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Lawn questions in Ontario, Canada

Posts: 1
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Hi everyone,

Sorry for the length...

I have been looking at this site for a while now and thought I would see if you could help with my dreaded lawn...please find pics of the lawn and holes dug as deep as could be easily done.  In regards to grass I wouldn't know the different types if I walked on them and only want something that will fill in, be less work and even wouldn't mind clover (if it would disrupt the neighbour's lawn).  Our neighbour's really keep up their yards and I am a little tired of ours being so...blah.  We have been told that the previous owners had trouble as well and had sodded the side lot within the last 7 years.

We moved into an 85 x 125 corner lot, from a condo, and is giving us considerable problems.  The lawn has three areas:

1. Side lot, mainly sun with a maple tree in the NE corner
        Last year this lot had many, many dandelions, crabgrass to thick to cut with a reel mower, grubs      and now has a 20 x 40 dead spot.

The hole is about 10-12" inches deep and there were approximately 15 grubs in the mix.  Last year I did topdress the lawn with topsoil from Canadian Tire (sale @ $1 bag).   Our thoughts here are to plant either a standard grass, quickgrass (fast germinating perrenial rye grass), or white Dutch clover.  From reading here spring planting is not as good as fall planting so I don't necessarily want to be buying expensive grass seed but want something to cover the bare areas and fill in the splotchy ones to keep the dandelions and crabgrass down.

2. Back yard, mainly sun with two areas of interlock patio and a birch tree
       80% of this yard was deck or brick, we ripped out the deck and had sod put down.  The sod has died on half the lawn (told it was heat stress), no grubs when I dug a hole.  The plan here was to just put a vegetable garden in where the 2 year old sod died but there isn't the money to do it as I would like (raised beds and such) or the time with a two young children.  Following directions from an online source about making beds without digging I covered the area with layers of newsprint, leaves and then the straw from our Halloween display. 

Our thoughts are to sod this area (20 x 30 ish) bu am unsure if I should be raking this up, disposing of it and stripping the very minimal layer of sod off or turning the dead sod, newspaper, straw and leaves into the soil and laying sod on top.

The hole here is only 5 inches with some gravel mixed in (from the previous deck).  I do not have the time right now to try and get it all out.

3. Front yard, mainly shade with two maples, very thin lawn, some grubs and crabgrass.  Not really sure here.

Not really sure what to do with the whole thing...

Thank you,


Ps We have sandy soil and live about 2 blocks from Lake Ontario in Burlington, Ontario.
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Hello Charles,

My name is Graham Calder, and I am a Permaculture consultant based in Montreal.

I have a few ideas for your site and some observations from your photos.

First of all I noticed in the pictures there where some oak leaves. Is there an oak tree nearby? or did you get the leaves form another site?  The reason I ask is that Oak trees are allelopathic, Meaning that they release a chemical from their leaves and roots that inhibits the growth of herbaceous plants like grass. 

The second thing is that if you have grubs present then they may be killing the grass from below while the oak leaves weaken it and inhibit new growth.  The grubs thrive on the roots of the grass and only grass, So planting white clover is a good idea. Also if you do have an oak tree then using its leaves as mulch is not a good idea, especially for the No-dig garden,  maple is fine and so is poplar (aspen). 

The reason you have dandelions is most likely due to a deficiency in the soil. Dandelions are a reparative species accumulating calcium, and other trace minerals.  They will work them selves out of a job if you let them, or you can speed up the process. A good idea would be to plant a diversity of reparative or support species that will help to fix nutrients in the soil and establish good growth conditions.  However I do not recomend spending so much time and money on trying to save your grass, but it would be worth it for your garden and the experience for your children.

I hope this helps you out a bit.

Graham Calder
Permaculture Designer, Consultant and Educator
Posts: 405
Location: New York
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Charles, it sounds like Graham has excellent suggestions for your lawn. 

We had a grub problem and used Milky Spore as a long term fix.  Beneficial Nematodes could also be used in conjunction.

Getting as much organic material into the soil worked for our lawn as it proved to be deficient from runoff.  Also, and this is very important, mow high!  Longer grass will be healthier and out compete unwanted plants.  We also added white clover and I don't mind the dandelions at all.  This year it is starting to green more rapidly and it is much fuller than it has been in years.  A little effort will go a log way.

We plan on eliminating as much lawn as possible over the next couple of years, and I do understand the cost involved can be a limiting factor. We will take it one small step at a time and eventually it will get done.  Having a front lawn on a street with neighbors makes it a little more difficult to eliminate all of the lawn, and it does need to look healthy while you incorporate other plantings.
Posts: 61
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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Hi Charles, I lived in the south Aldershot area of Burlington near the old Filman farm house for 10 years until this past spring. I'm familiar with the pros and cons of lawn care and gardening in the area so I'd be happy to share my experiences.

My neighborhood used to be a melon farm, from what I've been told. A relatively warm microclimate made up of sandy soil. We've had more success gardening than with lawn care, to be honest. The soil is fertile (almost anything planted or drifted onto it will germinate, wanted or otherwise), but quite sandy.

Based on my landscaping adventures, my yard consists of several feet deep of sandy soil. Not much of a transition from surface to any sort of hardpan or fill you would see in typical construction these days, just a slow transition from black topsoil to tan sand below.

Moisture retention is your biggest challenge to maintaining a lush lawn. You have two main obstacles: the sandy soil and that maple tree.

The soil drains very quickly.  You need to water deeply and more often than with richer soils, or the weeds take over as July gives way to August. To conserve water and improve soil fertility, you need to feed the soil a healthy supply of compost-rich ingredients. What you do lay down will be consumed quickly or leached away with watering. It will take some time and effort to build up and maintain a healthy and fertile topsoil that supports a thick lawn. I've seen many households re-sod on a regular basis as they lose the war of the weeds. I suggest a 3-4" layer of organic compost every fall to feed the soil and lawn roots. White Clover became my ally, as it helped provide nitrogen to the soil, stayed green during the hot season as the grass went dormant and, thus, helped shade out weeds when the grass was most vulnerable. An annual clover seeding in early spring will build up a strong clover presence which will help your grass compete with its many enemies.

Secondly, those maple trees are a double assault on a healthy lawn. For one, they have a low and dense canopy, starving your lawn of needed sunlight and rain. Fallen maple leaves also form a strong paper-like mat in the autumn that chokes out your grass, resulting in dead patches. You'll need to rake them and either replace their nutrients with an alternate source, or shred them before placing them back in the grass to feed the soil. Fortunately, you have plenty of alternate leaf material at your disposal, as most of south Burlington near the lake consists of mature tree lots. Second, maples have an extensive and shallow root system that is competing with your grass for moisture at the topsoil level. I had a similar problem with the mature birch tree on my front lawn when I moved in, as they share a common rooting habit. Digging due to city water main upgrades and a couple of dry summer seasons took its toll and the birch soon died top-down from a borer infestation. Your maple is hardier.

I eventually transformed about 1/3 of my corner lot to a front garden, starting with the areas under my trees by piling 6" of free wood chips the city trimming crew was more than happy to dump in my driveway rather than haul for disposal. By the next spring, the soil under the mulch was black and teeming with worms and other positive signs of fertility.  I found the gardening a surprisingly pleasant therapy from the stress of work and raising 3 little ones (who often took an interest in planting or picking flowers and berries). Once the gardens were established, they were relatively care-free, meaning less lawn to manage.

I would strongly consider planting a garden under the maple tree. Go with the flow, there are more dry-shade plants that would thrive with less effort in such an environment than grass. Have a look around your neighborhood and you'll see plenty of struggling lawns under the maples. Focus your efforts where grass has a fighting chance.

I moved earlier this year to a rural area of north Aldershot and I'm now facing an entirely different challenge: a large, bare backyard composed mostly of heavy clay and rubble. There will be many days ahead when I'll miss the ease in which I was able to work the my south-Aldershot soil!  

best of luck
Cory Allan
Posts: 61
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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Btw, just sod over the lasagne bed you laid down - it'll be fine. Anything you can add to that sandy soil will only help. Even better, first spread a nitrogen rich material (such as organic compost or fresh grass clippings) on top to help break down the leaves. Carbon-rich (i.e. brown) material combined with nitrogen-rich material (organic fertilizer, greens, manure) feed bacteria to form compost. Carbon-rich (i.e. brown) compost material alone will leach nitrogen where it can get it (such as the sod) as it decomposes.
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