Congratulations! I am stoked to see you here, interested in learning how to remove grass. A solid choice. When we first bought our modest .19 acre soon-to-be homestead, nearly every outdoor space was covered in grass. And not just any grass! Our “lawns” were nothing but a hot mess of both weedy crabgrass AND bermudagrass. So over the years (and with some help from the chickens) we slowly removed, smothered, or otherwise killed every bit of grass on our property to grow more useful plants in its place. The front and back yards are now littered with raised garden beds, pollinator-friendly perennials, fruit trees, edible shrubs, herbs, and more.
Read along to see exactly how we removed our grass to transform the space into a food forest instead. Because we were dealing with extremely invasive weedy grass, we had to take fairly extensive measures to make sure it was gone for good. Yet not every yard or lawn will need the exact type of treatment we gave ours! Therefore, this article will discuss several different options to remove, kill, or cover grass to prepare the ground for planting. Then you can choose what method best suits your space and situation.
What You’ll Find in this Article:
- Why Grass Sucks
- Should I Remove My Grass, Or Simply Cover It Up?
- 4 Quick Ways to Remove Grass
- How to Smother & Kill Grass in Place
- Ground Cover Options
- Borders & Edging
- Next Steps: Resources to start growing food, flowers & more!
- Plenty of photos of our grass-removal projects
The Problem with Grass Lawns
Many people like to maintain a modest lawn as a place for their kids to play. Or, to serve as a doggy potty. I get that. On the other hand, the majority of grass is not used for those purposes. Our country is obsessed with maintaining excessively huge green lawns simply out of bad habit, and lack of creative vision for something different! According to the National Resources Defense Council, turf grass lawns cover up to 50 MILLION acres of land in the United States alone. And all of that manicured green grass comes with a cost.
“Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides.”NDRC.org
Wow. Pretty nasty, huh? Those pesticides run off into waterways, kill bees, and poison wildlife. The gas used pollutes the air. Think of all that water used! Furthermore, grass takes away valuable habitat space from native wildlife. Sure, a few worms and grubs may enjoy living in a lawn – unless it is doused in pesticides, that is. Otherwise grass is a pretty lifeless space.
Now imagine if those 50 million acres of grass (or even half!) were transformed to grow veggies, flowering perennials, edible shrubs, annual flowers, native plants, and fruiting or ornamental trees instead? Those are the building blocks of a diverse and healthy ecosystem right there. Plus, with thoughtful design, organic native and edible landscapes require far less maintenance and resources than grass.
My vision of “grow food not lawns” doesn’t stop with human food! The goal on this homestead is to provide food for us, along with food, shelter, water, and habitat for pollinators and local wildlife. Learn more about how to turn any size yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat here.
Should I Remove My Grass, or Simply Cover It?
There are a few ways you can approach transforming your grass area into an edible garden. Some folks choose to completely remove their grass before changing the landscape, like we eventually did. In other situations, it may be possible to simply build or plant on top of the grass, smothering it in place. (We’ll talk more about ways to smother and cover grass more below.) Or, you may choose to do half-and-half. For example, remove the grass only where a future raised garden bed will sit, but leave grass in the pathways between the beds.
Things to consider when deciding if you should remove your grass entirely, or simply landscape over it:
What kind of grass do you have? If your yard is made up of classic lawn grass like fescue (or other types that don’t creep and run) then simply covering it up may work out just fine. On the other hand, if your lawn is full of invasive, creeping grasses like crabgrass (or has a lot of weeds) then you may want to think twice about leaving it in place.
What is the desired use and design of the garden? Have you thought about whether you want to build raised garden beds, or plant directly in the ground? Clearly, if you want to create in-ground garden beds, you’ll need to remove the grass in that space. On the other hand, tall raised beds can be placed and filled right on top of grass – especially if the bottom is lined with cardboard, landscape fabric, or other material to smother grass and weeds below. Read more about the pros and cons of raised beds versus in-ground planting here.
What is the space height and borders like? Imagine if you covered the top of your grass with cardboard or landscape fabric, added raised beds on top, and also a nice deep layer of mulch, gravel, or other ground cover of choice. Would the added height make everything spill over the edges? If your grass that abuts a patio, driveway, pathways, or other hardscaping that is already at an equal height as the grass, adding material on top may not work well. By removing our grass, we created a nice 4 to 6-inch deep void within the borders of our yard, perfect for filling back in with gravel, fresh soil, compost, and plants.
Irrigation. If you’re thinking about possibly leaving some grass behind (such as between your raised garden beds as pathways) first think about how everything is currently watered. Also, about how it will be watered in the future. Does it rain enough in your area to keep the grass watered without sprinklers? Because if the vitality of the grass depends on overhead sprinklers, you do not want to keep it between your garden beds. Veggies have different watering needs than grass. I don’t recommend spraying wood beds and plants with overhead sprinklers. Learn more about garden irrigation here, including how we converted our pop-up lawn sprinklers to drip irrigation manifolds.
4 WAYS TO QUICKLY REMOVE GRASS OR LAWN
Below are four different organic ways to quickly remove grass. I emphasize organic because I am not going to suggest using sprays to kill your lawn. That option sucks, for many reasons! One, I will never recommend using toxic chemicals in your home or garden, period. Nor would you want to grow food in that space if you did! Also, even if a chemical spray kills the grass, you would likely still need to remove the leftover dead stuff and roots anyways.
No matter what option you choose below, keep in mind that it is easiest to remove grass when it is moderately damp to semi-dry. Removing grass when it is wet and soggy makes for a heavy, muddy mess. Alternatively, really dry grass falls apart easily – making it more difficult to lift and remove in solid pieces.
1) Manually Remove Grass with a Shovel (& Muscle)
Ready to get digging? Using a shovel to cut and remove grass is a great choice for smaller spaces, or in tight areas with a lot of curves or obstacles. While slightly more laborious, this is also the least expensive option to remove grass. Even though our yards are fairly large, this is how we removed our grass. For example, our front yard had about 1000 square feet of grass. To make the task more manageable, we removed our grass in two phases. We tackled the back half with raised beds in fall of 2015, the front half closer to the house in fall of 2017.
To manually remove grass using a shovel:
- It is best if you have at least one flat-edge shovel (or lawn edging shovel) – used to easily cut clean lines in the sod.
- If you are removing only a portion of the grass, mark the desired edge line with a rope, string, or spray paint as a guide.
- Starting at one edge of the area, cut a deep straight line along the grass. Use your weight to step down on the shovel.
- After you make each cut, stick the shovel below the sod to pry up and loosen it slightly as you go.
- Continue cutting parallel lines to the first one, about 1 foot apart.
- Next, come back through and cut lines perpendicular to the ones you already did, creating approximately 1 foot by 1 foot squares. If you’re hoping to keep the sod intact to move and replant elsewhere, feel free to create larger strips to roll up – but they get heavier than you’d imagine!
- Now, use your hands (and shovel if needed) to pry up and roll back the cut squares of sod. We try to shake out some of the extra dirt to leave it behind.
Place the loose sod chunks in a pile to move and dispose of later, or put them right into your yard waste bin, compost bin, truck, or other final destination. Because our grass was so weedy, we added it to the municipal green waste bin instead of our personal compost. Commercial compost facilities generally heat their compost piles to a degree that kills grass and weed seeds. See this article from SF Gate for more ideas of what to do with removed sod.
2) Use a Sod Cutter
Instead of hacking away with a shovel, you could use a a sod cutter instead. Some sod cutters are smaller manual tools, while others are reminiscent of oversized lawnmower-like machines that cut the grass into long clean strips for you. Engine-powered sod cutters are best for large spaces and those without a lot of obstacles to work around. They’re very efficient and save you the major step of cutting the grass into pieces yourself. However, you’ll still need to roll up and remove the sod – no minor feat!
Because sod cutters have the ability to create nice even rolls of sod, there is the possibility of saving the grass and planting it elsewhere if desired – be it on your property or someone else’s. If you do opt to use a sod cutter, remember to be conscious of where your irrigation lines and sprinkler heads are.
3) Till the Lawn Under
Rather than peeling the lawn up to haul it away, you could also break it up by tilling it in place – and then work the grass back into the soil. There are human-powered hand tillers which take a lot of physical effort. You can also rent or buy an motor-powered rototiller to make the job significantly easier. I have never personally worked with a tiller but I understand they can be a bit awkward to maneuver, so plan to manicure any curved or tight edges of your space with hand tools like a shovel or edger first.
One benefit of tilling grass is that you’re not losing all of the top organic matter that you’d otherwise need to dispose of. Nor do you need to haul it anywhere! On the other hand, you could also rake up any exposed loose grass after tilling to dispose of it if you wish. The soil is loosened in the tilling process, which makes working in compost and other amendments into the planting space even easier.
I am not usually a huge fan of tilling since it disrupts the precious established soil food web below the surface. Thus, we follow a mostly no-till practice in our raised garden beds. However, tilling up grass in order to create a garden is one time I could get behind it. One serious drawback of tilling is that it often turns up and promotes weed seed propagation. It is also difficult to do in rocky or clay soils. Finally, tilling would not be a good choice for areas with persistent creeping grasses like crabgrass.
4) Hire Help
Surprised to see this suggestion here? Don’t be! Not everyone has the ability (or desire) to cut, dig, lift, and haul heavy sod! And that is totally okay. Know your limits and recognize when you need some help. We’ve learned to leave it to the professionals for occasional homestead jobs as well. Most local landscape companies should offer the service of removing grass. While paying someone will be more costly than a DIY job, this is the most quick and back-saving option!
You could also think about enlisting some really “cheep” help… chickens! (See what I did there?) Chickens are superbly talented at two things: eating grass, and digging or scratching at grass. While they may not be nearly as neat or quick as human helpers, our chickens did assist in removing a section of our grass little-by-little. They free range in the backyard where we have several (fenced off) raised garden beds, their coop and run, and what was once a small patch of grass. Over a few years and with four persistent chickens foraging, the little grass island got smaller and smaller – until it was nothing more than picked-over roots. We pulled out the remaining weedy spots and roots by hand, and then installed our stone raised pollinator island in its place.
HOW TO SMOTHER & KILL GRASS OR WEEDS
If completely removing grass sounds like too much work, you could cover it instead – smothering and killing it in place. Generally speaking, smothering grass is a much slower process than digging it out. That is, unless you cover it and then add raised beds and other ground cover on top right away, before it has a chance to fully die. That is a valid option, though keep in mind the ground surface may settle and sink slightly as it decomposes below. On the other hand, if your goal is to plant things directly in the ground where the grass once was, plan on this process taking several months.
Deep Mulch & Sheet Mulching
One very organic and sustainable way to kill grass is to cover it with a deep natural mulch material. For example, by mulching over the top of grass with leaves, wood chips, compost, leaf mold, bark, pine needles, and/or paper material. In order for mulch to successfully kill grass, it needs to be several inches deep – enough to block out sunlight, provide decent weight, and effectively smother the grass. Fluffy material like leaves will compact and break down with time, so start out with even more on top – a couple feet even.
One of the best ways to kill grass with deep mulch is to apply a thick layer of paper material over the grass first with mulch on top. For instance, use newspaper (at least 8 to 10 sheets thick), unwaxed cardboard, or a couple layers of bulk unbleached masking paper. You know, the stuff you can buy in a huge roll?
After you lay paper material over the grass, wet it thoroughly. Then add mulch of choice on top and wet that material too. Paper or no paper, spray down the deep mulch material every so often (unless rain is otherwise keeping it wet for you). Damp conditions accelerate decomposition, and will also help prevent fluffy mulch material like leaves from blowing away in windy conditions.
Fall is a great time to start this process, allowing the mulch to sit over winter. Over the next few months, the grass will die and disintegrate below. From there, you can clear away the mulch to plant in the grass-free soil below. Or, if you are worried about invasive and persistent weeds coming back, add other types of ground cover to the now-cleared space before adding raised beds or other landscaping on top. Clearly, this method of removing grass requires an abundant supply of mulch material – as well as a dash of patience. (We didn’t have enough of either!)
Solarizing is another way to kill your grass, though it doesn’t necessarily “remove” it. If you haven’t heard of solarizing, it is the process of covering the grass in clear plastic to both heat and smother it. When done right, solarizing lawn effectively “cooks” the top foot of soil and can kill grass, weeds, insects, nematodes, and pathogens. It also kills grass and weed seeds, theoretically preventing future growth.
How to solarize your lawn:
- It is best to solarize your lawn during the summer (the hottest time of year) and when the target area receives the most direct sun. When done correctly, the goal is to heat the grass and soil to around 140°F.
- First cut the grass short, and then very thoroughly water it. Wet conditions increase the effectiveness of solarization.
- Next, cover the entire area in sheets or tarps of clear plastic. Yes, it is important that it is clear! Think about the heat of a transparent greenhouse, versus the cooling effects of tinted windows or dark shade cloth. Using a dark tarp will make the grass discolored and less healthy below it, but will not provide the same strong heat as clear plastic.
- All sides and seams of the plastic must be tucked or held down tightly. This is to reduce fresh air entry and space below the plastic, and new growth.
- Leave the plastic in place for four to six weeks to heat and kill the grass.
Once the grass is dead, you can either remove it (now we’re back to square one) or apply mulch, compost, raised beds, or other desired ground cover over the top of it. In theory, the “dead” grass should disintegrate over time, essentially composting in place. I say in theory because it can be difficult to successfully solarize your lawn entirely, depending on the climate and technique used. It is not always 100% effective. And if you’re dealing with weedy stuff like crabgrass, I wouldn’t trust leaving it in place even after solarizing.
We have attempted to solarize our lawn in the past with mixed success. Our climate doesn’t get hot enough to intensely heat the soil and grass as desired. It did kill most of it… However, we found that removing the dry half-dead lawn was just as cumbersome as removing the grass that we did not solarize – if not more difficult, since it became crumbly! Therefore, I have mixed feelings about solarization. It also takes a lot of plastic to do…Like, a lot of plastic. Thankfully, we already had some on hand from when we painted our house.
GROUND COVER OPTIONS
Now let’s talk about grass alternatives for ground cover, including materials to put below raised garden beds, in pathways, or other planting spaces. These ground cover options can be used both in spaces where grass has been removed, over other open soil spaces, or directly on top of grass or weeds to smother them.
The ground cover you choose is ultimately a personal decision, based on your unique situation and preferences. A combination of several could be used as well! For example, in our spaces that were once full of weedy crabgrass, we chose to lay down a layer of bulk paper, then a layer of commercial-duty landscape fabric, along with a final deep layer of gravel mulch on top. Trust me, it was necessary! In other less weedy areas, we simply use small bark or shredded redwood mulch.
In order from the most permanent and protective ground cover option to the least:
Weed Barrier Landscape Fabric
Weed-blocking landscape fabric is tightly-woven material that is placed over the ground surface to effectively block weeds, grass, or other plants from growing up from beneath it. However, it is permeable to water, allowing for drainage and air exchange to the soil below. Landscape fabric comes in large rolls, and is typically pinned in place with landscaping staples. We like these long contractor staples – they stay put really well!
If you go this route, I highly suggest to invest in commercial-grade weed barrier fabric like this option, or this one. The average thin, stretchy, black plastic-like material usually found in your garden center is not very durable. It easily rips, tears, and otherwise makes a hot mess. The commercial-duty stuff is far more sturdy and will last indefinitely.
We install high-quality weed barrier fabric below all of our deep raised garden beds, along with hardware cloth to block the gophers. The fabric extends out beyond the outer edges of the beds to prevent creeping weeds from getting back in. Yet I don’t suggest using landscape fabric below shallow raised beds (less than 12” deep). That is, unless the space was intensely weedy and it is necessary. Why? Because the fabric will block and prevent roots from traveling deeper into the soil below. Many plants prefer more than 12” of soil to grow big and healthy.
If you choose to cover a large area with landscape fabric (such as a border flower bed, or around trees) cut holes in the fabric where the plants will go to allow their roots access to the soil below. Landscape fabric is also great to suppress weeds in garden pathways. We have it under the gravel paths around our raised beds, and under our greenhouse too.
Cardboard or Paper
Cardboard and paper do a great job of suppressing grass and weeds, albeit not as long-lasting as landscape fabric. But if the space you’re covering isn’t incredibly weedy, I suggest this route over landscape fabric. Using cardboard and/or paper is the more natural choice, as it will biodegrade with time. It is also a great way to up-cycle all those Amazon boxes you’ve been stockpiling, am I right? 😉
As we discussed in the “deep mulch” section above, unwaxed cardboard, layers of newspaper, or bulk sheet paper can be used to cover the ground surface (with or without grass beneath it). In open spaces like pathways, add a mulch of choice on top to keep the paper down and provide a clean finished look. You can also pin cardboard down in place using the same landscape staples if needed.
Many people also use cardboard or thick paper to line the bottom of their raised garden beds! This is what we did when we created our raised stone-wall pollinator island. It wasn’t weedy enough to require landscape fabric, though there were some leftover grass roots we wanted to smother. We even planted a few small citrus trees in that space. Because the cardboard will degrade with time, we knew the roots wouldn’t be permanently restricted as they would be with landscape fabric.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a space that needs only minimal weed suppression, mulch away baby! Feel free to skip the layers of landscape fabric or paper, and simply throw down a nice layer of mulch on top of your soil. Mulch is SO important – on top of any type of open soil surface! Mulch helps reduce runoff and evaporation, retain soil moisture, and increase organic matter content. All of this leads to a healthy soil microbiome (aka “soil food web”) and provides habitat for earthworms, beneficial bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, and more.
Natural mulch options include bark or shredded bark, wood chips, straw, pine needles, compost, grass clippings, small gravel, or even larger rocks like river rocks or cobblestone. There are pros and cons to every mulch choice, which needs to be a discussion and article of its own!
We personally use several types of mulch in our gardens. In the perimeter and pollinator islands of the front yard garden, we mulch with a combination of compost and small bark. Around the front yard garden beds, we use small ⅜” green rock gravel. I love that it compacts and stays in place well, rather than sinking when you step on it like pea gravel does. (Though you can also install gravel stabilizers below pea gravel to help keep it in place.) Where the chickens free range in the backyard, we use a combination of small bark as well as shredded redwood. The shredded stuff is nice and fluffy, which the girls love to kick around in. Keep in mind that cedar isn’t recommended for chicken areas! It is slightly toxic to their lungs.
Living Ground Cover
Living ground cover brings a lush and whimsical look to any garden space! I especially love the way green ground cover looks between pavers or flagstone and around borders. If you choose to go this route, research what types of ground cover will grow well in your climate – with as little fuss and maintenance possible. For example, do you get enough rainfall to keep the living ground cover, well… alive? Or will it quickly become dead ground cover? If you live in an arid climate and the ground cover is going to need a lot of supplemental water, it may not be worth the resources and effort.
There are dozens of different options for living ground cover, including some edible ones! Many herbs make for excellent ground cover, such as creeping thyme or trailing rosemary. You can get quite creative with ground cover, choosing a variety of textures, heights, incorporate tall native grasses, or even succulents in the right climate. For more ideas, Gardeners Path has great articles about flowering ground covers as well as herb ground cover options.
Borders & Edging
To wrap up this article, I wanted to briefly mention your transition zones. For example, if you remove only a portion of lawn and thus leave an area that abuts the newly grass-free zone. In that case, you may want to consider adding an edging or border material to separate the zones. A sturdy border is particularly important to prevent creeping weeds and grass from invading the fresh space. Not to mention, borders add a nice finished look! We’ve used everything from large cobblestones and concrete pavers to this flexible but durable terrace board. The terrace board can be dug deep between the transition zones, effectively preventing shallow creeping grass from crossing to the other side.
And that is how you kill or remove grass to make room to grow food instead!
I hope this article gave you some great ideas and inspiration to kill some grass – and to Grow Food, Not Lawns! Please let me know if you have any questions or other ideas that I missed. I would LOVE to see your yard transformations! If you’re on Instagram, be sure to tag @deannacat3 or #homesteadandchill in your project photos. Last but not least, please spread the love by sharing or pinning this article. Happy digging!
Now, it is time to get planting. If you need some guidance going forward, these related articles may come in handy:
- How to Design & Build a Raised Garden Bed
- Raised Garden Beds vs. In-Ground Planting: Pros & Cons
- How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed: Build the Perfect Organic Soil
- How to Prepare & Amend Soil Before Planting or Between Seasons
- Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home
- Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors
- Companion Planting 101 (w/ Companion Planting Chart)
- Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies, & Hummingbirds
- Choose the Best Edible or Ornamental Trees for your Garden
- How to Plant a Tree: Best Practices