How to turn your tired, parched lawn into a thriving garden

Everything you need to know before you sell the lawnmower.

Everything you need to know before you sell the lawnmower.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

At some point in every Canadian summer the lush, green carpet that effortlessly sprung forth in March, degrades into a mass of shriveled, sunburned, blades of grass. So why do we bother with lawns at all? How did we get roped into maintaining these weed-filled, water-sucking living carpets against all odds every year?

Turns out, there may be a variety of factors. Some speculate that at one time in our evolutionary history when humans were more vulnerable, low grass allowed us to see further and be warned of enemies approaching before it was too late. Useful! Then, there's the recreational aspect; it's tough to play any sport in a field of hay so as recreation became more prominent, the need for low-cut vegetation in open spaces became more pronounced. But if you really want to place blame, you can point squarely at the Middle Ages, when low-cut, lush vegetation situated right in front of a king's castle proved his wealth. And we're not talking gnarly pasture grass for livestock, we're talking perfectly manicured green carpets in the spirit of golf greens, maintained by servants with scythes. The larger and lusher the lawn, the higher the landowner's status. In 1830, the lawn mower was invented which levelled the playing field, and by the 1950s, every new suburban home in North America came with a carpet of grass already in place. Lawns became 'fait accompli'.

A well-kept lawn may still be considered a status symbol but anyone who has one knows, they're a lot of work to maintain. Weeding, watering and pest control become almost a full-time job, and the environmental cost can be significant. So if you're one of a growing number of people considering shedding your lawn, here's what you need to know before you put the mower on Craigslist.

Is my lawn a good candidate for a plan-filled garden?

Plants need three things to grow; soil, sunlight and water. If you can provide all three of these, you can grow almost anything. Landscape Designer and HGTV personality, Carson Arthur, says that any yard can be turned into a garden, "You just have to consider how much light it will get and do a bit of research before you start dreaming of sunflowers or juicy red tomatoes. Raised vegetable beds, drought-tolerant flowers and hardy perennials all provide solutions to even the most challenging of spaces. I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of, 'right plant - right space'". Plant accordingly.

Flowers or veggies?

Why not both? Carson added a meadow in a contained side yard for his bees, and planted a huge vegetable garden with 25 raised beds where he grows food for his family. If you don't have the luxury of that kind of space, how about container gardens? You can grow almost anything in containers and get the best of both worlds by growing vegetables right beside your flowers and herbs.

(Credit: Carson Arthur)
(Credit: Carson Arthur)

OK, I'm ready, where do I start?

Carson suggests getting a soil sample done and measuring the amount of sunlight your yard gets before you start designing a plan. "I like to put a solar-powered toy outside and see if it moves; if it does, you have enough light to grow something. Check it once an hour to see how much light you really get and plan your plants accordingly."

Now you're ready to get rid of the grass. There are various methods to choose from; each has pros and cons.

If you enjoy a challenge, dig that grass out! You'll want to water the lawn well for a few days so the soil is workable, then cut the turf into sections using a sharp edger and pry the pieces up by sliding a shovel under each one. If you have an old, established lawn, you may need to rent a sod cutter. Be sure to save as much soil from the grass roots as possible by giving the pieces a good shake. If you have another area of the yard that could use some new sod, you can do some patchwork with the best of the removed pieces. You'll want to add compost and manure to the surface of the exposed dirt before turning the soil over and eventually planting. This method allows you to plant immediately but is labour intensive and involves quite a bit of clean up.

You can also use a tiller and save your back. They come in different sizes and cost about $50.00 a day to rent. The advantage of tilling is that there is no cutting and removing; the grass is basically 'churned' into the soil preserving all the organic material so there's no clean up and again, you can start planting right away. It's also easy to add compost and/or manure as you go. The downside to tilling is that weeds may survive and germinate.

You can kill the grass by covering it completely with newspaper or cardboard — the goal is to kill off the lawn by cutting off its light supply. This is the chosen strategy of self-proclaimed obsessive gardener, Marjorie Harris. "If I was doing this, I would save all my newspapers for months and pile them up ten thick and then cover it all with compost. It will kill off the grass and create a rich organic medium in which to plant."

It may take a few months to completely kill the grass using the newspaper method so it's best to start the process in the fall and have the grass dead by spring. Once the grass is dead, it's easier to till and you can add compost and manure to amp up the soil quality.

If all of this sounds like too much work, Carson has a solution. "I love using raised beds. When it comes to plants in the ground, growing them in untested, potentially contaminated soil never appeals to me so I build up instead. That way I can control the soil my plants are rooting in and I can eliminate several gardening issues like bunnies and competition from local maple trees."

(Credit: Carson Arthur)

Any words of warning before I initiate the final mow?

As any green thumb knows, gardens require an incredible amount of time and effort. Even a meadow garden, which seems to be a low maintenance option requires work. Carson points out that often people plant these 'natural' spaces when they remove their lawn and they fall into neglect and disrepair which can become an issue with their neighbours (especially when they are in the front) because it can negatively affect curb appeal and drive down the value of other properties on the street.

Marjorie Harris' final tip reiterates the importance of planning; "a garden is much more lively and interesting than grass, but don't do it without a really good design and planting plan in mind. Know how much light you can expect, create an organic bed and plant things that work in a harmonious ecological system  and just because you've traded your lawn for a garden, don't think you can rest on your laurels all summer."