Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Creating a NW Native Landscape: Part Three - Out With the Old

In Part Two of this series, I gave you some ideas for planning a naturescape using native plants, which saves water, saves money, keeps the rivers cleaner, benefits wildlife, and does a lot of other good stuff.  This time, let's talk about how to get rid of the old landscaping and unwanted lawn.

First things first:  One of the best things you can do, to attract and provide for wildlife, and to reduce pollution in your immediate environment, is to replace lawn areas with native planting beds.  As I mentioned before, lawns require mowing (which usually means noisy, polluting power mowers), they tempt us to use all kinds of nasty chemicals to keep them looking their best, and they don't provide much in the way of habitat.  Sure, the neighborhood dogs may enjoy them, and the Robins may find some (hopefully chemical-free) worms in a lawn, but really - planting areas full of native trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcovers are much more interesting.  And they provide so much more for the local residents - feathered, furry, and otherwise.

In my yard, I wanted to remove about 75% of the existing lawn.   Partly for the reasons I already mentioned, but mostly - I must admit - I wanted to create a lower maintenance yard for myself.  Having less grass means less time spent mowing.  Also, the current lawn went right up to the building in places, and it went under the fence in the corner yard.  That meant trying to mow up against obstacles, and still having to break out the weed-eater to finish it off.  I use a human-powered reel mower on my lawn, which is great for reducing noise and air pollution, but it doesn't get as close to obstacles as some power mowers do (I still love it).

Before you start ripping out grass, have your final design plan in hand (or at least in mind).  When you're making your plan, you can use a rope or a hose to play around with different curves, representing the lawn/bed interface, until you settle on a design that you like.  Then use spray paint to mark your layout on the grass (they have cans designed specifically to spray upside-down). 

From the Johnson Creek Rentals website
When you're ready to remove the unwanted sod, there are two ways to do it.  The hard way (tried it - didn't like it), and the easy way (hurray for easy!).  The hard way involves pick axes, hoes, shovels and LOTS of time and muscle.  The easy way is to rent a sod cutter.  You can find them at almost any place that rents equipment.  I use Johnson Creek Rentals because they have what I need, they're friendly and knowledgeable, and they're in my neck of the woods.

Sod cutters look kind of like overgrown mowers, and they come in different sizes.  The most common sizes cut 12 or 18 inch rows in the sod.  I've used models that fit into a minivan's cargo area, in the bed of a small pickup truck, or towed behind on the smallest of tow hitches.  Don't be tempted to get a larger cutter than you really need, because larger models just require more strength to maneuver around the yard.  They do have power drives, but turning and guiding require a bit of muscle.

You can rent a sod cutter by the hour.  If you have your design marked out ahead of time,
and you move at a brisk pace, you can keep the cost reasonably low.  I think I've normally paid $60 - $80 for a few hours use.  Believe me - it's worth it!  The staff at the rental company should go over all the "how-to" and safety info before you leave the lot.

Sod cutters generally have one lever to engage the forward drive, and one lever to engage the cutting blade.  When the blade and drive are both engaged, the machine cuts perfect little rows in the lawn.  The grass strips remain laid out behind you as you move along.  Then you come back later and just roll up small sections that can be loaded into a wheel barrow.  Start with an area that's not along one of your planting area curves - just some spot in the middle of the grass that's coming out.  That will give you a little practice handling the machine before you attempt the curves.  If you mess up, it's not a big deal, just tamp the sod back down if you meant to keep that bit.  One other tip: be sure the cutting blade is adjusted to the correct height.  You want it deep enough to remove most of the grass roots, but not so deep that it's adding a lot of dirt to the material you'll be hauling away.

So now you're left with all these strips of grass to dispose of.  I remember when I did it, I left my little rolls all over the yard for a couple of days (imagine giant grass and dirt cinnamon rolls lying on their sides).  The crows, jays, and other birds had a field day snapping up bugs and scratching around in the freshly exposed dirt.  If you don't have a compost pile large enough to accommodate all the sod, you can haul it to any number of recyclers around the Portland area that accept yard debris.  (You can use Metro's "Find a recycler" web page to help.)   I'm sure, with a little searching, you could find someone that would haul it away for you, as well.

I used some of my removed sod to create berms - little raised areas - in certain parts of the yard.  I just turned the sections over, so the grass side was facing down, and stacked them up until I had a mound in the shape I wanted.  Sprinkle a little dirt over the top, and you have an instant hill.  The rest of my sod I hauled to Recology, off of SE Foster Road (they have other locations, too).

If you have shrubs and other plants to remove, you can dig them up, or you can sometimes get away with chopping them off just below ground level.  If you're going to use landscape cloth under your mulch, that should keep them from growing back.  For larger root systems and stumps, you can hire a professional stump grinder.  I had to do that for some old boxwood bushes I removed at our previous house.

With the sod and unwanted plants removed, your clean slate stretches out before you like a... well, like a clean slate.  Now is the time to think about any other surface modifications or hardscape installations you want to make.

This post has gotten long enough (who knew I had so much to say about sod cutters?), so in part four of this series, we'll talk about preparing your site for naturescaping installation.

For now, a few pictures showing the creation of my "clean slate".


After (opposite direction - that tiny patch of grass will make sense later)


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