Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism


Killing the lawn

Last summer I worked hard to relandscape the side yard of my corner property. I left the rest of the yard space untouched until this year, and now it is warm enough to start my attack. But the first step, unfortunately, is raining death down on all those plants so I can start over.

There are multiple reasons to get rid of turf grass lawns on a property like mine:

  1. Turf is very appropriate in spaces used for playing sports and games, but no one does that on my property, and even if they wanted to, it’s the wrong shape: steeply sloped around the sides, broken up by sidewalks and concrete pathways, too small overall. Sadly, I will not be hosting croquet parties.
  2. Turf grass does a poor long-term job of holding steep slopes in place, and I have some of those.
  3. Maintaining a turf lawn in the way widely considered aesthetically desirable requires monocultures or close to it, which are relatively ecologically sterile and require a lot of fertilizer and selective herbicide applications to maintain an even, neat-looking space that stays green for as many months of the year as possible.
  4. Multispecies lawns that include the broadleaf plants now widely considered weeds (like clover) were considered desirable until the development of selective herbicides. Those plants reduced the need for fertilizers because they fixed nutrients in the soil. They also created uneven, clumpy lawns that required at least as much mowing to be kept reasonably neat, though, so just sticking to a mixed lawn like mine is still a labor and resource-intensive option.
  5. Keeping the grass green and preventing grass dormancy and/or death requires at times a great deal of water, particularly in arid and semi-arid climates and during summer droughts. The grass thatch and dense, shallow root systems also prevent proper drainage of water into the soil, producing excess runoff during storms and reducing the efficiency of watering. While this is aided by letting the lawn get taller, because it allows the grass to develop deeper, healthier root systems and absorb the water into the soil slightly better, it’s still overall a problem even with deeper roots.
  6. Even those of us who let our lawns get taller and more mixed have to mow them once a week or maybe biweekly to avoid angry neighbors, potential HOA or township citations and fines in some places, and in general the development of a genuine hayfield, which most of us don’t really want and defeats the ostensible purpose of having a lawn anyway (i.e. to have something that looks nice and is walkable). The mowing and edging typically are done with power tools, which means a great deal of unnecessary electricity/fuel consumption and corresponding CO2 production. While there are other elements of yard maintenance that are likewise difficult to do without power tools (e.g., trimming very difficult hedges, especially if you have a day job and limited time), those jobs are infrequent (a few times per year) and relatively quick, so they don’t use much power. Expending the energy to mow your entire property weekly, or even biweekly, when you don’t even need turf is, frankly, grossly environmentally irresponsible. I instead chose to use a reel push mower and hand-pushed edger for the past year to compensate, and this unnecessary lawn was honestly just not worth all that hard physical labor.

Summary: the lawn is not worth how much work, energy, water, and money it requires for basic maintenance. There are much, much better choices than clipped grass fields for covering the ground, choices that I find more aesthetically pleasing and that require fewer energy resources, relatively little water, and much less work to maintain. But first, the turf has to go.

There are multiple ways to kill a lawn. I extensively researched recommended methods: solarization, the “lasagna” smothering method of layering paper or cardboard and mulch, physical removal of sod, and broad spectrum herbicide applications. Unfortunately, my lawn contained an exciting mixture of: cold-season grasses, warm-season grasses (including bermudagrass for sure, and possibly old zoysia grass), and various clumpy weeds and broadleaf plants. (There was no moment in its growth when it looked even vaguely attractive, except for immediately after mowing, so I would probably have wanted to kill it and start fresh even if I just wanted better turf.) The smothering method is widely reported to have poor success rates in lawns that contain large quantities of warm season grasses, which accounted for about 2/3 of my lawn plants. The solarization method only works if the area gets intense sun, and too much of my lawn was in part shade for that to be successful. Physical removal by tilling or cutting and rolling away sod is tempting, but it fails to remove a lot of dormant grass roots and typically brings dormant weeds to the surface, creating a weedy and generally not-dead space that you then have to kill, so while it can help it doesn’t work well all by itself.

This left my least favorite option: herbicides. After a lot of research, I concluded that the long-term environmental and ecological benefits of replacing the lawn really did outweigh the short-term consequences of using herbicides one time, as long as I was extremely careful about my application method.

The other conclusion I reached was that despite the strong negative feelings of some of my very nice and caring and environmentally-minded friends (however pseudoscientific some of those feelings often seem to be when it comes to GMOs), and despite my personal reservations about their unethical business practices, I was probably not going to find a better product for this purpose than one by Monsanto. By “better” I mean more affordable, more controllably and reliably produced, and personally safer to prepare and apply. My only remaining reservation was really about giving even my miniscule financial support to an ethically questionable company. I do, however, think that my $8.45 contribution and one-time use is a fraction of a fraction of a drop in the buckets of both their profits and the global applications of their products (though admittedly, some of that profit comes from me whenever I buy almost anything at a supermarket. Yet another reason to have a vegetable garden!).*

So, from one environmentalist to another, here is how to conservatively apply an herbicide to your lawn so you can kill it and move on to more pleasant pastures, as safely as possible and with as little impact as possible.

  1. Wait until your grass is as happy and healthy as it’s going to get. Wait until it’s well out of dormancy, let it go unmowed for at least a couple weeks, wait for seedheads to form, and either water or wait for a good healthy rain followed by some warm days. You want healthy, leafy, seedy grass and weeds.
  2. Wait until the weather forecast indicates no rain is expected for several days. You won’t want it to wash off your plants before they have a chance to absorb it, and you also probably don’t want to dump an active herbicide into the local water drainage if it is likely to interact with any plants in the drainage system before being diluted up to ineffectiveness. The product needs to be fixed to a surface (i.e. inside plants) by the time it rains so there is little to no runoff impact.
  3. Choose a day with low winds. You don’t want the herbicide mobilized as a mist, because then it’s more likely to touch desirable plants and hurt them, or end up in ineffective places from which it can be washed off later, like pavement.
  4. Prepare the herbicide in the potency and quantity recommended, in a sealable spray container for safe and easy application. I used this product because it is a premeasured dry granule, which means it’s easy to handle safely. I also used this 1-gallon sprayer tank. Read the directions and precautions for whatever products you choose to try, and follow them carefully. I also made an effort to notify my adjacent neighbor that I would be killing the lawn, and to assure him I would aim to leave a 6-12″ buffer zone between our properties in case of stray spray.
  5. This herbicide works by interrupting certain cell and amino bonding activities in plants, disrupting their metabolism (so it’s not like you’re spraying acid all over your lawn–this is a plant poison that works in a very specific and rather slow way). These are biochemical reactions unique to plants, so it is no more than an irritant to animals and insects. It will, however, affect any plant that absorbs the product, and plants only absorb it through direct contact with their leaves, after which it takes 1-2 weeks to reach the roots and kill the whole plant. Use plastic bags or other guards to protect any plants you care about. I covered my new little jasmine vines with plastic bags during the application to keep them safe.
  6. Avoiding application to hard, paved surfaces, and the leaves of any desirable plants, spray the herbicide over the lawn so all plants are visibly wetted but not dripping. Proper density of application means you won’t need to apply it over and over in the future to finish the job, and also that you won’t create runoff of the product: it will basically all be absorbed by the plants and not go anywhere else.
  7. Post a small sign or two at the boundaries of your property announcing that the lawn has been treated, so anyone with pets or children knows to use caution and can avoid touching anything irritating. Remove the signs after the next rain storm.
  8. Wait for everything to be good and dead, typically after 1-2 weeks, and then do a pretty thorough but relatively shallow tilling to remove dead material and break up root systems. Typical recommendations for this step are to use a heavy duty metal rake or dethatching rake to remove the dead material and dig up the surface of the lawn a bit; it helps to then go back with a hoe or shovel and get out some of the grass roots. Unfortunately, I found this step to be such backbreaking physical labor that I was unable to do it as effectively as I had hoped. Even just pulling out grass roots also brought up dormant weed bulbs, and avoiding that consequence was the whole reason I had avoided power tillers. So this is the stage at which I mixed my methods: I rented a small rototiller and used it to shallowly till most of the yard. I still had to hand-till parts of the steeper slopes and around sign posts and the sidewalk edge, but the rototiller was really a lifesaver for getting the job done, and I recommend it if you are working with very much surface area. It was still difficult work, even with the tiny rototiller I used (the only rental available that was safe for solo operation, and also a good choice since it did not till too deep). This step took me basically a full week of daily work, plus a lot of painkillers for my back and arms.
  9. Wait for the plants to begin recovering, and then look for new grass, weed sprouts, and other green growth. Depending on how effective your first application was and how many dormant plants you surfaced, the new growth might be widespread. Kill all new and surviving growth, either by manually pulling them (if regrowth is limited) or possibly retreating with a second round of herbicide (if pervasive). Because my regrowth was overall pretty limited and I had time constraints made difficult by travel plans and impending bad weather, I opted for manual removal in the second round. The weeding required was extensive but not strenuous.
  10. Loosen the soil enough for planting. Possibly add some topsoil and/or fertilizer to return nutrients to the soil (I only used fertilizer). Replant!

* That’s my only comment on the company. I don’t want to moderate that debate on this blog and will delete comments trying to stir up an argument.

Some photos of the process:

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Looking out at the front yard from the front porch, a few minutes after the first herbicide application. I put down some marker paint on the right to make it easy to avoid spraying my neighbor’s lawn.

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Front yard, seen from across the street immediately after the first herbicide treatment.

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Sidewalk strip and slope along the side yard, also immediately after application.

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One week later. Most of the grass had died but it had not yet affected all the plant roots.

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Also one week later.

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Front yard after one week.

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After removing dead grass and lightly tilling the whole yard.

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Front yard after tilling. Most of the grass you can see is detached, dead grass that I left as straw.

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After tilling, we had a heavy rain storm that exposed the weed bulbs that had been brought to the surface. This made it really easy for me to go around and pick them up (though there were a LOT of them).

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Immediately after the heavy rain, dormant weeds exposed by tilling sprouted. The densest patches looked like this, but across most of the yard it was much more sparse. It was time consuming but very easy to just pluck these out by hand.

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