Smother and Replace Your Lawn With Mulch





Introduction: Smother and Replace Your Lawn With Mulch

I spent a year getting rid of my dying grass lawn and installing a low/no water landscape.

It cost me only a few hundred bucks, I didn't hire anyone to do it, and I didn't have to use a haul service to get rid of the old sod.

I know that more pictures would be better, but I didn't take a lot of shots during the process.   Sorry!

Here are the before shots:

Step 1: Why Would You Want to Get Rid of Your Grass?

A few years after I bought my house in the San Fernando Valley, my fifty-year old sprinklers failed completely. Shortly after, the lovely new lawn the previous owners had installed started to die. I started adding up the costs to get a new lawn and sprinkler system and realized there was no way I was going to spend that kind of money to have a front yard that I had to water all the time.

What I wanted was a way to replace the yard that 1) was cheap, 2) that I could do without hiring anyone, and 3) didn't involve machinery and trucks.

Some friends recommended the "newspaper and mulch" method; I've slightly modified it and I'd like share some tips and pointers to help you out.

Step 2: The Basic Idea

Grass is tough. Because it's brown most of the year and seemingly barely making it, that it would be easy to kill. Maybe put some mulch on top, and then some new plants. Well, you're wrong. St. Augustine grass, which made up my front lawn, is a fearsome foe. Just throwing mulch on top of it will make it come back stronger next spring.

So I needed to get tough too. My weapon: cardboard boxes and mulch. I'd lay cardboard sheets like shingles, then lay mulch on top of that, smothering the grass for months.

Why the cardboard? Couldn't you just use mulch? Well, No. My evidence? I have two neighbors who thought what I was doing looked like a good idea. They decided not to use cardboard because it was "time-consuming". So, they dumped mulch on their lawns, and within months, the moisture held in by the mulch caused the grass to grow faster than ever! To make matters worse, it comes back with lots of runners and in ugly clumps.

Why not plastic sheeting? Some people told me to use landscape fabric or plastic sheeting to bake the grass, and then remove it or roto-till it into the soil. This works, but I didn't want to buy a 1000 sq ft of plastic and then throw it away. Besides, cardboard is free.

Why not newspaper? I read that layers of newspaper work, so I started with that. And it does work, but it blows around in the wind and gets torn up when you walk on it. Also, I found it easier to get hold of large cardboard supplies than big piles of newspaper.

Step 3: The Timeline

I live in Southern California, so I tried to take advantage of the dry summer season and our mild winter.

Late Fall 07 -
Laid down a big square of cardboard.
Had mulch delivered on top of it.
Laid down cardboard around the square, shoveled mulch onto that. repeat.
When I reached the edge, begin the trench.
Install edging, push mulch to edge.

Spring 08 -
begin planting (I should have waited a bit longer)

Fall 08 -
finish planting.

Looking back, I could have started in spring, then planted in summer with no problem.

Step 4: Where Do You Get the Cardboard?

Cardboard is easy to find.

The easiest place will be the dumpsters behind retail stores. Try and find a cardboard recycling dumpster (I found one behind a school cafeteria). You'll need a variety of sizes, but bigger is generally better.

If you're squeamish alleys and dumpsters, go down to your local bike shop (or REI) and ask for their bike boxes. I got plenty of these huge, almost flat boxes right before the Christmas rush, they were happy to give them to me. Easy to pack flat in the car!

Step 5: Getting the Lawn Ready

Should you spray the lawn? Some landscaping sites I found advocated using an herbicide first. If you go this route, I might suggest just spraying the edges of the lawn, as these will be the trouble spots. The middle sections don't need the spray. I sprayed one edge with some RoundUp I had lying around as a test and saw no real difference a few months later.

Get started! Simply lay the cardboard down like you are shingling a roof. I tried to leave 6 inches overlapping each piece.

The first problem I had was the winds in wintertime Southern California which made handling cardboard sheeting a pain. I eventually bought some large nails (6" long) with a fender washer around them to anchor the cardboard. Without the nails in place, pieces of cardboard would quickly end up blown all over the street! I managed to pull most of the nails out as I laid the mulch later, though some are still buried in the soil.

Step 6: Digging the Edges

When I finished my first test section, I realized that the mulch added a few inches to the lawn height, and a lot of the mulch spilled onto the side walk.

On the main section, I started by first digging a trench all around the perimeter of the lawn.

I strongly recommend that you dig this trench! This accomplishes three things: 1) The grass along the edge is the hardest to kill, as water seeps in from the concrete and pools there. Digging out the grass prevents runners from re-emerging and growing onto the sidewalk. 2) You can push the cardboard into the ditch to prevent it from popping up later. which gives it a nicer look. 3) It provides a place to install edging board.

After I finished the ditch, I installed a wide bender board. The board helps contain the mulch and keeps it off the sidewalk. I had about 1-2 inches sticking above the level of the concrete, I wish I could have had more.

As a side note, I used the dug up dirt to create very small hills that I put plants on. My landscaping friends told me that it create visual interest.

Step 7: Free Mulch

Mulch is any kind of ground up plant material. When I did a test section, I just bought mulch at my local hardware store. I realized that it would be extremely expensive to cover big sections this way.

Option 1) A friend gave me the number of the local city official in charge of the tree trimming crew and, the very next day, some friendly folks dropped off a mountain of mulch in my front yard.

Option 2) Ask any tree trimming company that you see using a chipper. Remember that they have to pay to dump the stuff, so you are doing them a favor by taking it!

Option 3) Find a commercial supplier. There are a lot of places that will sell you mulch.

Alas, not all mulch is the same. The mulch the city delivered to me had a lot of palm seeds in it. I picked out palm seedlings for 4 months! It also contained a lot of big sticks and the occasional candy wrapper. Try to find a "fine" mulch rather than "coarse" mulch.

If I could do this all over again, I would have looked around and been a bit more picky about the mulch.

Also, remember that free mulch will vary in appearance slightly from load to load. You're better off getting a big pile of homogeneous mulch than two smaller piles if you are really picky about that kind of thing.

Step 8: Spread the Mulch

Spread the mulch.

This simple exercise gives me plenty of time to thankful that I went to college and don't have to shovel mulch for a living.

Buy a wheelbarrow.

Step 9: The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Once you get the mulch spread out, I felt a strong temptation to start planting. Resist. I stuck a few plants in three weeks after, and the grass in those spots started growing again. Try and wait at least six to eight weeks.

After six months, the cardboard will become grey and easy to punch through. The mulch and cardboard do an amazing job of keeping the soil moist.

Step 10: Living With a Mulched Lawn

It's been a year since I've mulched the lawn. The whole project cost was less than $200, mostly for the bender boards.

The new plants can vary widely in price, but it's a lot cheaper than sod. I planted sages, salvias, rosemary, kangaroo paws, blue fescue and other species that require little or no watering. The patch of grass you see in some of the photos is some fake grass I bought at an artificial grass warehouse. My wife wanted a place to sit in the front

How is the maintenance? Well, I don't have to mow anymore. However, I do have to trim the plants and collect the trimmings.  It's a more pleasant experience than mowing but it's still work.  If you want a yard that requires no work, get grass and hire a gardener...

Walking on a mulch bed is a lot like walking on a forest floor; which is to say not pleasant with bare feet. I installed pathways so that I could get the newspaper in the morning.  Buying a finer mulch helps with bare foot walking, although, after two years, the surface has become more compacted and easier to walk on.

Overall, I'm happy with the results, I've got a front yard that doesn't need any watering and that I think looks alright.

Thanks to Hippy Steve, Camille, Mark F. and Andrew D. for their advice!



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I just did almost the same thing, and I can't believe it didn't occur to me to check here before I started.

I did pretty much exactly what you did, although I just finished the mulching and won't be planting until spring.

The only things I'd add are:

1. Ask about cardboard at your grocery store. The produce department gave me tons of nice, big, plain cardboard boxes that they get produce delivered in. I got maybe four or five station wagon sized loads. Normally, they have to sort and bundle them into bales for recycling, so they were happy to have me take them off their hands. They want me to mulch more yards now so they never have to bale again.

2. You allude to this, but I was able to get 8 cubic yards of "forest mix" style mulch delivered for $30 from a local arborist who was advertising on Craigslist. Look in the free section for mulch or wood chips. The $30 delivery was just because I was outside his normal area.

We are thinking of mulching our entire backyard since the previous owners didn't care for the lawn at all and it's basically just dirt right now, and I'm not a big fan of lawn since I don't think it's that useful. So we want to mulch the area and then have some raised gardens and stone pathways in between the gardens.

I've been researching to see if there are any cons to mulching the entire backyard and some people say it might cause bug/insect infestation. Since you've had your mulched yard for quite some years now, I'm curious to know if you've ever had bug issues?

Wish I'd seen this page 10 weeks ago! Decided to xeriscape 3/4 of my yard. I've just had 2 total knee replacements, wake up call, don't want to spend time mowing, fertilizing, watering. Attended xeriscape class at local nursery, developed plant list, decided to go with dwarf shrubs - no need use a ladder to trim them. And less work than perennials. So I bought and put in my new plants - 67of them! Lots of common bearberry (arctostaphyllos uva-ursi) on a slope which faces South; juniper blue rug on either end; Mountain Laurel (Olympic Fire and Minuet); and hydrangea paniculata (Bobo). Been watering them every other day, to get the roots to go down deep. So of course now, no one wants to help mulch with all the plants already in. Spent 5 hours today looking for cardboard; so many shops around here have balers, and they get paid for each bale so they did not want to give any cardboard away. I managed to get about 1/4 of what I need. I will need 35 cu. yds of mulch - that is a LOT of mulch for just ME to set out! And here in northeast Massachusetts - Zone 6 - rushing to get it down to protect the roots of the new plantings before freeze. Looking forward to seeing my yard when done, and then next year when things fill in. Meantime, this page has been VERY helpful.

good thinking and DIY

I love what you did! I grew up in the SFV and am now thinking of doing something similar to what you did in my yard in SE MI. Am on a main street in a village meaning I may have trouble from the 'village elders' ... who like the daily sound of lawnmowers. I do not. Come winter, it's the snowblowers. Ya can't win.

Wish I could figure out what part of the valley is pictured with that fire in the background... ahh, memories. Excellent picture.

"TracerElements": That wildfire photo looks like a freeze-frame of
Mary-Louise Parker in "Weeds"; specifically, season 3, episode 15,
after Guillermo set fire to a competitor's pot farm. In that case, this photo
would be of the fictional town of Agrestic/Majestic in southern California. :-)
It is a great picture; it really drives prof.keil's point home!

The cost in the initial process may have been relatively low, but in truth mulch is one of those things that should be refortified at least twice a year. So, in the long run, the costs aren't so low.

Also, while I think you did an EXCELLENT job doing it yourself (and also put up a splendid, very thorough Instructable), I hate to say it, but I thought your lawn looked better before. I know, it's just a personal opinion.

I have a yard that is impossible to keep up when you have medical issues (as I have in the last few years), so I understand the desire to keep it simple. Still, I have to say that the majority of the issues I have are with weeds taking root in my mulched flower beds. This brings us to a vital issue in undertaking such a significant landscaping change: weeds. This is one reason that seasonal mulch is important (because not only does mulch blow away, it also begins to decompose--which is EXCELLENT for your soil, but not so great for weed prevention). I use landscaping fabric under my mulched areas and STILL get weeds (the buggers have mutated to be able to grow in any condition). So, my main piece of advice for this is one that you likely have already considered, but maybe some people who are reading your lovely Instructable have not: USE A topical, long-lasting WEED PREVENTER AT LEAST EVERY TWO OR THREE MONTHS, being more often if you have lots of rain, less if living in a place such as your own, which is dry and arid. I highly recommend a product called "Preen" .It is in granular form, and is EXCELLENT for preventing weed seeds to germinate. It won't take care of weeds that grow via rooters, but it will greatly decrease the time you spend trying to weed seeded invaders.

A last, albeit anecdotal, word on this. Being that you live in Southern Cali (I used to live in La Jolla, so I do know the climate is not amenable), one concern I have for you is that dry, weathered mulch is, in fact, like tinder. This is a great reason to keep remulching seasonally, although I know it can be expensive. But...I hate to think of your house actually being MORE prone to lighting up, were the unthinkable to occur.

Anyhow, love the grasses, and you have a lovely home. Thanks for taking the time to write this up and share it. :)


Actually, my grandmother did this to her yard here in Texas ages ago. She refortified once a year after the new year: when the city had collected and mulched the Christmas trees. It's all about checking local resources.

Thanks for the Instructable, even though I'm surprised you actually used Round-Up on your lawn, if only in a test area.