4 Ways to Remove Your Grass Lawn

person using a shovel to dig up grass for lawn removal from a specific area

Can’t get your grass to grow green and weed-free? Ready to replace thirsty turfgrass with an eco-friendly landscape? Whether you’re planning to remove grass for good or just need healthy soil for fresh grass seeds, there are several ways to get rid of your existing lawn.

If your lawn needs a makeover, here are the four ways to get grass gone. We’ll go through the pros and cons of each, so you can decide which is best based on how much time, money, and sweat you can devote to your lawn.

Reasons to remove your grass lawn

To give grass a healthy restart

 If ravenous weeds are eating up your lovely lawn, or if bare spots are speckling areas that were once lush and green, it may be time to start your yard from scratch. 

Removing your grass sounds drastic, but it can kill off many years of weed seeds and give your new plants a healthy start without competition from aggressive older plants.

To create a more eco-friendly space

Exhausted by the constant watering, mowing, and fertilizing that your turfgrass requires? Many homeowners remove grass to replace it with native plants, garden beds, a rock garden, or hardscape features (like a patio or sculpture garden). 

Depending on where you live, you can even get a rebate for replacing grass with a drought-friendly xeriscape.

Before you begin

  • Flag your sprinklers to prevent accidental damage. You may want to reuse your sprinklers for your new lawn, or you can convert existing sprinkler locations to a drip irrigation system for a more eco-friendly landscape.
  • Call 811 at least three days before you dig so a team can come out and mark underground utility lines. You don’t want to accidentally cut off your (or your neighbor’s) internet!
  • Check your homeowners association and town government regulations to see if there are any restrictions on turf removal practices. 

4 methods to remove your grass

For quick and relatively easy grass removal, herbicide or sod-cutting will do the job. But, these methods can be expensive and harsh on the environment, and they often require tilling and weed-killing.

If you want to save money and protect your local ecosystem, sheet mulching or solarization will get rid of your grass without herbicide or heavy-duty equipment. However, the process will be slower and more involved. 

1. Herbicide

Best if: You’re in a hurry and don’t want to sweat it out in your yard.

Applying a non-selective, post-emergent broadleaf herbicide is a quick, easy way to kill grass (though it isn’t the most eco-friendly option). Simply spread herbicide and wait about a month, and then reapply if needed.

The easiest way to apply herbicide? Buy a pre-mixed variety and apply it to your lawn according to the label’s instructions. Premixed herbicides are more expensive, but they mean you won’t have to put on your chemist coat. 

The cheapest way to apply herbicide? Choose concentrates and mix them yourself before spreading the solution over your lawn. This is a money-saving solution for larger lawns.

Buy an herbicide with glyphosate as the active ingredient. These herbicides have fewer residual effects than other herbicides (though they’re also more expensive). 

Avoid “extended control” or “season-long” herbicides like the plague: Their residue will kill anything (including your new grass seed) that tries to grow for four months after the initial application.

How to apply herbicide to kill your grass: 

  1. Water your lawn for two weeks, and let your grass grow to a height of 6 inches.
  1. Spray your unmowed lawn with herbicide. Wear protective clothes, gloves, glasses, and a mask when applying it.
  1. Wait 14 days, letting your lawn absorb the herbicide.
  1. Rake up dead grass and weeds.
  1. Mow and water the area to stimulate weed growth (so you can kill off the stragglers).
  1. Wait 14 more days.
  1. If no new sprouts appear, you can begin the planting process! Use a dethatcher, sod cutter, or tiller to prepare the area.
  1. If your weeds are putting up a fight, reapply herbicide and repeat the process before planting. 

Pro Tip: Don’t apply herbicide if rain is expected in the next 48 hours. Herbicide will wash into local streams and rivers, so your grass won’t die but friendly neighborhood fish might. 

Pros of herbicide

✓ One of the quickest methods of grass removal.
✓ Easy and effective. 
✓ Not as labor-intensive as other methods. 
✓ Good for killing resilient grasses like bermuda and kikuyu. 

Cons of herbicide

✗ Chemicals in herbicides harm the environment: Herbicide-filled runoff flows into your local aquatic ecosystem.
✗ You still need to dethatch or dig up your lawn after killing your grass (though it’ll be easier to remove dead grass than live grass) because weed seeds in the soil continue to germinate.
✗ Herbicides damage soil biology, which can lead to long-term growth problems. 
✗ Residual chemicals can stunt new lawn growth.
✗ You may have to apply multiple rounds of herbicide if grass is well-established. Your 28-day project could turn into a 54-day one.
✗ Wind can blow herbicide into gardens and your neighbor’s lawn, killing grass and plants.

2. The dig-it-up method

Best if: You’re in a hurry but want to keep your lawn chemical-free (and you’re not afraid to break a sweat).

You can dig up your lawn manually with a flat shovel or mechanically using a motorized sod cutter or rototiller. If you have a small lawn, strong arm muscles, and a free afternoon, a shovel may suffice. 

For larger lawns, a motorized sod cutter or tiller is the way to go. You can rent one for a few hours or a day from your local home improvement store. 

How to dig up your lawn using a shovel:

1. Mow your lawn on the lowest mower setting to scalp it. 

2. Water your grass so it’s easy to work with. Then wait two or three days before moving to the next step. 

3. Use a spade or edger to cut your turf into long strips (4 inches deep).

4. Dig with your shovel at one end of the strip, sliding your shovel underneath the sod and cutting grass at the roots. 

5. Water again, so that remaining weeds raise their heads.

6. Monitor the area. In one to two weeks, dig up weeds that have reappeared.

If using a sod cutter, follow steps one and two above, and then move your motorized sod cutter across your lawn. Turn around at the end of each cutting pass like you would with a lawn mower.

  • Your sod cutter will create 12- to 18-inch-wide sections of sod. 
  • Roll up each section and either compost it in another location or lay it over your lawn, grass-side-down, to return nutrients to the soil. 
  • Spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost over the grass-side-down sod.
  • Once sod has died and turned completely brown, till the soil with a rototiller (or hoe for smaller areas) to mix sod soil into your yard. 

Pro Tip: Motorized sod cutters can be difficult to maneuver and shake as they move. If you’re not sure about handling heavy-duty lawn equipment, it may be better to let a lawn care pro do the sod-cutting for you.

If using a rototiller, follow steps one and two, and then use your rototiller to dig down 5 to 6 inches into the soil. A tiller is like a high-speed blender for your lawn: It churns up grass and topsoil, so all you need to do is keep a firm grip on the handlebars and move across your lawn. 

  • Give your lawn at least two passes with the rototiller, overlapping each pass.
  • Spread an inch of compost and till it into the soil.

Pros of the dig-it-up method

✓ The quickest method to remove grass: It only takes a day.
✓ No herbicide required, except for persistent weeds.
✓ Decomposing sod returns nutrients to the soil.
✓ Inexpensive if using a shovel.

Cons of the dig-it-up method

✗ Not effective for deep-rooted grass like bermuda or weeds like nutsedge, dallisgrass, or bindweed (which require herbicide and several months of monitoring).
✗ Shovels and sod cutters can damage tree roots.
✗ Highly labor-intensive.
✗ If you live in a warmer climate, it can take up to six months to make sure that weeds won’t return. In the meantime, you’ll have to weed out persistent growers (or use herbicide).
✗ You’re removing valuable, nutrient-rich topsoil, so bare soil requires an application of compost or planting mix before grass can grow. 
✗ Frequent tilling accelerates soil erosion and runoff. 
✗ Motorized sod cutters and tillers require gas, which is an added financial and environmental expense.

3. Solarization

Best if: You live in a sunny, warm region and have at least four weeks to wait.

Solarization is the process of cooking your grass until it dies, using the sun’s rays as your heat source and clear plastic as a steam oven. It sounds a bit medieval, but it’s effective and relatively fast, and it means you won’t have to worry about weeds for a long time.

You just need clear plastic sheeting and something heavy (like bricks, rocks, or soil) to anchor it down.

How to solarize: 

1. Mow your lawn on the lowest lawn mower setting to scalp it. 

2. Water thoroughly.

3. Cover your lawn with clear plastic sheeting (1 to 4 mil painter’s plastic) and anchor it down with soil or rocks. 

4. Leave your lawn covered for four to eight weeks, depending on how hot and sunny your location is (the hotter and sunnier it is, the less time your lawn needs). 

5. Remove plastic sheeting.

6. Voila! You’re ready for a new lawn.

If you live in a cooler or coastal climate, you can use black plastic instead of clear plastic to block sunlight and prevent photosynthesis. This process, known as “light exclusion,” is best for areas that don’t get hot enough for clear plastic to cook the grass. 

Pro Tip: If plastic sheeting rips, use clear packing tape or duct tape to patch up the holes.

Pros of solarization

✓ Quicker than sheet mulching.
✓ No tilling involved: You can (and should) plant right into your freshly solarized lawn. Disturbing the soil can bring weed seeds to the surface.
✓ Speeds up the breakdown of organic matter so plants have more nutrients available (like nitrogen, calcium, and potassium).
✓ Destroys several years’ worth of weed seeds beneath the soil surface.
✓ Plants grow faster with higher yields after solarization. 
✓ Steam produced from solarization sterilizes your soil, killing weed seeds, pathogens, and insect eggs.
✓ Prevents fungus and disease.

Cons of solarization

✗ Covering a large area takes time, labor, and a lot of plastic.
✗ Needs direct sunlight (six to eight hours per day) and warm weather to work.
✗ Kills beneficial bacteria and insects.
✗ Cloudy, cool weather slows down the process.
✗ You must remove plastic at the end, which can be time-consuming.
✗ Doesn’t work for all plants: Often won’t kill clover, vetch, nutsedge, bermudagrass, or bindweed.
✗ The area cannot be walked on while it is being treated.

4. Sheet mulching

Best if: You want nutrient-rich, herbicide-free soil and have at least five months to spare. 

Don’t cover your lawn with your best bed linens! Despite its name, sheet mulching (AKA lasagna gardening) is actually a sustainable technique of smothering grass and weeds by layering paper, cardboard, and other organic materials over it. 

Sheet mulching gives your lawn a feast of nutrients so it’s ripe to grow fresh grass or a new garden. You’ll just need a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and lots of compost.

How to sheet mulch: 

1. Mow your lawn on the lowest setting to scalp it. 

2. Manually weed tough weeds (like blackberry, thistle, and bindweed). 

3. Aerate the soil with a garden fork, if needed. 

4. Add a light, 1-inch layer of compost. 

5. Water your lawn. 

6. Spread a layer of newspaper (8-10 sheets) or cardboard (1-3 layers). 

7. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost and a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch.

8. Water, weed, and wait for organic materials to decompose. 

Pros of sheet mulching

✓ Improves soil quality and builds organic matter.
✓ No heavy-duty equipment required.
✓ A sustainable, eco-friendly DIY project.
✓ Can be done in a large or small space.
✓ Recycles readily available materials like grass clippings (which you probably already have). 
✓ No herbicides required.
✓ Increases soil moisture and water retention.
✓ Excellent for establishing a xeriscape.

Cons of sheet mulching

✗ Requires patience and planning.
✗ Takes at least five months for organic materials to decompose.
✗ Does not work well on slopes.
✗ Requires a lot of organic material, which can be costly if you’re not using your own. 
✗ A more involved process than cutting sod or spraying herbicide.
✗ Some weeds still emerge and require hand weeding.
✗ May need to be repeated in weed-prone patches.

When to remove your grass

Apply herbicide while your lawn is actively growing. Avoid winter (warm-season grasses) and peak summer (cool-season grasses) applications when grass is dormant. 

Dig up your lawn in spring or summer, when grass is actively growing. 

Solarize in the summer, when days are hot and sunny. 

Sheet mulch in fall to give your organic material the entire winter to decompose. That way, your yard will be fresh for spring planting.

Aftercare for a bare lawn

Once you’ve bid your grass adieu (or said “good riddance!”), it’s time to get your lawn healthy and thriving for new plants.

  • Test your soil and amend it based on the results, so new plants get the nutrients they need. A soil test will give you a full profile of your soil’s pH level, organic matter, and salinity. Call your local cooperative extension office to find soil testing near you.
  • Even out your lawn. Fill in that frustrating low spot where water always pools. Lower the grade on that hill so it doesn’t erode every time it rains. Now is the time to give your landscape a drainage upgrade. 
  • Weed as needed. Bare soil is a breeding ground for weeds, and you don’t want them re-emerging before you’ve planted new greenery. As soon as you see a weed, pull it out. 
  • Get rid of pests. Check your bare Earth for larvae and insect intruders, and apply organic or synthetic pesticides as needed. 

FAQ about removing your grass lawn

1. How much does it cost to rent a sod cutter?

It generally costs $60 to $75 to rent a sod cutter for four hours or $90 to $110 for a full day. Remember, you’ll also need a way to transport it to your home or you’ll have to pay a delivery fee.

2. Where can I find mulch for sheet mulching?

You can find high-quality aged wood mulch at garden centers and buy it in bags or by the truckload, or you can get fresh wood mulch for free from neighborhood arborists or your local parks service. 

Fresh wood mulches are great for landscaping on a budget, but avoid applying them where you’re planning a vegetable or annual garden. They’ll tie up nitrogen at the soil surface and can cause nitrogen deficiencies in young plants. 

3. How safe is glyphosate? 

The EPA does not consider glyphosate a health risk to humans, but some scientists and recent civil cases raise concerns about glyphosate toxicity. It’s best to wear protective clothing, glasses, and a mask when applying any synthetic herbicide.

Make lawn removal a reality

Whether you’re making the switch to an eco-friendly, grass-free lawn or just want to get your yard healthy for fresh seed, removing grass is a practical first step. It can cost more than $100 or nothing at all, depending on how much time and labor you’re willing to devote to it. 

You can buy herbicide, rent a sod cutter or rototiller, or get plastic sheeting or mulch from your local garden center or home improvement store. And if you’d rather enjoy a fresh new lawn without sweating it out, call a local lawn care team to get grass gone in a snap. 

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.