For some people, a garden is only a garden if it consists of a lawn surrounded by a few trees, some flowering shrubs and some common perennials or annuals in either a formal or curved border. In fact, this view of the garden is extremely popular and can look very beautiful. A gorgeous lush dark green carpet of grass surrounded with curved borders full of little flowering trees, some pretty shrubs and roses, spring bulbs, popular perennials, and interspersed with ground hugging plants is actually very idyllic. The only problem, however, is the reality of the upkeep. Who is going to fertilize at least twice a year, weed continually, edge the borders, and mow that lush lawn every week? It is also very difficult to keep a lawn looking pristine without chemicals. You have to ask yourself, “Is this really worth the effort?”. I know of people who have left their homes to move into an apartment because they didn’t want to maintain their yard in their older years. I find this very sad. If you love your home and enjoy your yard, you do not need to leave it because of yard work. You need to apply some thought to making your yard virtually maintenance free. The very first step in this process is to get rid of that grass, which is where this blog comes in.
“How do I get rid of an enormous rectangle of grass?”‘ you ask. Well….if you are married, you might want to progress slowly so you don’t shock your spouse. My husband rarely ever mowed, and when he did, there were a lot of grumpy facial expressions and some grumbling about soggy soil, weeds, the lawnmower, and lumpy uneven ground. When, however, I would ever mention removing half of it, he was very hesitant to say the least. I managed, first, to talk him into a large garden bed in the front yard from the curb to a Japanese ‘Bloodgood’ that was about a third of the way from the street to the house. In this bed, I planted three ‘Rosebud’ azaleas, many swordferns, two small yakushimanum rhododendrons, two red flowering currents, a ‘Krinkled White’ peony, some Siberian iris, a dwarf Fothergilla, three dwarf Balsam Firs, and a few daylilies. At the time, my neighbour was having drainage problems and had some massive rocks she needed to get rid of, so I took a few off her hands to place in the bed. For some reason, ferns love to grow next to boulders, and they look right at home there. ‘Good Grief!’, you might say. “Weren’t all those plants pretty pricey?’. Well, if you get lots of small plants, they will surprise you by growing quite rapidly. The space did look a little sparse to begin with, but you can add a lot of interest with rocks and ferns that do not cost much. Once this bed was in place, my husband was a pushover for any other lawn killing projects. Just this one bed saved us (me really) many hours of work each summer.
Before explaining some easy techniques for killing the lawn, you need to take quite a while to consider your design BEFORE you start. Look at gardening books in the library, explore gardens online and consider a subscription to a favorite gardening magazine. You can cut out pictures from the magazines if you have purchased them, and make a cherished scrapbook of designs and plants you are attracted to. The easiest way to begin is to expand existing beds or to create island beds; if you are brave, you can then cover the remaining lawn with weed matting and mulch, low groundcovers, gravel, wide paths, or a patio. Use a garden hose or a long rope to plan the curves and think about the design at least overnight to be sure. Now the lawn killing techniques:
First is called solarization. In this method, you will cover the freshly mowed and wetted grass with a clear plastic tarp for 4 to 6 weeks and the sun will heat up the top 15 cm of soil underneath to about 60 degrees Celsius. This method is most effective in an area that receives about 6 hours of sun per day and when you do not want to add soil to the site. I have never used this method, personally, as I am too impatient and I always have brought in topsoil so a method I will be discussing later was a better option. I do remember one summer, however, when my children were younger. They were given a Slip and Slide as a gift that we set up on our gently sloping backyard.
I watched the kids have a blast all afternoon in the sun running up the lawn and then sliding down. They never wavered in their delight. My thought was, ‘Wow! This is great exercise!’. Eventually some neighbour kids came and joined in the fun. Later in the afternoon, I rolled it up and was shocked to see dead grass underneath. I thought perhaps it would spring back by the next day, but we had a large brown rectangle of dead grass all summer that year. I learnt to move the slide about every hour to ensure the rest of the lawn survived. But from this experience, I can personally say that solarizing the soil will work eventually. If you are impatient, maybe get a Slip and Slide and have the neighbourhood children and their parents over for a lawn killing day!
2. Removing Turf
The next method is manually digging up the turf. You can place the turf in a pile somewhere to naturally compost. You have the option of re-using the soil on the same site when it has fully composted, but I am pretty sure you don’t want to wait that long before preparing your new garden. If you are impatient, you can bring in new soil to cover the area where the turf was removed. I will mention that this is an extremely good workout for your upper body and is only recommended for ‘buff’ individuals.
3. Covering Lawn
My preferred method for lawn removal is to smother the site with newspaper (to a thickness of about 10 sheets) or cardboard, then cover this with new soil. You are immediately ready to plant shallow-rooted young plants. You can easily find large quantities of newspaper at your local paper delivery center or cardboard at the recycling area of your local shopping center. No cost! When you are laying the newspaper down, regularly spray with water from the garden hose to keep it in place if breezy. The paper will naturally decompose and you will have instant gratification with your new garden.
4. Chemical Option
The last option is to spray with chemicals, but as this goes against everything I believe in, I won’t elaborate. If you are visiting my website, then I am assuming this option is not of interest to you either.
After you have covered your new garden bed with soil and planted your new garden, you will want to mulch with about 5 cm of organic mulch, such as shredded barkmulch, bark nuggets, or small or shredded leaves. This will ensure the soil does not dry out easily, helps keep weeds at bay until the plants mature, and prevents soil erosion. It will also add nutrients to the soil. You could also consider covering the ground with river rock and paving stones mixed with garden beds for interest. Below are pictures of two rock ground covers I saw in West Vancouver just recently.
There are numerous beautiful groundcovers you could use that make a lovey lush carpet.
At a visit to Capilano Suspension Bridge, my husband and I were impressed by the beautiful wooden boardwalks throughout the park. This would be a good option for a shady yard with a lot of beds; the walkways could wrap around the beds and open periodically onto decks. Here are a couple of ideas for you from the visit we had there.
My last suggestion is my favorite – replace your grass with moss! Moss is so under-rated. It is green, lush looking, natural, easy to maintain, and beautiful. Here is an idea, again from the Capilano Suspension Bridge grounds.
The photo above is of my front yard. The photo is taken in May when the Rosebud azalea and the Siberian irises are in bloom. In April there is interest with the Red Flowering Current bushes and the Teddy Bear rhododendrons. Later in the season will see the peonies and the daylilies in bloom. In the fall the Bloodgood Japanese Maple will be a highlight of the garden with the white Anemones.
I hope that I have helped you in your efforts to create a more maintenance-free and environmentally-friendly yard and I wish you many happy years of garden enjoyment.