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.

37 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!

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