| Native Landscape Planning & Design

By Karen Vanderwall

Many of you are looking at your tired thirsty lawns right now, thinking I should get rid of it! It’s a daunting task, you are also probably thinking. Once you’ve worked through the challenging decision to replace some or all of your lawn to a native garden, the next challenge is how best to do it. Throughout the process remember you are transforming your low-diversity, resource-gobbling lawns to an ecologically thriving landscape! 

In terms of methods, the best approach correlates with the best match for the gardener and their personal situation. Having several options is probably helpful in getting you started.  So more options, more native garden ecosystems! 

Converting turf to garden bed, for the most part, comes down to four factors and the gardener has to make a decision on the approach they use based on a balance/combination of these:

  1. Work/labor and energy involved and availability of both
  2. Time: how much time its takes for the gardener to install the practice and how much time until natives are in the ground
  3. How big your garden will be, e.g. 10×10 ft or the whole yard! (related to first factor)
  4. The effect on the environment; to what extent and for how long


This is a summary of five approaches we have in our toolkit. For the longer version, see Replacing Turf – Goals and Approaches in the Site Preparation & Turf Removal section of WOFR’s Coloradoscaping with Native Plants Toolkit.

Smothering/Sheet Mulching

This method, as the name implies, involves placing sheets of cardboard over the lawn area you want to smother; watering the cardboard; and placing 3-4 inches of mulch of choice on top to block air and sunlight, ultimately killing the turf.  

The nitty-gritty: 

  • Smothering  typically takes six months to one year to complete 
  • It requires a moderate amount of work depending on availability of cardboard and type of mulch used 
  • Environmental impact is minimal but will limit air and water exchange with the soil, soil organisms and tree roots 
  • May be helpful for compacted soils


For this method, clear plastic is applied to the turf area that you want to remove and secured with rocks or a trench can be dug to bury the edges of the plastic. The heat created will kill the turf.

The nitty-gritty:

  • The process takes a growing season to compete. Often, you need to do this twice, to get all the weed seeds
  • Hardy weeds can survive
  • Low to moderate work involved
  • Plastic waste is generated 
  • Basically sterilizes the soil

Mechanical Sod Removal

This involves using a sod cutter (or you can do this by hand) and removing the turf.

The nitty-gritty:

  • Sod cutter: low amount of work/energy. (If by hand, a high amount)
  • Increases soil disturbance
  • Exposes weed seeds
  • If the sod has minimal weeds, it can be composted
  • Exhaust, gas. 
  • Turf grass rhizomes can remain and need weeding/spraying

Herbicide Use

Using herbicides, (specifically glyphosate/Roundup as it is considered one of the least toxic of available herbicides) while strictly following the directions for human and environmental safety, involves a one time spraying the turf area to be removed. It can also be used more selectively and spray for only extremely stubborn weeds or weedy areas in conjunction with the other methods. The dead lawn is left in place, controlling weeds and acting as a mulch layer to retain water.

The nitty-gritty:

  • Very low work/energy. 
  • Short time involved. Can be planted after 3-4 days
  • For very large areas, this may be a practical solution
  • Human health and environmental impact not fully known.  Strategically applied, use is much less than used commercially or on most yards/lawns, controls invasive weeds, and dead turf controls soil erosion

Direct Seed Into a Struggling Lawn Area

Regularly pull grass over and over to stress the grass as it grows. then rake well pulling up roots and plant seeds or plants into the lawn area

The nitty-gritty:

  • You will most likely always be pulling out grass and weeds
  • Practical for a small area
  • Probably the most environmentally sound practice


Think of what you may already have on hand such as cardboard after moving, or a source of sheets of plastic.  Do you have a large area, is the lawn on a slope?  Are you up for a work out or would you rather or need to, use a minimal amount of physical effort where herbicide spraying may* be the best choice. Do you have a landscaper as a neighbor or someone who has a sod cutter at your disposal? How much time can you dedicate to creating the garden – only the weekends or is your time flexible? 

And, now, what will you plant! Check out WOFR’s Coloradoscaping with Native Plants Toolkit for many options.

*Wild Ones Front Range chapter does not advocate using glyphosate or other herbicides as an option. We just put the information out for you to make your own decisions.