Removing Sod, Saving Earthworms, and Obsessing over Make-Overs



With lawn reduction growing in popularity, email groups are lively with discussions of how to remove the stuff.  There are basically four choices – digging, using a sod-cutter, smothering and spraying with herbicide.  I’ve removed a far bit of sod over the years, always using that first one – great exercise, and it’s fast enough for this impatient gardener.  (Who can wait for smothering and decomposition?)

In that article on the Fine Gardening site, I noticed this tip:  “Once the sod is gone, look for and destroy potential pests, such as the larvae of May/June beetles. ”  Curious, because all I found in my latest sod-removal project were these glorious earthworms deep in the turf, much too ensconced in it to simply be shaken off.  So each clump had to be turned over and shaken, then left for a while to give the worms time to escape.  Imagining their fate at the mulch-making facility where I was taking all the sod forced me to slow the hell down to give them a chance.  Earthworm-killing isn’t my idea of fun, and anyway, I want them here in this new garden; they’re my best workers.

Fine Gardening goes on to mention the good stuff that can be tossed away in the turf-removal project.

One drawback to sod removal is the significant loss of organic material, which greatly contributes to the health of plants. It must be restored as compost, as aged manure, or in some other form. Usually, topsoil must also be replaced. Some of it may be shaken out of the sod that was removed, but you will probably need more.

Agreed, and organic mulch will help a lot but by shaking off as much soil as possible and rescuing dozens if not hundreds of earthworms, this new garden is off to a good start.  Sure, I’m bringing weed seeds to the surface and I’ll be doing plenty of weeding this first season, but by next year the evergreen groundcovers (Sedum sarmentosum on the sunny side and and variegated Liriope on the shadier side) will have covered most of the island and weeding should be snap.  Anyway, I enjoy a bit of weeding.

Before and After

GB Yards

So here’s a couple of views of a little fence between the parking lot and a large lawn in my 10-townhouse court, where a neighbor had contributed two trees and three shrubs some years ago, but there was no one to tend it.  (The good news being that the plants have demonstrated their ability to survive total neglect.)

I wish I’d taken a photo before marking the new bed with orange marking paint coz it already looks a bit more orderly.


Ten days later, voila!  See how much work an obsessed gardener can accomplish?  I hauled 3 CRV-loads of weed and sod to the compost dump, leveled the grade a bit, added perennials and groundcovers donated by neighbors, and finally hauled in 3 CRV-loads of mulch and put the island to bed for the season.  Loved every minute of it.

Like the last neighborhood make-over I showed off here, this one cost nothing.


I’ll try to keep from adding more plants to it until the fall, but I’m not making any promises.  My gardening patience has proven to be limited.


  1. I am an impatient gardener, too, but I have found the lasagna method to be very quick. I begin by skinning down the sod as much as possible, then spread some compost and water well. Then I layer on cardboard. I prefer cardboard rather than newspaper because the weeds have to work harder. Water the cardboard. Then add loam enriched with compost. I have never gotten any loam that really very good. I can also add rock phosphate, greensand and lime if I want to take advantage of this big soil project. Then I plant whatever, seeds, or small plants. I can break through the cardboard for a shrub. Mulch. AND I have kept all my worms!

  2. I saw a book just yesterday – The 20-Minute Gardener – and had to laugh. I am that title. Except for early on Saturday morning, I rarely get even 20 minutes a day to do my gardening.
    So when I decided to remove the back lawn (California suburbia, so not a huge undertaking, I debated the methods available. Given the windiness of this area (almost never stops) the layering method was out. I’d be chasing cardboard or newspaper all over creation. And I’d still have to run the sprinklers – in the winter, no less – to keep the smothering materials damp enough to decompose. Digging it out? I have five mature fruit trees planted close enough to lawn area that it’s a safe bet there would be large roots close to the surface. Indeed, now that the lawn is dead, I can see what the grass covered – roots on the surface in some places. And in converting the sprinklers to either drip or stubs, I’ve found lots of big roots just below the surface too.
    So the option I took? Turn off the sprinklers. We had a bone dry winter (rainfall in the single digits) and overly warm, too. By March, most of the fescue was dead, and what little hope of rain was shrinking like our reservoirs. All that remained in my “lawn” were the weeds, which miraculously exist without any water source. I pulled what I could, set a propane torch to those I couldn’t. And then I planted a few more fruit trees.
    Of course, now my non-lawn is waiting on me to have enough time to finish the sprinkler conversions, plant the grasses & trees I have, and spread a truckload (literally) of DG. Oddly, I’m normally an impatient person. But this 6+ month conversion is anything but speedy.

  3. I dig and shake, too, but I have worried that the soft bodied worms might not survive the shaking. Anyone know?

  4. Megan, we purchased our manual sod stripper many years ago now, and it is the best investment we have made for gardening! I use it every year to decrease the lawn. And how I wish our local compost/yard waste site would take sod, but they don’t! Very annoying. Your project looks great Susan.

  5. When I was younger (i.e. 50 or so) and started our current garden, I used a combination – digging and smothering. I would dig twice: lift a shovel full of sod in a line, go back and dig it again, then throw the sod in upside down, bury with the dirt, and eventually add a one or two block high wall around the area and finish filling with compost. Plantable immediately, but rather labor intensive. We have good rich, soil a year later. I try not to disturb the soil much after that, except the inevitable replanting/replacing of plants.

    I don’t have as much energy ten years later, so now I lay a sheet of black plastic down and set blocks all along the edge. Two months into growing season and the lawn underneath is thoroughly dead – no water nor sunlight, but plenty of heat. The soil probably is also, with the small critters, fungi, etc. either driven away or dead in place. But it’s not toxic. Expose to air and water, add compost and plants, and the soil comes alive again pretty quickly. Of course I’m only doing small areas this way, an acre at a time might take a while to repopulate…

    I know the nightcrawlers aren’t native to us here in the US, but I note that my house was built 13 years ago in a new development in the high northern desert, and a year after dumping kitchen waste in our fledgling garden I had a fine crop of earthworms. Never had a reason to dump sod or compost in the woods that I recall, but these guys get around pretty good on their own.

    Our sandy soil is blessedly easy to work with, but it’s pretty nutrition-free. The desert doesn’t have much topsoil to begin with, and the bulldozers scraped the topsoil off making it level for the new houses. Sold it maybe, or worse, just used it as clean fill – sigh. I need to add 10 inches or more to the yard to turn it into good garden soil. I ended up terracing it with faux stone blocks (i.e. concrete). Adds interest to my small suburban plot of suburban land. Makes it easier to control certain aggressive but still desirable plants, too.

  6. Now, does anyone have any suggestions — short of concrete, that is — for keeping that grass dead? Bermuda grass, rats and cockroaches….

  7. Sod is getting increasingly difficult to get rid of, here in Illinois it has to go to an EPA approved landfill if you’re looking to dispose of it. I’ve resorted to cutting it out with my manual kick sod-cutter and then flipping it over. Next I spray it with a mixture of borax and vinegar, place weed guard plus biodegradable weed suppressing mulch down, then a layer of leaf mulch. Viola, garden bed done…

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