Drought Tolerant Front Yard - Converting Lawn to Soil





Introduction: Drought Tolerant Front Yard - Converting Lawn to Soil

This is a process for converting your front yard to good soil with no grass, without ripping up every blade of grass or taking the top layer off your soil. It actually builds up the soil while killing the grass. It is also extremely inexpensive (water and fuel for hauling compost).
I did this because California is facing an impending drought, this may not change in the next few years, and frankly I'm tired of watering my front yard. I want only drought-tolerant plants in my front yard, and fruiting trees and bushes on a drip system.
Also, I happen to live in a city with clay soil, and this will improve it tremendously.

Step 1: Step1: Before

Right side of front yard. I had allowed the grass to grow long. I was planning to overhaul it. Your picture, of course, may look very different on Step1.
The heir apparent helped me. He's a good waterer.

Step 2: Step2: Mow Lawn Short

Get out your lawn mower and mow your lawn on the shortest possible setting for your mower. You won't be watering this lawn any more.

Step 3: Step3: Gather Materials

This overhaul does not need to happen all in the same day (unless you have lots of help or a very small yard). So far, I have worked on it 3 weekends. It can take some time and isn't urgent. Remember, you've already cut the lawn short and you aren't watering it any more.

- Bales of straw (my yard will take about 6 bales). I obtained 7 bales of straw FREE by searching Craigslist.org.
- Compost or chipped wood. My front yard will take about 5 truckloads of compost material. So far I have obtained 2 loads from the city dump, where they give away free composted materials, and one truckload of chipped wood that I chipped myself about 50 miles away. Search Craigslist to see if anyone is giving away chipped material, or call a company that does tree work, or see if your city has a compost pile. Warning: one friend used the chipped materials from a tree company, and his yard is now wonderful, but he said he dealt with weeds from the chippings for years.
- Cardboard - lots of it. Get cardboard that doesn't have holes. Not the kind that has been waxed. You need it to be water permeable. I am obtaining boxes from my Friends of the Library group, and a local produce market. They have TONS.
- Water from your garden hose.
- Rake for smoothing it all out.
- Shovel for the compost.
- Wheelbarrow for the compost.
- Truck for hauling.
- Good shoes for digging, gloves, hat and sunblock, and a good back.

Step 4: Break Up Boxes

Find the seam in each box and break them apart. I just used gloved hands, no knives. Strip the tape off the boxes if they have any.

Step 5: Lay Out Cardboard, and Water

Lay the cardboard down on your lawn, overlapping them as necessary to make sure all the grass is covered. It doesn't have to be beautiful, don't obsess on it. There are lots of cardboard boxes that people are throwing away every day, you can always find more. This will eventually break down and become part of your soil, after it has killed the grass.
Water it after you've covered a swath, maybe ten feet of cardboard. Do as much as your back can handle. If you have enough help, you can probably get your entire yard done in a day. If you don't have help, just take it easy.

Step 6: Lay Out Straw, and Water

Now, cut the ties from your first bale of straw and begin to lay it out, a flake at a time, on your cardboard. Fluff it up and try to create an even layer. If you have lots of straw, make thick layers - you can't go wrong. This will also break down and become part of your new soil.
When you're done with your swath, water the straw. Get it WET. You're beginning the decomposition process with the watering.

Step 7: Lay Out Compost, and Water

Now, truck your compost to your driveway, shovel it into your wheelbarrow, and roll it over to your new swath of straw. Cover it at least 1-2", raking it to make it smooth. You don't want straw peeking through, but it's not a science. Then walk all over it and see if it's too thin in some places. Add more compost to low spots as necessary. Water it with your hose and get it WET.

Step 8: After

This is my yard today - I've done this 3 different days, and have 3 distinct swaths you can see in the photos (two are compost and one is chipped wood). My front yard will take about 3 more days of work. It will take at least 6 months for this to become what feels like a "normal" soil, and it should be wonderful. In the meantime, I can add little mounds of my own soil mix and plant small things, or dig/cut through the mixture to plant something like a tree.

Good luck!



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    22 Discussions

    Let people know that in order to get the downloads, you need to sign up for the premium membership. There are plenty of other sites that are more up front with their information. I won't be back.

    Hello! Question-so after all these steps is when one could lay a weed barrier down in case? I'm new to this, but this is a similar lawn to what I have now. Id love to plant drought tolerant plants, succulents, cactus.

    Thank You!
    I will try this to smother out the grass this Spring, just as it is coming up, in preparation for a Chamomile lawn! I have a tiny lawn so I can start enough Roman Chamomile from seed, to do the trick thriftily.
    By the way, if it survives in your area, Roman Chamomile smells nice, is drought tolerant, tolerates light foot traffic, confuses some vegetable pests, attracts beneficials, and never needs mowing if you don't mind an ankle-deep lawn. If you grow Roman from seed, you will get flowers you can harvest for tea.
    I will take photos of my project and see if I can make an Instructable on the whole thing! Thanks again, I will do the cardboard method, starting now as it is pouring rain daily.

    My brother has a house in phoenix, with a huge back yard. The problem is he hates to mow, so he's just let it all dry up until so he's at the point where his front and back yard are both wastelands of dirt. Any suggestions for plants for that area to be used for this 'ible? I doubt he'd do it, but it's worth a try.

    1 reply

    Well, there are lots of plants that would be evergreen that would grow well in his climate zone. I would buy a Sunset Garden Book and go to my local nursery and tell them I need a bunch of low-maintenance plants. You can even see bush roses growing near the freeway, there are a LOT of low-maintenance plants these days.
    Personally, if I had a huge back yard (which I don't because my house is on a corner), I would turn a large part of it into vegetable beds and raise my own food. There is so much nasty stuff coming down in the food chain these days, it's nice to know what goes into what I eat. You can do that with a drip system that really doesn't use much water.
    In Phoenix, I would raise citrus. In fact, I could raise a Sarawak there - and I can't raise them here at all, it just doesn't get hot enough.

    What a great idea, we live in Wales and even though we have got enough water here, we will follow your instructions so next year we can plant a wildlife garden in the front of our house. Thank you for the step by step instructions.

    I've tried this same method a couple of times to start new garden plots. Once it worked great; Put it down in the summer and planted the following spring. The second time was in Oklahoma where lawns are largely made up of Bermuda grass. It just crept up right through the layers! Know what you're up against, I guess.

    3 replies

    Part of my lawn is Bermuda grass. I was willing to do nearly anything to avoid chemicals. How long did it take to come through?

    Bermuda won't necessarily come back. I smothered about 200 square feet of it a couple years ago with 2 inches of sand and 2 inches of mulch on top of that. Anyone thinking of doing this needs to check local prices. In my neighborhood compost delivered costs about $70 per cubic yard and it takes 4 cubic yards per 1,000 square feet to pile it an inch deep. You should be able to get truckloads of chipped trees from a tree trimmer for free, though. Many municipalities give away a coarse compost if you are a resident and you load it and haul it away. I could be wrong but I think you will regret having smothered your lawn before the end of the year. In my experience picking weeds out of bare soil has always been more trouble than weekly watering and mowing a dense stand of tall (3-4 inches) grass.

    We shall see. I doubt I'll want the grass back. I have 13 citrus trees, a peach and an almond planted in the front yard so far - many of them in the past 2 years - and it was getting really difficult to mow anyway. I'm planning to move to a drought-tolerant ground cover now, and haven't decided which one. Maybe creeping thyme. I've also erected a tipi out of tree poles, and planted scarlet runner beans to climb up the poles; and I have a tree torso laying on the ground for my boys to climb on. I'm thinking of putting a platform around the willow tree for them to use as a "treehouse". All this in a city that objects to anything taller than 3 feet! We'll see how many nastygrams I get from the city. But a green lawn in the midst of all of this playground just wasn't cutting it - and it was an invasive lawn. I'm not planning to give the weeds a lot of opportunity. In fact, I'll probably be putting out squashes in mounds today. The compost was all free (and there's tons more), very close to home, at the local recycling center. I don't know how that compares to other cities; I'm in California. The compost has been cooked according to organic standards, and should not have live seeds. The chipped wood I have to drive farther for, at my property that is mostly trees where I have to chip to keep the forest pushed back. I have tons more of that, too. I chipped it myself and know it's not full of weeds. Thanks for the tip on the Bermuda grass, it's nice to hear that someone managed to dominate it. Seems to be one of the rats of the plant world!

    All you all is so sweet! It depends on the amount of moisture your soil gets in one season. If you lay the compost on top of the corrugated paper, it gets enough moisture, and the temperature is right, it will lay the weeds in the dirt, Lay the cardboard overlap about 6 inches (15cm). In the heat, the pile will heat up, it needs time to cure. This is the right time to try this technique, but don't expect fast results. The pile needs to cool and so on... I'm just growing Capsicum in the hot pile, I didn't get the technique until spring of this year. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. Cap'n!

    I believe this is called "Sheet Mulching". When I did it, I made the mistake of only using a single layer of cardboard (I should have used two or three). I put down clover seed on top, since its nitrogen fixing. A friend did his entire backyard that way, resulting in no weeds, great soil, but an incredible slug problem. Apparently all that decomposing vegetation material is just a smorgasborg for slugs.

    Also if you happen to till this lawn up in the Fall or add additional layers to your treatment this Summer I would suggest adding a lots of char in one of the bottom layers. It will help to hold the nutrients while still breaking up the solidness of the clay soil. It is funny how it works - it helps drainage but also helps to hold water. Carbon is a good thing.

    OK, good idea, I can try that. I hadn't thought about adding more in the fall, but I'm becoming so good at schlepping compost...

    Here is a little chart that may help some. They say the ideal ratio for good 'good' bacterias growth in the soil is 30:1 - carbon-nitrogen.

    Carbon to Nitrogen Contents.jpg

    Beware the picture new features, such as add images via drop and drag. It just erased a detailed message of wild flowers sown by seed and how they might be an excellent option.

    I know it is a Beta feature, but it shouldn't eat my messages.
    Anyways, try Americanmeadows.com

    They sell seed in bulk, either single spieces or mixed varieties for all sorts of areas and climates. I've used them and found their mixes to be excellent. Be sure to check their members meadows to see what others have done. They've used their seeds to eliminate mowing in large meadows, encourage wildlife (butterflies, etc), mitigate sewage impact and just look plain cool.

    I've spread plains coreopsis over an empty field and it is really coming into its own this year.

    Check out this photo of what it can look like. The photo is from the Ritz, and I think it says a lot that they used the idea as well.

    2 replies

    Oh, yeah, I love this kind of thing, and on my property in the mountains I can do this, but not in the city - I already get nastygrams from the city telling me that they don't like my flowers touching their sidewalks. They would freak over a front yard of wildflowers. In fact, my husband spread poppy seeds (California state flower, no less!) in the planting strip between the sidewalk and street one year, and it has cost me a tremdous amount of labor because the city doesn't want them there, and there were weeds in the mix. I have to get out there and extract them by hand every year. Lisa

    That's unfortunate. I live in an unincorporated part of Florida. We are basically part of Tampa, and live in close proximity to the city. However, there were never any suburb rules established on my street, nor does the city bother us (no jurisdiction.) The budget has been dramatically slashed by a very poorly conceived and misleading constitutional amendment that did little to cut actual property taxes (which were already among the lowest in the nation.) The average Floridian homeowner saved about $240, or to make it relative...the cost of a Big Mac Value Meal, regular size...not value size. Code enforcement really doesn't exist unless your neighbor really gets worked up. And you would have to be building a nuclear reactor to get the code enforcement guys out. American Meadows guarantees their mixes against weeds. But if it becomes a concern, try square some sort of square foot gardening. Someone on 'ble has done this with success. Good Luck in California. It's going to get bumpy.