Break up with your lawn, use cardboard to say goodbye with no regrets (2023)

As seen in the Davis Enterprise, March 2014
by Katie Hetrick

Break up with your lawn, use cardboard to say goodbye with no regrets (1)

You hear it on the news. You read it in the papers. Then, there’s that nagging inner voice telling you every time you walk out the front door, “Break up! You’ve got to break up!”

But you ignore it all in favor of making the excuse that you don’t know where to begin and that you might regret it.

Stacey Parker, horticulturist for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden and a new Davis homeowner, can empathize.

“I completely understand. Lawns are what we’re used to and they’re definitely appealing, but times have changed,” she says. “Having just bought this little house, I’m ready for the adventure of making my yard fit the real situation with the water supply.

“I’m the economizing type anyway, and I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned from working on campus. There are so many great plants out there that are happy with very little water — it just makes sense.”

(Video) How to Get Rid of Weeds With Cardboard

With almost 95 percent of the state remaining in a drought despite recent rains, according to U.S. Drought Monitor reports, and city of Davis water rates rising every year, homeowners are looking to their landscape for help even without “Cash for Grass” programs like the cities of Sacramento and Roseville have offered their residents.

“The thought of lawn removal can be overwhelming,” Parker says. “There are so many ways to achieve the same goal. I don’t think it should be stressful, expensive or complicated.

“At the Arboretum and Public Garden, we’re all about involving the community so I figured why not extend that idea to my front lawn? I’ll make it an educational work in progress!”

Another important landscape component many homeowners consider revamping is their irrigation systems. Quite a variety of options are available, but it isn’t always necessary to change.

“I’m going as low-tech as you can go.I’m leaving my existing sprinkler irrigation system,” Parker says. “While drip is ultimately more efficient, I’m still going to save a bundle by decreasing the amount and frequency that I water based on my plant choices alone.”

As for the variety of lawn removal methods, homeowners can go the chemical route by spraying the grass with herbicides, removing it with sod cutters, solarizing it or sheet mulching over it, just to name a few.

(Video) Convert Your Lawn by Sheet Mulching

“I’ve decided to utilize the sheet mulching method,” Parker says. “Late winter or early spring is the perfect time to start. Without added water, most California lawns will go dormant in the summer so it’s better to start this process in the spring, when the grasses are alive. The idea is to eliminate your lawn, not to keep it comfy until fall.”

There are five steps involved, four active and one inactive:

* Cut your lawn as low as possible;

* Cover it with cardboard;

* Dampen the cardboard;

* Add 4 to 6 inches of mulch; and

(Video) Sheet Mulching! Smother Grass with Cardboard and Newspaper

* Wait until fall to plant.

Sheet mulching with cardboard is an inexpensive way to remove a lawn that does not require chemical application or sheets of plastic. A single layer of cardboard is laid out over the areas of lawn no longer needed. When it eventually breaks down, the cardboard will add carbon back into the soil.

Break up with your lawn, use cardboard to say goodbye with no regrets (2)

“I recommend using the largest size boxes you can get your hands on,” Parker says. “I used a bunch of bike boxes. I was able to obtain quite a few for no charge after visiting local bike shops. We’re lucky to have a few in the area.

“Dampen the cardboard as it is laid down to protect your layering work from disruption by wind,” Parker advises. “You’ll also want to overlap your edges to prevent weeds and grasses from weaving their way through. They can be quite tenacious.

“My other tip is to remove a border of lawn about six inches wide near your sidewalks. It will allow the cardboard to hug the edges more effectively,” she adds. “I used a pick ax, but you can use a trowel or any sharp tool. The little ditch creates a place for the cardboard and mulch to hunker down to keep your edges neater.”

The next step in the process is to add a layer of 4 to 6 inches of mulch.

(Video) CARDBOARD in the Garden | PROS and CONS

“I’m in the process of adding mulch right now. So far I received one delivery and covered as much cardboard as I could, but it’s only about an inch thick. That’s not enough to smother a lawn,” she explains. “The idea is to make it impossible for the grass to see the light of day. I’ll be able to add enough mulch once my next delivery arrives.”

How much mulch homeowners need depends on the area of lawn they want to remove.

“It’s really easy figure out with all the online mulch calculators,” Parker says. “I discovered that lots of tree removal companies will deliver to your house for free.”

Step four is waiting out the spring and summer to make sure your lawn is gone.

“My yard will be neat, just not as green,” Parker says. “I’ve still got to finish the sheet mulching process over the rest of my lawn in the next week or so. Then I’m going to take the spring to improve other areas of my little landscape.

Break up with your lawn, use cardboard to say goodbye with no regrets (3)

“Personally, I’m really interested not only in adding low-water plants for shade, but also attracting native wildlife by incorporating plants like the California pipevine.”

(Video) I Messed Up My No-Till Garden | Sheet Mulch Mistakes + Fixes

Homeowners like Parker who are making changes to their landscapes to save water and be more sustainable are developing what the UC Davis Arboretum has coined “the new front yard.”

For links to information that will help area homeowners in their quest to break up with their lawns, visit our Sustainable Gardening Toolkit to find "Life After Lawn" stories about other homeowners who have made the switch in addition toplanting plans, plant lists, pollinator gardening resources and more.


What does cardboard do to grass? ›

Sheet mulching with cardboard is an inexpensive way to remove a lawn that does not require chemical application or sheets of plastic. A single layer of cardboard is laid out over the areas of lawn no longer needed. When it eventually breaks down, the cardboard will add carbon back into the soil.

Will cardboard break down in a garden? ›

It's a great mulch, and prevents weeds from sprouting. Decomposing cardboard adds organic matter to the soil, improving your garden's drainage and boosting nutrient levels. Earthworms flock to the dark, moist, safe habitat cardboard provides, leaving behind a nutrient-rich layer of worm castings–free fertilizer!

How quickly does cardboard break down in the garden? ›

In more typical garden conditions — when a piece of cardboard is used as mulch or specifically shredded and soaked to decompose efficiently — biodegradation occurs quickly, with the majority of cardboard completely broken down within three months.

How long does it take cardboard to smother grass? ›

Grass covered by layers of cardboard should die in 4-12 weeks, while grass covered by a tarp should die in 4-6 weeks. The more time you spend on it, the better. A thick layer of cardboard or tarp spread on top of the grass is an effective, nontoxic way to kill it without digging.

Will grass roots grow through cardboard? ›

Yes, roots can grow through cardboard, but only in certain conditions. 'Firstly, the cardboard must be moist enough to allow the roots to penetrate it. Second, the cardboard should be placed in a place where there is no light or air circulation,' Melody says.

Should you detach your lawn? ›

Dethatch cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, in late summer or early fall. Dethatch warm-season grasses, such as Bermudagrass or Zoysia grass, after spring green-up, as they enter early summer's peak growth. Never dethatch when your lawn is dormant or stressed; you can damage it beyond recovery.

Can you put mulch over cardboard? ›

If you're just adding mulch, spread what you have in an even layer at least 2 inches thick on top of the cardboard and call it done. If you're also using manure, spread it in two-inch layers alternated with a one-inch layer of organic material between each one, finishing with a final layer of mulch on top.

How do I remove an entire lawn? ›

The fastest way to remove a lawn is to physically remove the sod by cutting it into strips with a sod cutter, rolling the strips up, and either taking them away or turning them over and letting them compost in place.

Does cardboard work as well as landscape fabric? ›

Landscaping fabric lasts longer than cardboard, but it prevents plant roots from properly penetrating the soil. Cardboard breaks down, but it only acts as a temporary base layer for mulch beds. A better alternative to both of these options is using a 4″ layer of mulch throughout your garden.

How long does cardboard take to decompose no dig? ›

This applies even if you have laid down cardboard under the compost – your new plantings can grow in the compost while the weeds die under the cardboard. Then the cardboard softens within three months and plants can root into the soil.

How long will cardboard suppress weeds? ›

The big advantage to cardboard is that it doesn't stay there forever, getting locked up in soil layers. I've seen the cardboard disintegrate after 6 months. But in other spots it's still been there a year later.

Can you till cardboard into soil? ›

Gardeners have different opinions on using cardboard in the vegetable garden, but certified organic growers can use what I call 'clean' cardboard – plain, unwaxed boxes with all tape and sticky labels removed, with minimal printing on the outside.

Can I plant on top of cardboard? ›

Just outline the shape you want on your grass (try using a garden hose to form the template), use edging to keep the grass out, then cover the area with cardboard. Water immediately and top with soil, mulch, leaves or anything you have on hand to hold the cardboard down.

How do you smother grass quickly? ›

Perhaps the easiest way to eliminate grass is to smother it using plastic, newspaper, or cardboard. Depending on the time of year and material used, this can take several months. Stretch light-excluding plastic over the lawn.

Does cardboard under mulch attract termites? ›

1) Newspaper and cardboard sheet mulches can become pest havens. Termites were found to prefer cardboard over wood chips as a food source, and rodents such as voles often nest underneath mulch sheets.

How do you make a pile of grass decompose faster? ›

To help grass clippings decompose faster and get nutrients out of the lawn clippings more easily, you can also water the lawn after the soil application. This helps mix it all together and adds moisture that can make grass clippings decompose faster.

How long does it take cardboard to decompose under mulch? ›

There are conditions that speed up or slow down the process, mainly moisture if you're getting constant rain it'll take 3 or 5mnths if dry I've seen it Last a year.

Does laying cardboard prevent weeds? ›

In addition to using cardboard mulch to protect beds from compaction or subjugate weeds or grasses, this time of year I use box cloches around parsley and other marginally hardy plants. With the open flaps securely weighted, the box cloches block cold winds and extend the picking season by several weeks.

What time of year should I detach my lawn? ›

The best time to dethatch your lawn is when it's actively growing and the soil is moderately moist. For cool-season grasses, that's early spring or early fall. For warm-season grasses, dethatch in late spring through early summer (after the second mowing). That's when your grass is growing most vigorously.

Is it better to collect grass or leave it? ›

Collecting and removing the grass clippings is not only unnecessary, it may in fact be counterproductive to growing a healthy lawn. The clippings, when left in place after cutting the grass, will provide a ready source of fertilizer while helping the soil retain water which promotes root growth and a healthy lawn.

Is it better to pick up grass or leave it? ›

It's a question we all face when mowing the grass: Should I bag my clippings or leave them on the lawn? In most cases, the answer is easy. Recycle the grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn. Doing so will not only save you time and energy, but will also return valuable nutrients to the lawn.

Do you need to remove grass before mulching? ›

But it is normally better to remove the weeds and grass before adding a mulch layer. The weeds can be pulled, hoed or treated with herbicides that permit use near trees. Add a 2-3-inch mulch layer over the root system of your trees, but keep it 6 inches or more back from the trunks.

How do I get rid of grass without mowing? ›

The easiest, quickest and most effective way to kill off your lawn is to spray it with glyphosate, such as Bonide Kleenup Weed Killer Concentrate. It needs to be mixed with water before using, but there are ready-to-use options available as well.

Do I need to remove grass before laying gravel? ›

The first step to adding gravel on top of grass is actually to remove the grass before you go any further. There are a few ways you can do this. If you just want to lay loose gravel you can use chemical sprays or a ground cover to smother the grass to death.

How do I get rid of tall grass without mowing? ›

Weed Eaters or trimmers

You have the option between gas, electric, or cordless weed eaters. This tool makes the job of cutting long grass easier than a mower and is perfect for clearing areas of long overgrown weed or brush.

Will flowers grow through cardboard? ›

Regular watering softens the cardboard and by the time the plants have grown to almost full size the roots can easily penetrate deeper through the cardboard into the soil underneath. Because the plants are in soft compost and mulch they sprout so much easier and before you know it they are looking fantastic.

What are the disadvantages of a no dig garden? ›

  • It requires a fair amount of compost, and it's not always easy to get enough good quality compost for the whole plot whilst on a budget, especially in the first season when you need a bit more than usual.
  • Quite a lot of compost shovelling/wheelbarrowing is required from time to time.
6 Mar 2020

Can you use printed cardboard for no dig? ›

We use brown card with minimal printing. Cardboard can be either underneath the compost or on top, whichever works best for you. Card on the top will need weighing down with something to prevent it from blowing away. Another alternative is mulching with polythene or membrane.

What is the no dig method? ›

In a no-dig regime, weeds are controlled by shallow hoeing, hand weeding, contact weedkillers and mulching. Debris is gathered up rather than dug in. Mulches are taken into the soil by soil organisms, and fertilisers are washed in by rain.

Is Pulling weeds a waste of time? ›

They store nutrients in their roots and re-grow each year from the roots or seed. Hand-pulling is not as successful because perennials are often stimulated from root or stem disturbances. By hand-pulling, perennial weeds may be encouraged to grow bigger and stronger than before.

Do cardboard boxes attract bugs? ›

When it comes to pests, cardboard boxes are not your friend. Cardboard is susceptible to moisture and humidity and attractive to many types of insects.

Why do people put cardboard on soil? ›

As a mulch - Spread cardboard over bare soil to protect it against winter rains. Even better if you put a layer of organic matter such as leafmould underneath. The worms and other soil life will enjoy processing both, giving you a lovely friable soil – ready for spring planting.

How do you use cardboard for landscaping? ›

Wet down the cardboard as you go to keep it in place and to shape it around obstacles.
  1. Add a weed barrier that is permeable to water and air, cardboard boxes are ideal. ...
  2. Overlap the pieces by 6-8 inches so the sun won't get through. ...
  3. Wet down the cardboard as you go to keep it in place and to shape it around obstacles.

Are there chemicals in cardboard? ›

A.S. Cardboard boxes contain a wealth of chemicals that underscore why there are so environmental and sustainability concerns about the traditional method for moving items during a big move.

Is cardboard toxic to soil? ›

Only use the material for paths. Paper and cardboard printed with colored ink is another matter, as this ink may contain some toxic heavy metals. Avoid using cardboard or paper for mulch if it contains colored ink.

How long does cardboard keep weeds from growing? ›

That's about all the prep you need! Most cardboard will disintegrate in 6-12 months, so if you lay it down in early spring, it will be ready for soil cultivation next spring. Frequent watering can help break down the cardboard faster and more effectively.

Does putting cardboard down stop weeds? ›

Cardboard and mulch are effective barriers in stopping the upward growth of unwanted weeds. Over time, cardboard and the dead weeds underneath it biodegrade and help create nutrient-rich soil.

Will cardboard attract termites? ›

Termites LOVE cardboard. Did you know that termite researchers use cardboard feeding stations to lure termites? And cardboard is often used as the “control” in feeding studies, because termites will always eat it?

Will cardboard break down over winter? ›

After a few months, you'll start to see the cardboard breaking down. Underneath, you'll find fresh garden soil, ready for plants. The best time to do this is in fall, so the cardboard can break down over the winter and you'll be ready to go in spring.

Can you use cardboard instead of landscape fabric? ›


After removing all the tape, stickers, and nonbiodegradable materials off the cardboard, you can use it as a biodegradable landscape fabric alternative in the garden –– and the earthworms will love it!

Is cardboard toxic to dogs? ›

Can Dogs Eat Cardboard Boxes? Cardboard boxes can be an excellent way to get your dog engaged and entertained, however, it's important to note that it is not recommended that your dog eat the cardboard. Although it is not toxic to your pet, it is indigestible.

Is it good to put cardboard under mulch? ›

Beneath the layers of compost materials, sheet mulches typically include a layer of cardboard to keep grass and weeds from growing through – a great way to smother unwanted vegetation or convert a sod lawn into a garden.

Are there toxins in cardboard? ›

Cardboard boxes contain a wealth of chemicals that underscore why there are so environmental and sustainability concerns about the traditional method for moving items during a big move.

How long does it take cardboard to smother weeds? ›

Just lay cardboard or newspaper all over the area, water it, and wait two weeks to plant.

Will weeds ever stop growing? ›

Annual weeds germinate, flower and set seed in one season, while perennial weeds continue growing for many years. Both kinds present their own challenges, but they can be kept under control—without resorting to using herbicides. Regain control of a garden that has become weedy by cutting or mowing weeds to the ground.

How long does cardboard take to decompose in soil? ›

How Long Does it Take For Cardboard to Decompose? If you do nothing to your large pieces of cardboard, then it can take them naturally about six to eight months to break down completely. This is what happens when the box is thrown in a landfill or outside and is left to the elements to start breaking down.


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