How to Dig up Grass by Hand

Would you like to replace some or all of your boring, high-maintenance grass with something else? Perhaps you want a flower/shrub/vegetable bed. Or maybe you would like to replace the grass with pebbles, river rock, or something else.
 One option of course is to mechanically till the lawn with a roto-tiller. But maybe your back yard is not easily accessible or you don't want to spend the money. Or maybe your grass is the thick matted kind combined with hard clay soil and it's doubtful that a machine can penetrate it. Or perhaps the area is relatively small.
 In any case, here's some tips on digging up the grass and turning it over yourself. I should probably add that it might not be the easiest thing you've ever done. But think of it as a period of really, really good exercise!

So Here's the "Before"


This is what the grass looks like on the Oregon coast in Spring (the middle of May). In Oregon there is almost no rain during the summer, so the grasses all dry up. During the long rainy season starting in October, all the grasses green up.
 In other words, our grasses are green in the winter and brown in the summer!
 This particular variety forms a thick, dense, almost impenetrable mat. Furthermore my soil is hard clay. So I figured (somewhat ambitiously) to dig it up by hand. So here goes. . .

Here's how to dig up grass

It helps to mow the grass first. I don't have a lawn mower,
so I "mowed" the grass with my trusty "Echo" brand weed whacker.

after cutting

Work in sections about 3-4 feet wide.
(TIP: Use a "fork" shovel, not a flat shovel! Why? Because it's so much easier to penetrate hard clays.)

It helps greatly to first scalp the grass as much as possible with a weed whacker, if you have one. (That's why the grass looks "dead".)

I found it best to work a 3 to 4 foot wide swath of grass.

Push the shovel down as far as you can. Straight down is best, but at an angle is fine if the soil is too hard.

Now tilt the shovel back (toward you) to pry up the grass

first piece handle down

Then tilt the shovel forward to separate the section of grass from the part you are standing on.

After you have done this about 4 times, tilt up the entire 3 - 4 foot section and turn it over

HINT: Lay the first one or two sections out of the way. (See the first picture above.) This leaves you room to simply overturn each section as you dig it up.

handle up turn over

After you turn a section over, break up the soil with a hoe, to even it up a bit and break up any exposed clods.

Here is a 4 foot wide area of overturned grass sections. The two sections in the foreground need some hoe work.

break it  up overturned area

OK. Here's the drill again: Tool in the ground as far as you can. These three pictures were taken a bit later, after the grass was dead, due to the typical dry Oregon summers.

Handle down (pries up the grass)

Tool in the ground handle down

Handle up (breaks the section of grass away from the main area)

handle up

And Here's the "After" (grass removed)

All the %#@!!! grass has been turned over in the entire yard except for the small section where I have some rocks and pavestones temporarily stored.
 On the right side (West end of the yard) I had already overturned the grass (last year) and added several raised berry gardens, outlined with natural rocks. I put down coarse bark nuggets in the areas between these raise beds. Only a portion of this area shows in the picture, but you can see plenty of pictures of it in my "Growing Berry Plants" link from my front page.

grass eliminated

So the "plan" was to replace the bark nuggets and the (formerly) grassy areas with various types of
small rocks and gravel. The three types are shown here:

"Greensmix" pea gravel; $3.50/bag, Lowes (Home Depot has similiar material)

"Greensmix" river rock; $3.50/bag, Lowes

"3/4 inch drain rock"; $6.00/bag, from a local supplier

rock types
berry patch

So here's the final result for the West end with the rock gardens. All coarse bark mulch has been replaced with river rock. This is what it looked like at the end of summer, 2018.
 The flagstones are Belgard "Portland Pavers", $5.30 each from Lowes. They are approximately 15 in by 21 in and weigh 31 pounds each.
 I allowed the rest of the yard to lie "fallow" during the 2018 winter rainy season. I figured this would allow the dirt to settle and become even, as well as allowing the turned-over grass to decompose, all courtesy of the copious Oregon coast rains.

And Here's the "Final" (summer 2019)!

The large areas have the "Greensmix" river rock, with gravel accents in two smaller areas. I replaced the flowering plants in the patio border with various varieties of "hebe" shrubs and two dwarf Alberta Spruces.


Copyright © 2019 J.A.