Removing Lawns – The how and the why

April 2022 Posted in Gardening, Outdoor Life

By Melissa Wagoner

A lush, green lawn looks beautiful, feels fabulous under foot and can serve a real purpose as the backdrop for picnics, sporting events or just lounging in the sun. But it can also have some real drawbacks. 

“An irrigated, one or two species, mowed green lawn, that mimics a golf course is an ecological disaster,” Horticulturist Eric Hammond said. “It blocks most animals beside us from using it – there isn’t any food there – and most of us dump tons of poison and chemical fertilizer on it to keep it alive. Here in the [Pacific Northwest] we have to use a ton of water to keep it green all summer, water we do not have. It’s crazy.”

And he’s not alone in his thinking.

“When we moved into our small cottage several years ago, the backyard had two things: a big man-made pond and a massive lawn,” homeowner Michele Finicle recalled. 

“Neither of those landscaping choices fit our family… both took a whole lot of a resource we felt needed to be spent sparingly: water.”

Similarly, when Lisa Gerlits and her husband, Michiel Nankman, purchased their home – at roughly the same time – they knew that lawn maintenance, including watering and mowing, just wasn’t for them. 

“After a few years of dry, prickly summer lawn, we realized that having a lawn was rather silly for us, since we weren’t willing to take care of it the way it was designed to be cared for,” Gerlits explained. “But finding an alternative was not easy.”

Namely because it meant getting rid of the grass.

Getting rid of the grass

“Time is the best method,” Hammond said of the most common method of lawn removal. That involves smothering both grass and weeds.

“The first thing we did was cover every square inch of the lawn with cardboard and newspaper we had reclaimed from recycling,” Finicle said. “We put down several layers and wetted it so it would start the decomposition process faster. Then we shoveled wheelbarrows of mulch from a PGE chip drop over all the newspaper. We made sure it was a thick layer, at least three inches deep. Then we waited.”

Gerlits also used a similar method, though with slightly less success.

“In the backyard we didn’t overlap the cardboard, so we’ve had grass poking through all over the place,” she lamented. “Also, we’ve been doing it in sections, so we’ve got a bark chip patch right next to our overgrown grass. When that grass goes to seed, it seeds itself in the fresh bark.”

According to Hammond, there is no foolproof way to get rid of a lawn. Even double digging – removing the sod before placing it two spade lengths underground – requires the continual pulling of weeds. 

“With any method one of the things you are battling, however, is not just what is growing today but the seeds, presumably of weeds, that will germinate after you plant the new native (or regular) lawn,” Hammond explained.

But planting something new is imperative, unless the homeowner plans to use a type of barrier – mulch, stone or bark chips – because where there is space something will grow. The question is – what?

Planting native

“[I]t’s all about preference,” Hammond said, listing various plants – annuals, perennials, bulbs and even native grasses that could add visual and ecological appeal to both homeowners and wildlife. 

“I think a mixed meadow is the best approach because it has lots of visual interest most of the year.”

It’s the choice Finicle made when she purchased the eco-lawn seed mixture – containing a blend of Dutch clover, strawberry clover, English daisies, yarrow, baby blue eyes, sweet alyssum rye, and fescue – developed by the OSU Extension Service but it’s by no means the only option.

A space can be intentionally curated, beautifully designed and still be composed of drought resistant, pollinator friendly vegetation.

“Oregon native plants are very diverse,” Camila Miller, owner of Miller Landscaping in Silverton – a company specializing in both lawn removal and native replanting – confirmed. “There are evergreen and deciduous varieties, low and mid-size shrubs, groundcovers, wildflowers, trees, and all of them play a role in the Willamette Valley ecosystem.”  

Keeping the grass

But what if you like your grass? Does all of it have to go? The answer, according to Hammond, is decisively, no.

“The Willamette Valley was a bunch grass prairie (grasses that don’t spread by runners),” he pointed out. “There are many native species here… They serve a stabilizing role, holding the soil.”

In other words, it isn’t a villain, in fact it can be a real ecological boon, as homeowner Pam Valley found out when – after the purchase of her home in the 1980s – she stopped watering, stopped mowing and let the established grass grow.

“Not watering works fine for lawns…” she said. “They were used to that before we showed up.” And, because Valley doesn’t mow, other plants and even animals have begun to “show up” as well, making her yard their home.

“Over time the grass becomes a meadow and many creatures are alive there like the salamanders in the leaves today or the big frog we saw last fall,” she said. The space has evolved as plants like chickweed, yarrow, daisies and oregano have moved in from neighboring gardens, creating a more diverse ecosystem.

It took a while for her neighbors to get used to the change. 

“Some of the walkers were worried and asked questions,” she said of the original reaction, “but over time many of the neighbors started doing this too.”

The choice is yours

Driving around the Willamette Valley, it’s becoming much more common to see homeowners moving away from traditional lawns – planting front yard gardens, native shrubs and trees or even cultivating a small meadow – with the environment and their own values in mind. 

“In a time of changing climate, depleting resources, and inflated food costs, I feel like my garden is one place I can make a difference for my family and for the community of local pollinators we rely on to grow our food,” Finicle said of her choice. 

“As I sow my mix of native plants into my yard over Spring Break, I am planting with intention and purpose towards a sustainable future. After the last two years, that feels pretty good.”

Lawn Removal Methods

• Double digging/sod removal

• Smothering with cardboard or newspaper

• Solarization with plastic

• Cessation of irrigation and mowing (allow grass to grow naturally, filling in with native plants and pulling weeds as necessary)

Replanting Suggestions

• Grasses: roemers fescue and pine bluegrass

• Native perennials: yarrow, Oregon sunshine daisy and self heal, lomatium utriculatum and any of the biscuit roots

• Native annuals: rosy plectritis, checkermallow and popcorn flower

• Bulbs: camassia quamash and giant white fawn lily 

• Native seed mixes: www.willamettewildlings.com, www.ptlawnseed.com/collections/native-seeds, 

Lawn Removal Assistance

Miller Landscaping (specializing in lawn removal and native plant landscaping): millerlandscaping2021@gmail.com  

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