Ready to replace your lawn with a low-water, low-maintenance landscape? You have several choices. I often hear that people don’t want their lawn any longer but think the only other option is a yard full of rock and cacti. While you can certainly have a desert landscape, it’s not your only option. Native plants and plants from areas with similar climates, like the Mediterranean and Australia, thrive in Southern California. It’s possible to have a yard with flowers blooming in it nine months of the year.

Seven months after replacing half of this lawn, the low water plants are thriving.

Most of you have seen lawn removals. I agree, some are atrocious, including yards “designed” by a company I shall not name – they were not allowed to do business in Santa Clarita, but if you’re anywhere else in the county you probably saw their trademark gravel-and-a-couple-droopy-plants-designs. We’re not talking about those.

But where do you start?

Gravel yard “designed” by those other guys.
A gravel-based yard designed by me (Physis Design)

Calling in the professionals

How do you undertake this project? This is where a landscape professional can really make a difference. Even if you plan to do all the work yourself, call a designer before you start for help with planning your yard remodel. I frequently work with homeowners to evaluate their property, draw up designs and help with time scheduling and how-to for the project. The cost is reasonable, especially when you factor in all the mistakes you may avoid along the way!

Once you have started on your design, it’s time to remove your lawn. The more patient you are with this step, the better. While you can certainly dig up and plant your landscape in a week, you will have less return grass and weeds if you are willing to take a couple of months to kill as much of the grass as possible.

How to Kill Your Lawn

Make a lasagna

Sheet mulching builds low-weed soil on top of your existing landscape. Since you’re building at least 6 inches on top of your lawn, this won’t work if your dirt level is already higher than the paving around it. The mulch will end up rolling off and blowing off into the sidewalks and driveway. But, if your yard is lower than the pavement, or if you are willing to dig out the top layer of soil before you begin, sheet mulching is the best way to build healthy soil and keep down weeds.

Image courtesy of TreePeople

On day one:

  1. Cut your lawn short. Leave the clippings in place if possible. They make great compost. 
  2. Water the area thoroughly.

On day two:

  1. Cover your lawn with ¼ to ½ inch of cardboard or newspaper. Water as you go so that the cardboard/newspaper is uniformly wet but not dripping. It’s amazing how much water this takes!
  2. Put down 6-8 inches of any type of compost on top as long as it is seedless.
  3. Water again.
  4. Put a layer of mulch down.
  5. Wait 8 weeks, then dig straight down through the mulch and cardboard to plant whatever you’d like.

Note: You can plant immediately, although the grass- and weed-killing is most effective if you can wait.

Advantages: Builds healthy, water-retaining soil while killing your lawn. I’ve also found this is the most effective way to kill grass and weeds.

Disadvantages: Built on top of existing landscape, so if your land is already higher than surrounding paving, mulch will roll onto sidewalks and patios. Also, takes 4-6 weeks until you can plant large plants.

Heat it up

Solarization is easy and best to do in the late spring and summer. Just prepare to look at a yard full of clear plastic for a while.

A double layer of plastic is even more effective.

  1. Cut your lawn very very short.
  2. Water it thoroughly.
  3. Cover the area with clear plastic sheeting. You can get big rolls at home improvement stores. Use rocks to hold it down.
  4. Six to eight weeks later, your lawn should be nice and cooked. You’ll know it’s ready when the grass looks like dead straw. You can either remove the dead grass or just add more soil and mulch on top of it when you plant.

Advantages: Best opportunity to kill grass and weed roots up to 1 foot underground if temperatures get hot enough.

Disadvantages: Kills everything, including soil microbes, so you will have to introduce compost or compost tea to help build life back into the soil. Solarization may not affect grass seed, which can come back at a later time.

Hoe it up

Hoeing up a lawn by hand.

It’s a lot of work, but you can dig up a lawn with hoes and shovels. Get as many roots as you can – grasses send shoots out all along their stems, and you have to remove the whole thing so it won’t come back – and save as much dirt as you can. Don’t rototill or you will end up re-seeding your yard!

You can also spray with vinegar 2-4 days before digging up the lawn to kill it, although you will still have to dig up the stems and roots.

Advantages: No waiting. Your new landscape can be installed the day after you remove the lawn.

Disadvantages: Often topsoil, the richest soil you have, will be removed along with the lawn. Deep roots are not removed, so this option leaves you with the most weeds to pull in years to come.

Next step, new yard

You are now ready to make your new design come to life! If you have consulted with a professional early in the process, you should have drawings ready to go. If you’ve spent the summer sheet mulching or solarizing, you are great shape because fall is an ideal time to plant in Southern California.

I’ve gathered several resources below. Please feel free to email me with any questions you have about lawn removal, and I will address them in a future column.

Why I don’t use artificial turf:

People ask me at least a couple of times a year to install artificial grass for them. When I refer them to someone else they usually ask why. Here are a few of the reasons:

First of all, in Southern California it is too hot to cover big areas with plastic, and artificial turf is made up of plastic and rubber. Studies show that these surfaces get as hot as asphalt streets, up to 150 degrees F. I would not send children or pets out to play on that! Plus, hotter ground temps lead to hotter air temps.

Human health concerns: Staphylococci and other bacteria can survive on artificial grass for more than 90 days. Children playing on these surfaces can catch staph infections. Artificial grass is partly made up of ground up old tires, which can make the breathing problems of asthmatics worse. A host of contaminants including heavy metals leaches off the plastic and although there is not conclusive evidence of harm from this, I prefer to be cautious.

Environmental concerns: All the chemicals, waste from pets,and other contaminants collect on artificial turf and then one of two things happens. Either the homeowner washes the area off into the street, or rain does the same thing. Either way, contaminated water runs off into storm drains and then into creeks and the ocean without the opportunity to be cleaned by normal soil processes. And once artificial grass has killed all the organisms in the soil it covers, it takes years of work to grow something there again.

Area Resources:

Lawn removal and rebate programs

Turf Removal Program are sometimes sponsored by cities, but usually by water districts.

LA MWD district:

Santa Clarita Water District:

LA County Department of Public Works Cash for Grass program:

Sheet mulching

Lawn to Garden guide:

General information:

Be Waterwise:

Metropolitan Water District’s portal for water conservation rebates and grants, landscape classes, water-wise garden inspiration and tons of helpful tips.

Santa Clarita Water:

Lawn rebates, Santa Clarita Gardens website and plant list, Conservation Garden at Central Park.

Palmdale Water District:

Garden inspiration, showcases & plant lists:

Chino Basin Water Conservation District:

Los Angeles:

Los Angeles Municipal Water District (native plants):

Santa Clarita: