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How to remove turf

Date posted: 19 March 2015

Many people have decided to replace their lawns with alternatives that don’t require much water. If you are among them, you need to know about the various ways to remove turf grass and listed below are some of the most common methods used. Feel free to choose the one that will best suit your needs, depending on: (1) how much manual labour you are willing to invest, (2) how large your grass is, (3) what you are planning to do with the area after you have removed the lawn, (4) your budget, and, of course, (5) how big of a hurry you are in.

If you are in a hurry

1. Herbicide
There are several herbicides that will kill grass. That said; it is not a recommended way to remove turf as herbicides are residual, and there is advanced risk of ending up in the water supply. Perhaps you could use herbicides if you have a small lawn, but then again, the risk is always there.

2. Sod Cutter
You can physically remove the lawn by using a sod cutter to cut it into strips, instead of the more labour-intensive flat shovel. A sod cutter is a tool that will allow you to cut grass at the roots. That way, you can easily remove entire sections of sod.

How to do it:

  1. Create a mound in the area that you want removed by laying the cut sod upside down in the middle of that area.
  2. Once you have cut the sod into strips, you roll them up and either turn them over to compost in place or take them away.
  3. In the latter option, cover the area with 6-10 thick sheets of newspaper (overlapping) and layer them with 4-6 inches of compost, followed by another 3-4 inches of mulch to create good soil, decompose, and prevent the grass from growing back.

Note: If you have persistent Bermuda grass, whose roots go down quite a few inches, you can rest assured it will grow back up. If this is your case, then we suggest you remove the lawn through herbicides or solarisation (see below) and wait for a few months, juts to make sure nothing grows back again, before you do anything else.

Tip: For larger areas of turf, a motorised sod cutter is ideal. You can rent one (make sure you read the manual first) or assign a landscaping company to remove the turf for you as motorised sod cutters are powerful machines that could be difficult to manoeuvre. 

 

The slower methods include

1. Solarisation
An equally efficient and absolutely affordable method to remove turf is solarisation, which is technically a soil sterilisation method by using clear plastic. For lawn removal though, we use a lighter version with black plastic that works best in areas with high temperatures (summer-like). If you pick that way of turf removal, it is advised to do so as spring turns to summer, and here are the steps:

  1. Cut the grass as short as you possibly can.
  2. Water it well.
  3. Cover the lawn with large rolls of black plastic and hold it in place with metal stakes or rocks.
  4. Make sure the area is airtight covered.

How it Works:

The plastic traps the radiant energy of the sun, in the soil, which heats the top 12-18 inches. The top 6 inches heat up to as high as 140°F if all is done properly and always depending on the location. After about 8 weeks (might take only 4 if the weather is too hot) the grass will be dead, and the same applies to plant diseases, soil pathogens, insects, and nematodes in the top layers of the soil. Then, it is time to remove the plastic and the allow the dead lawn to compost in place.
Although it is a method with minimal environmental impact and minimum labour demands, it takes a considerable amount of time and must be done in hot weather.

2. Sheet Composting
Sheet composting doesn’t require much labour to dispose of the turf. It is a method that adds organic matter to the earth and is best applied on flat surfaces.

How to do it:

  1. First cut the grass the shortest possible.
  2. Cover the area with either newspaper (12 layers will do) or cardboard (purchased rolls or used boxes are both great).

Note: All the edges should overlap a decent amount and you should also ensure no sunlight gets through the paper at all.

3. Then, water the paper, cover it with a compost layer, and mulch 4 inches thick (at least).

Tip: If you want a meadow, scatter wildflower seeds and/or grass in the compost, before applying the mulch.
You may also want to plant flowers. In this case, you have 2 options: either wait for the paper to decompose and then dig holes for your new plants or cut holes in the paper.

Notes:

  • It’s best to mow your lawn beforehand as this will reduce the volume of the material that you will need to lift.
  • To avoid working on the flower border, cut some headlands around the turf’s edges first.  
  • If you are using a turf cutter:
  • Move in straight lines to avoid having missed strips, which you would then need to lift by hand.
  • Always follow the instructions in the guide of a turf cutter to avoid the risk of serious injury, and wear protective and practical clothing, footwear, and gloves.
  • Don’t wear jewellery or loose garments that could catch in the cutter’s moving parts, and keep hands and feet away from the running cutter.
  • Stay away from combustible materials (minimum of 5m).
  • Tyres should be correctly inflated and in good condition when using the machine.

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