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Ornamental grasses at Bluestem Nursery


Getting Rid of the Lawn - #1     by Susan Gallimore

From our newsletters:

Eliminating Lawn #1             Eliminating Lawn #2           Eliminating Lawn #3 
Turf Bustin’    

On a balmy Sunday in late October I set about eliminating my front lawn. I come from England’s green and pleasant land and having suffered four summers with southern Ontario's brown and scratchy scrub, I'd had enough.

Our house is newly built and I'm simply not into zealous summer watering the way some of the neighbours with their mini jewelled-patches are. I’d come to the conclusion that I could create a much more attractive vista by planting drought tolerant ornamental grasses, shrubs and plants in a variety of soft, complementary colours than I ever could by persisting with the poor excuse of a lawn the builder had laid.

I decided to try an organic technique I’d recently read about in Canadian Gardening known as “sheet mulching” (October/November 2005), which would render the area available for planting after about 6 weeks. This was in preference to the back-breaking, labour intensive, more expensive alternative of digging up the turf and replacing it all with top soil. My lawn (approx 17x25 feet) did not look like it was going to cause too many problems and I was confident that the task could be completed in a day.

I'd been saving newspapers for weeks, enlisting supplies from neighbours, and had accumulated a pile of newsprint about 3 feet high. I'd also collected sacks and sacks of leaves from friends and relatives, and bought bags of cedar mulch from the garden centre at end of season sale prices. I'd cut the grass a couple of days earlier on my reel mower's lowest setting and was finally ready to bury the turf.

Sunday was calm (or so we thought). I started by spreading a layer of compost across the whole garden to stimulate worm activity and watered it thoroughly. Then the fun really started. I marched out of the house with arms full of newspaper and started carefully laying them across the grass about 6 sheets deep in blocks of about 6-8 feet square. The newspaper will smother grass and weeds, but must be overlapped so there are no gaps. We had a problem - the newspaper had a tendency to lift up in the slightest breeze and I ended up laying strategically placed garden spades across the edges. My husband assisted by damping each section as we went along, which also helped to prevent last week's news blustering down the street. Alternatives to the newspaper could be cardboard, burlap bags or other organics that will break down - not plastic (apparently worms love newspaper too).

The weed-free compost layer came next and my research had suggested a variety of materials. I didn't have enough compost for a thick layer, but did spread another thin layer, soaking each section of layered newspaper with cans of water from the rain barrel. More fun - it was time to spread the leaves. We hit another hitch - the sacks I'd accumulated only covered about half the lawn. We don't have mature trees in our immediate neighbourhood so I took a quick drive and relieved some of the diligent folks a few streets over who'd kindly loaded their sidewalks with piles and piles of leaves - just ready for me to scoop up! Two sneaky trips and a few odd glances later, I had enough to cover the newspaper layer. I finished it off with another good soak.

Oct '05 - the former lawn is ready for planting in the spring

I finally covered these layers with attractive cedar mulch and watered everything again. In all we used about 14 sacks of leaves and 18 bags of mulch. The total thickness was about 4 inches.

The process seemed easy from the magazine description, but it was actually quite time consuming and the newspaper layer was hard work on the legs and back (and I’m still under 40!). In total it took close to 7 hours to do the whole job, including the extra trips and of course, lunch. However, I am sure that this process was much less stress and hassle than digging up all that turf, and I must admit, I kind of enjoyed causing consternation among our neighbours!

And now, I can rest safe in the knowledge that throughout winter, our efforts are producing a healthy swath of nutrient-rich, organic material in which to plant my imaginative scheme of ornamental grasses, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and alpines when the warm weather arrives – goodbye nasty, half dead scrub.

Useful websites include:


More options for mulch material: twigs and small branches, hay, straw, dried leaves, garden trimmings, coffee grounds, nut shells, chipped tree prunings, sawdust, bark, grass clippings, old manure, pine needles, shredded paper, etc.

Summer '08

Susan gardens in Burlington, Ontario