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How to improve my soil and lawn

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Hi guys!

Paul, first of all many thanks for sharing all the richsoin information, very valuable!

I'm new to organic lawn methods, I'm trying to improve my lawn without chemicals.

Basically, my lawn is pretty young since it has been seeded about one year ago. The main problem is that, even if we are in spring (Italy), the grass of my lawn is not growing. I've made some first soil test (homemade, no lab test yet) and I think the soil is made of clay: by wetting it I can easily form balls and it is very sticky.
I cannot even start to apply the mow high suggestion, because my grass is not growing! After some observation I realised that most of my soil was bone dry, so I started watering it. Now, just to see if it makes a difference, I'm watering it almost every evening, but the result is the same: the day after I always find a very dry soil.

On the part of the lawn that faces south I cannot even make the hole test. I cannot dig deeper than 2 centimeters I think, since the soil is very hard. On the part of the lawn that faces north, I've been able to dig a 15 cm hole and you can see the picture below.

The big question now is: what is the problem of my lawn? Should I improve the soil so that my grass start to grow? I've come to the conclusion of adding compost: is that a good move?

As you can see from the pictures, my lawn is mostly full of papaveracee, which seems to like this kind of soil.

Here are some pictures. Paul, your help is needed here!
[Thumbnail for DSC_0874-low.JPG]
[Thumbnail for DSC_0865-low.JPG]
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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The soil looks okay.  It looks a little low in organic matter, but that shouldn't make it that bad.

Are there earthworms? 

Take a cup of soil and put it in a quart jar and fill the jar with water.  Mix it well.  Then let it site for a couple of days and then send me a picture.

And because things look so bad, get a soil test done.  I suspect super high levels of P and K.

Have you tried organic fertilizer?

Try this:  Take a post hole digger and dig a hole about two feet deep. Re-fill the hole with 50% compost and 50% of what you took out of the hole. Stir a little grass seed into the top quarter inch of soil.  Let's see how that goes.

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Hi Paul,

Thank you very much for your suggestions! I'll try what you say


1) No earthworms on the dry parts of the soil, it is almost like cement.

2) Not tried to put compost on the top yet, I'm still trying to find out where to buy it (I'm composting at home but I have just started).

Two more informations that are perhaps useful.

1) The "bad" part of my lawn is built on a not so thick layer of soil (about 30 cm), because I have car parks under it. Perhaps this is the reason why it always look so dry? The other part of the lawn, which is built upon a much ticker layer of soil, is now pretty green and grass is growing well (the pic of the hole refer to this part, the good one. The other one is bone dry, no way to dig).

2) Last day we had a major thunderstorm here, so my garden has been watered really deep. Despite this, I noticed that the day after some areas of the lawn where already dry! Dry to the point that I was not able to dig a shovel deeper than 1 cm. The other areas where the grass is growing well were really smooth, I was able to dig the shovel easily (and easily pull weeds).

After some readings about that I suspect I should aerate my lawn, in order to improve the water content. Do you think this is a good idea? Or compost will improving the soil without any other operation?

Thanks again!
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I purchased a house two years ago in Portland, Oregon, with rock hard clay soil.  It was very difficult to start a lawn; I started by mixing in compost and blood meal with a rototiller about 6 inches deep.  The resulting grass that grew was mediocre at best; yellow, weak and thin. 

I decided to overseed the lawn with dutch white clover; specifically, I created a mix of 50% peat moss and 50% sharp sand and mixed the clover seeds into this mix.  I spread the mix over the lawn in a thin layer and watered it daily.  Within days I had clover sprouts growing.  It took about a year for the clover to really take hold and improve the soil, but now my lawn is 50% clover and 50% lush green grass.  It requires no watering (I'll water it a bit if we get a long stretch of hot, dry weather); requires no fertilizer; the only maintenance is to cut it once or twice a week (set the mower to 3" or 4" high).  The clover has done a great job breaking up the clay soil.  I allow the lawn clippings to stay on the lawn, creating a nice layer of organic humus. 

You needn't mow the lawn if you like the looks of the clover.  It can get very thick and lush, but may reach 6" or more high.  I like to keep it mowed at 4"; when mowed, only the clover stalks remain, making the lawn look just like grass.

Clover sounds like it would be a great fit for your dry soil.  Clover is quite drought tolerant, saving you lots of water in the long run.  Just be sure to keep the seeds moist while they sprout.  Using the peat moss mixture helps keep the seeds moist and greatly improves the germination rate; I don't suggest skipping this step.

Good luck with your lawn!
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Location: Germany/Cologne - Finland/Savonlinna
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I would use Coir instead of Peat Moss. Coir is renewable, Peat Moss is not. And by using Peat Moss you kill endangered species by trucking off their habitat. Far better to use a natural, unfertilized or sprayed byproduct of the carpet and rope industry. One coconut palm produces up to 120 coconuts a year. The coconut flesh is eaten, the milk is drunken. No need to be ashamed to use it.

Coir has far better suited characteristics for gardening than Peat Moss anyway, e.g. it is neither acidic nor alcaline. You don't have to adjust pH with additional supplements when you mix it with your native soil. And the water holding capacity is far superior to Peat Moss. Coir takes up 30% more water than Peat Moss but drys out equally fast.

Best regards! 
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Dunkelheit wrote:
I would use Coir instead of Peat Moss.

Dunkelheit is absolutely right, it is much better to use coco coir instead of peat moss, especially in a lawn situation.  Coir is much easier on the environment and typically costs about the same as peat moss (by volume).

A couple words of caution about coir, though.  Some coir products, particularly packaged in bricks, are quite salty.  Before using coir, it is a good idea to thorough wash it, preferably with warm or hot water, to remove the salts.  I wash all my coir prior to use, even if it states that it's been pre-washed.  Also, the cation exchange of coir is much different than peat moss, therefore any nutrients added to coir may behave differently than when added to a peat moss based mix.  You may have to adjust your normal fertilizer mix (hopefully organic) when creating potting soil from coco coir.
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