Some time in the late 19th century, the idea of green lawns full of grass as something everyone should want started to become as common place as the idea of keeping useless animals — like dogs and cats — around our houses for enjoyment. It is a reflection of what the lower classes saw as an attainable piece of the idealism projected by the rich aristocracy. Keeping your lawn well trimmed, green, and without variety is a point of pride for many people who have the means to do so. Sometimes a golf course-like lawn is written into codes of community standards and homeowner’s associations, enforceable through the charging of fines and, in some cases, eviction. For many it is a great bother, if not a burden, to have to maintain a lawn during an especially wet and hot summer. Those people would probably be better off considering a home free from such landscaping or, even better, having the bank account to hire someone else to do it for them.
Grass is a cover-all term for many species of graminoids, such as true grasses (Poaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), and rushes (Juncaceae). This article deals mostly with the true grasses, as the most common species used for creating lawns—bluegrasses, fescues, and perennial ryegrass—belong to that family.
There are some good reasons for removing grass: perhaps you are planning to install a garden or a walkway, or maybe you are hoping to move on to a more maintenance-free or environmentally friendly lawn style. Whatever the case, the first step is to get rid of the grass, and here’s how to do it.
Green Lawns: Are they worth the cost?
- Hypoxic dead zones. Where the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico, there exists a zone the size of New Jersey so polluted with the run-off from middle-america that no plants or animals can live there. Much of this pollution comes from the over-treatment of urban lawns. Is it really worth it?
- Collateral damage.Herbicides affect more than just the plants on which you use them. Please don’t spray them if you live near an apiary, or if there are a lot of flowering plants in your area. Herbicides, fungicides, and other pesticides are likely culprits in the ongoing bee depopulation disaster known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The thought of a world without bees is a very scary one indeed.
Removing Unwanted Grasses
One thing is for sure, applying herbicides will kill your grass. There are a lot of chemicals that will kill grass. Hell, if you could bottle dog pee and sell it as a natural grass killer, you would make a fortune—the smell might be a problem, though. In all seriousness, herbicides work either through affecting the plants’ natural hormonal system or their enzyme system. To kill grass, you are going to want a glyphosate-based herbicide as opposed to something like 2-4-D, which is meant for broadleaf plants. Spray this dangerous chemical carefully, as it is nonspecific and will kill just about everything it touches. You might also want to consider skipping this step altogether for one of the safer methods described in this article.
Digging up sod is a good way to prevent re-infestation.Once the grass is dead, or at least appears to be, you will need to remove the mass of the plant and its roots, which is known as sod. This is an important step for any grass removal project because it is likely that the some of the roots have survived the onslaught and will make a comeback. A flat spade shovel is a useful tool in this instance, as you can often cut an outline of the grass you wish to remove and then pry or roll it up in smaller, more handleable clumps. Alternately, if you own a tractor with a bucket or a skid loader, you might be able to make short work of it by skimming the sod right off the top mechanically.
Shaking out dirt and tilling will help build up your soil body. If you are planning to backfill your grass-free area with gravel or build a walkway, you can omit this step. If you are looking to plant a garden, there is no reason to be wasteful; a lot of soil will be bound up in that root mass, and since you are going to need some more soil anyway, you might as well save a few bucks and use what you have in front of you. Now would be a good time to add your new soil body and till in any organic mulch as well.
Edging and landscape fabric will prevent existing grass from spreading. Edging and landscape fabric are fairly cheap and easy to install. You will need a shovel to dig a shallow trench with the vertical edge on the grass side. Place the edging against the sod and secure using whatever stakes are included with the edging kit. Backfill on the garden side, packing it lightly. Landscape fabric needs to be installed on a level surface and staked to secure it until you add your next layer. These are by far the simplest methods to prevent grass from growing into your gardens or other non-grass areas. As long as the adjoining grass isn’t allowed to go to seed, you shouldn’t have too many issues with controlling the problem.
Finishing your project and taking care of it in the future. Whether you are planting a flower bed, installing an earthen lawn, or recovering your lawn in native prairie plants, vigilance is the key to keeping an area grass free. Once grass takes hold, it can spread very quickly, so don’t get lazy, and keep your eyes open. If something comes up that doesn’t belong, deal with it quickly. Pull up the offending plant, being sure to dig up the root system as best you can.
Natural Alternatives to Herbicides
Laying down plastic. A great way to get rid of grass or other weedy plants is to lay down a layer of plastic over the targeted area during the summer months. The heat created by the sun becomes trapped under the plastic, creating a greenhouse effect, which will kill the plant within a couple of weeks, depending on weather conditions. Be sure to look for sharp stems or rocks that may pierce the plastic, and if you live in an area with any wind, be sure to stake the edges or weigh them down with dirt or rocks. Mulching with grass clippings and a layer of cardboard or newspaper will also work in a pinch but not as effectively due to their biodegradability.
Organic herbicides. There are many natural products which will kill grass but not be as harmful to plants and animals around you. As mentioned above, urine will kill grass spots pretty effectively through over-fertilization. But it is spotty, and perhaps unattractive. Some other options include, distilled white vinegar, which is acidic enough to kill a plant by changing its pH levels, and corn gluten, which has been shown to prevent grass seeds from sprouting. This means that it can be applied to an area to prevent the re-emergence of grass in the future.
Alternative ground cover.A good—albeit slow—method for getting rid of grass is to plant other ground covering plants in with the grass and eventually those other plants will win. You just have to be careful about what you plant because some ground cover plants are even more pervasive than grass. Clover is a good option, as it produces a nice flowering crop for pollinating insects and is also aesthetically pleasing. Some other options that are less desirable would be Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), Snow in the Mountain (Aegopodium podagraria variegata), and common mallow (Malva neglecta). Of course, the best option, for many reasons, would be a commercially available prairie wildflower and grass mix.
Hire a ruminant. If you are just looking to keep a pasture area from growing wild, it is pretty hard to beat a herd of goats, sheep, or a bunch of hungry cattle. This obviously isn’t realistic for many of you. But it is all the rage these days. Not only will they keep tall grasses at bay, but they will make short work of brush and thistles. It can also be argued that they are cathartic to have around and plain old fun to watch.
That’s right. Sod off!
Removing sod is a lot of darned work and you will find yourself wondering why it seemed like a good idea to get started on the project in the first place. The benefits of having a garden or lawn area that is more than the monocultural status quo of suburban society cannot be overstated. From growing your own food, to the aesthetic beauty of domestic flowers, to the knowledge that you are not contributing to the demise of the natural world, you will be rewarded many times over when you get rid of your turf in favor of something a little more interesting. Don’t be mistaken—an alternative lawn isn’t maintenance free. What you gain in not having to mow twice a week you might lose in pruning, cultivating, or raking the landscaping rocks. It’s ultimately a gain on your part, as your green lawn will have been turned into something useful and productive—or at the very least, something truly beautiful to behold.