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Turf Grass Removal: Physically Cutting It Out | Overwatering Is Out
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Turf Grass Removal: Physically Cutting It Out

This week we tackle the topic of tearing out turf (a.k.a., grass)! There are a number of options on how you can remove grass and we’ll talk through some of the bigger considerations and tradeoffs. We picked methods that residents could do on their own, but don’t forget that you could always hire a professional and apply for rebates to offset the cost! This week we’ll talk through the quickest method of grass removal: physically cutting it out. Physically removing turf grass gets the job done quickly, but it doesn’t work for all grass types.

Step One

Identify your grass type to see if physical removal will be successful.

Bermuda Grass

Persistent perennial grass, like Bermuda grass, has roots that go down several feet into the soil. Because it only takes an inch of root for grass to grow back, physically removing the top few inches won’t cut it and you’ll have to rely on slower techniques (like covering the turf from sunlight) that we’ll talk about next week. To identify other grass types, check out this article.

Step Two

Identify your target turf grass to remove.

If cutting out turf grass is an option, next identify the area of grass you want to remove. A large span of turf grass is going to be a lot of work and you’ll want to either hire a professional or rent machines to do the bulk of the work. If you decide to tackle a small patch of turf grass first, you can try manual alternatives such as using a flat shovel. Even if the patch is small, your job will be a lot easier with a sod lifter (more on that below).

Step Three

Identify the right tool for the job.

At many home improvement stores, you can rent a sod cutter and get help understanding how to safely and effectively operate it. A sod cutter cuts the lawn into easily movable strips that can be rolled up and moved to compost.

You can do the same thing as a sod cutter with a flat shovel, but it requires quite a bit more effort. The shovel method might be a good test for key overwatering zones, or narrow strips of grass between a sidewalk and the curb. These areas tend to be small, straight, and more manageable for turf removal.

Here’s a great tip from one of our experts:

I removed turf myself from both parkways and my whole front yard and it is sooo much easier with a sod lifter.

First, my “sooo” is catching on. Second, what is a sod lifter? A sod lifter a sort of modified spade designed for removing sod. Every job is easier with the right tool! They aren’t the most common tool so they are easier to find on the internet (search for “sod lifter” and you can’t go wrong) than in home improvement stores.

Step Four

Get down to work removing turf grass.

You’ll want to remove the top few inches of the turf using either the sod cutter or the flat shovel method. Flip the turf upside down to expose the roots and move it somewhere you are willing to let it decompose and turn back into healthy soil. Cover the turf with a layer of newspaper (4-6 overlapping sheets), a few inches of compost, and a few inches of mulch to top it off. A few months later, your former turf grass will be great soil.

If you’re interested, you can heap your removed grass into a mound to incorporate terrain into your landscape. The turf will take a little while longer to breakdown on the inside of the mound, but your landscape will have rolling hills.

The space where you removed the grass will be a few inches lower than the surrounding area. You can fill it with new soil or mulch and plant it with California Friendly plants and rock gardens. Alternatively, you could fill it with the turf grass you just removed! Flip the turf, cover with newspaper, add compost, and top with mulch as above. For a few months, you’ll have a mulch covered mound, but by early fall you’ll have great, weed-free soil ready for California Friendly plants. Either way, you won’t have to worry about trying to aim sprinklers at that patch of grass ever again!

If you’re inspired, send me a note and let me know how it goes! I’m always happy to hear from my gneighbors and can even help fill out rebates to make sure you get the best bang for your buck!

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9 Comments

  1. Margaret Nelson Says:

    May 14th, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I am converting a St Augustine lawn to a planting area with drought tolerant plants. I need to remove the St Augustine and then prep the area for the drought tolerant plants and gravel walk ways. I thought I might try using Roundup on the lawn and then having the top 3-4inches of soil removed. Is this the right way to go?

  2. Gnorman Says:

    May 19th, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Hi Margaret,

    Great question about removing your St. Augustine lawn. You have many options available to you including the physical method described above, the sheet mulching method, solarization, or the use of an herbicide as you suggested. Grasses like St. Augustine and bermudagrass, may be difficult to remove using non-herbicide methods so be sure the grass is completely dead before planting. If you do choose to use an herbicide, you must follow the label.

    For more information please refer to the UC Guide for Healthy Lawns as it contains specific information on removing an existing lawn.
    http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/TURF/RENOVATE/comkill.html

  3. Dan Says:

    June 6th, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Don’t use RoundUp – all toxic.

  4. Maria szatkowski Says:

    February 20th, 2015 at 9:43 am

    I’m inspired thank you so much.. I would like to submit a request for a rebate and I need help with that.

    Thank you,
    Maria

  5. Gnorman Says:

    February 23rd, 2015 at 5:12 am

    Hi Maria!

    Please email me at gnome@h2oc.org and I’ll be happy to help!

  6. Marlene Says:

    April 2nd, 2015 at 5:25 am

    Hi,
    I’m impressed by the way you explain things on you site! Anyhow, I am a woman and have limited brute strength (haha) and I need to remove some established sod and possibly sterilize the ground to xeroscape my backyard… by myself.

    The Reno high desert has already reclaimed a good half of the yard and the remaining ‘sod’ is sparse but still THERE. I have approximately 600 sq. ft. of sod to remove and very limited funds.

    Do you think this would be feasible, using the sod lifter that you spoke of above?
    Any other suggestions for me?

    I appreciate your time if you are able to get back to me! Thank you,

    Marlene in Reno

  7. Gary Says:

    May 8th, 2015 at 5:59 am

    Do I use the same method for a “re-use” application. I need to remove some Kentucky Bluegrass (blend) and reuse it as a fill in for a recently trenched area in my yard, about 2 ft wide. I have prepped the area for new sod but was thinking perhaps I can use some existing sod from an area where I don’t need grass. The area is only 240 sq. ft. so it is not practical to rent a sod cutter. It has been raining for a week straight so I figure now is the time? Your thoughts?

    Thank you so much!

    Gary

  8. Overwatering Is Out Says:

    May 22nd, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    @Gary

    I’m guessing you don’t live in Socal (because it wasn’t raining for a week any time this year, let alone the week you posted your comment). Also, Kentucky Bluegrass isn’t typically planted here much because it is a high water user and doesn’t like high temperatures. If you do happen to live here, I recommend you not to replace the area with Kentucky Bluegrass, especially during a drought.

    Thanks for your comment!

  9. Williammara Says:

    June 27th, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    A round of applause for your forum post.Much thanks again. Fantastic. Petronila