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HOW TO REMOVE GRASS & WEEDS

Ready to turn your lawn into a meadow, transform your turf into a gorgeous garden, or trade a yard full of weeds into a lush clover lawn? For every new planting, preparation is the key to success. It’s well worth the time and effort to remove grass and weeds to give your new plants a chance to thrive. Let’s dig in!

Digging in is good for the soul - and the soil!
PREPARE graphic

Why Prepare Your Soil?

It can’t be said too often: preparation is the key to success when it comes to growing a meadow or garden. 

Gardeners often ask, “Can I just toss seeds in the grass?” We do NOT recommend it! Planting perennials and bulbs into poorly prepared soil will result in disappointing growth as well.

Removing grass and weeds will reduce competition and make room for new plants to grow and thrive. Preparing a healthy soil bed before planting will help seeds germinate and encourage healthy root growth for seedlings or transplants. 

Without preparation, vigorous weeds and grasses will compete with your seedlings for nutrients, sunlight, and water, taking away from the lifelong health of your planting. 

How To Remove Your Lawn: 6 Techniques

So what’s the best way to remove grass and weeds? Depending on how large your planting plot is, how much time you have, and your experience level, you have a few options. We'll cover the equipment, time, physical effort, and cost needed for each method, as well as the pros and cons of each. Plus, we'll tell you how to remove your lawn for each technique. 

Jump To A Section To Dig In:

1. Rototilling | For larger areas, especially wildflower meadows, rototilling is an effective way to remove grass and loosen the soil. 

2. Sod Cutters | Heavy duty grass-removing machines will quickly remove grass and weeds like rolling up a carpet

3. Hand Tools | For areas too small for rototillers or solarization, good old-fashioned hand tools do the trick. 

4. No-Till Solarization & Smothering | Harness the power of the sun – or block the sun entirely – to easily kill grasses and weeds.

5. No-Till Sheet Mulching | Build up healthy soil with layers layers of cardboard and newspaper that act as a weed barrier.

6. Herbicides | For tough weeds or very grassy areas, gardeners may turn to chemical compounds to kill unwanted plants. 


Tilling soil for a wildflower planting

Rototilling

Pros of Tilling

  • A fast and effective option for large areas and acreage
  • A good way to loosen up the top layer of soil to encourage root growth

Cons of Tilling

  • May bring weed seeds to the surface
  • May lead to erosion if the area is not planted quickly

Equipment

  • Walk-behind rototillers may be available to rent from a hardware store. Rototiller attachments for tractors can be rented from equipment rental companies. You may also be able to hire a service or a neighbor in a rural area to help rototill your meadow.

Time

  • Same-day planting - or rototill up to 1 month in advance (See Expert Tips For Tilling below)

Physical Effort

  • Easy to moderate, depending on the equipment

How To Rototill To Remove Grass & Weeds

NOTE: Below are general instructions for how to use a rototiller. Follow the instructions that come with your machine. Read over the user manual - each machine is slightly different. Always wear personal protective gear and operate machinery with caution.

  1. First day of tilling: Always run the first pass at the deepest depth, about 4 to 6 inches deep.
  2. Till the next pass with a shallower depth of just 2 to 3 inches. This will prevent bringing additional weed seeds to the surface. Avoid any temptation to till deeper than recommended — the deeper you dig, the more dormant
  3. weed seeds you'll turn up into the soil’s surface, where they can sprout faster than your wildflowers.
    When possible, rake the area to level the soil and remove weeds, plants, roots, and debris before sowing. 
  4. If you’re doing only one day of tilling, you can sow seeds as soon as the soil is prepared. 
  5. If you’re planning to till multiple times over 2-3 weeks, wait about a week until your next day of tilling. Your next tiling passes should be at the shallowest setting to remove and weed seedlings, but avoid bringing up new weed seeds.

Expert Tips For Timing Your Tilling:

  • For old fields that have grown and seeded themselves for years, there can be a robust seed base in the soil, so avoid the deep tilling step. Shallow-till 2-3 inches deep, 2-3 times over the course of 3-4 weeks to avoid bringing up weed seeds.

  • For small areas, meadow expansions, or in established planting areas, or when your access to rototilling equipment is limited, one day of tilling is sufficient.

  • For larger areas over ¼ acre, and areas where you’re transforming lawn or pasture to garden or meadow for the first time, 2-3 days of tilling over 2-3 weeks will give the best results. This will allow weed seeds to sprout between tillings, and you can kill them the next time you till.

Sod cutting in action removing lawn grass

Sod Cutters

These grass-removing tools cut through many root systems at once, pulling up your lawn like a carpet and leaving soil ready for new seeding.

Pros of Sod Cutters

  • Sod can be relocated to another area of your yard, or given to a friend or neighbor who wants to spruce up their lawn.
  • Using a sod cutter is a faster option than digging by hand for large areas.

Cons of Sod Cutters

  • Will likely require borrowing, renting, or hiring equipment. Motorized sod cutters can be difficult to handle for beginners.

Equipment

  • Sod cutters can be rented from a hardware store. If you don’t have experience, consider starting with a non-motorized version.

Time

  • Same day planting

Physical Effort

  • Moderate

How To Remove Grass & Weeds With A Sod Cutter

NOTE: Below are general instructions for how to use a sod cutter. Follow the instructions that come with your machine. Read over the user manual - each machine is slightly different. Always wear personal protective gear and operate machinery with caution.

  1. Water the area thoroughly a few days before you use a sod cutter. Otherwise, the lawn can be very difficult to remove.
  2. Cut your lawn in sections.
  3. Remove the sections of sod by digging them or rolling them up. Have a wheelbarrow or wagon available to remove the strips of lawn.
  4. Loosen soil with a rake before planting. 
Digging in to remove grass from a lawn, to prepare for a new planting

Hand Tools

The simplest technique of all - digging in with good old-fashioned elbow grease!

Pros of Hand Tools

  • Remove only the grass and weeds that you want to remove - you can leave selective plants in place. 
  • Grass-removing tools are easy to find, often available to borrow. 
  • A good choice if you like to get up close and personal with your gardening space. 

Cons of Hand Tools

  • Can be a physically-intensive process

Equipment

  • Shovels, rakes, hoes, or a broadfork.

Time

  • Same day planting

Physical Effort

  • Challenging

How To Remove Grass & Weeds With Hand Tools

  1. Water the area thoroughly a few days before you dig in, as digging into dry, hard soil can make things extra challenging.
  2. Dig in, section by section, to remove all growth in your new planting area. 
  3. Remove grass roots so they don't grow back along with your new wildflowers. If necessary, use a sharp spade, pickaxe, or mattock (a smaller version of a pickaxe) to dig out stubborn growth.
  4. Remove grass, or transplant it to a different part of your yard. 
  5. Turn the soil to loosen it before planting. 
Peeling back a layer of black plastic, in place to solarize and kill grass for a new planting area

No-Till Solarization & Smothering

Solarization uses clear plastic to trap heat and moisture, heating up the area beneath the plastic to kill plants and reduce the viability of weed seeds, along with plant pathogens, harmful insects, and plant-eating nematodes. 

Smothering uses black plastic to block light from plants beneath plastic, preventing photosynthesis and killing the plants. Black plastic does not get as hot, so typically doesn’t damage wee seeds, but it does prevent weeds from growing beneath it, which they can do sometimes under clear plastic. 

Pros of Solarizing & Smothering

  • It's the least labor-intensive method for removing grass and weeds — the sun does most of the work! 
  • Many pests and pathogens are killed by solarization, but most beneficial soil organisms can survive solarization or recolonize the soil very quickly.

Cons of Solarizing & Smothering

  • This method takes time, so you need to plan a couple of months ahead. Consider solarizing over the summer for fall planting.

Equipment

  • Tarps and plastic rolls are available at hardware and agricultural supply stores

Time

  • 2 months advance planning, or longer

Physical Effort

  • Easy to Moderate

How To Solarize or Smother Grass & Weeds: 

  1. Lay plastic over your soil. Cover the edges with soil, stones, or bags of sand to secure the plastic to the ground. 
  2. Plastic should be left in place for 8 weeks during the hottest part of the year. Solarization and smothering are time- and temperature-dependent, so in cooler temperatures or cloudy climates, you may need to leave the coverings down longer.  
  3. When plants beneath the plastic are dead, the plastic can be removed. 
  4. When it’s time to plant, you can rake the area to loosen the soil before seeding. You do not need to remove the plant debris, but remove any active growth sprouting up.
Layers of cardboard and mulch can create a new planting bed

No-Till Sheet Mulching

No-till sheet mulching is an approach where you can build up healthy soil with layers of organic materials. Cardboard and newspaper act as a weed barrier to cover the lawn. These can often be rescued from the recycling! Organic materials such as compost and mulch, can be purchased in bulk from local garden centers. They’re also likely to be readily available from your yard, or neighbors’ yards.

Pros of Sheet Mulching

  • No-till sheet mulching is a great solution for poor soil, since you can build up new planting beds - similar to raised beds. It’s best suited for creating new garden beds.
  • This method will create very rich soil, so it’s best for plants that are adapted to rich soils.

Cons of Sheet Mulching

  • This technique takes the longest to prepare for planting. You’ll need at least 6-8 months for the layers to decompose and be ready for planting. 
  • This method requires a significant amount of new material to be delivered into your yard. 
    This technique is not well-suited for large meadow plantings. Most wildflowers do not need rich soil to thrive.

Equipment

  • Nitrogen layer 9-12 inches total: composted horse or cow manure, fresh grass clippings, spent annuals, fruit/vegetable scraps, used coffee grounds, and green leaves
  • Carbon layer 9-12 inches total: cardboard, newspaper, wood chips, sawdust, pine needles, and dry leaves

Time

  • 6-8 months advance planning, or longer

Physical Effort

  • Moderate to Challenging

How To Remove Grass & Weeds With No-Till Sheet Mulching:

  1. Mow the grass in your planting area as low as possible. Leave the clippings.
  2. Spread out cardboard, or at least 5 layers of newspaper, over the planting area as your weed and grass-blocking layer. Be sure no grass is peeking out - or it will keep growing. Water it until it’s soaking wet and flexible.
  3. Add a nitrogen layer materials, in a 2-4 inch layer across the planting area. 
  4. Add a carbon layer, which should also be about 2-4 inches thick.
  5. Repeat nitrogen and carbon layers, until you have reached a height of about 18"-24". It will be tall at first, but the layers will compact as they decompose..
  6. Cover the entire bed with a carbon layer, such as bark or mulch. Water lightly.
  7. Then comes the easy part! Wait about 6-8 months for the layers to decompose. When the layers resemble soil and you can no longer see cardboard or newspaper layers, the area is ready for planting. 

Expert Tips For Timing Sheet Mulching:

  • Because it needs plenty of time, many gardeners choose to create new garden beds in fall, allowing the materials to decompose over winter. Plus, you can put your autumn leaves to good use.

Spraying herbicides

Herbicides

For tough weeds or very grassy areas, gardeners may turn to herbicides. Herbicides are a type of chemical compound that can be used to kill unwanted plants. 

Chemicals can be organic or inorganic. Organic herbicides are made with naturally occurring chemicals, and you can purchase commercial organic herbicide mixes, or create your own – vinegar is a very popular choice. They are non-selective, so they will harm all plants that they come into contact with. For large areas or aggressive weeds, you may need several applications to effectively kill the lawn. Organic herbicides are typically recommended for spot-killing weeds, rather than lawn removal - in part because they need multiple applications, and in part because using herbicides on large swatches of your yard can have a detrimental effect on the health of your soil. 

Inorganic herbicides are made synthetically in a lab, and can also be purchased commercially. In some cases, such as the removal of persistent invasive species, chemical herbicides may be appropriate, and can be used cautiously for spot treatments. With all of the lawn removal techniques listed above available, we do not recommend synthetic herbicides, such as glyphosate, because they can be harmful to people, pets, pollinators, wildlife, and soil health. When it comes to removing large your lawn, inorganic chemicals are essentially overkill – their persistent presence in your soil can deter the growth of your new plants and seedlings, and cause lasting harm to plants, people, and pollinators who visit your yard. 

Pros of Herbicides

  • Organic herbicides are available at most hardware stores and garden centers.

Cons of Herbicides

  • May require multiple applications to thoroughly remove grasses and weeds
  • Weed killers are non-selective, meaning that they will harm any broadleaf plant or tree that they make contact with — including wildflowers. 
  • Weed killers need time to be cleared from your soil before planting
  • Organic herbicides affect the parts of the plant they contact - not the roots. Vigorous weeds may regrow after leaves are killed off. Repeated applications may be needed to fully remove grass and weeds.
  • Chemical weed killers should not be used frequently or regularly. 

Equipment

  • Organic herbicides such as acetic acid, vinegar, and other mixes, plus rake or tools to remove plant growth

Time

  • 5-10 days or more

Physical Effort

  • Easy 

How To Remove Grass & Weeds With Natural Herbicides:

NOTE: Below are general instructions for using chemical herbicides. Be sure to follow the directions and safety precautions on the label of your herbicides. Always use personal protective equipment when using herbicides.  

  1. Apply herbicides when there is no rain in the forecast for 2 days. 
  2. Mow the area as low as possible.
  3. Spray organic herbicides thoroughly onto grasses and weeds in your planting area. For the herbicide to take effect, it needs to contact the plant material, not the soil or the roots. To prevent damaging plants you want to keep, cover them before spraying.
  4. Plants should die off within the next day. Rake or remove dead growth by hand. 
  5. Wait about 4-5 days, and if you see new growth, spray again. Again, you’ll see plants die off within the next day, and again remove dead and wilted plant material.
  6. Wait 4-5 days after your last spraying before planting. 
  7. Loosen soil before planting. 

Spraying herbicides

Meadowscaping Makes It Better

Now that you know these techniques, you’re ready to start removing your lawn, section by section, to make way for something better.

Then, it's time for the fun part – planting something new! Your yard will be filled with beautiful plants and blooms, to create an outdoor oasis where you can relax and recharge. Enjoy the sights and sounds of birds, butterflies, and wildlife that will fill your yard with life. Before you know it, your neighbors will be doing it too, making the world a better place one yard at a time.

 

Wildflower Meadow

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