08: A dirt pile is a gift
Turning the lawn into a meadow is not a pretty process
Last week, we finally managed to kill off all our grass.
One of my first pieces for this newsletter was about how much I hate our raggedy, pitted lawn, and about my fantasies of turning it into a meadow—berries and wildflowers intermixed with native shrubs, all low-maintenance and largely edible. We shared my half-baked idea with Tari from Wildscape Gardens, who turned it into a garden plan and a tasklist whose timeline stretches through 2023.
When the new front lawn finally comes together, it will have goumi berries, rhubarb, miner's lettuce, comfrey, maybe an olive tree. I'm excited at the thought of wandering through it, constantly grazing, as the colors and flavors shift along with the seasons. But the first step of replacing the grass with a meadow is the most physically grueling part of this whole process: sheet-mulching.
Anyone who knows much about gardening, which does not include me, has heard about sheet-mulching, aka the "lasagna method" of layering cardboard, compost, and mulch on top of the lawn rather than digging it up. It's the least invasive way of killing off plants that exert a stubborn will to survive and building new topsoil at the same time. The laissez-faire nature of the process has appealed to me for multiple reasons. I can only imagine the disaster that I would wreak with rototillers or sod cutters, probably removing a few toes in the process. But I also held off on sheet-mulching until it became clear we couldn't do anything else until it was done.
So we emptied the shed of all the cardboard boxes we've stuffed into it over the past year and broke them down flat to form the first layer. The seven cubic yards of soil-compost mix I ordered for layer two arrived as I was in the middle of a complicated Zoom call, so I waved at the delivery guy and pointed to a spot on the street. The next time I looked, he'd dumped a five-foot-high pile that stretched so far into the road we worried cars would crash into it.
Over the next 10 days, we dug out borders along the sidewalk and driveway, laid down the cardboard, shoveled dirt over top, went in search of more cardboard, shoveled more dirt over top, and so on, until the road finally cleared. Our next-door neighbor fetched a stack of empty boxes from his workplace for us. Our local market now knows me by name.
Now we're waiting for ChipDrop so we can spread out the final, top layer. With ChipDrop, you can request a heap of wood chips from arborists who have ground up downed trees. The service is free, but there's a catch: You won't know when they'll arrive, nor how much they'll drop off. We need seven cubic yards, and we could get four. Or twenty.
Photo: The yard when we bought the house. (Clearly we’ve done some painting, too.)
For the moment, our house sits on an expanse of black dirt, with cardboard flaps and a few Terminator-strength weeds poking through. It looks like a bad third-grade art project, and even after we spread out the chips, it won't look much better. A lumber yard is not a meadow. Even as the microbes and the worms break down the chips and compost, and the tiny plants we place around the lawn next fall take root, the yard will look brown and sterile for several years. There's no rushing along the process of soil building.
Our three-year anniversary in Portland is this week—or, as I like to call it, nine months plus a pandemic. The anniversary makes me feel a little resentful about the fact that, after all this time, I have still never quite settled in to my new city. Looking out at the 5.5 tons of dirt we have just dumped onto our yard, however, offers a strange kind of reassurance: We have started a project that will take a pandemic's amount of time to show results.
Sure, I'll be harvesting jostaberries and wine cap mushrooms before that, but this yard is going to look shitty and half-baked for years as the grass roots decay into humus, the wood chips degrade, and the new plants spread and re-seed. In some small way, I've handed my vision for this meadow over to the plants and microbes, and plant time is not human time. The interminable limbo of the last two years is nothing to a patch of earth.
I wouldn't call the emotion that drives this transfer of control hope. Or trust. It's more of an acceptance that this time I’m willfully entering into a new limbo, and limbo will always be ugly. But it's not stasis. It’s not an end. Even during my own pandemic limbo, so much about how I think about work, and writing, and what it means to live in a place has evolved, and I’m kind of content with how it’s turning out. So if the yard is ugly, it's ugly for a reason.
That said, I'm going to finally put up a sign letting our neighbors know we’re participating in Portland’s backyard habitat program, and this yard is in a state of transition. God forbid anyone thinks I want it to look this way.
I love that you are turning your lawn into something useful, tasty and beautiful! Weeding is one of the most difficult tasks in a garden, and i hope your mulching and cardboard lasagna will be succesfull. I was a volunteer at Harvest for the Hungry garden in Santa Rosa, CA, and we used that method a lot, and it helped a lot, although we did a lot of weeding too. Make sure the plants you use for ground cover in some areas will be tough and beat out the weeds. My method to beat out weeds is to weed them out and put another plant where the weed was, also pull the weeds with their roots out. Good luck, I will be waiting to see how it turns out. There is nothing more rewarding than eating the fruits of your labor, and enjoying its beauty.
Oh wow this is synchronicity! We are in the planning phase of turning our front yard into a wildflower meadow for the same reasons (we don't care about our grass enough to nurture it into looking nice, and also grass lawns are food deserts for native birds and insects). We are going about it in a different way but hope to get similar results. I am going to rent a sod cutter for the open part of the yard but will have to sheet mulch around a couple trees so as not to hurt the roots. This fall I will sow wildflower and native grass seed and maybe put in some anchor plants.
I sheet mulched an area in our backyard last year, and the grass has already retaken it. I think you will have more success since you're sheet mulching your whole yard. Good luck and I can't wait to see the results!