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Remove Your Lawn Safely and Organically

You can remove your lawn and replace it with California native plants without breaking your back digging and hauling the sod to the dump. There is a simpler method called sheet composting that is safe and organic. The helpful bacteria and organisms in the soil under the turf have been long destroyed due to the use of chemical fertilizers and weed-killers and sheet composting restores the ecology of the soil. Sheet composting smothers the grass and kills it by depriving it of oxygen and sunlight. The dead grass can then be composted in-situ by covering it with brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) matter. In as little as 6 months your soil will be nutrient-rich and teaming with earthworms and other healthy organisms.

Read the section at the bottom of this page for conditions when sheet composting would not be a suitable technique for lawn removal.

Continue reading here to understand the sheet composting method:

  1. If you have 5 gallon or larger-sized plants to put in the ground where the turf is replaced, plant these in the ground first before going on to the next step. Click here for details on how to plant natives.

  2. Mow your lawn as low as possible, and throw the grass clippings back on the grass.

    Notes: The more organic matter you provide, the easier the composting process, and the healthier your soil when you are done. Re-use the cut grass to quicken the decaying process since grass is a good source of nitrogen and potassium.

  3. If you have a sidewalk or walkway next to the grass, cut out a 6” strip of grass all along the walkway. Keep these strips to raise the level during planting. Removing the strips creates a slight slope away from the walkway and this will ensure that the compost and mulch do not easily blow over.

  4. Wet down the remaining grass. Moisture is essential to the composting process.

  5. Optional: Spread about 1” of chicken manure, taking care to ensure that the manure is at least 2 feet from the base of the new plants. The manure can burn your plant roots if applied directly, so keep the roots safe and the manure away. You will need about a 1/4 of a cubic yard (or 6.75 cubic feet) of manure to cover 100 sq feet to a 1" depth.

    You can get free manure if you live near a farm or if you live near riding stables. Or you can always purchase sterilized poultry manure at your local garden supply store.

    Notes: You can substitute the chicken manure for a different type of manure or material such as alfalfa, also high in nitrogen. But note that in addition to nitrogen, manure also provides phosphorous, potassium, and other nutrients. Manure also improves the soil structure and it’s water-holding capacity. But manure is high in salt content and raises the pH of the soil making it more acidic, so do not over-apply. Poultry manure is highest in nitrogen, releases 90% of its nitrogen in the first year, and contains the fewest weed seeds, which is why we recommend it. If you have access to fresh chicken manure then you must compost it first or let it age so you don’t burn your young plants with the excess amount of nitrogen contained in fresh poultry manure.

    If you are planting right away, then avoid the manure since this will burn the roots of new plants, only use this if you are going to allow the lawn to decompost for at least 2 months before planting.

  6. Spread about 1” of good compost. You will need 15 lbs for 100 sq feet.

  7. Spread 5 layers of regular newspaper to cover the entire grass area that you want removed. Go right to the edge of walkways.

    Notes: Use ordinary black and white newspaper pages and do not use glossy inserts and magazines. Newspaper ink is considered safe, being composed primarily of carbon black and mineral oil. The EPA banned lead-based ink ingredients in 1985.

  8. Wet the newspaper to keep it down while you work with the remaining material.

  9. Optional: Throw some oyster shell powder over the manure. Sometimes called oyster shell lime, you can purchase this from an organic gardening store. You will need 5 lbs for 100 sq. feet of lawn.

    Notes: This is a by-product of the seafood industry and contains about 35% calcium as well as other important micro-nutrients. It raises the pH level if you have acidic soil. Oyster shell lime has been shown to benefit the growth of nitrogen-fixing good bacteria and suppress the growth of soil nutrient-depleting bacteria.

  10. If you have shrubs or trees that have dropped leaves, you can spread these leaves on the newspaper before going on to the next step of spreading the mulch. Avoid diseased leaves, and also avoid leaves that are too thin and can mat together to form an impermeable layer.

  11. You are now ready to plant the 1 gallon and smaller plants by digging holes right through the compost, newspaper, and grass. For details go directly to the planting page by clicking here.

  12. Once the plants are in the soil, pile 3-4” of mulch or wood chips over the entire area.

    Notes: You can get free wood chips by calling a local tree company and asking them for some non-diseased wood chips. The arborist is usually only too happy to unload on your driveway rather than drive it to the dump for disposal. Use a trustworthy arborist since you do not want wood chips from a diseased tree. To play it even safer, you can specify, “no oak chips please”, especially since you do not want sudden-oak death (Phytophthora ramorum) in your garden. Pine or redwood chips should work well in general.

    If you prefer not to take the risk of disease, then just buy mulch from your local garden supply store. Click here for details on the types of mulch and the pros and cons of each type.

  13. If you have use wood chips but prefer a nicer-look, then use wood chips to a depth of 2" and finish off the final 1" with more expensive mulch.

    Notes: If you have clay soil only use 3-4” of mulch since very deep mulching will keep the soil too wet and this is not a very good condition for roots which can then rot.

When is Sheet Composting Not Effective? To read more, click here.

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