Dear Umbra,

I just moved into a house with a large backyard. I would like to xeriscape 90 percent of it, but I must first learn how to kill and remove the grass. I’m not a fan of chemicals and would like to find an alternate solution. Most of the yard is very, very brown these days due to the drought. Will a rototiller do the job?


Dearest Frank,

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For befuddled readers, a xeriscape is a water-saving garden, usually installed in a dry climate. Here are Three Fun Ways to Kill Your Lawn:

  1. Dig up the grass with a garden fork, shaking the soil off of each forkful and piling it in a giant mound as an offering to the God of Sod. This method is good for small areas, strong backs and thighs, and impatient do-it-yourselfers.
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  3. For the supremely patient, sheet mulching is the answer. Layer piles of newspapers, cardboard, leaves, straw — whatever organic material you have at hand — on your lawn, leave it there for the winter, and voila — come spring, your grass will be dead, and your lower back won’t be. After the grass is dead and decaying, forking or rototilling it will be much easier.
  4. On the topic of rototilling — it’s a fabulous technique, but it is not easy, especially if the grass is still alive. The tiller may be able to handle the snarl of living blades and roots, but it will take quite a few passes and a lot of your own strength to guide the machine, which has a mustang-like tendency to buck. A sod cutter could make tilling easier. Sod cutters look like Zambonis and slice up your lawn in strips, which you then roll up and haul away.

What to do with the grass formerly known as your lawn? It makes great compost, but you will need to dedicate a section of your yard to the aforementioned sod mound. Lay down a layer of sod (or a layer of grass lumps, if using Method #1), wet it, sprinkle it with a high nitrogen fertilizer, add another layer, and so on. When you’re done, cover it all with a tarp and leave it for a couple of years, watering every so often. If you’re the handy type, you can shape it into a sod sofa and sit on it. From this exercise, you will get some of the best compost in the world (which you can then use in your xeriscape), not to mention a great lumpy conversation piece in a corner of your yard. Have fun.