By now, most of us know that the lawn isn’t exactly America’s greatest contribution to landscape design. The postage stamp lawns in front of our homes are a dead zone for wildlife – barren of pollinators, sucking up precious resources, and taking up room that could be used for a more positive contribution (food? Natives? Beauty?).
But while the alternatives to lawn are beautiful and inspiring, they can be costly and time-consuming to implement all at once. On a limited budget and with limited time off, it can be hard to justify removing a lawn to replace it with a more eco-friendly lawn-like surface, though the benefits are definitely great.
So even though many of us won’t be replacing the entirety of our lawns anytime soon, most of us will admit we DO have way more lawn than we use, so reducing our lawn a little bit at a time can be an inexpensive and non-intimidating way of greening our landscapes.
But what’s the best way to reduce our lawns? There are a few great tactics that have worked well for me and for my clients, and none of them are difficult or cost much money at all. Here are my suggestions:
If you’re lazy but get a lot of parcels in the mail:
Try sheet mulching. This is a tactic I have used to great effect for both myself and clients. You basically put down a neat layer of flattened brown cardboard over your lawn (dampen it first), cover it with 3-6″ of manure or compost, and let it sit for a couple of months. The photo below is obviously of a big project, but you can choose to extend your borders a foot at a time if you wish, using this method.
It’s most effective in the damp times of the year, because the worms will enthusiastically chomp through your cardboard and break it down faster when it’s moist.
Once the lawn is dead and the cardboard has mostly broken down, you can plant whatever you like in what’s left, and add whatever mulch you prefer.
The only reason I don’t add chips from the beginning is that I have had issues with raccoons burrowing about under the cardboard to find the worms and grubs underneath, and while they don’t hurt the cardboard or manure, they really mess up a pretty layer of wood chips.
This is one of those techniques which takes a tiny bit of time before you can plant and finish the area off, but it really works quite well.
That said, I would not use cardboard over and over again in a bed because recent research has indicated that long-term use of cardboard as a weed suppressant can make micro-organisms and worms unhappy, because they can’t get enough oxygen. But as a temporary solution, it can be an effective way of getting an area under control.
If you like to eat curry or have one of those crazy zucchini-recipe books:
Plant some squash or pumpkins in your borders and let them travel over parts of your lawn. They are such insane, rampant growers that they will travel over your lawn, shade out portions of it, and give you loads of food for your effort.
The problem here is that while they will kill off the edges of your lawn, they don’t do so in a completely predictable, straight-line sort of fashion. I mean, you can trim the shoots to direct their growth, but you will end up with a bit of a wobbly edge to your lawn that you’ll have to address at some point.
Even so, this is a technique I used in part of my garden to eradicate a 10′ by 20′ section of lawn between two apple trees. I got a lot of adorable pumpkins and zukes, ate winter curries of pumpkin and coconut milk and found ways of adding frozen zucchini to nearly everything, and thoroughly enjoyed having a clean slate come fall to plant some natives (could the timing be better?).
If you’re a perfectionist and have some time:
You can just straight-up hack new lawn borders and buy yourself some extra garden bed space. I did this in a few sections of my own lawn, and I help clients widen beds all the time. If your perennials seem to be constantly spilling into the lawn come summertime, you have two choices: prune the perennials, or remove a bit of lawn (untidy lawn/ perennial co-mingling is not an option I love).
It also works great if you’ve just come back from a plant sale and need some room to put your new scores, as recently happened to me when my local nursery had a sale on some native perennials!
To do this, you’ll need a pulaski (it’s got an ax on one side of the head, and a sideways ax (called a mattock) on the other side) to hack at the lawn, and some spray chalk or marking paint (both available in the hardware store’s spray paint section) to create a pretty line.
First you use the ax side to slice into the lawn along your pretty line, then use the mattock side to peel away the sod (take about 1″ of roots as well as the top of the grass). Once you’ve finished, you can do any planting you like and mulch right away; the lawn shouldn’t return.
You’ll want to be extra-careful to weed for the first few months, because any time you disturb the soil, you may expose new weed seeds. But if you put down a good layer of mulch (3-4″) and check for weeds twice monthly, you’ll be in excellent shape in only a few months.
A word of caution:
Don’t forget to think a bit about what your final, ideal garden will look like before replanting any new areas.
If you’re planning on removing 3′ of lawn every year for 5 years, your borders will end up 15′ away from where they are to start, which means that you’ll need to plan your plantings with that in mind (in other words, don’t plant tiny groundcover after tiny groundcover if your bed will eventually be quite deep, as it may look out of scale!).
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