Turf Removal, Done Right

Turf Terminators, an LA-based landscaping company, has garnered much acclaim for creating a business model built on rebates and the drought.

"You can tell which are the Turf Terminator homes — it's just gravel and a little bush. It's just a bad business. They're just ripping off customers." Lorena Gonzalez, South LA

Shouting, "FREE LANDSCAPE!", Turf Terminators heads to your home to rip out your old lawn, tie in some new irrigation, pop in a cookie-cutter plant palette, throw down some rock, and collect your rebate. All you have to spend is your time. Sounds great, but nothing in life is "free." Something has to give, and unfortunately, it's quality (seems to be recurring theme in our recent culture's history, ahem, planned obsolescence). Yes, you'll get free turf removal, save precious water*, and have a new landscape. You'll also get a wonderful heat island effect from all that rock, grasses that immediately creep back in, potentially lots of FREE! poisons sprayed on your reemerging grass, and half your plants dying. But, darnet! You got turf removal for free!

Turf Removal the Right Way

Removing a lawn is challenging. Most of the grasses used in San Diego County are rhizomatous (they expand and conquer with using root-like stems)and/or stoloniferous(stems that run and attach via nodes into the ground as they spread). Grasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass (rhizome spreader), St. Augustinegrass (stolon spreader), or Bermudagrass (rhizome AND stolon runner, how cute), make turf removal a chore. Best part? If you leave just a small piece of these grasses in the soil, they'll quickly spread and multiply. Most run-of-the-mill landscaping outfits resort to the short and deathly herbicide (glyphosate, aga RoundUp) to control grasses. After a mechanical removal, or not, they'll douse the remaining soil with herbicide and then complete the project. Or, they'll rip out the turf and drop landscape fabric to prevent any new growth and plant and mulch over top.

Ecological Turf Removal

Stop watering it

This is the first step to culling the weak grasses. Mind you, if grass has gone to seed, they'll remain dormant until conditions improve for germination. Other grasses can live without water for a long period of time, going dormant and lying in wait. The longer you cease watering, the better your chances are that grass won't come back.

Mechanically remove your turf

Whether by hand or using a sod cutter (which get's a bit gnarly on anything less than flat ground), some form of physical removal is needed. Yes, you can possibly use the dried bits of grass as a mulch layer and plant straight into it, but the end result can be unattractive.

"We're creating an environment that is more paved over than the existing environment and doesn't hold onto rainwater. We have to have living plants. If we eliminate that, we could easily be pushed [further] into an extreme drought situation." Pamela Berstler

Depending on your turf, you'll want to remove about 3" of sod to pull up most of the grass. Some turf is installed with a green or white plastic mesh. It's usually best to dig deep enough to remove this section as many rhizomes crawl under and entwine with this layer, making eradication difficult. Compost the sod at your local municipal disposal facility knowing that it'll be converted into future plant food.

Water the barren wasteland that was your lawn

I know we're aiming to save water and what good does watering dirt do? It helps spur the growth of any remnants in the soil. Two weeks is about the rough time frame to start seeing sprouts emerge. Nip them in the root without breaking and leaving pieces in the ground. Repeat 2-3 more times over the next week to two (or as needed) and the bulk of your work is done.

Install your landscape design

With the grass mostly vanquished (assuming you're not poisoning it or stripping everything to subsoil; little bits will sneak about), you can install your new landscape. Keep an eye on those hardy grasses and cull them immediately. Periodically scan your area to monitor if any more grasses are emerging. Spend the time upfront removing any new sprouts before they can become established. With repeated thinnings/pullings, the reserves stored in the rhizomes/stolons will be depleted and the grass will die.

Ground hugging plants, mulch and monitor

Plants that stay low and dense (Creeping rosemary, Yankee Point Ceanothus) are good for outcompeting certain grasses, but they still need oversight. Applying a thick layer of mulch will impede some grasses and shade many out, but others will push on through. Identify intruders and remove as much as you can grab/dig to stay ahead.

"But what about cardboard sheet mulching it to death?" you ask

Yes, strip the grass, water the soil, apply clean and large cardboard over the area and wait 6 months. Never mind that we're in a brittle and dry environment with very little rainfall. It can work, but the time frame makes it difficult for most installers. Also, the ideal time to do that is during the rainy season.


Removing grass is a smart thing to do living in Southern California. It's a landscape that doesn't belong. What does belong are prairies, meadows, and Oak savannahs. If we can mimic these types of biomes, and more, we won't have to fight such a huge uphill battle in maintaining our landscapes. Choosing natives, drought-tolerant, and xeriscaping plants means less water will be needed, but you'll also have plants that look beautiful and make you proud of your home or landscape. Hope that helps give you some ideas on how to address the pressing issue of having a wetland environment growing in an ever drier Mediterranean climate. If you'd like to consult with us regarding your home or business' water management, please reach out below. *Why not try lathering with the shower off or leaving things mellow in your toilet bowl and dropping a brick in it?

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