|Zach works on Step Four while the chickens (and neighbors) wonder what the heck we're up to|
Last week, we murdered our backyard lawn by smothering it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Lisa, why on earth would you want to get rid of your beautiful green lawn that requires little care and maintenance, when so many people in the world want to grow a nice lawn but can’t?”
Privilege. Midwestern river-bottom-soil full-sun suburban yard privilege.
And also because...
1. We are going to plant a bunch of fruit trees, and we don’t want the grass competing. Sapling roots and grass roots occupy the same space in the ground, so we want to give our little trees the best chance.
2. We want to plant tomatoes and squash, and smothering a lawn is a lot easier than double-digging a bed. Instead of breaking our backs hoeing up the ground, we just break our backs once hauling in mulch. In the summer we’ll plant the seeds/seedlings into little pockets of soil in the mulch.
3. We want to grow chicken forage/cover crops. Although chickens will eat grass, there are a bazillion other crops that are more nutritious and have flowers for the bees and nitrogen-fixing properties. It will be easier to sow these crops into mulch/soil rather than trying to hoe up the grass.
4. We want to preserve our reputation as the neighborhood weirdos.
The technique we chose, known as “sheet-mulching,” involves putting down a thick layer of cardboard (much more eco-friendly than weed cloth) and organic material in order to smother what you don’t want to grow. Eventually, time, weather, microorganisms, and the rotted remains of the lawn will break the materials into rich soil suitable for growing all sorts of delicious food. I’ve done mini-sheet-mulching before in our asparagus bed, but a whole backyard was a project on a much bigger scale. I’m pretty darn pleased with the results.
Here’s how we did it.
Step one: Gather more cardboard than you could ever possibly imagine.
A few months ago, Zach started making rounds at Walmart after he got off work, gathering cardboard boxes from the stockers (ask a manager or any employee if you can have some. I’ve also heard of people asking large-appliance stores and bike shops for their boxes). A pile of cardboard steadily grew in our garage.
As we neared our date for killing the lawn, we spent a whole evening dragging cardboard into our warm house (it was freezing in the garage) and tearing off all the plastic labels and tape. As I peeled, Zach counted the boxes and made rough calculations. It looked like one more load of cardboard would do the trick. After that evening, we had transferred a pile of plastic-free cardboard to the basement, waiting for the next step.
Step two: Find a source of mulch (or any kind of weed-free organic material).
This turned out to be tricky. People online and in gardening books always talk about how tree-trimming companies will give you mulch for free if you just call them, but the few leads I chased turned up nothing. At last, we settled on buying mulch instead, from R. Schroeder Sod Farm down the road. It looked like pretty low-grade mulch, which is exactly what we wanted because we want it to break down quickly. It was only $15 a cubic yard, much cheaper than anywhere else I’d called. Since the somewhat-hefty delivery fee was the same regardless, we ordered the maximum single delivery, which was 14 cubic yards, or enough to cover most of the yard in several inches. It was almost time.
Step three: Cover the yard in organic material.
You’re supposed to lay a bunch of high-nitrogen material down first, like grass clippings, but since it’s winter we were in short supply of green stuff. We settled for a layer of autumn leaves, gathered from my parents’ house. This would encourage worms and other microorganisms to take interest in the underside of our sheet mulch. It felt weird to dump leaves all over our lawn, making it look like an un-raked yard in autumn. But the chickens loved it!
Step four: Layer cardboard over everything.
On the day of our big project, it was time to add the cardboard layer. We began by soaking the ground with a hose, then laying out the cardboard, trying to overlap the edges so that weeds won’t be able to sneak through. We had to spray the cardboard frequently to keep it from drying and curling up in the sunlight. Our mountain of cardboard turned out to be enough to cover the entire backyard (minus the chicken coop), with some left over!
Step five: Add and spread the mulch.
Step five: Add and spread the mulch.
The delivery truck showed up at noon on the dot, and dumped a massive pile of finely-ground mulch next to our yard, blocking half the street. Zach and I grabbed shovels and tote bins (lacking a wheelbarrow) and set to work, shovelful by shovelful. We worked for an hour non-stop, then my brother Christian joined us, him shoveling and us carrying tote bins, for another couple hours. My arms and back ached and I started grunting louder and louder with each load, but at long last we had covered the whole backyard with several inches of mulch.
Next, we leveled the mulch with garden rakes, turning the chickens out to help us (they didn’t). We left some mulch in a pile at the edge of the yard, for use on later projects, and smoothed out the rest as much as we could.
Our yard now looks somewhat naked, with its smooth carpet of blackish-brown mulch. But if I squint at the blank canvas, I see a utopia of fruit trees, nut trees, veggies, herbs, and cover crops. It’s hard to wait until spring!
And there you have it— five simple steps to murdering your lawn!