by Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
About 10 years ago, I ripped out our front lawn and replaced it with natives and drought-tolerant plants. At first, my suburban neighbors thought this was totally wacko and un-American, but every summer, like clockwork, just about the time our flood insurance bill arrives in the mail on a stifling, dry morning, another crestfallen neighbor stops by to ask how they, too, can get rid of their turf. I recommend two books to them. One is American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn by environmental historian Ted Steinberg. The other is Lawn Gone: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for your Yard by Pam Penick.
With great insight and wit, American Green chronicles the American homeowners’ precarious and bizarre obsession with their lawns. Today, lawn care is big business; in America alone, we’re spending an estimated $40 billion a year. How did we get hooked? In the 1950s, companies such as DuPont, who were already selling pesticide treatments for nine out of 10 acres of American cropland, needed to find a new receptive audience besides the farmers. Enter the naive suburban homeowner.
“If every homeowner made just four applications a year, lawns could be a $2.8 billion market!” a manager chimed. So they got to work persuading gullible suburbanites from the rainy East Coast to the dry desert of California that it was ‘un-Christian not to have a neatly manicured green lawn.’ Down came the victory gardens, citrus groves and chicken coops that gave families and communities fresh food and free fertilizer during the war years, and out rolled mass-produced, thirsty and high-maintenance turf all across America.
Today, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars driven at 55 mph for the same time. In addition, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on U.S. lawns annually.
In Lawn Gone, garden author Pam Penick shares an array of possible lawn alternatives such as never-mow grasses (fountain grass, feather grass or sedge), or ground covering plants that aren’t too thirsty or kvetchy in the summer heat (senecio, jasmine, lamb’s ear, thyme and sedum).
She also details a few options on how to remove your lawn or a part of your lawn such as digging it up, tilling it, using a power-operated sod-cutter, solarizing or sheet-mulching. All of the above will work—however, I’m a fan of sheet-mulching since I am tired and don’t feel like digging so much. With this technique, you will have to be patient because the process takes a few months as the old grass decomposes. By adding a few layers of organic material on top of the old lawn, you’ll be improving the texture, structure and nutrient value of the soil below without adding any chemical fertilizers. All of the microorganisms living in the compost and underground will slowly make your soil sing. You will automatically become one of Mother Earth’s star students!
Simple Steps to Sheet-Mulch Your Beloved Turf:
It’s best to wait till the fall so that organic matter is decaying for about two seasons and the winter rains do all of your watering for you. By early spring you’ll be able to plant. So, this summer, start thinking about the design of your new area without grass. (Below are some resources to help you dream up your new planting area.)
Step 1: Trust and Trample
Chop down any tall weeds. Don’t pull them out of the ground, as this will wake up all of the weed seeds hiding in your lawn. Simply step on them or chop them to the ground and leave them there to decompose naturally. Remove any large woody materials, as well.
Mow the lawn and leave grass clippings on the lawn. Mark any sprinkler heads with small flags. You won’t be using this form of irrigation anymore and you may want to remove them later or simply shut them off.
Step 2: Add a Concentrated Layer of Compost
Add several inches of enriched compost, aged horse manure, worm castings or all of the above to the top of the turf. These are high in nitrogen and will shake up the microbial life underground. If your soil is hard clay, you may want to add some gypsum at this time. Thoroughly soak the area with water.
Step 3: Add a Weed Barrier
This barrier will prevent germination of the troublemaker weed seeds and their cohorts by taking them to the dark side. You’ll want to make sure that they never see the light of day again—literally. The weeds and grass will die and become food for earthworms and their cohorts. This weed barrier will eventually decompose.
You have a few options for your weed barrier: Newspapers, cardboard, burlap bags or gypsum board.
Most gardeners choose newspapers or cardboard. (Cardboard will take longer to break down.) Lay out four to six sheets of newspapers, or single layers of cardboard along the entire area, making sure each piece is overlapping with the next. Do not leave any soil exposed to light. Water the area again.
Step 4: The Final Layer
This layer mimics the top layer of the forest. Add a 3 to 6-inch layer of mulch such as leaves, wood chips or straw. Water weekly with a hose if no rain is expected.
Come spring, you can plant directly into your sheet-mulch, as it should be fully decomposed. There will be no reason to turn the soil here since you hired the earthworms to do the work for you already. Isn’t nature grand?! After planting flowers or crops, you may want to add a new top-layer of mulch to keep plants cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Additional Resources for More Get-off-the-Lawn Ideas:
*Designing with Succulents by Debra Lee Baldwin
*Reimagining the California Lawn by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien
*Eco-Lawn plant mix at Wildflower Farm: wildflowerfarm.com
*Marin Master Gardener’s Water Wise Plant List: ucanr.edu/sites/MarinMG/Plant_Guide/
*High Country Gardens—various seed mixes and groundcovers: highcountrygardens.com
*Great ideas and photos of life without turf: lawnreform.org