Many homeowners put time, effort and money into maintaining their lawns. But there are times when you may want to devote these resources toward getting rid of your grass.
If your lawn is out of control and weeds or bare spots account for more than half of it, you may want to get rid of it all and start over. If you've decided that a turfgrass lawn takes too much work, water or expense and want to try a lawn alternative, you'll need to get rid of the grass before you begin your new landscape.
Getting rid of your lawn is a big project. There are several methods and they all require investments of time, money and effort. Some methods have more impact on the environment than others, and some may be more acceptable to your neighbors. Finding the right balance of all these factors and knowing the pros and cons of each removal method will help you choose the procedure that works best for you. You may even decide to use different methods on different parts of your lawn.
There are other considerations as well:
Before beginning any excavation, call 811 to check for underground utilities.
Applying a nonselective, post-emergent herbicide to your lawn is a relatively quick method of killing it. Pay attention to the types of plants the herbicide will kill and make sure it is appropriate for the job. You can choose between concentrates that need to be mixed or premixed, ready-to-use varieties. While the premixed varieties are easier to use, the concentrates are more economical for large lawns. Follow all the label instructions and safety precautions. Your lawn should be actively growing during application. Apply the herbicide and wait seven to ten days for the grass to die. You may need more than one application to kill well-established grass, adding time and cost to the project.
Misuse of any herbicide is dangerous and will have negative effects on the environment. While the environmental impact of herbicide is a consideration, those containing glyphosate as the active ingredient have fewer residual effects – when used correctly – than other herbicides.
While this method of lawn removal is less labor-intensive than some methods and has quicker results, its effectiveness is dependent on the weather. Rain can wash away the herbicide before it fully kills the grass, requiring you to apply more of the chemical to finish the job. Rain can also cause chemical runoff. Wind can blow the herbicide out of the target zone and onto plants you don't want to kill or into a neighbor's yard. While the herbicide will kill weeds that are growing in the lawn, weed seeds in the soil can still germinate. After you kill the grass, you'll still have the dead lawn to deal with, but digging it up should be easier than digging up a live lawn.
You can dig up a lawn with several types of power equipment. A tiller will make the work easier, but you'll need a heavy-duty, rear-tine model. You can rent heavier equipment, such as a sod cutter, which will cut under the turf and slice it into strips. Roll up the strips for use elsewhere or just turn the sod upside down and let it compost. You can remove grass manually with a shovel, but the process is very labor intensive and best for a small plot of grass. Digging up a lawn typically doesn't require herbicide. Keep in mind that if you remove the sod, you're removing organic material that you'll need to replace, but you'll see results immediately. The lawn will be gone and you can begin preparing the soil for seeding or planting. If you leave the sod in place to compost, you're retaining organic matter, but adding time to the process.
Even with power equipment, digging up a lawn is hard work. You risk exposing weed seeds that were deep in the soil, giving them an opportunity to germinate. There is also a chance that you'll remove too much valuable topsoil. If you're using a tiller, sod cutter or any other gas-powered equipment, you'll need to factor fuel and possibly a rental fee into the total cost of the project.
Digging up a lawn can be more difficult with a tenacious perennial grass such as Bermuda, which has deep roots and will regrow from portions of the root. For this type of grass, you'll need to kill the plant before you remove it. Killing the grass completely may require herbicide.
Solarization is a process that uses heat from the sun to kill weed seeds and pathogens in the soil. Solarization also kills the grass, cooking it until it dies. You'll need lots of direct sunlight and high temperatures for success, so a hot summer is the best time for solarization. Mow the grass as closely as possible and water it thoroughly. Cover the grass with clear plastic sheeting and leave it covered for six to eight weeks. Clear plastic is more effective than opaque varieties, as it allows more sunlight to reach the grass and heat it more quickly. Thin plastic will work, but thicker plastic (with a higher mil number) will last longer, resisting cuts and tears over the weeks you'll have it down. As an alternative, you can use black plastic to trap heat in the soil. Black plastic will also block sunlight, preventing photosynthesis. Once the grass is dead and you take up the plastic, you can remove the dead grass or let it act as compost. Dead grass should be relatively easy to remove, but you'll be getting rid of important organic matter. If you leave the grass in place, plant directly into it or till it into the soil to a depth of one or two inches. Don't till too deeply. You can bring up soil that still has viable roots, weed seeds and pathogens.
Solarization does not have the environmental impact of herbicide, but it will kill beneficial organisms along with those that are harmful. A lawn covered with plastic won't be attractive and you'll have to leave it in that condition for several weeks. This method is dependent on the weather – cool or cloudy days will slow down the process. In addition, while not as difficult as digging up living turf, covering a large lawn takes effort. You'll need to purchase a significant amount of sheeting, and you'll have to remove the material and dispose of it when the process is complete.
Smothering your lawn kills it and allows it to compost in place, adding valuable organic matter back to the soil. Start by mowing the grass closely. Cover the lawn with a minimum of six layers of newspaper or cardboard. If you layer with newspaper, use paper with black ink – color ink can contain heavy metals. Overlap the layers well so light does not get through to the lawn. Wet the layers and cover them with at least four inches of grass clippings, compost or other organic mulch. In addition to adding organic matter to the process, this material will retain moisture and hold down the layers. The newspaper, cardboard and organic material will not increase heat in the soil like plastic sheeting would, but will block out light and stop photosynthesis, killing the grass in about two months.
This lawn removal method is another process that doesn't use herbicide. It has a low environmental impact. The layers will break down, adding organic matter to the soil rather than removing it. The process is not as dependent on weather as the methods using solarization or herbicide. When the process is complete, you can use the soil right away – just dig through the layers and start planting. As you're not digging up the lawn, there is less manual labor involved and you're not disrupting the soil. However, covering the lawn with several layers of material and mulch takes time, and you need to plan for about two months of an unsightly landscape. Large lawns will require a lot of cover material and organic matter, adding to the cost of the project. Also keep in mind that layering will not work well on steep slopes.
Regardless of which lawn removal method you use, there are some things you need to do after the grass is gone. Even if you use a method that allows you to plant immediately, your landscape will benefit from preparation. If you lost your lawn to weeds or disease, address the underlying problems before they arise again:
If you have an underground irrigation system and plan to add new planting beds to your landscape, consider converting some of your sprinkler heads to a drip system.
What you do next depends on the long-term goal you have for your landscape.
If you're going to start a new lawn, use the best type of grass for your soil and climate. See Choose the Right Grass for Your Lawn, Seed Your Lawn: How and When to Plant Grass Seed and Grow a Healthier Lawn.
If it's time for a change and you want something different than a lawn, you have a wide variety of options. Our Lawn Alternatives article will give you some ideas.