How to Remove your Lawn
Don’t Count On Your Cousin
By Alan Chesterman, Sonoma County Master Gardener
OK, you’re tired of mowing and fertilizing, drought is an annual occurrence and your water bill is too high anyway. So you want to remove your lawn and put in those less thirsty landscape plants – natives and otherwise.
That was me two years ago and now I have a section in my front yard which is more fun to look at and healthier for our precious resources. The transition was interesting and what follows is my take on the turf removal process.
A little background: I live in Southwest Santa Rosa on over half an acre. When I bought the home 5 years ago the lawn was large – at least 1.3 acres (or so it seemed once a week in the summer). At least the sellers left a power mower so I could pollute the air and drain the aquifers at the same time as I mowed and watered.
My yard qualified as a demonstration lawn for the University of California because it included all grass types known to exist in Sonoma County and the rest of the known world. There was always something green to mow, just less of it in winter. The flip side being that brown sections migrated from place to place year round. I even had some lovely areas of broadleaf ground covers. It was kind of a living artistic mosaic.
Well, I had a nice landscape plan drawn up with all the plant call-outs and dimensions so the next step was to remove the turf. I was in a hurry so chose the mechanical method of removal. Mechanical includes manual and machine-aided. My sense of urgency did not overcome my sense of frugality. Down to the garden shed I went to see if I had a suitable shovel. Sure enough the sellers left a nice collection of garden tools in addition to the aforementioned polluter. Some of them weren’t too familiar. I should phone the sellers some day to ask what they are.
My younger, big, strong cousin was visiting me for a month and I noticed there were several flat shovels. I was thinking we could knock this out in a couple of days and perhaps have time to drink an adult beverage at the end of each day. Great way to bond with my relative.
My cousin said he had to go down to the City for a little medical procedure, but would be happy to help when he returned. I lined up all the shovels and wheelbarrows and had a nice spot picked out in my vegetable garden to pile the turf. The plan was to let it compost in place for a year.
I drove Darrell to the bus and went home to start stripping the turf away from the moistened soil. It was a lovely day – not too hot, not too cold. Great for some exercise in the yard. As I slipped my flat shovel under the first section of grass I gave it a push expecting it to slide under a couple of feet and peel off a nice long piece of sod. Nope! Pushed harder – nope! OK, time for some muscle so I gave it a huge shove. It went about the shovel blade length and stopped. No further. Well maybe I need to cut through the lawn into strips about the width of my shovel so I got my trusty machete out and did so. Wow! What a plan I had. The whole foot worth of sod came up and that’s all. The shovel pushing was no easier. Immediately my steel-trap mind told me this project might take more than a day or two, but I knew my cousin could help when he came back – two days tops and we would be done.
My hot light came on in an hour or so and my back headed south in a hurry. The pile at the other end of my property did not look nearly as large as was what I thought I had taken from the front. About 4 pm Darrell phoned to say he was back and could I come pick him up. He didn’t look so good so I asked, “How’d it go?” He said, “The hernia surgery was a success but the pain meds must have worn off.”
Minor surgery is something someone else is having, according to my thinking. But he didn’t look like someone who was going to pitch in very soon on this anti-lawn project. Sure enough Darrell was down for the count the rest of the day. I worked like a dog until dark with not much to show for my efforts – maybe 30 square feet ripped up. Could be a long week.
The next day I figured there’s not much reason to get up early because I wouldn’t be able to work 12 hours anyway at that project even if Darrell spelled me now and then. About 10 am I was out there with my last cup of coffee to see if any sod had jumped into the wheelbarrow during the night. Nope, and Darrell was not in sight yet either. I could hear snoring from his room.
Cut to the chase. It took me all week to complete the removal and Darrell supervised from a lawn chair which he moved into the sun to work on his tan while I worked out of the sun whenever possible to avoid heatstroke. I even had to go get his mint julep refreshed when he ran out of liquid refreshment.
The pile of sod in the garden was visible from my living room and patio party area. I covered it with a tarp to discourage the grass from growing, however it then looked like a pile of caskets down there. Maybe I should have painted a mural of bushes on the side.
Two years later the sod has composted and is ready for spreading to other areas of the yard. It is nice and loamy. The area from which it came is nicely landscaped with new plants that require less water and minimal attention. The drip has worked well ever since I plugged all the geysers from the first time I turned it on without a flow restrictor. Now I know about drip installation, too. The whole thing was a learning experience. And best of all, Darrell is ready for my next project as soon as he talks to his surgeon.