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Sheet Mulching the Lawn: Bye-Bye Bermuda

Removing a large patch lawn seems like a major hassle, but it’s actually quite easy. One of the cheapest and least backbreaking ways to do it is to sheet mulch (also known as composting) your lawn. I recently did this with a front yard full of Bermuda grass (and weeds) and although it does take a weekend of labor, you end up with a blank palate ready to be planted with natives, edibles, drought tolerant perennials, or whatever you like. You can also use this method to suppress weeds in a particularly tough spot.

You’ll need: shovels, pitchforks, gloves, mulch, cardboard, and a cold frosty one for when you’re done.

Get Your Stuff and Dig a Ditch
Start by digging a sixteen- to eighteen-inch wide and a foot deep trench around the perimeter of the lawn, along the area that borders sidewalk or driveway. This is so the mulch you eventually put on top won’t spill out. You can toss the clumps of grass you dig up into the middle of your lawn, to be covered and composted.

If you already know you are going to be planting something large, like a tree or large woody bush, you might want to get it in the ground before the next cardboard step. It isn’t necessary, but will make life easier in the future.  

Next, get enough cardboard so that you can cover the entire area so that the pieces are overlapping by at least about a foot. It is key that the pieces overlap; weeds and some lawn, especially the tough stuff like Bermuda grass, will grow through cracks and crevices, even with layers and layers of mulch on top. (This has been clearly evidenced by the oxalis in my front yard.) A great place to get large pieces of free cardboard is from furniture and appliance stores, bike stores (they use them to ship frames), or from friends that have recently moved. The larger pieces the better, as it goes much faster. Make sure to remove all tape and staples.

After you’ve overlapped your cardboard, wet the cardboard. This helps break down the cardboard and makes it more pliable. You can also add a layer of compost to enrich the soil.

Now you’re going to cover the cardboard with four to six inches of mulch. This is a lot of mulch, so I wouldn’t even think about buying it in bags from the garden store. Depending on the size of the area you are covering, you’ll likely need a few cubic yards. Chipped tree prunings make ideal mulch since many of the pieces are uniform in size, meaning the top layer will look good. Many tree companies will deliver wood chips for free, so start calling around and ask if there are trees being felled in your neighborhood. I had five yards of mulch delivered to my front yard and it was free. Alternatively, check out transfer stations and other spots that sell wood chips and mulch in bulk; if your city fells trees, they also often have piles of mulch for the taking.

The cardboard underneath your mulch will biodegrade in a few months, but you don’t need to wait that long to plant. When you’re ready to start adding plants to your yard, spread the mulch aside, cut through the cardboard with a razor, and start digging. When you’ve planted your plant, you can then cover the surrounding areas with the mulch, making sure to leave enough space around the crown of the plant for circulation.  

Other ways to get rid of the lawn include using sod cutters, digging it up by hand, and rototillers, but these methods seem to require more labor and machinery. One of the benefits of the mulch method is that mulch helps retain moisture in the soil so your new plants will need less water, the soil underneath will improve, and earthworms, who help break up the soil and add nutrients to the soil, love it underneath there.

Total cost of mulching the lawn can be free or at least under one hundred bucks. And you’ll save money by not having to pay someone to mow the lawn and on your water bills. Now it’s time to enjoy that beer.