gravel and punch holes in the plastic, layer compost and woodchips on top, and call it a day, keeping to vegetables, annuals, and shallower-rooted perennials in that part of the yard. Raised beds could be another approach. I don’t know that I can deal with getting the layer of plastic dug out, and the gravel layer on top of it does at least seem to be helping with drainage.

    Anyway, thanks again, and of course I’d be grateful for any other ideas you might have.

  12. The idea that a lawn needs to be killed is so exotic to me. In southern California all you have to do is stop irrigating. One summer later, just stomp over the crispy remnants and watch them fall into the cracks in the soil. No more lawn!

  13. Kitty, I think your approach is probably the best. You’ll probably have a perched water table there, regardless of what you do. We also have an area of our yard with clay underlying a relatively shallow topsoil. (Check the entry on March 12 and 15 for more on perched water tables). Groundcovers and other shallow-rooted plants do ok there, but typical trees and shrubs do not. We’re going to put a deck over part of this area, which is functionally useless for landscape plants.

  14. Thank you for posting this. I got my first free load of arborist wood chips delivered this weekend and am going to use this technique to build my vegtable beds.

    I have another question. I took a Seattle Public Utilities class on designing a home drip irrigation system. While the class was chiefly about drip irrigation, the instructor also advised us not to use soaker hoses on vegtables and fruits because they are made of recycled tires and will therefore leach harmful chemicals into the soil. The instructor said this a known risk because of reserach done on the recycled tire prodcut used on playgrounds. When I did my own preliminary research, I could not find any scientific studies to back up this claim. What do you think about soaker hoses? Is there any known risk from the plastic tubing used in drip irrigation systems?

    Thank you and your fellow garden professors for this blog.

  15. A few years ago I client of mine made me a call to get rid of the lawn he had in the back yard and the reason why was the water bill. The cheapest way to fix this problem was to mulch it all over, but after having it that way he wanted a wood deck over the area.

  16. Black plastic bags covering the area you’d like to work on and few days after that lawn will be gone. We use weed-barrier to get rid of the lawn and to make sure it won’t grow underneath the wood deck. Thanks for reading.

  17. Black plastic will not only kill your lawn but anything else in your soil that uses oxygen. It’s not a soil-friendly way to eliminate lawn, and I don’t recommend it. (And weed barrier is not a permanent fix – it breaks down and is quickly colonized by weeds.)

  18. Organic gardeners often wonder how to kill grass and eliminate lawns without excessive work! Using black plastic to kill grass and weeds is an easy, inexpensive and environmentally friendly option.

  19. OK, Deck Builders Miami, I’m going to assume that you aren’t reading what’s being posted here. If I get one more spammy type of posting (by which I mean one that flies in the face of any scientific evidence), I’m going to delete all of your postings.

  20. It was not our intention to disagree with you. We tried to give our opinion based on our experience, thinking on a different way to get rid of the lawn.

  21. It’s okay to disagree! But for this blog, it has to be science-based disagreement. Plastic has been definitively shown to injure soil life, based on its reduction of water and gas transfer. It can’t possibly be construed as environmentally friendly. (We get so much spam on the site that we have to constantly monitor whether comments are real or generated. Thanks for replying!)

  22. Esther, you can use any kind of chips you like, as long as they are relatively coarse. I tend to prefer conifer chips just because they smell so good. Usually I get fir, but yesterday we just got our annual load and it’s pine this year.

  23. Would this be a safe technique to use under a mature dogwood? I want to remove my lawn so I can landscape under the tree but I’m concerned about its shallow root system.

  24. So, suppose suppose you were lazy and planted some small trees first… and then built the bed around it. Would tree’s be hurt by the amount of mulch it takes to kill grass? Obviously I’d keep it several inches away from the trunks, as the grass there is already dead anyway.

  25. I’m all for the layering method. That’s what Mother Nature does. When I first moved to my property, I spent a couple of days cutting turf in order to make flower beds. I still have to fight the grass in those spaces.

    As I got smarter, I realized that layering leaves (carbon rich), arborist chips (also carbon rich), and grass clippings (nitrogen rich) was a much better way to kill the grass without exposing weed and grass seed. It heats up nicely as it decomposes, and also encourages beetle, worm, and rodent activity to turn over the soil on your behalf. The only thing it doesn’t do is remove rocks.

    If I had it all to do over again, I’d have been out encouraging arborists to dump their wood chips at my place and would have spent the first year there “designing” the flower beds on my acre with piles of wood chips.

  26. I live near Sacramento ca. I want to try your lawn killing method on a broad swath of grass under very old blue oaks. Will the decomposing 12 inches of wood chips generate so much heat that they kill the oaks’ surface roots or otherwise hurt them? The oaks are accustomed over many decades to summer water unfortunately. Do you know if we will still need to water the oaks after we kill the grass?

    1. The heat generated by the decomposing chips won’t hurt roots, because the soil environment is vast and heat is easily dissipated. You may still need to add some water but not nearly as much as when you have grass there.

  27. I heard you talk about this on the Joe Gardener podcast then found this post to read more about it. I had 12 cubic yards of arborist wood chips/leaves deposited at my house this week and spent the last three evenings spreading them out in my back yard. Hope this works… Goodbye wall to wall grass!

      1. Update: I know it’s January, but I’ve got the bug and I am itching to get under my wood chips that I laid last year so I can start planing native trees and woody shrubs this year! Yes, I’m giving my lawn almost a year to decompose under the wood chips and for those microorganisms and other creatures to break that all down and improve my clay soil before planting this coming spring. I have a follow up question though: You advocate (as do others) for putting compost and wood chips directly on top of the soil instead of mixing it in. That makes sense from the way nature works and how decomposition works mixing it into the native soil. However, how come water passes easily from one layer to another in this system as opposed to creating perched water tables since they have differing structures?

        1. It’s a great question and has to do with the nature of wood chips. First, they aren’t a soil layer (which is where you have problems with perched water tables). Water movement in soil depends on continuous pore space in soils and in layered soils that continuity is disrupted. Second, wood chips absorb water like a sponge and release it slowly to the soil underneath. Third, those wood chips are colonized by microbes, especially fungi, whose hyphae serve to transport water and nutrients through the soil to the fungal bodies and in the case of mycorrhizal hyphae to plant roots. So it’s a combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes that allow water to move from a woody mulch layer into the underlying soil.

  28. Hello! I’d like to get rid of my lawn in my front yard in order to plant herbaceous native plants in an English cottage garden style in the spring. I’m in New York so it’s wet and cold at present. If I use your approach, I’m wondering how far in advance I should put the mulch down? Also, I have heard that it is better to use a mulch that is closer in nature to the plants in question – so, for example, wood chips near trees but more leaf-based mulch for herbaceous plants. I’m wondering if wood chips wouldn’t be too heavy for the plants I’d like to have in their eventually? If so, could one use this technique with a different mulch?

    1. Hi Nicole –
      Leaf mulch can’t be applied deeply, nor does it provide the woody material than many beneficial microbes need to survive. There is no science behind the belief that you have to use mulch material that is similar to the plants you are using. Wood chips are appropriate anywhere that you could grow woody plants (they would not be a great choice for a cacti garden in the desert, for instance).

      Put the mulch down now after scalping your lawn. That should give you sufficient time for the underlying lawn to die back. Be sure to apply it deeply to prevent any light from getting through. Rake it aside and reuse when you are ready to plant.

  29. I have some crazy big weeds in my backyard. I live in Ontario, Canada. Will this 8” of mulch method work to kill them as well? My backyard is basically weeds, big, nasty, ones with a few sprigs of grass. I’d like to make it a garden with trees, plants, shrubs, with a mulch covering. It’s also on an incline which makes the top of the hill extra dry.

  30. A question about arborist wood chips…what is the danger of transferring disease, non-beneficial insects, poison ivy and other undesirables to my yard with the chips? I don’t know of a way to ensure the source of the chips will be free of diseased wood, chopped up poison ivy, termites, etc.
    Hoping you can shed some light on this. Thanks

      1. Thank you. And little to no danger of the vine regenerating even after being chipped (as I was warned). I personally thought this to be unlikely, but PI isn’t something I want to take chances with. So grateful for your generous knowledge.

        1. The only way vine parts will regenerate is if the chipper being used makes a very large chip. It’s highly unlikely but not impossible. I’ve never seen it happen nor have I ever heard of it happening from a reliable source.

  31. I read this advice and I believe in its wisdom but I have a small little yard with no wheelbarrow, shed, or place to receive a big load of mulch. I had reasonable success this summer by covering the grass with a combo of old landscaping fabric, newspaper, cardboard and a thin layer of bagged mulch. After 8 summer weeks I raked back the mulch, removed the fabric, removed/chopped up the newspaper and cardboard, put down bags of compost and then put the mulch back. I’ve planted a few things in it so far and haven’t had grass come back or many weeds (the lawn was fairly new post-construction so perhaps it was easy to kill). FWIW the newspaper in many places was barely degraded but the cardboard was mostly gone. The fabric was easy but of course now I still have this fabric. I’m in MD.

    1. Yes, sheet mulches will kill the weeds. They also kill anything else living in the soil. We just published a paper on the ability of carbon dioxide to move through mulches. A single layer of cardboard is 10 times worse than wood chips. A single layer of landscape fabric is 100 times worse. We do not recommend killing off your entire soil ecosystem simply to remove weeds.

      If you can’t get a big load of chips, contract with someone to bring you a pickup load. It won’t cost as much as all those bags of compost and is much better for your soil’s health.

  32. Before I found this blog, I was trying to kill some grass and weeds for a new bed using plastic. Based on your advice and research, I have removed the plastic and switched to wood chip mulch. Since the top growth was mostly dead after a couple weeks under plastic, do you think I could get away with 6 inches of mulch instead of 8? My city provides free arborists’ chips now and then but I have to haul them myself and it’s a slow process. Like the above commenter, I don’t have room to have a large pile of chips dumped (although I would love it if I could).

    Also based on your fact sheet link, it sounds like having leafy matter mixed with the chips is okay?

    Thanks for the info.

  33. What is the harm of using old tires as planters for flowers not vegetables? I live out in the country and trying to keep ahead of nutgrass, crabgrass and oxalis is a losing battle, I thought i could use the tires as containers along the driveway and lay a thick layer of chips around them to smother weeds in the the rest of the surrounding ground. Thank you for your advice. Daniel

  34. Hi, again. I think you mistook my meaning, I was saying the tires filled with soil to limit the area I would have to hand weed. The area around and between would use arborist chips that could hide the tire itself and then only look like individual plantings. But I understand the objection to the rubber entirely and will have to find another container. My last question is, my sister wants some purple creeping Latania. If I plant it in 8-10 inches of woods chips with it be able to spread and put roots down that depth to the soil? Thank you. Daniel

    1. Absolutely ground covers will eventually spread over the chips. Fresh chips will degrade fairly quickly – 10 inches will be 5 inches in a few months. The cover will spread over it and eventually send roots through the chips. That’s why I consider the chips to be a good place holder to be eventually replaced by desirable plants.

  35. We put down 8-12 inches of arborist wood chips on our lawn area in April. It is successful and the lawn hasn’t reappeared! It is now late October. We recently planted a few native shrubs, just removing enough of the chips to plant them.

    We also want to plant some native seeds to attract pollinators and create a small meadow like area.
    Should I take up the majority of the chips and broadcast the seeds? Add some topsoil? Is this long enough for the lawn not to come back?
    Advice would be appreciated!
    Thanks.

    1. Hi Mary –

      Yes, to get seed germination you will need to remove all but an inch or so of the chips. This also means you’ll get weed growth, but that’s what happens when you are planting from seed.
      Congratulations on your no-till, no-herbicide lawn removal!

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