Pop quiz: What’s the most heavily irrigated crop in the US?
If you deduced from the title of this post (because you’re smart like that) that it’s our collective lawns, then you’d be correct. One study estimated that more than 40 million acres of land are some type of lawn.
Yes, lawns are great for looking nice, running around in, and keeping the insects at bay. But they are also a pain in the ass. At a minimum, your lawn needs to be mowed, and depending on where you live and what type of lawn you like, it may also need to be watered, fertilized, aerated, or weeded (usually using herbicides that target non-grasses). All that tending leads to some pretty severe environmental costs.
Personally, I don’t have a lot of love for our lawn, even if it does feel nice under bare feet. Mostly this is because I hate mowing the lawn. I’ll put it off as long as possible so that I don’t have to deal with our P-O-S lawnmower and the noise it makes. And I no longer bother with using the weed whip to clean up around buildings and edges—something I did a few times as an enthusiastic, newbie homeowner.
Beyond that, I actively kill grass. Many areas go into gardens, and I spend most of my lawn mowing time scheming on the areas to start new gardens. I am not sure whether gardens are more efficient that lawns— that is, for a given area, which requires less time to maintain over the entire season—although I certainly enjoy gardening more and would spend a little extra time weeding to avoid mowing.
How to Kill Your Lawn
You can kill your lawn with herbicides or by tearing up the sod, but I recommend smothering it. It takes more time—about a year—but it’s a lot easier and you don’t have to deal with harsh chemicals or finding a place to compost all that sod.
1) Become a Hoarder
Start by saving up newspaper or cardboard. I prefer cardboard because it’s easier to work with and is less likely to be blown around by wind. We just save up our cardboard all year long, which means that in early spring we have a massive pile of cardboard in our basement (and lots of evidence of how much pizza we eat).
2) Cover Grass
This is the most important step: cover the grass with cardboard or newspaper. If you’re using newspaper, you’ll need to make sure it’s several sheets thick. It’s not necessary, but I’ve found that everything will hold in place a bit better if you can spray or slosh some water over the entire area. (Sidenote: I’ve also found, somewhat clumsily, that rubber garden shoes have absolutely no traction on wet cardboard, so be careful!!).
3) Hold it in Place
On it’s own, the cardboard or newspaper is likely to blow away. The best thing to do is to cover it with mulch. Fall leaves are perfect, but any other compost materials will also work well. Three inches is probably a minimum amount of mulch, and 6 inches to a foot (or more) is even better. These materials will break down and provide great compost for your future plantings.
If you’re short on mulch, you can use rocks or boards to hold everything in place. But be warned that things are likely to get blown around. If you can only add a few inches of mulch to start with, go with that and then add more later. Or do like I did recently and cover it with a tarp. (A tarp on it’s own will work to kill grass too, but you won’t get the benefits of the composting.)
4) Wait about 1 year.
5) Ta da!
In about a year, the grass will be dead and there will be a pile of fresh compost ready for planting.
What? Not fast enough? You want that garden now?
You can also do a combination of smothering lawn and building up new soil—called lasagna gardening—and plant directly into that. The process is similar to that described above, except that more material is included in the compost in a series of layers (hence the name). The origin story of the method is a little long, but provides additional details without having to get the book.