Tired man sitting on partly mown grass lawn

Time to cut the grass. Again! Wreathed in the toxic fumes of a high-polluting mower engine, your head reels. Still, it’s clear enough to form one thought; I’d like to cut the grass right out of my life.

The cost of watering is bad enough. Then add the environmental toll of turfgrass and all the maintenance needed to keep it looking like a country club fairway. If you’ve considered the many practical alternatives and are ready to replace your grass lawn with something more sustainable, how do you start? What’s the best way to save the lawn by killing the grass?

Removing Your Grass Lawn

Before you can start growing your sustainable, low-maintenance lawn, you need to remove the grass lawn. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Chemicals vs Muscle

One reason to replace all that grass is to mitigate environmental harm. So, using chemicals for the coup de grace is hard to square with the concept of creating a more sustainable lawn. Physically digging out the grass means getting very familiar with tools like shovels and hoes. Renting or borrowing a sod cutter will let you rip out large strips of sod. However you get it out, you are now responsible for the legal disposal of that mountain of sod. Of course, you can always hire a professional to remove and dispose of the sod. Prices vary.

Digging up grass lawn
Photo: Lawnstarter

Here Comes the Sun

What’s cooking in the backyard? The grass. That is if you’re employing a process commonly used for weed control called soil solarization. After cutting the lawn very short, cover it with clear plastic sheeting, leaving as little space as possible between the plastic and ground. You’ve just created a greenhouse effect, trapping and amplifying the power of the sun’s rays. For extra heat, add a second layer of plastic. The next part is easy. You watch the grass die through the plastic sheeting. It takes about six weeks to turn from green to yellow to brown. Take off the plastic, clear the dead grass and use it for compost.

Editor’s note: Trying to reduce your use of plastic? So are we. While soil solarization is effective, you might prefer the next method: mulching — no plastic required.

Mulch Monster

One of the easiest and most effective grass-killing techniques is sheet mulching. Cover the lawn with layers of cardboard, newspapers, or many of the same organic materials you’d put in your backyard compost heap. Overlap all edges to keep any grass from growing between the cracks. Then pile on 4 to 6 inches of bark chips. Keep it moist with regular watering. In as little as two months, the grass is gone, the cardboard and paper biodegrade into the soil, and you can start planting whatever you want.

Prep for Success

Creating a sustainable lawn doesn’t mean you just sit back and let nature take its course. You need to consider soil conditions, shade, and other factors before you decide on your new lawn’s layout. While techniques like building healthy soil with compost and mulch are good general principles, every alternative lawn has its own unique requirements.

Moss Lawn

Photo Source

If you love that spreading blanket of green, you can still have it without the downsides of a grass lawn. Moss requires little maintenance and no pesticides or fertilizers and is an increasingly popular alternative to grass. It typically prefers cool and shady conditions, but some varieties don’t mind the sun. After wetting down the bare soil and adding moss, press down it with something flat to help secure it to the soil. Then, take a daily walk across the lawn. Your weight will further anchor the moss in place.

Unmown Grasses

Native grass
Photo: Linda, Flickr, via Creative Commons

Grass isn’t always the enemy of a sustainable lawn. Native grasses create wildlife habitat and free you from the tyranny of the mower. With the turfgrass gone, use a rake to loosen the ground and smooth the surface. Plant in fall or spring, covering the seeds with soil to protect them from heavy rain or wind. You’ll have to use more water now to get your no-mow grasses started, but once they’re established, you can enjoy the view of your new yard from a hammock instead of a riding mower.


ground cover
Photo: Patrick Standish, Flickr, via Creative Commons

Groundcovers like clover, creeping thyme, and others bring increased biodiversity, aesthetic benefits, and low maintenance, though you’ll have to put in some sweat to get them started. Loosen the soil with a tiller and mix in a layer of peat moss. Rake in some bark mulch and use a trowel to dig holes for the individual plants, spacing the holes about 10 inches apart. Drop in your first plant, repeat, and water a couple of times a week.

Which method of lawn replacement works for you depends largely on your time, your budget, and your appetite, or lack of it, for physical labor. Tearing out a grass lawn can seem daunting, but once you start enjoying the benefits of a lawn that saves time, money, and labor while reducing your environmental impact, you may wonder what took you so long to say “so long” to grass.

Todd MichaelsAbout the Author

Todd Michaels is a conservationist with degrees in biology and botany. He writes about eco-friendly landscaping and recycling efforts around the country.


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