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My garden transformation project: why I’m digging out my lawn by hand

When it comes to transforming my garden into an edible and productive food space, there’s one task that’s taking up most of my time currently: digging out the lawn. And if there’s one question I’m answering most often from the garden updates I post it is this: why are you digging out your lawn?

Which actually has two meanings: why aren’t you keeping the lawn? and why have you chosen digging out the lawn as your method of removal?

It’s not a short answer, so I thought I’d explain it here.

Why I’m digging out my lawn (why I’m not keeping the lawn)

I would like to grow edible food in my garden. I would like fruit trees and vegetables. I’d like native plants too. To grow these, I need to remove the lawn.

Lawn in Western Australia is not like lawn in Europe. If I leave it, it won’t grow into a beautiful field of wildflowers. In summer it will be dead without a lot of inputs. What does grow will be non-native grass species and weeds like castor oil (which is toxic to dogs – it’s the source of ricin).

My climate doesn’t naturally support meadows.

Growing lawn in Perth is hard work and takes a surprising amount of resources. It needs a lot of water to keep it green. I have a bore (which is a pump that draws water from the ground, as opposed to using drinking water from the tap) but even so, our groundwater levels are dropping and in my opinion, it is a waste of water to keep so much grass alive.

Anyways, I’m only allowed to use my bore reticulation three times a week. Any other watering needs to be drinking water.

The reticulation that’s in place to keep the lawn green is plastic and the parts break all the time. It breaks, and the trickle is replaced with a jet stream that gushes gallons of water down the road at the front (or floods the garden at the back). After replacing a few broken bits (luckily with second-hand freebies I was given, not new plastic) only to end up with more broken bits, I decided to just switch it off.

Then, it needs fertilising to keep it green. Lawn fertilisers cause a lot of problems in our rivers, because they are soluble fertilisers than run-off into the water and contribute to algal blooms (which kill the fish).

My non-fertilised lawn is yellow and patchy. Which is fine, because I’m digging it out.

Yes, lawn feels nice underneath the feet (well, when it’s not dead). Although our Australian grasses are not as soft as the European grasses, so it isn’t quite the same. But there are parks close by with lots of grass that are properly maintained and accessible to lots of people.

I know that a lot of non-Western Australians will look at a garden full of coarse wood chip mulch and think it looks ugly and weird. It took me a bit of getting used to when I first saw it, too. But if meadows are what happens to grasses in Europe, this layer of dead tree matter is what nature does in our natural bush areas.

It acts to protect the soil from the harsh sun, retains moisture underneath – and eventually breaks down to add carbon to the soil.

Although it looks extreme now, eventually I’ll cover most of my mulch with plants so it won’t be so obvious.

Why I’ve chosen digging out the lawn as my method of removal

There are lots of ways that people choose to get rid of their lawn. Digging mine out by hand (well, I did contemplate a turf cutter, but I’ve stuck with the spade) was the only option I really considered. I know there are plenty of ways, but I have my reasons for choosing this. Let me explain them.

Perth grass is TOUGH.

Even though I told you grass dies here in summer, it doesn’t actually die. Every autumn when the rain returns the dead patch of yellow grass resurrects itself. It dies, and yet it is almost impossible to truly kill.

There are a few species of grass used for lawns in Perth, and I have a few, definitely included these two.

Kikuyu grass: a tropical grass speces Pennisetum clandestinum, native to the highland regions of East Africa. Grows rapidly and aggressively. Categorized as a noxious weed in some regions. Has underground runners and its root system can grow to 3 metres deep.

Couch grass: a drought-tolerant grass described as ‘high maintenance and invasive’. It has an extensive root system with fine roots that is difficult to remove. Can grow through concrete. Also called Wintergreen couch – I wonder if this is because it dies back in summer and returns with vengeance in winter?

I don’t want to use chemicals (which is often recommended)

Because our grasses are so hard to kill, many gardeners and organizations recommend using glyphosate (you might know it as Roundup) to kill lawn. It’s a controversial chemical that’s been banned in many European countries due to safety concerns.

Whilst verge gardens tend to be non-edibles (well, for humans only) I’m not interested in using chemicals to kill any of my lawn that will remain in the soil and enter the food chain.

Smothering/solarising doesn’t work well in Perth

Lots of readers have suggested I just cover the grass with cardboard and mulch, or use black plastic to solarise the grass and kill it. I know that these methods work well in other places with other types of grasses, but they aren’t great in Perth.

If it has worked for you, brilliant (and I’m sure it can be done). But when it doesn’t work, all that happens is you create a cosy, warm, wet environment for the grass which means it expands its root networks, and eventually busts through the mulch/plastic.

An earlier guide to verge gardens by the Water Corporation specifically advised against these methods, recognising that they rarely work.

I’ve seen many, many examples of mulching/solarising grass failing in Perth, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen an example of it working successfully on the types of grass that I have.

Putting the work in up-front

Even if I thought that mulching/solarising was a great idea, and wanted to give it a go, I’d need to wait several months for the grass to die before I could plant anything in the ground. And I don’t want to wait.

The sooner I can plant trees the better, and the sooner I can plant vegetables the better.

Also, I think putting in the work up-front means not playing catch-up later. I don’t want to spend the next six months digging out regrowing grass – especially not grass that has grown through raised garden beds and now has 1+ metre deep roots.

I expect there will still be some regrowth, but it should be a lot less than if I’d just tried to plant on top.

The level of the land

One other reason why sheet mulching with cardboard and then heaping on the mulch wouldn’t work for me – at the front at least – is that the ground level is already a little high. It’s higher than the driveway, which means when it rains all the water (and mulch) will run off onto the concrete and down the drain.

In a place that’s short of water, this is a huge waste. I need to ensure any water that falls stays in my soil.

Adding an extra 10-15 cm of mulch on top would create a mini mountain, and just exacerbate the problem.

By removing the lawn I’m reducing the height of the land slightly, so the new surface is flush with the kerb/driveway.

Knowing my land

I did contemplate getting a turf cutter, and a few friends suggested just getting a bobcat in to blitz it in a couple of hours. But I decided to do it by hand.

Out the back, I don’t need it all done at once, so I’m chipping away as I’m ready to plant trees or put in beds.

At the front I am removing the whole lot, but I’ve found the by-hand approach useful.

There is a huge tree on my verge, and I don’t want to trash all of its roots with heavy machinery.

There are gas pipes, water pipes (and PVC reticulation pipes!) under the lawn, and I don’t want to damage anything.

It’s been useful to go slowly and see exactly where the roots from the big tree, my neighbours’ trees and my hedge extend, remove random bricks I find, and also see the condition of the soil (which varies from extremely bad to pretty bad. But I did find a worm. Just the one. Yeah, Perth soil is really not great).

Because I want to put in-ground beds at the front, its useful to know if there are networks of roots or blocks of concrete under the soil before I plant anything out.

Removing the lawn – progress to date

The one advantage of living on a sandpit rather than heavy clay soils is that it is fairly easy to dig out grass. It isn’t back-breaking work… but there is a lot of it.

My superstar neighbour has given me a hand out the front (I think she is impatient for it to look good!) and it is quite amazing how much can be removed in a day.

Currently, the front looks like this:

(The plants are a native Geraldton wax I transplanted from the back garden, a lemongrass bush and the beginnings of my broad bean patch).

I’m going to have another blitz at the weekend, and I’m hoping it will almost all be gone when I’m done.

Here’s the back, with the new beginnings of my citrus ‘grove’ and my raised garden beds beginning to fill up:

So that, my friends, is the extremely long answer to the question: why am I digging out my lawn. It’s fairly boring work up front, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Any more questions about lawn or lawn removal? Any experiences of removing lawn yourself – both successful and unsuccessful? Any other thoughts at all? Please share in the comments below!