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Thinking About Going Lawn-Free? Check Out This FAQ.

Tour Day Left Side
Our garden, June 2022.

By Lisa Brunette

Last month we hosted a Wild Ones membership tour, with around 50-70 people total visiting our garden across two tour dates. They asked a lot of great questions, and many of those questions centered around our decision to go lawn-free throughout the entire backyard, which comprises the majority of our 1/4-acre. Since going lawn-free is central to our design, and it's part of the reason we achieved platinum status in the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program in just three years, many were intrigued. I think it's worthy of a treatment here on the blog, so I'll run through a list of Frequently Asked Questions about lawn-free living.

Q: Isn't it expensive to sheet-mulch that much space?

A: No. If you're budget-minded and resourceful, you can get all of your supplies for free. Besides saving our own cardboard boxes from delivered packages, we collected our neighbors' boxes from recycling containers the night before pickup. We also collected bags of leaves during the fall when our neighbors set them at the curbside for pickup. Remember, one man's trash is another man's treasure! 

Bags of Leaves Nov 2019
Our free load of leaf mulch in the fall of 2019.

Another tip: If you live in a neighborhood with mature trees, as many of us do in St. Louis, you can approach tree service staff as they're chipping downed trees and offer to take the wood chips off their hands. They're only too happy to do so, as it saves them the cost of dumping, as well as a trip to the dump. They will gladly deliver a pile of wood chips directly to your home. We've done this twice, obtaining huge, free piles of cedar chips, for example, which we've used throughout the property.

If you're not into these ideas, you can simply avail yourself of the low-cost mulch from St. Louis Composting, as shown in my post, "Mulch Ado About 'Nothing' - How to Convert Your Lawn in 5 Steps." While the cost might be higher now, especially due to inflation, a couple of years ago, I paid between USD 25-40 for a whole pickup truck bedload of mulch (depending on the size of your truck and the type of mulch). That's heaps cheaper than buying bags of mulch from a big box store. It's also more convenient, especially if you have St. Louis Composting deliver it to you (though there is a nominal delivery fee), and since bagged mulch is often treated or even dyed, the quality is better if you go this route.

Tour Day Right Side
Here you can see our mulched paths. And those Barbie-pink drums are composters!

Q: Isn't it too labor-intensive to sheet-mulch that much space?

A: What's more work: Laying down cardboard and spreading mulch on top of it, or trying to manually dig up your grass lawn? While, granted, it is some work to sheet-mulch your yard, especially if it's as big as ours or larger, trying to dig up lawn has to be one of the most thankless and difficult tasks. One suggestion is to enlist the help of family and friends in the sheet-mulch process, or hire kids in the neighborhood to pitch in. You could also hire a landscaping crew, but you'll want to make sure they understand the project.

As a side note, Anthony and I have found that gardening is one of the best exercises there is. You end up putting in a good workout because you're striving toward a tangible goal rather than just trying to push yourself at some meaningless activity in a gym. There's a joy and satisfaction in physical work that many of us seem to have lost.

Bee Balm and Face Stone
Bee balm grown from seeds obtained for free at Wild Ones seed swaps.

Q: Won't crabgrass, or zoysia, or [insert type of grass here] just spread through the sheet mulch anyway?

A: No. If you follow my suggestion to use at least 4 inches (10 cm) of mulch, and preferably 6-8 (10-15 cm), and take my other advice to make sure all of the lawn is covered in cardboard and the cardboard covered in mulch, you will successfully smother the grass. 

Now once the mulch-and-cardboard sheet breaks down, many types of wind-borne seeds can and will gain a foothold. This includes grass, if you or your neighbors are seeding lawns nearby, for example, or if someone's allowed grass to go to seed. But these seedlings are easy to remove. The best option is to fill the now grass-free space with plants, either natives or food crops, so that nothing else has the chance to take up residence.

Tour Day Pano
A panoramic of our lawn-free back garden, June 2022.

Q: Won't I just end up with a big patch of weeds?

A: First you have to ask yourself, "What's a weed?" In our garden, the only true weed is one of the invasive "thug" species, such as Japanese honeysuckle (bush and vine), winter creeper, star of Bethlehem, sweet autumn clematis, and tree of heaven. These get removed immediately, as they don't play nice with others and aren't of much value to humans, either, as they're neither edible nor beneficial. Our garden was overgrown with all of these invasive plants when we bought the place in 2017, and now, five years later, we only encounter them minimally. The sheet-mulch method enabled us to smother them, and what took their place helps keep them in check.

Dandelions have a whole host of human uses, culinary and medicinal, as well as benefits to pollinators, though they aren't natives but rather naturalized. We don't actually get as many dandelions as I would like, though! Our ubiquitous native violets and geraniums, which took over as a ground cover when the grass was squelched, are both edible and medicinal as well (they make a great tea and can also be added to salads in spring when they're tender). Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies, too.

Tour Day Middle w: Anthony
Anthony at the end of our main path, which cuts through the kitchen garden.

If you want to dip a toe into the lawn-free lifestyle, try a small patch at first. You could sheet-mulch over one of your problem beds this fall, let it decay over the winter, and replant it in spring.

We didn't convert our entire backyard overnight; we began in fall of 2018 with a small patch and then gradually expanded that over the following three years. The mulched paths you see in the photos here we re-cover every spring.

Here's how the garden looked in July 2019 - three years ago! - when we had about 50% of the backyard sheet-mulched.

Back Garden 50% Mulched July 2019
The long hose comes from the gutter; it's now part of a rain barrel-and-rain garden system instead.

Happy mulching, my friends!