In our last podcast we talked about how rock and gravel gardens are not the answer, and nor is just concreting the whole back yard. Many worry about the cost associated with replacing a brown lawn with something better, so today we are going to talk about something you can do right now for very little time and money.

Step One

Figure out what kind of turf grass you have.

Warm Season Turf

  • Coarse leaves,
  • Grows above ground by thick stems or stolons.

It’s these are the stolons that cause the problem – if you leave any in the ground, they will re-sprout and grow.


This is Bermuda or Crabgrass that has escaped from the lawn and is now invading a nearby planter bed.

warm season grass 2

See that thick stolon growing despite having been dug up?

Bad news

You will have to dig this out. For smaller areas, a flat shovel will do, but for larger areas you will need to rent a gas powered sod cutter – check with your local big box home improvement store or local tool rental place. If you are working on a hillside or slope, a sod cutter won’t be much help.

flickr photo by don.wing45 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Make sure the soil is moist.

We recommend watering a few times in the two weeks before you cut out the sod, but don’t water it the day before or the day of. Water will make the soil stick together so the sod will cut easier but it also makes it heavy, so it’s a balance.

You will also need to dispose of it. Typically that’s via a lowboy dumpster from your local waste removal company. One 10 yard dumpster will hold turf from 1000-2000 square feet. If you have space elsewhere in your yard, you could pile it, cover it and compost it, but warm season grass is hard to kill.

Cool Season Turf

  • Green all year round
  • Has a softer texture

cool season grass

Good news

You can cut this grass short and then sheet mulch right over the top.

Truth is that most of us have a mix, so then it becomes a judgement call. Warm season grass can be very difficult to remove without cutting it out, so although it’s work now, you will be saving yourself work later.

Step Two

Mark out the irrigation heads with flags  – you will be glad you did this afterwards! Trust me.

Step Three

Gather your materials:

  • Concentrated soil biology in the form of one of the following:
  • Paper, newspaper or cardboard
    • We use rolls of painters or builders paper for projects where we can’t stockpile enough cardboard or newspaper. You will need about 3 of these rolls per 1000 feet of turf.
    • Many local business have lots of cardboard boxes that they find it hard to recycle. Ask around, and remember, the bigger the better.
  • Mulch
    • You are going to need about 8 yards for 1000 square foot.
    • Get this from your local green waste recycling plant – Miramar and AgriService (Oceanside and Otay Mesa) for us in San Diego County, or
    • Tree trimmers often have to pay to get rid of chipped up tree trimmings, and will happily drop them off in your yard. Be on the lookout for tree trimmers working in your neighborhood, and ask.
    • Avoid mulch that is 100% Eucalyptus, but a mix is ok.
    • One more thing – remember: the job of mulch is to feed the soil so we are looking for materials that will break down quickly. Avoid palm fronds and redwood for this reason.

Step Four

Edge around the sidewalk and driveway – dig a trench a shovel’s depth by a shovel’s width. This is to take care of the areas where the grass is most likely to grown back as well as to help avoid the mulch overflowing from the soil around the edges.

sheet mulch trench

Step Five

Shape the ground to allow the water to slow, spread and sink. Think about any downspouts you will be redirecting into the landscape and allow for that.

Slow spread sink the water

I marked out my swale to collect water from my neighbor’s property, along with the walkways and seating area.

slow spread sink 2

I lightly graded the ground to just encourage the water to slow, spread and sink into my garden.

Step Six

  • SheetMulchingLayersSpread out your compost, compost tea, worm castings or humate;
  • Break up the rest of the soil just a bit
  • Lightly fork over the soil to break up the surface; depending on the size you might want to use one of these:
  • Lay down the paper – If you are using cardboard, we found that a trash can with water made the ideal place to dip the cardboard until it was saturated worked best. Think of dunking cookies in tea – not too much, just enough.
  • Wet it (you can skip this if you put down wet cardboard)
  • Apply 6 inches of mulch
  • Wet the mulch really well to get the water right the way down to the paper/cardboard layer


Sheet Mulching Before and After

sheetmulch before

This warm season grass is to be removed, the soil is to be sheet mulched, and then the plants can be planted directly, or you can wait a few months to let the sheet mulching finish its job.

Sheetmulch after

Ready for planting, or wait a while. Your choice.

In the next podcast we will be talking about how to capture water in your landscape.

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Diane Downey and Sheri Menelli specialize in earth-friendly landscaping practices, including vegetable gardening, rainwater capture, soil health, native plants, and efficient irrigation. Diane is a professional landscape designer with over 10 years’ experience, and Sheri is a certified permaculture designer with a six-year-old food forest in her backyard. Combined, they have over two decades of teaching experience. Their classes are taught to the public in the classroom, in the field, and via one-on-one garden coaching sessions.
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