Lawn Begone

by Donald Zouras
July 15, 2005

Every journey begins with the first step and for the Native Suburbia project that was the elimination of the most common non-native plants in our yard, which are collectively known as "lawn".  It was only in the last century that the culture of a “proper lawn” began to firmly take root in much of the U.S., requiring uniformly clipped grass uninterrupted by other plants. Unfortunately lawn culture is firmly entrenched in our society and many people foolishly consider it a status symbol to surround themselves with a huge expanse of non-native, drug addicted, water wasting grass.  The good news is that some people are starting to see the downsides of the typical lawn.  Read "Keep Off the Grass" to see some of the reasons why we were convinced that replacing the lawn in our yard with native plants was the best thing to do.  A search on Google can turn up much more information on this subject, such as an account of a homeowner's decision to stop cutting the grass.

We started out with a typical suburban lawn, but our yard did have more variety than many of our neighbors.  We were lucky to have a relatively large number of trees and shrubs, which added some visual interest.  Check out these pictures to take a tour of our yard when a lawn still existed.  We saw past the lawn and imagined the potential of the land to be something better. We did not have a large area to work with, but there was still a lot to do.

While our long term goal is to convert all of our yard to native landscaping, and perhaps convince our neighbors to do the same, we decided to take a phased approach.  The backyard is enclosed by a 6 foot high fence which provides a discrete barrier between us and the neighbors.  We determined that all of the lawn in the backyard was going to be removed in the first phase of the project.  The front yard presented a bit more of a challenge.  We had never attempted anything like this before and we were not sure how things would progress.  Wanting to minimize negative reactions from the neighbors, we limited the amount of lawn that we killed in plain view.   The compromise with the front lawn involved the creation of two large rounded areas extending from the sides of the house and stopping at either side of the driveway.  These would be filled with native plants while the remaining lawn looked on helplessly at its future. 

The first question that people always ask when we discuss the Native Suburbia project is some form of "what do the neighbors think?".  I cannot say exactly what our neighbors are thinking, but I did speak briefly to the neighbors on either side of our house when we started eliminating the lawn.  Both of them have typical green carpets that blended into the one that surrounded our house.  I informed them of our intention to transform our landscape.  I sold the project in terms of growing "wildflowers", which tends to evoke pretty pictures in the minds of most people.  Of course I do believe that our yard will be aesthetically pleasing, but it may not meet the expectations of the traditional gardening mindset.  The responses I received were polite acceptance with little real interest in our goals or the motivation for pursuing them.  That was good enough for us though, and a death sentence was passed on the lawn right up to the property line.  Once the lawn was killed, the subject has never again been discussed with the neighbors.  I suspect that they may think we are crazy, but we are following a "don't ask, don't tell" policy at this point.  We are just quietly enjoying our little slice of nature.  If anyone shows any interest though, we are more than happy to discuss our project.

You might wonder how to kill the most common weed found in your yard.  We did a lot of research on the subject and found that several methods were discussed.  The most common was the application of glyphosphate based herbicides such as Roundup.  We rejected this immediately on principle.  It would have been ludicrous to begin the establishment of Native Suburbia by drenching it in poison.  Another popular suggestion was to "solarize" the grass.  This involes covering it in plastic (either black or clear, there are two schools of thought) and letting the heat of the sun kill the plants.  This approach did not appeal to us because of the huge amount of plastic that our project would require.  Not only is it ugly, but it is also non-biodegradable.  We are trying to help the environment, not contribute to its degradation.  Some people remove patches of lawn with sod cutters.  Unfortunately, this removes valuable top soil as well as creating a disposal issue.  It would be possible to compost this material, but why move it at all?

In order to kill our lawn, we decided on a method which basically amounts to composting the grass in place.  We covered the grass with a biodegradable barrier that robbed it of the sunlight it required.  This barrier consisted of old newspapers and finely shredded hardwood mulch.

We do not actually have newspapers around the house because of the huge waste of resources they represent.  Instead we took advantage of those in our neighborhood who recycle.  Every Tuesday morning there are many piles of newspaper out on the curb waiting to be taken away.  We usually reduce the amount of paper we use, but in this case we went with reuse as a way to accomplish our goal.  Unsure of how much paper would be needed, we gathered enough compactly folded newspaper to fill a 30 gallon trash can.  This was a convenient way to store it until we were ready to use it and it worked well for transporting it around the yard as well.

There are many types of mulch on the market.  The triple shredded hardwood mulch was best suited for our purposes.  It looks a lot like soil and because it is finely shredded it will decompose faster.  This is important because in addition to covering the grass, the mulch will also serve as a base from which new plants will sprout.  When choosing which mulch to purchase, consider the following.  The mulch should be aged or composted for at least six months.  The initial stages of decomposition should be done away from your plants.  The heat of composting will also kill weed seeds which it may contain.  The mulch should not contain herbicides.  That would be contrary to the goal of growing native plants once the lawn is covered.  Do not purchase anything that has been artificially colored.  First of all, why do people think that red wood chips are attractive?  But more importantly, the colors are usually used to mask the fact the woods used in such mulches are construction or demolition waste.  These scraps are often chemically treated and may contain harmful compounds such as chromated copper arsenate.  This can be a serious health risk.  Taking these factors into account, we looked for a place to make our purchase.  It was sometimes difficult to get believable answers to our questions.  I felt that some of the mulch providers were guessing at what I wanted to hear or perhaps they were uneducated on these points and had not been asked these types of questions regularly.  After many calls we decided to buy from Prestige Nursery in West Chicago, Illinois.  The order was placed over the phone and paid via credit card.  The mulch was delivered while we were at work, so we arrived home to a large pile exactly where we had asked them to leave it on the driveway.

It was early August 2004 and with all of the materials gathered, it was time to get to work.  In addition to the newspaper and mulch we also used a shovel, rake, wheelbarrow, garden hose and lawn mower.  There was one last cutting of the lawn.  I set the mower to cut at the lowest height possible.  This would weaken the grass and make it less likely to survive the covering.  We did not want to go through this process just to have the grass sprout up through the mulch.  Once that was complete, it was time to cover.  We worked on a manageable section at a time.  The process consisted of putting down newspaper about 4 to 8 sheets thick.  Glossy paper typically used for advertisements should be avoided, although I must admit that I was not always careful about sorting it out.  Then the paper was moistened with the hose.  Primarily this prevented it from blowing away, but it was also good for the beginning of the composting process.  As Benia placed the newspaper, I would be filling the wheelbarrow with mulch, pushing it to the work area and dumping it.  Then we would spread the mulch with a rake to a depth of 2 or 3 inches.  We did this over and over until the entire back yard and much of the front yard were covered.  Due to the dark brown color of the mulch our yard looked like bare soil at this stage.  This was definitely a labor intensive approach, but we had a vision and this was worth it to reach our goals.  Check out the site preparation pictures for a closer look at the process.

Once the last of the doomed grass was buried alive, we planned our next steps... literally.  We laid out a natural stone path to be used for exploring Native Suburbia.  We imagined a day when tall grasses and wildflowers would surround us as we stroll among them enjoying the fruits of our labor.  Of course the native plants needed to be reintroduced to our yard.  Waiting for nature to take its course would have taken too long, so we purchased mixes of native plant seed from The Natural Garden nursery in St. Charles, Illinois.  It is important to get seeds from plants that were grown as close to your location as possible, to ensure that they are adapted to the region.  We spread the seeds in late November and eagerly awaited the Spring.  The first growth of the young Native Suburbia was not as explosive as we had hoped, but this is only the beginning.  There are many more steps to take on this journey.