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Picture of Smother and replace your lawn with mulch
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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:
 
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Step 1: Why would you want to get rid of your grass?

Picture of 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

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

KimC72 months ago
blackappy3 months ago

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

sparkysan6 months ago

Awesome, I'm working on doing this to my front yard as well. Can I ask where you bought your plants? I live in the Valley as well :)

wildrosepines10 months ago

Love your yard. So much more beautiful than a patch of grass and more interest too. I have spent countless hours with mowers as we have acreage to cut. What a pathetic waste of time and energy. I am building raised beds where I can and the rest will look a little like yours. Even in Wisconsin I think I can pull this off but it will take time. Love the blue puffballs (fescue) - we can grow them here. Free mulch I have, but will start searching for cardboard tomorrow. Thank you for the instructions!

This is a great idea! I really like that you addressed the most popular questions in Step 2: The basic idea, and also the suggestions on how to get free cardboard and mulch. At first, I thought that you should have laid down some mulch under the cardboard so that it would compost while smothering the lawn, but I realized that the lawn itself would die and compost (plus another mulch layer nearly doubles the work). This cardboard idea is so very elegant and smart - thank you for sharing!
Crucio3 years ago
I really like this idea and would love to try it. Does anyone have a suggestion for what plants would be good for Chicago's climate? I like the look of tall grasses, so I'll definitely use some of those.
kirnex Crucio2 years ago
Liriope is a great plant that grows easily in just about any climate zone 5 and beyond (zone 4 growers may have luck if they cut back their plants to about two inches, then put a heavy layer of mulch over them to keep them protected). Anyhow, Liriope grows via rooters and, depending on the variety, you can get a look very similar to what Prof. Keil has.

I'd recommend the cultivar Liriope spicata (also known as Creeping Lilyturf). It tends to not be invasive like some other, less hardy cultivars. It stays relatively compact in the stem base, but has the lovely look of an exotic grass. Plus, it has beautiful blooms of purple that will certainly attract bees and butterflies.

I'd recommend googling for Creeping Lily Turf images, and seeing if that's in line with what you are looking for. It really is a lovely, easily maintainable plant--and more hardy than most varieties of Liriope.

Hope this helps. :)

One
kirnex2 years ago
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. :)



Nonetheless,
purdylazar3 years ago
I did away with the lawn in the back yard several years ago. Managed to get allot of pavement slabs for free when the council were re doing the foot paths in my area. Sprayed the lawn and just lay down each slab. Heavy work, but successful.

I also ripped up the lawn from the front yard, but hadn't been successful at keeping it grass and weed free. Was so happy to see your garden on here. Got free cardboard from the bike shop and put it down, covered with mulch, during the winter. Thank you for letting us know of some of the plants you used in your front garden.

What are the clumps of low growing grass which you have used? I really like the colour and the way they grow.
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AMEN!
kayak4water4 years ago
Thanks for the encouraging notes. Am in rainy western Washington. Grass and moss in yard. would rather not mow, but moss too weak to muscle out grass in most of the lawn.

Cardboard lives. Lasagna gardening. Raised bed gardens. Food.
I did something similar. The cardboard and wait is a good idea, but if you can't wait rent a kick sod cutter from the hardware store and relocate your old lawn to the back forty or the compost pile. Now you can go to work immediately on that new native landscape.
prof.keil (author)  Hammerholder4 years ago
I wish I had a back forty. I have a back 0.05 acre or so. Most of which is occupied by my stuff!
jbs6364 years ago
Wow...looks great...we are planning on doing the same in our back yard (were the dogs and kids have run the grass out) and were planning on getting rolls of newsprint from local printers, hadn't thought about cardboard, but I like it. I do have one questions, what are 'bender boards'? Thanks again, great pic of SoCal, is that fire in the background?
prof.keil (author)  jbs6364 years ago
Bender boards are plastic strips used to edge gardens. You find them at any OSH, or home despot or Lowes. They are about 6" wide and come in rolls.

And that picture was a stock image of SoCal, I thought it was wonderful.
jakyo4 years ago
I am going to do the same thing.I live in a very dry part of Australia,so trying to have a green lawn is a challenge and can be costly.I have got rid of a lot of lawn in the back yard and now it's time to do the rest. I have a small area directly outside that is lawn and that will do me!! Mulch is the way to go for sure.Better for the garden ,better for my pocket. I like the natural look and feel off a 'grassless' garden. Cheers.this is a good one '-)
prof.keil (author)  jakyo4 years ago
Thanks! The climate of Southern California and Australia is pretty similar from what I've been told. I've got quite a few Australian plants in the garden as a matter of fact.
Kogitsune4 years ago
Definitely looks great, but I still prefer a good grass lawn. Then again, I live in an area where we get regular rain and don't need to put up a sprinkler, so I also see the reasoning behind replacing the grass with something that is easier to take care of without needing as much water.
l8nite4 years ago
I guess it depends on your vegatables, peppers can be very ornamental, especially the hotter ones, a tomato plant tied to a porch support or lamp post. potato plants make a very green border, onions are similar to the ornamental garlics, of course they all take water and kind of defeat your purpose.

Im with you on the getting rid of the water hogging, fertilizer eating, weekend ruining green carpet that covers 97% of suburbaria. Here in florida we have a very sandy ground that over time seems to eat everything laid on it and thats particularry true of mulch, every couple of years I have a couple of loads of wood chips/tree clippings delivered and spread it around, for a year or so I have the clean look of the "mulch" then the green starts peeking thru, its not grass really, it doesnt need watering and only requires occasional cutting, maybe once a month or so.

Great tip about getting cardboard from bike shops ! I hadn't thought of that and it could come in very handy come Halloween http://www.instructables.com/id/Our-2010-Haunted-House-with-ideas-from-Instructabl/

Thanks for a great "ible"
prof.keil (author)  l8nite4 years ago
thanks!

I might try the potatoes this year.
klixtopher4 years ago
Nice work. I've been wanting a 'no mow' yard for a while. However, with two young kids I still need space for them to run around. Any ideas for ground cover that's comfortable on bare feet?
prof.keil (author)  klixtopher4 years ago
Surprisingly, the kids play more in the yard now than when it was a lawn. Having a pathway with shrubs that they can hide behind is actually a fun place to play. I do have a patch of lawn in the backyard to play on.
Our Neo-Nazi homeowners association would not go for that.
prof.keil (author)  Computothought4 years ago
Work to change it?
bruc33ef4 years ago
Looks great! I hope more people decide to get rid of their lawns which are a giant waste of resources as well as effort. This Instructable will be a big help.

My only reservation about your particular project is that you didn't give yourself enough of a reward for your efforts -- there's hardly anything to eat! Why not plant some perennial vegetables, herbs, and fruits? Out of the size of that yard you could make a sizable dent in your food bill, improve your health in the bargain, and you wouldn't have to replant the perennials every year if it's the yard work you want to avoid.
prof.keil (author)  bruc33ef4 years ago
thanks!
I suppose I didn't like the way veggies look really. There are a lot of herbs scattered around that I use for cooking. The veggie garden is in the back.
rimar20004 years ago
CONGRATULATIONS!
laceration4 years ago
I never understood the attraction of lawns. It might be hard to articulate why, but seeing what you did makes the case.