• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic

Lawn improvement without chemicals: where to start?  RSS feed

 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I just happened to stumble across Paul's website, and thus this forum, as I was looking for a way to stop using chemicals to kill the weeds in my "lawn". A little background:
- I was recently married in December and through that inherited a lawn that has been very neglected. Because of this neglect, the weeds are overtaking our yard and the neighbors can't be too pleased.
- I live in West Michigan
- My house is just over a mile from Lake Michigan, as the crow flies, so my soil is very sandy. I don't have much topsoil, in fact, there are spots in my front lawn that is just dirty sand. I have patches of what looks like it could be grass but it is very sparse.
- Weeds - in the spring I had a nice collection of dandelions, and right now I have buckhorn plantains galore with some other weeds that I haven't identified yet.

My wife and I took the little one for a walk a few weeks ago and when we came back to our house, the yard was such a mess that I was shamed into doing something. Knee jerk reaction, I just went out and bought some round up to spray but while doing that, I just got the feeling that there has to be a better, more natural way to take care of my grass.

I would like to follow your advice about letting the grass grow, and choke out the weeds, but I have such little grass that I feel like I have a different starting point. So I guess that is my question. Where do I start? Would I be best served trying to establish some topsoil? I have a compost pile in the back yard that I can use, but it isn't nearly enough to spread around the whole yard. Also the local extension offers soil testing for a fee, should I have that done as well? Just looking for a starting point. Thanks.



 
jeremiah bailey
Posts: 343
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Do the soil test. Start mowing, as often as you can, at no lower than the recommended 3". Make sure you're mulching your clippings back into the grass. The majority of weeds don't like this, but grass loves it. Can you get some pics posted? Get some of the lawn in general, close-up of some problem spots, and of a  shovelful to show your soil layers from grass to base soil. Those would help give some more detailed suggestions. Also, some others may be able to identify your other weeds.

Vinegar is a good herbicide. Spot treat with it as you would roundup. Give your roundup to the local tox-a-way day. Once fall sets, start fertilizing your grass patches, spreading just past the grass. This should encourage the grass to grow and spread naturally. Use an organic lawn food. Ringers and Scott's organic are most common. Top the bare spots with about 1/2-1" compost, and rake in some grass seed. Keep the seed bed moist daily until the grass is established. Do this at the beginning of fall when you're feeding your grass patches. Summer is your grass' dormant period and watering, fertilizing and seeding are futile. You just won't get much bang for your buck and time doing anything during summer. So relax, get your plans together for fall, and sip some lemonade.
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 22488
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
As for me, I'm happy to answer any questions, but first I need to hear you say that you will never use roundup or any other pesticide ever again.

 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
You've got it Paul, I will never use any nasty chemicals like round up ever again. Even if you don't help, I refuse to use junk like that again. I think that there are a lot of people out there like me, that just don't know better at first but when they learn better, alternative ways of doing things, they get embarassed.

That being said, I took some pictures to help with the advice giving. The first picture is an overall picture of the front yard. The backyard isn't pretty, but I would like to concentrate on getting the front yard up and running then focusing on the backyard, which honestly I wouldn't mind half of it going wild, but that's another story for another day.

The second pic is kind of an up close that is the epitome of the front yard - sandy ant hills with sparse sprinkling of grass.
front-yard.jpg
[Thumbnail for front-yard.jpg]
fy-up-close.jpg
[Thumbnail for fy-up-close.jpg]
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I also got the shovel out and was surprised to see so much dark top soil. Looks like 4-5 inches but that is just an estimate, I can take a measurement if it will help.
topsoil.jpg
[Thumbnail for topsoil.jpg]
 
                                  
Posts: 99
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
When using vinager add a drop or two of dish soap. It works as a surficant and sticks better to the leaf of the undesired weed thus killing it quicker/ better
 
jeremiah bailey
Posts: 343
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
buddy110, that makes sense. Kinda like an insecticidal soap, but for killing plants. Good idea.

That is a bunch of nice looking topsoil. Just out of curiosity, no hating here, did you use the roundup to produce all those bare spots? Just trying to build a background to help your lawn. If you did, follow the recommended re-seeding waiting time on the label. After that time is up, you should have some grass spreading back into those areas. You can speed it up with some seed covered lightly with compost.

I'm previously guilty of the roundup mistake. I still have the bottle in my garage, just haven't had time to go to tox-a-way as it always falls in the middle of my work shift.
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
jeremiah bailey wrote:
Vinegar is a good herbicide. Spot treat with it as you would roundup. 


Is the regular vinegar strong enough to kill the weeds? It seems that I've read in my recent organic lawn care journey that someone recommended an industrial strength vinegar.

jeremiah bailey wrote:
buddy110, that makes sense. Kinda like an insecticidal soap, but for killing plants. Good idea.

That is a bunch of nice looking topsoil. Just out of curiosity, no hating here, did you use the roundup to produce all those bare spots? Just trying to build a background to help your lawn. If you did, follow the recommended re-seeding waiting time on the label. After that time is up, you should have some grass spreading back into those areas. You can speed it up with some seed covered lightly with compost.



I haven't used the round up that much to create those bare spots, those were pretty much there already, but I did make it worse. When the time comes though, I will be sure to follow the recommendations and  keep you posted. I will get the soil submitted for tesing, hopefully by the end of the week.

Also you recommended getting the seeding and fertilizing going in the fall. Does that mean when the weather starts to cool off a bit or actually September 21? I guess it usually doesn't cool off until then anyway, but just for some guidance. Thanks for your help so far.
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 22488
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
It might just be the picture, but it seems to me there is something creepy about the soil surface. 

I think a soil test would be wise.  Let's find out what is going on here.

Outside of that, I think the important next step is to wait until september. 

 
jeremiah bailey
Posts: 343
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Usually some time in September. You'll notice your neighbors' lawns get greener. When that happens start the other stuff. Meanwhile that test should unlock some of the mystery of the soil.
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Quick question about mowing, then I will leave you guys alone until I get the soil test results back. All I would be mowing at this point is weeds. The grass is shorter than three inches and isn't growing, so if I mow the weeds and leave the clippings for mulch, won't that just spread the weeds that I already have? Or does the weeds' ability to reproduce die when they are mowed? I've included a picture of one of my buckhorn patches for a visual.

The topsoil - I think it looks weird too which is why I was surprised that my digging revealed a layer of dark soil. Like you've said, the test results should answer the mystery.
The-Weeds.jpg
[Thumbnail for The-Weeds.jpg]
 
Jeremy Bunag
gardener
Posts: 231
Location: Central IL
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
The weeds you mow will reproduce if they have (or can still make in a last ditch effort) seedheads...but that's fine.  Why not let something greenish fill in the bare spots?  Let them have their way over summer:  covering and holding the dirt that would otherwise erode away, and shooting roots in and breaking up soil, adding organic material, etc.  And what isn't seedhead is mulch - good to have no matter what it originally was.

Whatever may spread over the summer you'll be working to claim back over the fall and subsequent years.

Here's the way I look at it: 
- Worst possible situation:  nothing growing, bare dirt
- Let the weeds win the battle for the first taking of bare dirt, since it's the summer.  They'll cover bare dirt and "save it" for when you're ready to get your desirable plants in.
- Over the course of the "war" your overall covered and green lawn (a great place to be no matter what percentage is desired) will have the tide turn from low % desirables to higher every growing season with this site's suggestions. 
- By the end, you will have created a space that favors your desirables, and few weeds will be able to take opportunistic vectors to get into your lawn.  Those remaining uglies might require some more work (mechanical or otherwise), which is what can be chatted about here.  But getting the grass/desirables happy lets them win over most weeds.

So:  Mow away!

-Jeremy
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 22488
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
When the weeds are mowed, their amputated parts turn into organic matter for the soil.  And weeds don't like to be mowed - it weakens them. 

 
jeremiah bailey
Posts: 343
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I'll vouch for what Paul and Jeremy just said. Go ahead and mow. I'd even go so far as to say "Mow it short!" Your lack of grass means the only thing you'll have to lose by this is weeds. This will also maximize your mulch layer. The weeds will either get unhappy and die, or waste much energy to grow back to their current state. Either way you win. Unhappy dying weeds, or exhausted weeds that gave you some more free mulch. This is one of the few times that I'd recommend mowing short, as this is a special case. If you had a reasonable stand of grass, I'd suggest mowing high. Like Jeremy said, so what if they spread their seed, that can be dealt with later and you'll have the extra OM to boot.
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 22488
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I'm gonna stick with keeping your mower set high.  And then just clip the tops off of the weeds once in a while until fall gets here.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I wonder what the tests said, and if the neghborhood's lawns are waking up...Casty?
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
So, I got a little distracted, but a year later, I've finally had my soil tested. Here are the results. Just wondering where to go from here? The "lawn" doesn't look any different than it did last year, though I have been mowing on high and recycling the clippings. I am about to increase the frequency of mowings as I finally was able to acquire my own mower.
soil-sample-002.jpg
[Thumbnail for soil-sample-002.jpg]
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I have been mowing on the highest setting and my yard has been looking better this summer. I mow about once per week or about the time it takes the buckhorn to sprout new heads. Any more frequently than that, and I can't really tell where I just mowed.

In West Michigan, things have cooled off this week and it has got me thinking about the things I can do this fall to get my yard into shape. I was a little disappointed in the results of my soil test because it said nothing about the makeup of my soil (sand/clay/etc). However, it did state that my soil is potassium starved and an informational sheet recommends using potash to increase the potassium levels. Any thoughts on that? Where do I get it?

Or will good compost just take care of the potassium deficiency? There is a local commercial compost operation where it looks like I can get some good compost and/or topsoil. Here is their website: http://www.englewoodfarms.com/index.htm  Honestly, I would just like to start fresh – rent a sod cutter, dig out some of the sand that lies beneath the stuff growing in my front yard, fill with 6-8” of compost enriched soil and then seed with a tall fescue. Considering that I was drawn to this forum by Paul’s “Lazy and Cheap” article, I don’t really have the resources ($, time, or energy) for a project like that, so I am wondering about some alternatives. One big thing that I don’t like about my front yard is how uneven it is and how much higher it sits than the sidewalk and driveway. Will a compost top dress add to the height of the lawn or will it kind of settle where it needs to and even things out?
 
                                  
Posts: 8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I've also done some worm holes with no resulting worm attraction. I'm wondering if my methods might be off a bit?
I have been digging a hole with a spade shovel, about 18" deep, and dumping compostable items in the hole from my kitchen countertop compost pot. I then cover the compostables with the sand from the hole (remember I live about a mile from Lake Michigan) and then fill the remaining 4-6" with compost from my backyard compost pile. The first one I did was probably a month ago and I just dug it up because I am too curious to leave well enough alone. I didn't see any worms there. Should I buy a canister of night crawlers and put it in there to get things started?

Thanks in advance for any advice!
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I don't think adding worms would help. Worms find a way in, once conditions are right. There's probably not enough habitat for a visible number of them quite yet, or the carrying capacity has suddenly jumped and they're breeding up to it. Lastly, I've read that earthworms prefer to spend most of their time some distance away from their food; perhaps they're in the surrounding soil.

What did the compostables look like? Gone? Composted? Putrid? Mummified?

I hope neither of the latter, but if so:

If you have glossy paper that you would otherwise recycle/burn/landfill, you might consider lining each hole with a couple layers of it, or interspersing it among the compostables. I say that specifically because glossy paper usually contains bentonite. That will both help keep the kitchen scraps form being too "hot," and help them retain moisture, and ultimately bring your sand more toward a loamy consistency.

Twigs or wood chips in the mix would probably help, too.
 
I am going down to the lab. Do NOT let anyone in. Not even this tiny ad:
Video of all the PDC and ATC (~177 hours) - HD instant view
https://permies.com/wiki/65386/paul-wheaton/digital-market/Video-PDC-ATC-hours-HD
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!