How to convert your turf into a low-water-use landscape.
The number of people interested in reducing or eliminating their lawns is steadily increasing. Concerns about availability of water and water costs have many people wanting to convert their lawns into low- water-use landscapes, without it costing them an arm and a leg.
The first, and often most daunting, task is to get rid of the established lawn. The three most common ways to eliminate turf are to kill it with herbicides, remove it with a sod-cutter, or cover it with sheet mulch. There are pros and cons to each method, but sheet mulching is gaining in popularity recently. Let’s look at each method.
Use of a nonselective herbicide, such as glyphosate, will kill the lawn and all of the weeds. This method can be satisfying for those who want to quickly kill their lawns. However, herbicides will also damage or kill any trees and shrubs planted in the turf. And, using herbicides introduces an appreciable amount of toxic chemicals into the environment. If you choose to use this method to kill your lawn, make sure to closely follow all of the instructions on the herbicide label, use protective clothing and equipment, and apply the chemicals carefully, so they don’t drift into adjacent landscapes or bodies of water. And, although it is often human nature to think that if a little is good, more is better, this is not the case when applying herbicides. Overapplication and misuse of these chemicals compromise the health of people, plants and the environment.
After killing the turf with herbicides, it needs to be pulled up, removed and disposed of before the area can be relandscaped. Using herbicides to kill turf can be expensive, because you need to purchase the herbicides and appropriate protective equipment. It is also labor-intensive because the dead lawn needs to be physically pulled up and removed. Still, it is one available option, particularly for those who want to get rid of their lawn quickly.
Using a sod-cutter
A less toxic and potentially less expensive method for removing turf is using a sod-cutter. A sod-cutter is a machine with a horizontal cutting blade that slices through the turf-soil interface at a specific depth. Sod-cutters can be rented by the hour at most equipment rental companies. Using a sod-cutter is also a quick removal method, and it does not require the use of chemicals. But, the machines can be difficult to push. And, a sod-cutter will cut all roots it encounters, so the feeder roots of any trees or shrubs growing in the lawn will also be cut. This will seriously hinder the ability of the trees and shrubs to absorb water, and they may perish. I went to a turf-conversion seminar in Las Vegas, where an alarmingly high number of valuable shade trees were lost from sod-cutter damage. It is best to avoid using sod-cutters to remove lawns if trees or shrubs are present.
When a sod-cutter is used to dislodge established turf, the turf still must be removed and disposed of. Another disadvantage of using a sod-cutter is that once the sod removed, the grade of the soil is lower. Alteration of the grade affects the way water runs over a landscape, and if not professionally corrected, can create serious problems. The lowered area will need to be filled with top soil and regraded. This could be expensive and labor-intensive, and you run the risk of importing poor-quality top soil into your landscape. Some people have imported top sol into their landscapes, and subsequently have had to battle noxious and nuisance weeds because the top soil was not free of weed seeds. So, make sure to get top soil from a reputable source, and make sure that it is certified weed-free.
A simple, inexpensive and nontoxic way to kill your lawn is to sheet mulch it. Sheet mulching kills weeds and lawns without herbicides and provides the added benefit of building the soil by adding organic matter to it. The main disadvantage of sheet mulching is that it can attract sow bugs and earwigs to the area.
Sheet mulching is also sometimes called “sheet composting,” “layered gardening” or “lasagna gardening.” Essentially, it is composting on-site. It is a simple layering of slashed vegetation, cardboard or newspapers, and organic material, topped off with a nice layer of mulch. Over time, these layers decompose into rich, fertile soil. Sheet mulching mimics the natural way of building soil, which is from the top down. It also allows you to recycle old cardboard boxes, telephone books and newspapers. Here’s how to do it right.
Because sheet mulching is a composting process, you need to provide appropriate amounts of both carbon and nitrogen. By alternating layers of cardboard, organic material and mulch, you provide the correct ratio that is needed. If you don’t add nitrogen sources when incorporating carbon-rich materials, such as sawdust, wood shavings and newspaper, into the soil, the carbon will temporarily deplete the soil of nitrogen, and it will be difficult to successfully grow anything in it.
First, slash, or in the case of lawn, closely mow all existing herbaceous (soft-tissued, nonwoody) vegetation, and leave it in place. This will provide a layer of nitrogen-rich material. However, it is best to remove diseased or insect-infested plants from the area to avoid potential future problems.
Next comes the carbon layer. Flatten some cardboard boxes, and lay them down, overlapping them by 6 inches. You can also use a one-quarter- to one-half-inch layer of newspapers, torn-up telephone books or old pieces of carpet. Then, soak everything with a hose. Water is a catalyst that will initiate the decomposition of the materials. Once everything is thoroughly soaked, try not to walk on it, or you may tear it.
Next, it’s time to spread a 1-inch layer of well-aged manure or compost. Then, wet the area again. The layer of manure or compost will entice earthworms and other soil organisms up into the sheet mulch and hasten its decomposition. After you’ve added the compost, install your drip irrigation system in the area.
Finally, top it all off with at least a 3-inch layer of mulch. Straw is a good choice because it is inexpensive, about $7 a bale. Just be sure that it is certified weed-free. For a front lawn, however, straw may not be an appropriate choice. In the front yard, finely chipped arborist’s wood chips would give a more finished and refined appearance. Arborist’s wood chips are made by running pruned tree limbs through a wood chipper. The best chips to use are 2 inches or less in size. They do not fly away in the wind, and give the landscape a forest-floor appearance. Arborist’s wood chips slowly decompose, adding valuable organic matter to the soil. These chips are not the same as bark mulch, which can be blown around by the wind and does not decompose well. Arborist wood chips are available from local arborists and tree care companies.
After all of the layers are in place, and the drip irrigation has been checked, it’s time to install your low-water-use plants. Plants can be installed as soon as the sheet mulch is in place. To plant, just pull aside the mulch and organic material, cut an “X” into the bottom layer, dig your hole, and install your plant. Then, put the organic material and mulch back into place. If you are planting large trees or shrubs, be careful not to pile the compost and mulch against the trunk. Leave a shallow well around them.
Turf conversions are becoming more popular as concerns about water cost and availability increase. Take a good look at your landscape, and see if there is some turf that you would like to convert to a different use. It may save you time and money in the long run.
Check out the handy City of Bozeman guide below. There are several water saving incentive for home owners. I have participated in several and have enjoyed several refunds for my water saving efforts.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For more specific gardening and horticulture advice be sure to visit your local Cooperative Extension office.
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