Friday, August 17, 2012

Time to give your lawn some love!

They are so lazy they only take a few steps before trashing my lawn
I have dogs... and I love them (as dogs).  However, I would put diapers on them if only they wouldn't eat them and explode from the expanding gel.   Dog urine, and especially if coming from a female, is a nightmare for the lawn of a perfectionist.  For years I heard that female dog urine was somewhat more caustic than male urine, but a few years ago I was informed that all dog urine from neutered and spayed dogs is essentially the same, it is the method of delivery that damages the lawn.  Female dogs squat and all of their urine is focused in one tight area, while male dogs like to mark and put it all over the place and therefore they put less urine in one specific spot (no comment).  The result are spots of dead or dying grass.

You can't help but love Quinn
Dog urine, uric acid, is actually a fertilizer, but it is often applied heavily and it burns the grass, but if you look at a urine burn, the grass surrounding is dark green and very dense.  The acid has been diluted enough when it gets to these outer roots and provides a nice shot of nitrogen.  While chasing your dog around with a hose and diluting their urine every time they 'go' is a little ridiculous, the best thing to do is soak spots when you start to see them.  So, once a week, take a walk around the lawn with a hose and where you see brown spots starting to develop, give it a deep watering to leach out the urine.

Even if you don't have dogs, your lawn is probably still a mess from the summer heat and lack of steady rain.  Here in Boston we had a wet June, totally dry July and now a pretty wet August.  You were either watering too much or not enough.

Now is the time to plan your attack!   Determine what needs to be done, so you are ready by the end of the month when the weather will start to cool down.  Right before Labor Day is the best time to work on the lawn because the weather is cooling, grass will start to grow again and you have two or three good months of growing before Winter dormancy.

Fall is always the best time to do lawn work, because you have the Fall and Spring growing seasons to establish before the heat of summer.  Also there is a tendency to put down weed control in the Spring which keeps weeds from germinating and will also keep grass seed from germinating.  I imagine that millions of dollars are wasted every year trying to grow grass seed in the spring after weed control has already been placed on the lawn.

As with garden beds, a soil test is a good start to determine what your lawn needs. For $15 a test (soil + organic matter), it is one of the single best tools you have at your disposal.  Test your lawn, perennial bed, around the shrubs that aren't doing well and any other spots.  For each test take several samples from different spots and blend them so you get a good representation from the area, and be sure to follow their instructions carefully for how to collect the soil.

Here in New England with acidic soils, lime is a constant additive to make the soil neutral, the best pH for lawns to grow.  Check my post on Soils for more talk about the science behind pH and macro nutrients.  The test will also tell you whether you have a sufficient amount of organic matter and other nutrients.  Calcium and magnesium are components of lime and are critical elements for turf grass or a healthy lawn.  It is important when submitting the soil test that you fill out the application specifying you are testing turf grass, and the recommendations will be based upon grass use, which can be quite different from other garden beds.  Organic matter should be above 5% but below 10%, and this can be managed by adding compost.

If your pH is in line, your nutrients are in balance and you have a good amount of organic matter then your lawn is in excellent shape and you only need some cosmetic improvements.

If your lawn is low in organic matter, then top-dressing your lawn with compost will provide immediate benefits and results.  A tired lawn will respond within a couple of weeks with a nice layer of good compost.  Aggresource is one of the leading commercial suppliers of compost and soil in New England, and they have an excellent comprehensive summary for topdressing lawns.  There are many excellent contractors who can perform this service if it seems a little overwhelming.

If your lawn is looking tired and is compacted from lots of activity, Core Aeration and overseeding may be the best solution.  This process involves an unwieldy, medieval looking machine that drives hollow spikes into the ground and pops out plugs of dirt.  This helps to open up space for roots, letting air and moisture into the root zone.  The holes and dirt plugs are also excellent receptacles for new grass seed and you will see a newly revived lawn within the month, and the aeration will provide long term benefits.  You can rent these machines at a local rental center, and if you do it yourself, please mark all of your sprinkler heads in advance because this machine eats then as a snack.  Or, again, you can use a good local lawn contractor for this service.

Another challenge for a lawn is thatch.  Thatch is a layer of dead grass on the soil that makes your lawn cushy.  There is always some dead grass, but if you can't see the soil or there is a thick mesh of dead grass, you have too much thatch.  It mostly results from too much watering, over-fertilizing with nitrogen or a lack of organic material and biological activity.  A de-thatching machine is not quite as medieval as an aerator, and basically it is a spinning rake that helps pull out all of the dead grass.  Of course, you can use spring rake and do it yourself depending upon the size of your lawn and the severity, but a de-thatching machine is so simple and back saving.  Mostly dethatching is done in the Spring as the grass enters it fastest growing period, but if you have some bad thatch the late summer as the grass starts to grow again is OK too.

Area raked out after morning dog photo shoot
If none of these more drastic measures are needed and you have some spots that need a little help then a little seeding is a great late summer project, and when preparing to overseed, it is important to scratch up the soil  so the new soil can get good contact and the grass roots can easily enter.  Grab a Bow Rake or Stirrup Hoe to loosen the earth in the spots you want to address, then clean up and rake out all the thatch and stuff.  Add a nice layer of compost or good top soil, throw some seed on top and even out and mix in the seed by running the back of a Spring Rake over the soil.  It is important that the seed be in the soil and have good contact.

Good topsoil and seed thrown on to cover
What grass seed to use is another big question, but most stores sell well-marked packages of seeds for sun, shade, high traffic and any number of other applications.  Each package will contain a mix of seeds that will work in the application, and the lawn becomes a battlefield for darwinian competition with the most appropriate grass species prevailing in the condition.  The mix of seeds is helps the new grass to blend in with the surrounding grass.

When watering new seed, it is important that it stay moist to germinate, which is why cooler weather is better, and this needs to continue for the first few weeks of growing.  The seed and the roots are at or on the surface and can dry out quickly.  This does not mean they have to be soaking wet, just moist.  If you have an irrigation system you can turn on the zones where the new seed is several times a day for just a few minutes.  You only need the surface to be wet and you don't want to waste water, which is also detrimental to the lawn.

Smoothed out with back of spring rake
For many people across the country who have suffered from a bad drought, adding a layer of compost will help in keeping moisture in next year and in a small way help to keep your lawn alive.

This may seem like a lot to consider, but spending a late summer day helping out your tired lawn will pay big rewards immediately and in the next year.  With all the time we spend pampering our gardens, why not give your lawn a little attention too.  As a final comment, many people I talk with are adverse to using chemicals in their lawn for weeds.  The best defense against weeds is a healthy lush lawn, and it will for the most part keep weeds from getting a foothold.  Making sure that  you take care as mentioned above will minimize weeds from infiltrating your lawn.

Get out there and commune with your lawn, it will respond immediately to the care you provide.

Being watered in and it will be lush in about a month, so
that the pups can pee all over it again...


  1. Very entertaining and informative post. I have two comments. The first is, you have really made a very powerful argument for the superiority of cats. Second, my dogless lawn's big problem is certain weeds that tend to become a little too dominant in various spots. The worst offenders are plantain and creeping charlie. I'm pretty relaxed about weeds in the lawn, but plantain bugs me because it's so ugly. Ditto creeping charlie because it grows so darn fast and gets into everything.

    Though I hate to use herbicides, last fall I treated parts of my lawn with WeedBGone, and I may do the same this year. It helped reduce the infestations, though of course they gradually grew back this year. Interested in any suggestions you may have, though admittedly lawn care is a relatively low priority for me when it comes to gardening.

  2. Jason,

    You didn't just say superiority of cats...that must have been a typo.

    Both Plantain and Ground Ivy are perennial herbs (not annual), so they come back every year and re-seed to make new plants. The ivy also will spread underground. So, you need to kill the plant, and do it before it goes to seed. If it is an infestation a little spot spraying would be good, otherwise just pull them and stay on it for the season with any resprouts.

    I am for minimal and sensible use of chemicals in the garden, I do not like broadcast spraying anything, so with a can of broadleaf weed killer for lawns you can zap them individually. If you hand pull all the plants, chances are you will not get all the roots and new plants will come back. If you do this now, you can come back in a week or two and do some lawn work like I mentioned in my last post.

    I hear what you say about lawn care not being a priority, but if you do spend a little time each season, a healthy lawn will require less care. If that makes sense. Unhealthy, neglected lawns become vectors for disease, bugs and weeds that can effect your garden.

    Just some thoughts

  3. Reed, this is a very timely post, as I was outside yesterday viewing my lawn and making plans for fall seeding. Regarding the seed/topsoil process, is it OK to put the seeds down, then the topsoil? Otherwise it can turn into a giant buffet for birds.

    1. Dave,

      If your really scratch up and loosen the soil, then you can put the seed directly on and then cover with just a little bit of compost or topsoil, but really it is best to sprinkle on top of the new soil. By running the back of the spring rake over the seed and soil mixture, much of the seed goes underneath. The soil has to be really loose to let the tender new roots move through and establish. You always have to give a little seed to the birds, which is why I am quite liberal with the seed...

  4. I had to laugh at your preference for male dogs, as I always preferred females. In my experience, a male dog hiking his leg against a shrub in the heat of summer is as good as an herbicide! Since our large male German shepherd we have had only females and tried hard to keep them inside the dog lot, and when we went on walks they were forbidden to go on mine or anyone else's lawn. Fortunately we have plenty of available woods to use.

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