The “Grass Solutions Tour”

The hardest thing in the world, apparently, is getting rid of a lawn.

This is something I cannot fathom.   I have known many a lawn-lover to moan over the large brown patches that afflict his treasured grass, caused by grubs or drought or incorrect pH balance or some other such thing.   A lawn seems a delicate thing when you want it to be just right, and it drives owners to outdoor centers to buy enormous bags of fertilizers and pesticides.   Green perfection is expensive and time-consuming.

And yet, when you decide you’ve had enough of grass, just try to kill the stuff.   It’s impossible.   The roots, say landscape professionals, go down deep. Grass has amazing ability to go dormant, survive frosts and droughts, and shrug off even brutal chemical assaults of glyphosate. Or so I’m told.

Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time.   Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns and provide cover for critters. Our departure for six months certainly didn’t help things.   Now, instead of a lawn, we have a sort of jungle.

In Tucson, having a backyard lawn is strangely common, despite the high cost of water.   The rate Tucsonians pay for water more than triples after they use 11,220 gallons in a month.   It goes up again (140%) if you hit 22,440 gallons per month.   Plus there’s the widespread knowledge that we are in a desert, and thus flagrant use of water is akin to antisocial behavior.   (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day.   In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.   Modern houses are designed to waste water.)

Still, many times when we saw a house during our search,   the realtor would slide open the patio door to the back yard, take a peek, and announce with a sigh, “And yes, there’s a lawn.”   He knew how much I hated to hear that. These “lawns” would typically be little 12×12 patches of carefully tended grass in the midst of a lot of gravel.   They were usually just large enough for the kids to play on, like little putting greens without holes for the golf ball.

When I saw these I always imagined some desperate northerner trying to keep a tiny bit of his home landscape alive in the backyard.   Turns out that in reality they are put in by life-long desert dwellers who think a patch of green grass is a status symbol. That’s like northerners keeping a gila monster in a backyard cage.   It doesn’t make much sense to me but it makes some people happy.

The preferred landscape today — and the one mandated by current codes for multifamily and commercial buildings —   is xeriscape, which means a combination of gravel, rocks, and desert-adapted plants that don’t need much water.   Xeriscaping is also conveniently low-maintenance, perfect for our lifestyle since we will be gone a lot.   So our goal from the minute we agreed to buy this place has been to utterly eliminate the grass and restore the backyard to a more natural desert landscape.

If all we were facing was a 12×12 foot patch of grass, this would be a trivial exercise.   But the previous owner of our house had a full-on, wall-to-wall carpet of grass in the backyard.   From archive images from the satellite photos, it looks like he took care of it with plenty of water.

That means we have about 2,000 square feet of grass to eradicate.   (There is no middle ground.   Grass does not negotiate. It’s kill or be killed.)   You’d think that in the desert it would be easy: just stop watering and watch the grass die.   Unfortunately, we have a fairly well-adapted version of grass that bides its time until the rain comes, and thus survives on the mere 12 inches of rain that Tucson gets annually.

The first landscaper who visited us suggested the most reliable solution: “simply” remove the top four inches of soil and truck it away.   I would “simply” write a check for $2,000 for this service — and then we’d talk about replacing that giant expensive divot with something else.

My problem with that solution is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money to get rid of something as dumb as grass. My whole purpose in getting rid of the grass is to avoid spending money to take care of it, and it seems counter-productive to start the process by spending a big pile of money.

There’s the real challenge.   It’s not that getting rid of the lawn is going to be hard.   It’s just going to be expensive.   Since I’m inherently disinterested in taking care of a lawn (that’s code for “lazy”),   it makes sense that I’m also disinterested in spending money to make it go away.   It’s as if the house came with a rusting World War II tank in the backyard.   “Yes, it’s ugly,” we’d say to each other, “But towing it away would cost too much, and it’s not doing any harm, so let’s just leave it.   Maybe we can paint it.”

I suspect the best way to get rid of the lawn is simply to act as if we care about it.   We could buy a nice riding lawn mower, several bags of chemicals (fertilizer, pre-emergent grub control, dandelion inhibitor), a few manual tools like rakes, an aerator, and some sprinklers.   The grass would detect this and promptly go brown.   But who am I kidding.   The lawn would probably know I was bluffing.

It’s decisions like this that make me wish for a quick escape into the Airstream, where such problems are always somebody else’s to manage.   I always appreciated beautiful green lawns when we lived in the trailer, because I could dip my bare toes into them knowing that I wouldn’t be the one mowing later. It’s a real temptation to just skip the decisions and start planning a getaway instead. And there’s a justification there, too: with some time off to think and recreate, a brilliant solution may come to me.

So it’s settled.   I’ll start planning the “Grass Solutions Tour 2008” as soon as possible.   Folks, this could be a real phenomenon if it works.   Imagine the justifications you can make if it turns out that a simple getaway allows you to solve life’s problems.   Our motto will be this:   “For every problem that comes up, there shall be a trip.”   And the trip length can be a factor of the difficulty of the problem.   For the grass problem alone, we may be on the road again for quite a while.


  1. Eleanor says

    Rich Luhr wrote: (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day. In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.)

    Maybe that’s because the Airstream doesn’t have “endless entertaining novelties” like ice and water on the fridge door.” 😉

  2. Bill Doyle says

    Man in the Maze says: “Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time. Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns …”

    Sounds like a good opportunity to sow pumpkin seeds…

    At least next year you won’t have to pay to pick pumpkins from the field of spikes.

  3. Larry Ko says

    Dear Water Rabbit,

    I am very allergic to grass, and easily eradicated my front and back lawns using Round-Up concentrate (most economical) following the package directions. 2-3 applications spaced a month apart should do the job. Use a garden pump sprayer for efficient and economical application. Once the grass dies, the remaining debris becomes mulch and will not return. A xeriscape landscape can be easily installed by yourself. Check with your water department regarding xeriscape plant recommendations. There may be a demonstration xeriscape garden near you for design and foliage ideas.

    You are lucky to be at home when the foliage is thriving from the monsoon season. This is the best time to spray. You want maximum foliage exposed for herbicide absorption and do not need to cut any of it back. Once the foliage dies back, remove what is exposed above the ground. Water to encourage what living roots might remain to grow. Spray again once there is enough foliage. Consult with Google or your local nurseyman. This technique is very effective. It works on Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses, and golden bamboo. Terry Rich might have some suggestions.

    We are slowly transitioning our tropical garden to drought resistant plants. San Diego gets less than 9″ of rain per year. There is talk of water rationing starting in 2009.

    Buena suerte con tu jardin,

  4. says

    Thanks Larry. I think your plan sounds better than Bill’s (although I like growing pumpkins). The first Round-Up treatment went down today. I’m looking forward to starting the xeriscape later this winter, perhaps in January. (I like living in a place where you can plant in January.) One neighbor has already offered to give us some agave plants.

  5. Brett says

    Here is an idea, plan a trip and take 150 LBS of the topsoil and grass and transplant it at your destination. This way you will be leaving a little bit of yourself everywhere you go! You should have the additional net carrying cap. now that you are no longer full timing :)

  6. Terry says

    Rich, why not put down a sheet of plastic, and cover it with gravel? Then you can squirt Roundup on the stragglers when they sprout.

  7. rob brett says

    Rich, The local “equivalent” of a 12 x 12 play area for kids is called a trampoline. We picked a great one up cheap on craigslist, a new homeowner’s good friend, right there with Ikea… rob

    currently at sea world, san antonio sans airstream at camp Marriott. aloha.

  8. says

    Ah, grass…and the joyful lack thereof… The previous owners of our Tucson home (20-some years ago) put down black plastic in the front “yard” and covered it with gravel…not a long-term solution, as the plastic deteriorates then you have a mess of weeds growing up through the plastic…when we landscaped we put down “lawn cloth” and covered it with DG (decomposed granite)…the lawn cloth allows water to do down through it but weeds/grass cannot grow up through it (how this works I don’t know). The result has been great…we are the only house on the block with no real weed problems in the front “yard”…er…”desert”.

  9. Chuck says

    look for a “sod cutter” at your local rent-a-tool place. That’ll make short work of separating the dense mat of sod from the ground. Then just roll up the strips, and haul ’em away to your local composting facility. (oh, wait: that might not work, either. Nothing will rot without water, either, so maybe they don’t have any such thing out there 😉
    Here’s how you can have a low-maintenance, environmentally friendly lawn in the south west:
    Get an 8″ flower pot; fill w/ potting soil. I’ll mail you a handfull of northern grass seed. Sprinkle seed on top of soil, then cover w/ another 1/4″ of soil. Keep moist for a couple of weeks, until its all sprouted. Then give it some water once a week, like any other house plant. (use dirty dishwater; grass doesn’t mind!) You’ll be met with a lovely reminder of home when you “mow” it with kitchen scissors, from the smell of fresh cut grass. Ahhh…springtime in New England.