Lawn removal may be your only option if your existing lawn isn't performing well and has too many bare or brown spots to make repairing the lawn a practical strategy. The fastest lawn removal method is to physically remove the grass with a sod cutter, but that isn't always the best way, especially if you have a large lawn and you're doing all the work by yourself. Depending on the type of grass, it may not even work because some grasses, particularly Bermudagrass and crabgrass, have deep roots that will sprout again after you've done all that work.
The fact that you plan to reseed new grass mitigates against the use of a herbicide because most grass-killing chemicals linger in the soil and prevent the new grass from growing. Glyphosate is the only herbicide that doesn't linger, but if you use a product that contains it, such as Roundup, there's a possibility it will leach into the groundwater, and considering that research links glyphosate to an increased risk of cancer, you might not like that idea. Consider also that once you've killed the old lawn with glyphosate, you still have to remove it.
Instead of introducing herbicides to the soil, consider healthier alternative lawn removal strategies. Some of them take time, and some are unsightly, but most are less labor intensive than physically removing the grass, and instead of poisoning the soil, they turn the old grass into compost that will feed the new lawn. If you like the idea of spraying or pouring something on the grass to kill it, there's always vinegar or boiling water.
Lawn Removal With Vinegar
Gardeners have long recognized the value of vinegar as a weed killer, and because it's nonselective, it can kill grass as efficiently as it kills weeds. It's fast acting because the acetic acid it contains begins drying out the grass blades as soon as it makes contact, especially if you apply it in full sun on a hot day, and because it's a natural fermented product, it doesn't do any damage to the soil or present any health problems. If you want guaranteed results, use 30 percent garden vinegar, but regular household distilled white vinegar, which has only a 5 percent acetic acid concentration, will also work.
Adding an ounce of dish or laundry soap to full-strength vinegar increases its efficacy because soap breaks down the natural oils on the leaves so the vinegar can penetrate. Put the mixture in a garden sprayer and spray the entire lawn on a hot day. You may have to apply the vinegar solution more than once to kill the grass, and once the lawn is dead, you can simply till it into the soil with a rototiller. You'll want to test the soil before planting new seed because vinegar increases soil acidity, and grass won't grow well — or perhaps not at all — if the soil pH is too low.
Let the Sun Do the Work
Solarization is a lawn removal technique that relies solely on the heat of the sun, and like a photovoltaic energy generation system, it only works in full sun and not on any part of the lawn that is shaded. Start by mowing the grass as short as possible and then water thoroughly and cover it with black plastic sheet mulch, making sure the plastic overlaps by several inches on the seams and has no holes. Use black plastic, not clear plastic, because black absorbs sunlight more effectively. Stake the plastic or hold it down with rocks and the sun's heat will create temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to bake the grass to a frazzle.
The best time of year to kill grass by solarization is late spring or early summer, when the sun's heat is at its peak, but even then, it takes about four to eight weeks for all the grass to die. One problem with this technique is that your lawn will be an eyesore while it's covered with plastic, and you may have some explaining to do as far as your neighbors are concerned. When you finally do remove the plastic, you can allow the grass to compost in place.
When you use solarization for lawn removal, it's best to plan on devoting the entire summer season to the project and planting the new lawn the following spring. If you want to speed things along, you can rototill the dead grass into the soil, and that will allow you to plant in the fall, which is actually the best time of year for sowing grass seed.
Lawn Removal by Layering
One of the most effective ways to remove grass is called layering, and it also takes the most time. The technique, which is also known as lasagna layering and sheet composting, involves covering the lawn with a layer of compostable mulch and waiting for it to decompose. Cardboard and newspaper are both suitable for this project, but don't use glossy newsprint and make sure you remove staples, plastic tape and all other nonbiodegradable materials. This method may not work for crabgrass, Bermudagrass or other deep-rooted grass varieties.
Start by cutting the grass as short as possible to provide a solid base for the newspaper or cardboard and throw the grass clippings back on the lawn to speed up the decomposition of the grass. Next, water the lawn thoroughly and then cover it with multiple layers of newspaper or cardboard, stacking the newspaper as thick as 15 to 20 sheets high. Be sure that the sheets overlap to completely block sunlight or the grass will find a way to survive. Wet down the sheets thoroughly but don't soak them too much or they'll tear apart. Cover the cardboard or newspaper with 4 to 6 inches of organic compost or soil and wait.
The mulch layer, which can include dead grass, wood chips, leaves or straw, will be several inches thick, but as it decomposes, the thickness will be reduced by half, and all of the organic material, including the dead grass, will become part of the soil, which is especially beneficial for clay soil. Typically, you have to wait six to eight weeks for this to occur, but the longer you wait, the better. If you do the layering in the spring and allow the mulch to decompose through the summer months, adding water periodically to better incorporate it into the soil, the lawn should be ready to till and replant in the fall. Alternatively, you can do lasagna layering in the fall and plant in the spring.
Lawn Removal With a Sod Cutter
The quickest way to remove grass is also the most labor intensive, and that's to cut the turf into strips and physically remove it. Depending on the number of square feet of lawn you have to remove, you may choose to do it with a hand tool, such as a border edger or a spade, or you may elect to rent or buy a gas-powered sod cutter. After separating the turf from the soil by cutting the roots with a sod knife, you can roll it up and take it away, or you can use the strips of sod to level uneven terrain by stacking them in low places or using them to form berms.
If you leave the turf in the yard, you'll want to turn it over and let the grass compost in place. To ensure this happens efficiently and as quickly as possible, cover the sod with six to 10 layers of newspaper, ensuring the sheets overlap to exclude sunlight, and then cover that with 4 to 6 inches of compost and 3 to 4 inches of organic mulch. This will turn a fast removal method into one that isn't as fast, however, and because it's so labor intensive, it probably isn't the most efficient approach for a large lawn.
One of the problems with physical removal is that it isn't practical to dig deep enough to completely uproot weeds and grasses like Bermudagrass, which has roots that extend as deep as 6 feet. If you don't dig up these roots, the weeds and grass will grow again. Solarization and spraying vinegar are better techniques for removing Bermudagrass.
Getting Ready for New Grass
Lawn removal frees up the part of the yard that the grass occupied, and you might decide to xeriscape and use a section for a garden bed or for a brand-new garden filled with native plants that require less water than grass. If you live in a water-hungry place, such as the Southwest, you'll get a lot of neighborhood support for such a decision, and you'll get the added freedom from lawn care duties. If your intention is to plant new grass that will perform better than the old grass on the entire plot, however, your work isn't quite done.
Before you sow the new seed, it's highly advisable to test the soil to determine which nutrient deficiencies exist so you can address them. There probably won't be many if you composted the old lawn using the layering method, but if you solarized the old grass or killed it with vinegar, you may need to adjust the pH. Most likely, you'll have to raise the pH, and you do this by tilling lime into the soil. If you have to lower the pH, which should ideally be between 6.5 and 7.0, add compost or sulfur. You might also need to add some nitrogen-rich fertilizer because grass needs a lot of nitrogen.
It's important to till the soil because that loosens and aerates it while mixing nutrients evenly so that all parts of the lawn have an equal share. After you're done, you'll also want to level and grade the soil with a landscape rake to fill in depressions where standing water could collect and drown the grass. This is also a perfect time to install underground irrigation pipes for a sprinkler system if there isn't one there already.
Choosing Grass Seed
If your previous lawn failed, chances are that it was the wrong kind of grass for your particular corner of the country (or for a particular area of your yard). You may have chosen the proper warm- or cool-season variety for your location, but if there was too much sun or not enough sun or your yard is in a microclimate, you might be better off with a seed mixture rather than a single variety.
Some mixtures combine different varieties of a single species, while others combine different species, and the mixtures you find at your local garden center are usually the ones that grow best in your area. If you aren't sure which grass seed to choose, consult with the local university extension for pointers about choosing grass seed for your particular situation.
- Earth Island Journal: Glyphosate Exposure Increases Cancer Risk by Up to 41%, Study Finds
- The Garden Counselor: Vinegar Weed Killer: Grandma's Recipe For Fast Weed Control
- Scotts: Fall is the Best Time to Seed and Feed
- UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County: Grass Removal Methods
- Sunset: How to Remove a Lawn
- Scotts: Planting Grass for a New Lawn
- Resource Central: Why Replace My Lawn with a Xeriscape Garden?
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.