Why do we love our lawns when they don’t love us back? We pay a gardener or mow every week. We weed, edge, and blow. We aerate and add chemicals that pollute our waterways. And still, our lawns need more—often a lot more.
What’s more, a tremendous amount potable water is used to irrigate our landscapes. And because grass and the soil under it are often severely compacted, many lawns act like a paved surface that water just runs off. Even under the best conditions, our lawns' root systems are very shallow. Plants with deeper root systems allow for healthier soil. The healthier our soil, the more water it can absorb, so there's less runoff.
I used to love my lawn. It was so perfect: a thick soft carpet for my kids and puppy to romp around on, surrounded by a white picket fence. Then I found out the dirty truth about lawns. And the simple fact was that my children and dog spent most of their time in the flower beds anyway. So I did it: I killed my lawn.
Here are a few different ways to do the job. (If you're a renter, you might check with your landlord first, of course.)
Sweat it out
Solarizing works best in the late spring and summer. It's easy, although it is slightly unattractive for a short while.
1. Cut your lawn very short.
2. Water thoroughly.
3. Cover with plastic sheeting. Stake or weigh down with bricks or stones.
4. Wait 6 weeks for the sun to do the dirty work.
Cover it up
Sheet mulching is a great way to go if you have small children, and it’s fairly cheap and easy.
1. Cover your lawn with about six layers of cardboard or newspaper.
2. Add 4-6 inches of mulch on top. Many municipalities offer mulch for free, or a local arborist can deliver some (usually) for free as well.
4. Wait 2 months. Then you can dig through and plant whatever you like, cardboard and all.
With good old-fashioned elbow grease, you can simply dig up your lawn. Grass grows from the stems, so you must get out the entire plant and root system. This takes a long time and can often remove too much top soil, but it’s okay for small areas. Just make sure you don't rototill. Not only will that disturb the soil life, it'll also plant more grass.
Some folks swear by chemicals. I’m not a big fan. We’re trying to build healthy soil, so why drench your garden in something toxic? But if spraying seems like the only option for you, try vinegar. (Not effective on Bermuda grass.)
1. Saturate the grass with vinegar (this works best on hot days)
2. Avoid spraying plants you want to keep.
3. Wait 2-4 days. Then dig up.
What should I plant instead?
Now’s your chance to have the landscape of your dreams. So how about that veggie garden you’ve always wanted? You can also choose one big flower bed of native plants. Or if it just seems too drastic to kill your entire lawn, consider just shrinking it a bit.
What about artificial turf?
Fake grass is, well, fake. And it’s not a very green choice. It may be made of recycled materials and doesn’t require water to grow, but these surfaces get very hot (adding to the urban heat island effect) and often require water to cool them. As stewards of our environment, we want to choose landscapes that conserve water and promote healthy soil. Choose a grass native to your area or another turf alternative instead, like yarrow.
Having a grassy field around your home seems harmless. But a 1,000-square-foot lawn with a typical irrigation system will use 25,000 gallons of water a year. Replace it with low-water plants, and you’re down to 6,000 gallons.
If you're in Los Angeles and want more information on how to make your home more sustainable, check out TreePeople's Green City Fair this weekend. The event will include workshops on energy efficiency, fruit tree grafting, and how to do something useful with that little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb.