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.