California Native Plant Society

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Ditch Your Lawn: reasons and resources for removing turf


Ditch Your Lawn


Alternatives depend on time available, Costs and type of grass to be removed

  • Methods vary by type of grass you wish to remove: Select type of grass you are removing:
    • Bermuda
    • St. Augustine
    • Fescue
  • Remove weeds so that you end up with a clean slate
  • Planning for planting day
  • Which comes first: mulch or planting?
  • Size and shape of Hole - A native plant survives well during our dry summers by growing it's root system out to cover a large area. If the planting hole is amended with rich organic matter, the roots will stay in that hole- where living is easy. By not amending, the roots are forced to grow from the planting hole into native soil as quickly as possible, to find nutrients and water.
  • Watering in
  • Installing hardscape and permeable surfaces
  • Habitat considerations


Use plants that are as local as possible


Pair plants that grow together in nature:

  • chaparral: drought-tolerant woody shrubs: Ceanothus, Heteromeles, Arctostaphylos, eriogonum, and some oaks
  • oak woodlands and their understory plants: gooseberries, irises, hummingbird sage, and coffeeberry
  • Coastal Bluffs: sages, Erigeron, Artemisia, buckwheats and others living in cooler and moister regions near marine influence
  • Learn about Bioregions - a simplified map to understand conditions in your area


Replace water-thirsty non-native plants

  • The Average 1000 SF Lawn: 30,000 gallons per year
  • You could stay in the shower 24 hours a day for 8 days STRAIGHT and still use less water than that!
  • Well-chosen, well-sited Native plants can use 75% less water
  • so... Ditch Your Lawn
  • Case study for water savings


Natural Rainfall

  1. Rely on natural rainfall as much as possible:
  2. Plan your garden so that it can Exist on natural rainfall as much as possible
  3. Keep as much rainfall on your own property as is possible via bioswales, contours, and permeable surfaces
  4. If your schedule allows, plant during the rainy season/ Autumn when soils are moist. Then be patient and wait for Spring. This saves a lot of water and roots establish before the dry season. So, it saves water over the dry season too.


Grass Removal

  1. Grass removal by method
  2. Check out suggestions in Reimagining the California Lawn as a resource


Irrigation Planning Resources

  1. Hunter homeowner support
  2. Jess Stryker’s Irrigation tutorials
  3. Rainbird irrigation learning center
  4. Toro Planning and Installation Guide



  1. Organic mulches are those that will break down over time because they are based on natural materials such as tree bark. Inorganic mulches are petrochemical based products such as plastic sheeting or rubber chips. Consider using organic mulches in almost all situations.
  2. Benefits: Reduce soil water losses, Suppress weeds, Protect against temperature extremes, especially in places where it snows.
  3. For slopes, look for mulches that will cling to the existing soil
  4. Mulch well ( min 3") and replace mulch when needed to retain soil moisture, keep soil temperatures cool, and suppress weeds.
  5. Native bees often are ground burrowers. When planning your garden identify patches of bare ground to remain mulch free to allow space for ground dwelling bees and other beneficial insects that need open soil.
  6. Also, do not pile mulch against the trunks or stems of plants because it will rot them.
  7. plant health - don’t pile the mulch too close to the plant
  8. if you sheet mulched during turf removal, mulch is already in place at planting time
  9. Skip the petrochemicals and don’t use plastics as sheeting under the mulch
  10. Decomposed Granite is a form of mulch, as are gravel and rocks
  11. Additional resources from Master Gardeners and an article about mulch versus compost



  • Hardscaping is used to frame your garden and provide solid walkways. Good designs will incorporate raingardens along impermeable surfaces. Retrofit your hardscape with curb cuts and other water harvesting ideas.
  • Learn about water harvesting design planning
  • Some hardscaping is permeable, but even impermeable hardscaping can be OK if water sheeting off it is directed to a permeable area that can absorb the expected amount of runoff
  • it may be cost-prohibitive to tear out large swaths of hardscaping but you can consider these options:
    • cutting channels
    • phased removal and change
    • Break up the concrete and recycle the chunks (called “urbanite”) in place for either the expanded surface or in other projects


Plan Ahead to Minimize Weeds

Strategy First: if you have removed a large turf area properly, your future weed issues will be minimized. But soils have seeds mixed in, no matter how diligent you are. Mulch helps prevent sprouting, but you may still see weeds in small patches or in areas of mixed shrubs. If so, these tactics will help:

  • For a small weedy area, consider using the weed’s own success strategy against it: water in the weeds so they spring up quickly, then hoe or pull them while young. Repeat this until the weeds’ ability to reproduce are exhausted
  • Minimize soil disturbance - double digging is out
  • Allow for plants to achieve their natural size - the root structure will crowd out weeds, the canopy of greenery will help. The root system will compete with weeds below ground, the canopy of greenery will smother weeds above ground.
  • Choose large, leafy plants that shade the ground from the sun's rays.
  • check newly acquired plants - they may have a small weed or two - pluck before planting


Organic Gardening

Most people think of organic gardening in terms of vegetables. But some principles of organic gardening are extremely important for native gardens:

  • go chemical-free is true no matter what you plant
  • Soil fertility - the natural plant lifecycle and connection to the fungal network in the soil are best left undisturbed in most situations
  • Nutrient recycling occurs through leaf litter - leave the leaves in place
  • Diversity - drifts of one species are attractive but do include a variety of species in the overall garden
  • Balance - include trees, wildlife, larval host plants and as many representations of the natural ecosystem as you can
  • Think about this logical cycle of life: the aphids that may arrive on your milkweeds do not kill the plant, but they are eaten in turn by frogs, and that helps the amphibian population, which in turn has its own niche in the entire ecological process

You will find that you can skip the synthetic chemicals with these mulching strategies and planting strategies. If you find that you have an infestation of invasives that even these don't control, consult a professional for the least toxic most effective control methods.


Find a Professional

A couple of our chapters maintain lists of individuals and firms that are dedicated to helping homeowners garden with native plants:

  1. Bay Area
  2. San Diego county

In other areas, Please call or stop by at your local retail native plant nursery for a list of experienced NATIVE plant landscapers. If there is not a local nursery, email and we will connect you with a local resource.


Grass Removal by Method

Method / Description Pros and Cons
Sheet Mulching

Soil covered with a thin layer of a sun, soil and weed barrier, like cardboard. Mulch - 3-5 inches - laid on top. Leave in place. Move mulch aside and cut a hole in cardboard, for planting.

Pros: Simple and effective.

Cons: May take time to complete the death of the lawn underneath, if you plan to create bioswales, this area will probably need terracing


Heat the soil by covering it with a clear plastic tarp for 4 to 6 weeks during a hot period of the year. The plastic sheets allow the sun's radiant energy to be trapped in the soil, heating the top 12 to 18 inches and killing a wide range of soilborne pests, such as weeds, pathogens, nematodes, and insects. - needs direct sunlight in order to raise temperature

Pros: Relatively quick and effective

Cons: May also kill beneficial soil life

Physical Removal

Water in your turf area. Use a flat-end shovel and work in long strips. Punctuate the ground in long lines and return to the first spot. Dig out a strip the width of the shovel and about eight to ten inches long. Dig down about three to four inches. Use a spade or edger to cut strips into the turf. Use a sod cutter for large lawns. Insert a pitchfork or spade underneath a strip of turf.

Pros: Great physical activity

Cons: May take a long time

Kick Sod Cutter

A mechanized version of "Physical Removal" described above. Instead of using s shovel, you can buy an inexpensive tool, like a plow, to help speed the process. A kick sod cutter has two long handles anchored with a cross bar. There's a roller and a flat blade at ground level, and you can adjust the level of the blade to one that works best with your project. You use the cutter by kicking the cross bar to move it along as you cut. You can use this type of cutter to remove long, narrow strips of sod you can roll up and remove.

To use this type of cutter:

  1. Mark out the area where you want to remove all the sod.
  2. Starting at the outermost edge of that area, give the cutter a kick with your boot to make the first cut into the sod.
  3. Continue kicking and cutting until you reach the end of the row.
  4. Raise the handles on the cutter to split off the end of the strip from the rest of the grass, and roll up the entire strip of sod for removal.
    • Pull the strip up and out of the ground to extract it. Ensure that you keep the roots of the turf intact in the section that you remove. Remove all of the divided strips.
    • Cut the strips 1 foot (.3 m) wide and 2 inches (5 cm) deep.
    • Cut each of the strips into shorter sections between 1 and 2 feet (.3 m and .6 m) in length.

Pros: Clean and easy

Cons: Cut sod and soil will need to be disposed of.

Motorized Sod Cutter

If you plan to remove a large area of sod, you may be able to rent a mechanical sod cutter at a local tool supply house. It requires some strength and control tu run, and you may want to hire a professional if your turf area is large enough to warrant its use.

If you still want to do the job yourself, each motorized cutter comes with its own operation manual that contains specific directions for using that machine. So, always read those directions before you begin.

In general, you will:

  1. Plot out the area where you want the sod removed, and remove any rocks you find.
  2. Check the oil level in the machine to make sure it meets the manufacturer's guidelines, and add more if needed. Also add gas as needed.
  3. Put the gear shift into neutral, raise the blade, and push the cutter to the edge where you want to begin.
  4. Lower the blade, and start the engine.
  5. Shift into low gear and gently pull back on the throttle.
  6. Push the cutter forward a few feet, shift it to neutral and check to see how deep the cut is. Adjust the level of the blade as needed.
  7. Shift the cutter back into low gear, and continue cutting sod.
  8. At the end of each row, raise the handles of the cutter in order to push the blade down and make a cut that severs your strip from the rest of the lawn.
  9. Rolling up the strips as you finish each row makes it easier to see where you've already cut.
  10. Shift into neutral. Position your cutter at the start of the next row, shift into low gear, and cut the next strip.
  11. Repeat as needed until you've cut the sod from the entire area.
  12. When you're finished, shift into neutral and turn the cutter off.

Pros: Clean and easy

Cons: Mechanical petrochemical based engines. Cut sod and soil will need to be disposed of.


Plow the soil with a mechanized device, which can be rented for short terms. The soil is turned over in place and theoretically it kills grass because it tears up the stolons of rhizomatous plants like Bermuda grass, Nut Sedge, and Oxalis. But in general practice, this method promotes and spreads these very plants. It may, in the short term alleviate soil compaction of the surface layer but it also negatively affects the soil biology. Soil stays in place and can be mounded. Breaking up sod with a tiller requires strength and persistence, especially in clay and heavily compacted or rocky soils.

Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; planting can begin immediately

Cons: Is difficult on rocky sites and in wet or clay soils; turns up weed seeds; propagates certain weeds

  NOT recommended. Herbicides have long-term consequences: killing soil biology, indiscriminate downstream effects from runoff and an over-relaince on man-made chemicals that negates the healthful benefits your native plant garden is meant to create.



  • The ability of your entire garden to absorb natural rainfall and applied irrigation is called “permeability” which is a good thing because it:
    • Allows for ground water recharge
    • Keeps water on site rather than running off to storm drains or neighbor's property
    • Minimizes manmade erosion
  • Soil must be healthy to absorb water
  • Native plants in naturalistic arrangements create more permeable surfaces than large expanses of thatched grass
  • Use permeable materials for driveways, walkways and patios
  • If you have installed hardscape that is impermeable, consider making decorative cuts to allow for runoff into soil or gravel areas


Planning for change

  • Gardens evolve... Eventually, larger shrubs and trees will shade out formerly sunny areas
    • This will allow you to create new shade garden spots within your garden
    • Some plants that used to be successful in this area will no longer thrive
    • Experiment with the timeframe in which this change occurs and plan ahead
  • Native plants can outcompete weeds by being carefully sited and installed thoughtfully
  • If a particular species doesn’t do well in your garden over time, replace it with a different plant that you’ve had success with.


Enjoy your garden

  • Create plant lists
  • Create butterfly sightings
  • Create bird sightings
  • Hike and compare
  • Share with the greater community



Irrigation is a complex and controversial subject. The Las Pilitas website has great advice at

The nursery does not favor drip irrigation in all but a very specific set of conditions (plants that grow near riverbanks) and other landscapers suggest that drip irrigation is useful in really tight spaces where overspray may damage stucco or other built structures.

Check with nurseries in your area and with friends with native gardens to see what worked best for them


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