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Jekyll and Hyde = My Front and Back Yard - Help Me Fix My Lawn

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Hello, everyone!  Like many others, Paul's lawn care article brought me here, and until now, I've only lurked.  I've learned so much already just reading these forums, but I would like to share my story and hopefully gain a little extra insight from you.

I hadn't mowed a lawn in 15 years until last June when my wife and I moved out of the city and into the 'burbs.  So I have one year experience in organic and lazy, lawn care.  Last year, my lawn went from looking pretty nice when we bought the house to looking extremely bad at the end of fall.  I didn't do anything except cut and water, that is, until late last year when I put down some Milorganite.

My front yard is established sod (1.5 years old) with an irrigation system.  I probably watered too often last year, that's something I'm going to try and do a better job of this year.  I haven't had to water at all this year.  These pics look pretty good actually, but it's spring.  By the way, I live in Virginia which is Zone 7, I believe.


I always mow high and leave the clippings.  Where the grass is thick, it's actually a little more than 3".  My issue is, in some places the grass is thin and just doesn't seem to grow high enough to actually cut.  I'd venture to say that I push the mower over a third of my lawn for no reason at all - the grass is not tall.  Maybe it's not a tall growing grass?


As for the soil, it's clay. 

From a decent area of grass in my front yard:

And from a particularly bad area in my back yard:

Notice, in the second picture above, the large rock I pulled out of the darker, top layer of clay.  I'm sure that most of my yard is comprised of the same rock and clay mix. 

I haven't had a proper soil test done, but my neighbor with extremely thick grass said that lime helps a lot, of course, this is purely anecdotal.  My wife brought home a test kit she picked up on clearance from a local home and garden center and I tested the pH and N last October.  The pH test was hard to read, so I dismissed the results.  The test for N told me I had very low nitrogen, non-existent. Now, given the test was sold on clearance, maybe I should dismiss the N results, but grass I've read is a nitrogen hog and I hadn't ever fertilized since moving here in June 2009.  So I bought some Milorganite and spread that in my front yard in October 2009, per the instructions on the bag.  Last month, I put down 15 bags of store bought compost, I also put some lime down and more Milorganite.  I suspect my lawn could use more N actually, since there is clover popping up in several spots and where my dogs pee, the grass is extremely lush.

Dog spots, wish my whole lawn would look like this.

Clover, which I don't dislike, just take it as a sign that I may need more N.

Another thing to mention, I have some moss in my yard.  Paul mentioned in another post that lime is likely needed.  Ok, I'll have to collect a soil sample for testing tomorrow, this flying by the seat of my pants routine isn't working - haha.

Moss in the front yard.  This area gets lots of sun and the only shade is from the grass surrounding it. 

Last year I watered on a schedule, three days per week, unless it rained.  The builder helped me with the days and times and such, which is probably too often.  My soil doesn't drain well, in the back yard I sometimes have standing water in the corners of my property.  I had some mushrooms sprout up last year, I suppose that's an indication of too much watering.

I also notice the thatch, but it's not thicker than 1/4", so it shouldn't be a problem, although, where the grass is thin, the thatch looks like dead grass.  It's just ugly and I'd rather the grass be thick enough to cover it.  I spent a few hours one weekend raking some of it out, though that's probably unnecessary and definitely not lazy, but it did slightly improve the appearance, well for now, and until weeds start popping up in those thinner spots.

I'd like to thicken up the lawn to help prevent the summer weeds, eventually.  Last summer the crab grass really bugged me, mainly because it's a different color than the rest of my lawn, so in time I hope to have thick enough grass to prevent it.

Last year, I didn't fertilize, didn't use lime or any other soil amendments and, like I said before, the lawn went downhill.  I'd like to prevent that this year.

I plan to feed regularly, most likely the Milorganite.  Mow high, as always.  Water sparingly, when really needed.  I'll get the soil test done this month and report back.

I would like to add 1/4" to 1/2" of organic material twice a year, to increase my soil depth over time.

Is there anything that I'm missing here?  Is there anything that you'd be doing to this lawn?

What can I do to thicken up my lawn?  Fertilize more?  Plant more?

My yard is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the front to the back.  See the pic below.


You can probably offer me more advice on my back yard, which was grown from seed and doesn't have an irrigation system. There are bare spots of cooked clay, moss, lots of weeds, standing water, etc.  I would love to dig the whole thing up, throw in logs and compostables, and sow tall fescue per Paul's deep soil / tall fescue experiment, but just digging a 7' by 7' square would take forever back there, well, without heavy machinery, that is.  I tried digging a two foot hole once, and I could not do it.

In the largest of the bare spots, I loosened the clay, which was rock hard, threw down down tall fescue seed and covered it with some compost.  Here's the result.  It's sad, but looks better than the bare spot.


Here are the views, left and right, from the deck of the back yard.


In the first of those two pictures, you'll notice my grass is much greener right next to my neighbor and along the back.  His irrigation system runs off into my yard and his fertilizer does too.  In the back of my yard, there's a ditch which carries a lot of water when it rains and when my neighbors water their lawns.  Also, notice, both of my neighbors have sod.  I only mention it because my wife does.

Here's the typical grass patch in the back.

And the typical bare spot, this one includes moss.

I put Milorganite down last month in the back, but that's it.  I probably need more N and lime.  I should probably put down compost and tall fescue seed.  But I'm not sure how or where to start exactly.  I've considered tilling the entire back and starting anew, but tilling clay might not be such a good idea.  Maybe add a few inches of soil and planting tall fescue on that?  Does anyone have any strong opinions?

Does anyone have any alternative ideas?  Like planting clay loving plants?  Clay loving / water loving plants for my low areas?

This is a very long post, but I hope some of you made it this far.  I welcome any and all suggestions.  Let me know if you need any further information or pictures.  I'll get the soil sample test out this week and will definitely post the results.

I'm dedicated to improving both my front and back yards, I will heed your advice and post updates and pictures.  Paul, do you, or anyone for that matter, have any projects or experiments they'd like to run in my back yard?  I'd like to put a few post holes full of compost or dig up a 7' by 7' by 2' plot and fill with compostables, but I'm afraid they'll just become wells when it rains, since my drainage is so poor.  Maybe that's ok.  You tell me. 

Ok, let those ideas fly!

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Location: New York
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Your back lawn looks a lot like my front lawn, except mine has more bare patches.  I've yet to take the pictures and post them.  My lawn went bad this year after a harsh NY winter.  Not that it was in the best shape to begin with, but winter sent it over the edge.  Like you I have very little top soil.  The brown dirt under your root layer looks like what I have under mine, except it is the brown clay all the way down.  It balls up just like yours  does.

I never used any soil amendments except for liming twice or three times in 22 years.  I had the ph tested and it was spot on.  This year I have put on organic fertilizer, compost, Humates, and  reseeded. 

It is obviously to soon for me to see results, but I do see that whatever is growing is very green.  It is just trying to fill in the bare spots that is driving me crazy.  The clay soils get very compacted as mine had, and whatever topsoil was there has eroded pretty much.  I am going to take all the time needed to get this to work.  I don't want to till and start over if I can avoid it.

I'm sure many of the veterans, and Paul, will come up with a solution.  Be patient, and remember, it is a lazy man's lawn that we are trying to achieve.

Best of luck,

author and steward
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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Most of the questions I get sound like crazy gibberish and I have to work, work, work to be able to help somebody.  And I do it for free on these forums.  You really have read the article and you really have read threads here.  you've clearly put thought into this, understand what I'm saying and have really good questions well aligned with stuff!  Thanks!

Let's start by talking about the N:  get some of the ringer fertilizer.  Put it on the spots where you have clover and put it on all of the grass that currently does not have dog pee spots.  If you put the ringer on the spots that have the dog pee, then that will be too much N and there is a risk that that spot will die.

Soil test:  yeah, lime will probably help.  So you can get the test and then (probably) add some lime.  But I think your lawn will soon be doing so good, I might want to skip that. 

Excellent pics.  In fact, will you let me use your pics in my article?

Your front lawn looks .... well .... I guess I have to say that most americans would rate it "excellent".  I'm a little weird.  I see it and I think it needs more diversity.  I would want to use at least a third of that space to grow some edibles.  And I would probably want to mix some flowers into the lawn to have a mowable meadow look.  When a lawn starts to look that clear of flowers, my gut reaction is that it has been hosed down with chemicals.  But, hey, I'm an odd duck.

Do you see the difference in the soil between the the good turf and the lousy turf? 

You say you want to add organic matter twice a year.  You will be adding organic matter every time you mow.  I would not go to the extra effort and expense to add anything. 

The Jekyl and Hyde pic is excellent.  I suspect that 90% of the difference is the soil. 

I just had an idea ... something I never thought of before ....  what if you got something like 20 branches of alder or cottonwood or poplar - something that rots really fast.  But get fresh, green wood.  And then innoculate the branches with some fungus the makes wood rot really fast.  Then you pound the branches into the ground - every foot or so.  So you end up with a 4x4 grid where the soil is now loaded with alder branches about two or three feed deep.  I would think that the branches would quickly rot and the whole area would become the most awesome soil the following year.  And even better still the third year. 

Sorry - a crazy diversion.  Back to your stuff.

Your back yard:  the optimal path is to put in two feet of top soil and then reseed.  You would go with two feet of top soil instead of an irrigation system. 

A far cheaper, far lazier way to go would be .... lots of different things.  The cheapest and laziest is just fertilizer, mowing high and maybe some pH stuff.  It will take a long time, but it will work.  The rototill thing is a middle of the road solution.  But I would think that if I'm gonna rent a piece of equipment, I would rent a two man power post hole digger and dig about a hundred post holes about three feet deep and then refill them with some alder, cottonwood or poplar wood chips and some loose alfalfa hay and the clay that came out.  About 1/3 wood+hay and 2/3 clay+soil.  With a clay soil, I might try to arrange some drainage.

Paul, do you, or anyone for that matter, have any projects or experiments they'd like to run in my back yard?

Yes!  See https://permies.com/permaculture-forums/3577_0/lawn-care/lawn-experiment-deep-soil

I'd like to put a few post holes full of compost or dig up a 7' by 7' by 2' plot and fill with compostables, but I'm afraid they'll just become wells when it rains, since my drainage is so poor.  Maybe that's ok.  You tell me. 

Oh!  You are already familiar with it!  Good!

Yes, your drainage stuff is an issue.    I suppose if you were cool with dropping $15,000, we could shape the subsoil to drain in a direction we are comfortable with and then pile on two feet of topsoil on top of that.  All of these experiments will probably fail without proper drainage. 

I just had a thought:  you talked about renting a tiller.  What about renting a ditch witch?  These things dig a ditch about four inches wide and two feet deep.  If you were to connect a network of these ditches to a low drainage spot somewhere, that could fix the drainage and be a massive step in the right direction for deep soil. 

Of course, before you start you will want to find out about buried wires and pipes and the like.

But that would be relatively cheap.  And while it might look goofy the first year, it should look pretty good the second.  And on the third year I think it would be far superior to tilling. 

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