Thursday, July 19, 2007

Murder Your Lawn II - What Would Tony Soprano Do?

Looks like that last post stirred folks up a wee bit. There’s some passion attached to that patch of green, but the vast majority of you seemed to be raising your clenched fists up high and shouting “Right on, bro!”

So let’s say you’re ready to, as Tony Soprano would say, “put a hit out” on your turf. First we’ll agree that it has to be done in an environmentally responsible manner. In George’s comment, he wants to know if I want to be his Dr. Kevorkian but worries about harming his Norfolk Island Pine.

Good news. What if you could use zero toxic substances, protect existing trees AND actually increase the health of your soil?

It’s called sheet mulching and it couldn’t be simpler. What you’re doing is converting the turf or weeds into beneficial organic material. Follow these simple steps and start working on the redesign:

1. Mow the grass or weeds, but leave the clipping in place. We want this stuff to decompose.

2. Lightly cover the area with about a half-inch of compost, manure or grass clippings, etc. It will also decompose and add nutrients to the soil.

3. Get your mitts on enough corrugated cardboard to cover the soon-to-be victim. Depending on the size of the impending corpse, you might have to drive down some dark alleys and practice a little dumpster-diving. If cardboard is scarce, you can cover the area with a layer of newspaper about 5 sheets thick. Wet it down to start the decomposition process. We’re almost there, so don’t chicken out.

4. Using the free wood chips you can probably get from a local tree service (Santa Barbarians can get free greenwaste mulch from the County Transfer Station) cover the cardboard with about 5” of mulch. Don't worry about the mass of stuff; it will settle down to a thin layer. If you can’t get chips, any organic material is fair game.

You’re done! If it’s a warm time of the year, some articles say you can just wait a few weeks, cut holes in the layer and plant. A Google search for “sheet mulch” will turn up lots of variation on this theme and the timing, so check it out. For my money, I’d wait at least two months. While your plants start growing, earthworms are moving in, destroying the evidence, humus is building up in the soil, the roots of the old lawn are turning into good stuff and you’ve got yourself a dead lawn. One caution…if there are trees in the area, keep the mulch about a foot away from the actual trunk to avoid rotting the tree's crown with moisture.

Sleep easy. There ain’t a jury in the world gonna convict you for this caper.

So, if your excuse was avoidance of chemicals or the hard work of cutting out the old green monster, sorry. Now raise your fist in the air, gather up the materials and start picking out the new drought-tolerant plants you’ll be planting graveside.


George said...

OK, that part is easy--how do you get from the built-in sprinkler system that works for low grass and move to a drip irrigation system, though? That part costs money and requires forethought about what you want to plant where.

Garden Wise Guy said...

George: good question, but there are a few answers. You can check out Olson Irrigation's site ( for their 12-port "hydrant" which mounts directly to an existing "hard pipe" PVC sprinkler system and offers 12 connections for spaghetti tubing. It has a built in pressure reducer, so you don't have to add anything upstream.

There are other similar products, so don't be put off. And no one says that you have to convert to drip to conserve water. I'm not a huge fan of that technology. The key to saving water is to intelligently use whatever irrigation technology you have at your disposal. Drip is ephemeral and subject to failure. Also, as the plants get bigger, most people neglect to expand the placement of the emitters to keep up with the expanding root system.

Maybe I'll get a chance to do an Irrigation 101 lesson on the blog sometime soon. Hope this helps.

Curtis said...

That sounds good, But I canot murder all my lawn. I have an acre of land so I'll be mowing. But I do not water it, fertilize it or spray it. No chemicals allowed on my lawn(&weeds) and garden.

amy said...

Please oh please do a irrigation 101 lesson.. that's the issue that has been stopping George and I from killing our front lawn.. that and what time of year is it good to kill your lawn and what time of year should you plant your new low/no water garden.

susan harris said...

Your articles couldn't be more timely for me, since I just decided to get rid of my 1,000-sq back lawn and I need to start the process now in order to plant in september or so.
Question: why wood chips? They don't break down that fast, right? I'm considering using my town's free leafmold mulch.
Bigger question: what would you recommend as a replacement? I want something that's drought-tolerant, evergreen, and can take a little foot traffic. I'm exploring trying some Steppables (free samples, I hope)with clover and the creeping sedum I already have lots of, but definitely welcome more ideas. Susan

Blackswamp_Girl said...

I love this post... what a fun way to present the directions. :)

FWIW, I emailed with High Country Gardens about their grass alternatives. Specifically, I wanted to know about wearability as compared with our traditional fescue and bluegrass lawns. (I have a dog. A large dog.) The answer came back that it should hold up just fine to my large dog, and that I don't have to take any more special care when it's dormant than I would have had to do with my fescue/bluegrass lawn. Guess what's going in late next spring?!

healingmagichands said...

This is a great idea and I can testify that it works, I use it on my own place regularly. HOWEVER, I am getting set to convert an area that is right around 1000 square feet that includes bermuda grass and crab grass, and I am not sanguine about the results of this method on such a large area with such a very very hardy and invasive pair of pest grasses.

Do you have any experience or advice for me?

Dublin Flowers said...

Ha ha, very witty post.
I love the way you put the message across about a redesign.

Aanee xxx
Flowers Dublin

Garden Wise Guy said...

Healing...I'm an advocate for doing things right and sometimes that means safe application of herbicides and exercising patience. Two grow/kill cycles is ideal, but many homeowners/clients don't have the patience for a 2-3 month "delay." Then the weeds come back and bite them right on their sweet asses.

Lazy Gardens said...

That method may handle most grasses, but it absolutely will not work for Bermuda grass. Bermuda will eventually come up through the cardboard and mulch and take over.

You have to kill the Bermuda with something that can kill the deep rhizomes - glyphosate is the best at doing this - or it will come back from the grave more times than Freddy Kruger.