Don’t Just Kill Your Lawn, Compost It

by Julie Orr on July 28, 2010

When it comes time to remove or reduce your lawn there are three standard methods to choose from. First you could remove the lawn manually with a sod cutter or sharp shovel. As you’ll notice I said the word ‘manually’ because it is just that- hard manual labor. Unless you are hiring a professional, the sod cutters for rent aren’t always that sharp and you need to have a lot of strength and push very hard to get results.

The second method, I don’t even like to mention, but unfortunately some landscape professions are still using a chemical kill. This means that they use toxic chemicals that are so strong, they not only kill your lawn but all the good organisms and healthy mycorrhiza that live in the soil. In short, don’t do it. It’s not worth your sacrificing the health your family and pets, yourself or your soil.

So that is why I started using the third method called sheet mulching or lasagna composting. Not only is it all organic but many of the ingredients can be obtained for little or no money. I also like this method because I am lazy. In other words, I can do this process once and it’s done and I don’t even have to break a real sweat!

With in one day with two people, we sheet mulched all 850 square feet of our front yard. As a homeowner, here are the steps I suggest you take:

  1. Rebate. Before you do anything to your alive, green lawn, check with your local municipal water department to see if you may qualify for a lawn removal rebate.
  2. Gather materials. You’ll need 3 basic items: manure or compost, cardboard and mulch. Click here to read more about where to find these materials.
  3. Prepare the site.
    1. Mow the lawn on the closest setting possible.
    2. Take a sharp shovel or pick  and edge around any hardscape that the lawn comes into contact with. You can use this extra sod to make a berm (a raised area of earth).
    3. Remove any items that may get in the way like lights, drip irrigation tubing and rocks. Save any reusable items for later use
    4. Compost you lawn
      1. Lay out about 1-2 inches of compost or manure on top of lawn and water it in well
      2. Add a layer of cardboard and overlap  each box about 25-50%. Designer tips: have the brown side up since it camouflages best with the wood mulch
      3. Add water again until the cardboard is soggy
      4. Add 2-3 inches of wood mulch
      5. Finished!
        1. Just remember to keep your new ‘compost area’ watered well. It should have the consistency of a damp sponge.
        2. In 3-6 months your lawn will be composted into the most gorgeous, friable, earth worm infested soil.
        3. Plant your new garden and enjoy.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Vidda Chan July 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Awesome! Thanks so much for sending this. This is definitely the step we’re going to take for three family gardens. Yahoo!

Billy Goodnick July 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Julie: Thanks for shining a light on sheet mulching. You did a great job of explaining and documenting the process. The toughest part is always along the edges, where it’s hard to maintain enough thickness.

I’ll post a link to this blog at the Lawn Reform Coalition’s page at Facebook.!/pages/Lawn-Reform-Coalition/136718253008193?ref=ts

Shannon Currey August 6, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Julie, love this method. I’m wondering if you’ve done this in an area with existing trees. I would be concerned that tree roots might suffer from oxygen deprivation if they’re covered like this. Do you think it would endanger the trees if you covered a larger portion of their root system? I’ve got an small front yard with large trees that I want to convert to beds, and I’m struggling with how to get rid of turf + weedy green things without harming trees. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Julie Orr Design August 10, 2010 at 7:27 am

Hi Shannon,

Since cardboard is a permeable (water and air can get through) material, no oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange should be lost. The whole purpose of the cardboard is to smoother the lawn or weeds from the sun and create a heat chamber (thanks to the manure) in order for composition to begin. Additionally, if you have an existing lawn tree, you most likely have a tree well of bender board around the base of the tree to protect the lawn from growing near the trunk. So, you’ll still be able to provide deep watering depending on the species and age of your tree. Good luck to you!

jeffrey sheehan August 24, 2010 at 2:03 pm

great work Julie, as usual!! we are hoping to convince more clients to use this method as it really is the least toxic and most beneficial way to eradicate turf or other low growing plants / groundcovers…keep us all in the loop w/ your progressive experimentation…thanks again!!

Kate April 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Hi Julie

Is this sheet mulching method good also if you are replacing an existing lawn with a new native sod grass lawn?as mentioned in your post here

Angela December 5, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Hey Julie,
So excited to find this method and how you’ve detailed it. Thank you!
Would shredded fall leaves work in place of compost or manure?

Jen August 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

Is it necessary to add the wood mulch on top of the cardboard or is that cosmetic?

Thank you.

Julie Orr October 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm

True, it is partially cosmetic but it also adds organic matter and takes longer to break down than cardboard. Also, if you mulch, you could plant right away and no one would be the wiser that you are sheet mulching underneath!

Emily Moothart February 1, 2014 at 9:21 pm

I’m trying to decide the best way to deal with a “lawn” that came with the house we purchased last summer. It really isn’t lawn at all – it is a mix of 3-4 different invasive grasses and 2-3 very invasive weeds. None of it would be an acceptable “lawn”! I want to take it ALL out and eventually replace/replant as a cottage garden with some patches of no-mow grass. This organic method would definitely be my preference BUT I’m really concerned that I will just end up with crab grass and bermuda grass popping right up through it in a few months. That stuff never dies! What are your thoughts on the best way to approach this? Thanks so much!

Julie February 3, 2014 at 9:44 am

Hi Emily,

The sheet mulching will work but you need to be prepared to do a bit of hand weeding for the first year. Also you may have to do a second layer like we did at our house on some of the more aggressive bermuda areas. It takes a lot of patience but so worth it and WAY better than harmful chemicals.

Good luck to you!

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