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 -
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!