On This Earth Day: Revisiting Killing My Lawn

Since it’s Earth Day and we are facing an extreme high fire danger day here on the Front Range of the Rockies, with record heat and drought, I’ve been thinking a lot about my decision to kill 3/4 of my front lawn. Thought it was worth updating you on what will be its second summer. All of my low-water/butterfly/hummingbird plants survived the winter, minus one daisy plant.

As they are all perennials, this summer will probably be one of minimal growth, but still lots of showy flowers. Next year I expect it to quickly become a jungle. Which is why I did minimal planting, in pretty groupings.

Last fall and this spring has been the real payoff – minimal work to maintain. I trimmed up a few plants this spring, I let the leaves from fall just compost right into the mulch and I’ve pulled minimal weeds (damn you bindweed). And now that the plants are established, the weekly watering I did last summer will be reduced to an “as needed” basis.

I will update with photos as soon as things pop – usually mid-June here (I’m still waiting for lilacs, everything has been late this year. Although my pussy-willows were full of bees today, so yay!).

But for now, let’s revisit how I killed my lawn and revitalized my soil in ways I could have never anticipated. (The worms! The worms!)

=================

It began innocently enough with laying out an outline of what might be nice and a promise I’d think about it for a while. Two weeks later, phase 1 is complete.

This was the beginning, outlining with bricks to see how I’d lay out the new yard

My goal was to create an excellent soil base to replace what is now pretty much cement hard clay. The previous owners used a chemical lawn service for at least a decade, that left the soil depleted and hard as a rock. Over the past four years, I’ve been amending it with compost, manure and aeration. A record drought this summer proved that none of those measures were enough to reinvigorate the lawn and the soil was still like granite.

I had several choices: use chemicals to kill (just no), or a bobcat to scrape, the grass and bring in a large amount of good soil and replant the grass, or add sod, or xeriscape. I was definitely leaning towards creating an area of low-water native plantings. But the cost of scraping a lawn and bringing in yards and yards of compost/soil was cost-prohibitive.

Then a bit of research led me to the Sheeting Method. Better soil would be achieved by killing the grass and weeds with a sealed layer of cardboard and mulch. Leaving an excellent base for native plants and bushes to replace the grass.

The next step was a hunt for cardboard.

Thanks to neighborhood apps, I was able to relieve multiple neighbors of their cardboard just before recycling day, so it was already flattened. They didn’t have to drive it to the recycling center, and I got several carloads of boxes.

I hired a landscaper who was more than happy to learn more about the Sheeting Method and then I started laying cardboard a few days before he arrived.

Several things I learned as I went – clear tape is compostable but takes a long time. Removing it was easy, and research told me that any leftover would float to the top of the soil as the cardboard decomposed. So I didn’t sweat the small pieces. Chewy, Amazon and Walmart boxes were my favorite. They didn’t use clear tape or external packing slips.

Also, working with wet cardboard is much easier than dry. Boxes have to be torn into even pieces, so the end flaps don’t leave gaps. Wet cardboard tears easily at the seams and leaves clean edges. Then pieces are layered and overlapped in a way so that no grass or weeds can escape through any seams. I used brown paper – paper bags, packing material – and small pieces of cardboard around existing plantings. In the end, not a blade of grass showed through.

Then the fun began. My landscaper planted my new tree and delivered a heap ton of mulch. It was taller than me when it was unloaded. We had some fun with Jurassic Park and Great Dane jokes. The landscaping crew did a beautiful job, ensuring everything was well-covered to avoid any grass or weeds showing up.

Eventually, there will be a few that find their way, because “life finds a way,” but it should be easy to tackle them before they become a problem.

The phase one results are beautiful.

Now I’m playing around with paving stones, rocks and plants for placement. I won’t be able to plant anything new until spring. Don’t want to pierce the weed barrier prematurely.

At least now, the neighbors can stop wondering why I was watering cardboard for a week.

If you’re wondering why I left an area of grass, there are two reasons. The first being, that’s a plum tree, and I was not going to try and pick plums out of mulch every summer when I could just mow them into the lawn with my (electric) mower. Second, I’m still looking at selling my house in the near future, and grass is still desirable as a selling point.

================

A few months later, about this time last year, I stuck a hand spade into the yard to see how composting was going…what I found shocked me…and my landscaper:

What’s with photo of dirt?

….this spring, once the ground had thawed enough for me to start thinking about transplanting the Burning Bush and the Boxwoods, I scraped away some of the mulch.

And much to my surprise, I found, not decaying cardboard and dying grass, but beautiful soil, filled with super-sized worms by the handful. This was the hope, but I was not expecting it this quickly. Maybe by the end of the summer, but end of winter? read more here

=======================

So that’s the update. A week of hard work, a spring of planting a variety of plants, and minimal watering, I have a yard that’s not only pretty, but fairly maintenance-free. I think my total over fall-spring-summer 20/21 is about $2500.

And for the backyard, which I will continue this summer, I’ve been overseeding with red and white clover. Stands up to the dogs, survives on limited water, and fertilizes the grass when mowed.