Book Excerpt: ‘A Lawn Renovation’ from The Organic Lawn Care Manual
The No-So-Instant Makeover: A Lawn Renovation
As much as a complete new lawn construction removes much of the mystery from the process, a renovation is the ultimate horticultural puzzle. Finding the solution begins with a big multi-pronged question: What is it about your current lawn that you don’t like and what is causing the deficiencies?
Somewhere along the way, you might have read Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In other words, simply putting down new grass seed over your existing soil will likely result in the same poor lawn you’ve had all along. If you don’t fix an underlying problem, the appearance on the surface is doomed to be poor or, at best, mediocre.
Assuming you don’t have the money, desire or time to tear out the lawn and start over, here are the considerations in lawn renovations:
Evaluation — Like the doctor who asks you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, you should go through the same exercise with your lawn. Do you really hate it (10), or is it mostly livable (5 or 6). Then, talk to your accountant (or husband or wife) and rate your ability to pay for a renovation on the same scale of 1 to 10, with a 10 meaning money is no object. The final consultant is the daily time manager. On this scale, a 10 means you have all the time in the world. If you add up the points on all the scales and score a 30, you’re a perfect candidate to go back to the beginning of this chapter and start from scratch. Just tear out the lawn you have and been done with it. If you fall on the other end of the continuum with only three points (no money, no time and you don’t hate your lawn that much), then don’t bother making any changes.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. At this point, we still have plenty of questions to ask ourselves. What bothers us? Weeds . . . well, what about the soil is causing the weeds? Poor grass color or quality . . . well, why can’t the soil grow better grass? Uneven appearance . . . what is causing the imbalance? Uneven surface . . . do you have the time for labor and money for topsoil to fix the problem?
You get the idea. Every lawn has its unique set of problems and every homeowner has an equally unique set of desires. Matching those with solutions is the ultimate challenge.
Soil test — Go back to chapter 2 and be sure you understand the differences between soil tests. A small renovation might not require the expensive bioassay; the Cooperative Extension test, that details nutrient deficiencies and pH readings, might be enough. If that test comes back with decent results, you might try a Solvita test to determine if your soil is “breathing.” Maybe the nutrients are present, but they’re locked up in an anaerobic soil.
You should also give your soil a simple visual test by digging down and looking at what you find. What is the quality of the soil structure and texture? Does it appear to be nice topsoil to a depth of at least six inches, or do you quickly hit hard-packed clay or porous sand and gravel? For some many homeowners, that is the first big clue solved. The soil may simply not deep enough and the lawn will always struggle until more healthy soil is added.
If, in fact, you’re going to add a substantial amount of new soil, go back to the early part of this chapter and treat your renovation as new lawn construction. The steps are the same.
Preparing to Replant — After you define the area to be renovated, and are not going to add a more than an inch of new soil, you’ll want to prepare the existing soil for a tune-up. Begin by mowing the existing lawn quite low, to about one to two inches high at the most. Rake and compost the clippings.
Then evaluate your weed population. If your lawn is mostly weeds, you may decide to spray with a non-selective natural herbicide that acts like the synthetic brand known as Roundup. Two natural weed killers are Burnout and Nature’s Avenger (see Page 262). You can also blanket your lawn with a flexible rubber material that will kill all vegetation (see page 176).
Pulling or digging weeds, of course, is always an option. When you’re preparing for a renovation anyway, you don’t need to be gentle to the surrounding grass. One option is to dig right in with a grub or grape hoe, which works like a pick-ax with a hoe blade on the end, and you can eradicate weeds from a large area in no time. If you pull weeds, take the time to pull as many of the roots out of the soil as possible and add these to the compost pile,too. Even if you feel it’s not practical to remove all the weeds, clipping them back to the soil surface will weaken the plant and give new grass seed a chance to compete favorably.
Two other steps may be useful to prepare the soil for amendments and overseeding. “Dethatching” the soil removes any dead, undecayed material from the base of the grass plants and also scratches the soil’s surface as you go along. Using a rake, preferably bamboo, a dethatching attachment on your lawnmower, or a specialized power dethatching machine, be sure to scratch the soil in at least two directions to achieve a thorough loosening of the soil surface. The goal is to provide good seed-to-soil contract when you overseed.
Core “aerating” can also be useful prior to overseeding. These machines have finger-like hollow knives that remove turf and soil from the lawn and lay the “cores” on the soil surface. The resulting holes allow air, water and soil amendments to get to the roots of the grass plants more easily.
Amending the soil — Armed with the results of a soil test, you’re now ready to take the final steps before putting down new grass seed, sprigs or sod. Top-dressing with compost is always a good idea no matter what the results of the test may say. Compost is typically fairly low in macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — it’s always a good idea to have the compost tested, too — so you may need to add other materials to increase fertility. Take an especially good look at levels of calcium, sulfur and magnesium, which grass plants actually use in higher percentages than phosphorus in many cases. Chapter 6 details organic sources for many nutrients and now is the time to work them into your soil.
Picking replacement grasses — With the soil prepped, you’re ready to begin the process of planting new grass. Selection of species is the first step; begin by identifying the primary turf you already have in place. Some grasses blend together well, but others won’t. Revisit Chapter 3 for this information.
You also need to decide whether to overseed your newly prepped area, or to put down sod. For small renovations, putting down sod can be a great way to “patch” the lawn and have it appear — from a distance at least — as if you were never there. It’s rare, though, to find a really good match between sod and your lawn.
That’s why most lawn renovations are accomplished with overseeding or, in the South and West, sprigging. Once you have identified the primary turf varieties growing in your lawn, you’ll usually be able to find seed that will blend reasonably well. If you’re not sure what’s growing in your lawn and can’t tell from the photos in Chapter 3, cut out a small piece of your lawn and take it to your local garden center, lawn care professional or Cooperative Extension Service for a positive ID. Otherwise, you might be disappointed to plant a light green fescue in with your Kentucky bluegrass, or a centipede seed in with your St. Augustine.
One note: Once you have a seed blend that works well for your lawn, keep some on hand in a cool, dry area, or at least be sure to write down what you purchased. You never know when a re-seeding will be necessary. Overseeding every autumn as a matter of course can be part of a good lawn maintenance program.
Planting — Establishing grass seed, sprigs or sod in a renovation is no different than planting a lawn from scratch. Because the areas involved are often smaller, spreading of seed is done by hand. Sodding may be done in a far more random pattern, too. Or, the renovated areas can be larger, in which case you will employ many of the same techniques and tools as outlined on page 88.
One note about sod: If you purchase sod from a garden center or sod farm, try to obtain some of the same kind of turf in a seed mix. By planting the seed next to where the sod ends, it will allow you to “feather” the transition between the new sod and the established turf.