Updated: Nov 22
A Landscape Architects Secret Guide to the Most Awesome Lawn in the Neighborhood!
Does your lawn look terrible? It doesn't have to look that way. You can have the best yard in your neighborhood without obsessing over it, but you will have to do some vigorous work, in the beginning to get the thing into shape.
There could be several reasons your lawn doesn't look lush and green. We're going to provide solid lawn care practices that will address the health of the lawn. A landscape that is healthy and thriving at a natural rate is resistant to many pests and diseases.
Having a great-looking, healthy lawn is a multi-faceted approach. It's a process that takes time to do it properly. You can do things to have a fast green-up, but you'll also have an annoying and unhealthy flush of growth. I believe it takes two years of commitment to have an incredible lawn. But you will see improvement gradually over time.
Let's make an Assessment
You may want to start over if your lawn is close to 50% weeds. You may want to hire someone or rent some equipment if you have to install a new yard.
Best Method to Deal with Existing Lawn
It starts with deciding to kill off the lawn or remove it. We'll look at killing it in place first. There are four ways that I know how to kill off a lawn that I have seen practiced.
One is to rototill the lawn without any treatment. This is hard work because it would take several passes with a tiller to break up the soil. Depending on your soil type, this may not be an option. For example, a typical hand-operated tiller will scrape and skip across the surface if you have 'hard pan' clay soil.
If you have sandy soil, rototilling first can be effective. You can make enough passes to break up the dirt clods. Then you can rake out the grass material. You may have to rake the ground a few times. It doesn't have to be perfect, but you don't want to leave any large clumps of roots.
The second method is to kill the lawn with a chemical like 'Roundup.' This can be controversial because there have been cases in the past of people having health issues from handling it. If you're ok with using it, follow the instructions, apply it to the lawn, and wait as instructed. After everything is dead, rototill until the soil is workable and rake out dead grass.
Thirdly, you can take large sheets of cardboard. Lay them out flat, one layer thick overlapping approximately 6", and wet it down. After the cardboard has been laid out spread 3" of compost over the top. Then let it sit for a couple of months.
After the layer of the existing lawn, cardboard, and compost has had time to break down, the soil should be much more improved, and the lawn will be smothered dead. Weather, soil-building insects, and microorganisms in the soil feed on the layers of organic materials leaving behind rich soil. Rototill and rake out any clumps of material that may not have decomposed. This is my favorite method, but it's more laborious and takes more time. It's best for small yards.
Lastly, you can burn the lawn to kill it. I haven't seen many companies offering this service for obvious reasons. I don't recommend this method of killing off a lawn. Still, I imagine it could be used under the right conditions with the proper safety considerations on a large, open lawn away from homes.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION
You can also avoid killing off the lawn by removing it, but this is hard work and produces a large amount of heavy debris. The problem is that you're not only removing the grass and weeds, but you're also removing some topsoil. It might only be an inch or two of soil, but over a large area, it adds up and is heavy to handle.
You also could end up removing topsoil that you must replace. If you decide to remove the lawn and it's a large area, I suggest you rent a sod cutter. Sod cutters are heavy and awkward, but once you get the correct depth to slice horizontally, it can save you hours of the back-breaking work of doing it by hand.
Suppose you have an area where you can stockpile bulk material. In that case, the sod you've generated can be mixed with yard waste like leaves, branches, wood chips, and vegetable waste and turn it into compost. Generally, it takes six months to produce a finished compost if it's turned a few times. After that, the compost can be used as a soil amendment to build healthy soil for your trees, ornamental plantings, and lawn.
Soil Preparation: For the Health of Your Soil
Your lawn will be as healthy as the soil it is growing in. You want to add materials to provide an environment where microorganisms, like beneficial bacteria and fungi, can thrive. These microorganisms help the lawn take in the nutrients that we offer and the ones in the soil.
The soil around homes is often depleted, compacted, and poisoned by chemical fertilizers. Untreated chemical fertilizers feed plants in a fast-release, short-term way that causes an unnatural flush of growth. They also leave behind toxic salts which build up in the soil over time. In extreme cases, the salts can leave the earth incapable of growing anything.
Suppose your home was built in mass by a developer. There's a chance it was built on land where the topsoil was stripped and sold off in the local bulk topsoil market. An environmentally oriented developer will do minimal earth moving and stockpile topsoil to be reused in the community.
Typically, the topsoil is sold off, the homes are built, and then trees, shrubs, and lawns are planted into subsoil that has been compacted by construction equipment. This leads to future landscapes that won't thrive on their own because the soil has very little life. This is because the life was removed with the topsoil.
The best way to bring life back into the soil is to add organic material and trace minerals and microorganisms. My favorite materials are yard/garden waste compost, aged chicken manure, crushed dolomitic limestone, and live worm castings. In addition, healthy topsoil strengthens landscape plants and lawns against pests and diseases.
The worm castings are the poop from composting worms. You want your casting locally produced and stored correctly to keep the life in the batch. You don't want the industrial stuff that's been stored in unbreathable plastic bags for months. The best source is to produce your worm castings with a worm farm. Recycling cardboard boxes, leaves, and vegetable waste is a great way. If you don't want to start a worm farm, shop around locally to find a good source.
Spread an inch or two of compost and one inch of aged chicken manure. Then scatter a thin dusting of the worm castings and crushed limestone, till the materials into the existing soil to a 6" -8" depth with three for four passes. You don't want to over till, but you want to break up dirt clods, so they are no larger than ¼" in size. You're trying to create a seedbed so the soil will have good contact with the prepared ground.
Proper Grading of the Land is Critical
When landscape and construction professionals refer to "grade" or "grading", we're talking about leveling, elevation, slope, and the surface drainage of the land. After you've added organic material and tilled the soil, you've fluffed up everything and changed the existing grade.
The grade needs to settle and be recontoured properly to flow away from built structures and maintain the site's overall drainage. Make a mistake at this stage, and at best, you'll have some standing water; in the worst case, you could flood your or your neighbor's house.
Time to Seed the Lawn
After a yard has been graded, I prefer to let it sit for a couple of days to settle, but if you've got much rain in the forecast, you may have to seed immediately.
WHAT LAWN SEED TO BUY?
My best advice is to go to an established local mom-and-pop nursery/garden center and ask them for the right seed mix for the conditions you want to plant in. For example, they'll need to know if you're planting in clay versus sandy soils in sunny or shady conditions. Will it have high or moderate foot traffic? They can recommend a seed mix that's been tried and true for your local area.
IT'S TIME TO SEED
First, lightly rake to break up the crust that may have formed on the soil. Use a rotary-type seeder to avoid patterns of seeding. Then, apply the seed at a rate recommended by the seed manufacturer. Do not apply extra because too much seed can cause excessive competition for germination.
Take a rake or two and back-drag lightly to mix the seed with the soil. Then rent or buy a yard roller. The kind you can fill with water. Roll the entire yard to increase the seed/soil contact.
With the lawn and seed bed prepared, it's time to top dress or mulch it with something to hold moisture and protection while the seed is germinating. For large areas, straw is ideal. Make sure it's straw, not hay. Hay can have live seeds and salts in it. Rent a straw blower; it shreds the straw, so it lays flat and doesn't catch as much wind. Cover the area with a thin layer.
For small lawn areas, use peat moss. Sprinkle a thin topdressing over the soil.
As soon as the seed and mulch go down, begin watering immediately. Your goal is to keep the seed moist without puddling or runoff. You may have to water twice a day or more in hot weather. Therefore, early October is my favorite time to seed lawns in my area. Usually, you can get away with watering once per day. The cooler temperatures are ideal for germination and maintaining moisture.
Maintenance is Key
GET ON A FERTILIZATION PROGRAM
Once the lawn has reached 4" in height, it's time for its first mowing and fertilization. Take about an inch off and fertilize with Milorganite or something similar that you can acquire locally. You want something organic, slow-release, and provides the vital nutrients and trace minerals for plant health. Apply as directed in the fall and spring. That's it!
WATERING TO ESTABLISH THE BEST LAWN
After giving your lawn its first mowing, you want to reduce the watering to once per week slowly. The idea is to water deeply. You want the roots of the grass plants to reach down for the water. Thus, being able to draw moisture and native minerals from deeper into the soil during droughty periods, as well as the ability to endure freezing temperatures.
You want to avoid overwatering your lawn because you can drown it. It will turn yellow, and it will be squishy. This is also a perfect environment for fungal diseases to take over. Manage your waterings thoughtfully.
Mow weekly during the growing season. You don't want it to grow much taller than 4" before you mow it. Keep it at the height recommended by the seed supplier. Usually, a little longer is better.
Keep your mower blades clean and sharp. That will have your lawn looking gorgeous and healthy.
If your lawn is around 70% desirable turf seed, this is where you can start renovating your way to the ultimate lawn. That's right, skip the lawn removal, killing, and rototilling.
If you have thatch, build up dethatch. If you don't have any, don't bother. Thatch is the buildup of dead grass stems and leaves that form a dense mat that can prevent air and nutrients from making it to the root of individual turf grass plants.
You can tell if you have excessive thatch buildup by vigorously taking a steel rake and raking a 2' by 2' area. You'll be left with a small pile of dead material if there's a problem.
You can dethatch a small area by raking it out by hand and do large areas with a power dethatcher. If you're using a power dethatcher, you need to plan for all the debris you will produce. The perfect place is the compost pile.
AERATING SHOULD BE PART OF YOUR FALL ROUTINE
Core aeration is when small plugs of earth are plucked out of the ground. As a result, water, air, and nutrients flow efficiently into the soil. I recommend core aerating after the last mowing in the fall, so you can leave the plugs to dissolve over winter.
Topdressing with an inch of screened compost and a dose of Milorganite following core aeration is the ultimate way to put a lawn to bed for the winter. Then, in the spring, your lawn will explode.
Now that you have a young, established lawn, get a soil test done. You want a soil test done for nutrients to grow ornamental plants. I like to have mine done at a state university with an agricultural and horticultural program. They'll tell you what you need to put on your yard if it's deficient in anything nutrient or mineral-wise.
You've begun the process of maintaining an organic lawn. It doesn't take much to dig out or pull a few weeds during the growing season. Fertilize in the spring and fall, mow weekly and aerate in the fall, and you'll have the prettiest lawn in the neighborhood.