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Part Of The High Country Gardens Waterwise Plants Learning Center

HOW TO REMOVE YOUR GRASS LAWN

Sustainability beings in your backyard! Ready to remove your traditional thirsty turf grass, and replace it with a waterwise lawn alternative? Start here.

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How To Plant Waterwise Perennials  |  Waterwise Yard Ideas

Remove your grass to make way for a waterwise garden or low-water lawn alternative

6 Techniques For Removing Your Lawn

Below, we've outlined several techniques for removing your traditional turf grass. Factors that may influence your decision include the size of your planting area, how much time you have, and your experience level. We'll cover the equipment, time, physical effort, and cost needed for each method, plus the advantages and disadvantages for each technique. Plus, see the steps for each method.

Jump To A Section To Learn More:

1. Rototilling | Rototilling is an effective way to remove grass and loosen the soil in larger areas, especially complete lawns with compacted soil, and wildflower meadows.

2. Sod Cutters or Bulldozers | Heavy-duty machines will quickly and thoroughly remove grass and weeds.

3. Hand Tools | For areas too small for rototillers or solarization, hand tools do the trick. 

4. No-Till Solarization & Smothering | Harnessing the power of the sun to kill grass and weeds is especially effective in hot, dry climates.

5. No-Till Sheet Mulching | Though time-intensive, this method builds healthy soil with layers of cardboard and newspaper.

6. Herbicides | Though known for harmful side effects, gardeners may turn to chemical compounds to kill grass and weeds.


Tilling soil for a wildflower planting

Rototilling 

Rototilling is a fast and effective option for large areas and acreage. It is a good way to loosen up the top layer of soil to encourage root growth

On the other hand, tilling may bring weed seeds to the surface, and may lead to erosion if the area is not planted quickly

Equipment

  • Walk-behind rototillers may be available to rent from a hardware store. Rototiller attachments for tractors can be rented from equipment rental companies. You may also be able to hire a service or a neighbor in a rural area to help rototill your meadow.

Timing

  • Same-day planting - or rototill up to 1 month in advance (See Expert Tips For Tilling below)

Physical Effort

  • Easy to moderate, depending on the equipment

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With Rototiller

NOTE: Below are general instructions for how to use a rototiller. Follow the instructions that come with your machine. Read over the user manual - each machine is slightly different. Always wear personal protective gear and operate machinery with caution.

  1. First day of tilling: Always run the first pass at the deepest depth, about 4 to 6 inches deep.
  2. Till the next pass with a shallower depth of just 2 to 3 inches. This will prevent bringing additional weed seeds to the surface. Avoid any temptation to till deeper than recommended.
  3. When possible, rake the area to level the soil and remove weeds, plants, roots, and debris before sowing. 
  4. If you’re doing only one day of tilling, you can plant as soon as the soil is prepared. 
  5. If you’re planning to till multiple times over 2-3 weeks, wait about a week until your next day of tilling. Your next tiling passes should be at the shallowest setting to kill weed seedlings, but avoid bringing up new weed seeds.
Sod cutting in action removing lawn grass

Sod Cutters or Bulldozers

These grass-removing tools cut through many root systems at once, pulling up your lawn like a carpet and leaving soil ready for new seeding.

Benefits of using heavy machinery is that, if needed, sod can be relocated to another area of your yard, and the machines are much faster than hand digging.

Downsides are that you will likely need to borrow, rent, or hire equipment, which can be costly. Motorized sod cutters or heavy machinery can be difficult for beginners.

Equipment

  • Sod cutters can be rented from a hardware store. If you don’t have experience, consider starting with a non-motorized version.

Time

  • Same day planting

Physical Effort

  • Moderate

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With Sod Cutter Or Bulldozer

NOTE: Below are general instructions for how to use heavy machinery such as a sod cutter or bulldozer. Follow the instructions that come with your machine. Read over the user manual - each machine is slightly different. Always wear personal protective gear and operate machinery with caution.

  1. Water the area thoroughly a few days before digging, otherwise, the lawn can be very difficult to remove.
  2. Cut your lawn in sections.
  3. Remove the sections of sod by digging them or rolling them up. Have a wheelbarrow or wagon available to remove the strips of lawn.
  4. Loosen soil with a rake before planting. 
Digging in to remove grass from a lawn, to prepare for a new planting

Hand Tools

The simplest technique of all. With hand tools, you can remove only the grass and weeds that you want to remove - and you can leave selective plants in place. Grass-removing tools are easy to find, and are often available to borrow. Removing your lawn with hand tools is a good choice if you like to get up close and personal with your gardening space. 

The disadvantage is that digging in by hand can be a physically intensive process.

Equipment

  • Shovels, rakes, hoes, or a broadfork.

Time

  • Same day planting

Physical Effort

  • Challenging

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With Hand Tools

  1. Water the area thoroughly a few days before you dig in, as digging into dry, hard soil can make things extra challenging.
  2. Dig in, section by section, to remove all growth in your new planting area. 
  3. Remove grass roots so they don't grow back. If necessary, use a sharp spade to dig out stubborn growth.
  4. Remove grass, or transplant it to a different part of your yard. 
  5. Turn the soil to loosen it before planting. 
Peeling back a layer of black plastic, in place to solarize and kill grass for a new planting area

No-Till Solarization & Smothering

Harness the power of the West's intense sun to make killing your lawn easy. These are the least labor-intensive methods for removing grass and weeds.

Solarization uses clear plastic to trap heat and moisture, killing plants beneath it and reducing the viability of weed seeds. Solarization also kills plant pathogens, harmful insects, and plant-eating nematodes. 

Smothering uses black plastic to block light from plants beneath plastic, preventing photosynthesis and killing the plants. Black plastic does not get as hot, so typically doesn’t damage weed seeds, but it does prevent weeds from growing beneath it, which they can do sometimes under clear plastic. 

One con for this method is that it takes time, so you need to plan for your planting months ahead. Consider solarizing over the summer for fall planting to take advantage of the most intense sunlight.

Equipment

  • Tarps and plastic rolls are available at hardware and agricultural supply stores

Time

  • 2 months advance planning, or longer

Physical Effort

  • Easy to Moderate

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With Hand Tools Solarization: 

  1. Lay plastic over your soil and cover the edges with soil, stones, or bags of sand to secure it to the ground. 
  2. Leave in place for 8 weeks during the hottest part of the year. Solarization and smothering are time- and temperature-dependent, so in cooler temperatures, you may need additional time.  
  3. When plants beneath the plastic are dead, the plastic can be removed. 
  4. Rake the area to loosen the soil before planting. It is not necessary to remove plant debris, but remove any active growth sprouting up.
Layers of cardboard and mulch can create a new planting bed

No-Till Sheet Mulching

With this method, you can build up healthy soil with layers of organic materials. Cardboard and newspaper act as a weed barrier to cover the lawn, and are easy to source. Organic materials, such as compost and mulch, can easily be purchased in bulk from local garden centers, and are likely to be readily available from your yard, or neighbors’ yards.

Note: This method will create very rich soil, so it’s best for plants that are adapted to rich soils. However, if you are planting bestselling High Country Gardens perennials such as Lavender, Agastache, Penstemon, Salvia, and other Western native perennials or plants suited to lean soils - this is not be the best technique. 

This technique also takes the longest to prepare for planting. You’ll need at least 6-8 months for the layers to decompose and be ready for planting. This method requires a significant amount of new material to be delivered into your yard, and is not well-suited for lawn replacements, meadows, or large gardens. 

Equipment

  • Nitrogen layer 9-12 inches total: composted horse or cow manure, fresh grass clippings, spent annuals, fruit/vegetable scraps, used coffee grounds, and green leaves
  • Carbon layer 9-12 inches total: cardboard, newspaper, wood chips, sawdust, pine needles, and dry leaves

Time

  • 6-8 months advance planning, or longer

Physical Effort

  • Moderate to Challenging

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With No-Till Sheet Mulching:

  1. Mow the grass in your planting area as low as possible. Leave the clippings.
  2. Spread out cardboard, or at least 5 layers of newspaper, over the planting area as your weed and grass-blocking layer. Be sure no grass is peeking out - or it will keep growing. Water it until it’s soaking wet and flexible.
  3. Add a nitrogen layer materials, in a 2-4 inch layer across the planting area. 
  4. Add a carbon layer, which should also be about 2-4 inches thick.
  5. Repeat nitrogen and carbon layers, until you have reached a height of about 18"-24". It will be tall at first, but the layers will compact as they decompose..
  6. Cover the entire bed with a carbon layer, such as bark or mulch. Water lightly.
  7. Then comes the easy part! Wait about 6-8 months for the layers to decompose. When the layers resemble soil and you can no longer see cardboard or newspaper layers, the area is ready for planting. 
Spraying herbicides

Herbicides

For tough weeds or very grassy areas, gardeners may turn to herbicides. Herbicides are a type of chemical compound that can be used to kill unwanted plants. 

Chemicals can be organic or inorganic. Organic herbicides are made with naturally occurring chemicals, and you can purchase commercial organic herbicide mixes, or create your own – vinegar is a very popular choice. They are non-selective, so they will harm all plants that they come into contact with. For large areas or aggressive weeds, you may need several applications to effectively kill the lawn. Organic herbicides are typically recommended for spot-killing weeds, rather than lawn removal - in part because they need multiple applications, and in part because using herbicides on large swatches of your yard can have a detrimental effect on the health of your soil. 

Inorganic herbicides are made synthetically in a lab, and can also be purchased commercially. In some cases, such as the removal of persistent invasive species, chemical herbicides may be appropriate, and can be used cautiously for spot treatments. With all of the lawn removal techniques listed above available, we do not recommend synthetic herbicides, such as glyphosate, because they can be harmful to people, pets, pollinators, wildlife, and soil health. When it comes to removing large your lawn, inorganic chemicals are essentially overkill – their persistent presence in your soil can deter the growth of your new plants and seedlings, and cause lasting harm to plants, people, and pollinators who visit your yard. 

Please be advised that there are many disadvantages to using herbicides. Weed killers are non-selective, meaning that they will harm any broadleaf plant or tree that they make contact with. Weed killers need time to be cleared from your soil before planting, and may require multiple applications to thoroughly remove grasses and weeds. Organic herbicides affect the parts of the plant they contact - not the roots, so vigorous weeds may regrow after leaves are killed off. Chemical weed killers should not be used frequently or regularly. 

Equipment

  • Organic herbicides such as acetic acid, vinegar, and other mixes, plus rake or tools to remove plant growth

Time

  • 5-10 days or more

Physical Effort

  • Easy 

Steps To Remove Grass Lawn With With Natural Herbicides:

NOTE: Below are general instructions for using chemical herbicides. Be sure to follow the directions and safety precautions on the label of your herbicides. Always use personal protective equipment when using herbicides.  

  1. Apply herbicides when there is no rain in the forecast for 2 days. 
  2. Mow the area as low as possible.
  3. Spray organic herbicides thoroughly onto grasses and weeds in your planting area. For the herbicide to take effect, it needs to contact the plant material, not the soil or the roots. To prevent damaging plants you want to keep, cover them before spraying.
  4. Plants should die off within the next day. Rake or remove dead growth by hand. 
  5. Wait about 4-5 days, and if you see new growth, spray again. Again, you’ll see plants die off within the next day, and again remove dead and wilted plant material.
  6. Wait 4-5 days after your last spraying before planting. 
  7. Loosen soil before planting. 

Part Of The High Country Gardens Waterwise Plants Learning Center

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