My first lawn :) Tips? Hints??

foodfiend_gardener(6a)January 28, 2014

For 30 years my lawn has been more weeds than grass but, being located on an old farmstead, it "worked". Plus there was too much other work to worry about it.

We are now finishing a home in zone 7b, and our irrigation system and sod have recently been installed. The builder told us that we should use the local lawn-care service because "driving around here in the summer, it's very obvious who uses a service and who does their own lawn". That's the kind of pompous attitude that puts my teeth on edge. Plus, I enjoy working outside.

This has strengthened my resolve to do it myself and to be organic, as well.

I have had very good results with Garden's Alive products in my vegetable and flower gardens, and would like to use their spring and fall formulations of Lawns Alive this year and see how it works out.

Should I use a broadcast or a drop spreader? I've not had any experience with these.

Also, what else should I be doing with an actual grass lawn? Any and all advice will be welcomed!

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

You can absolutely have a much better lawn than the lawn care people can provide. If you do it right, it isn't that hard, either. I mean if a company can come to your house once a week to do a "mow and blow," you can certainly do it. Much more important than mowing is watering and secondary is fertilizer. Get to that below...

Zone 7b is meaningless unless you are selecting plants for winter survivability. What is much more important is your specific location. Soil and climate are what we need to know.

Where do you live?

What kind of grass do you have and what do you want?

Do you have a rotary or reel type mower?

Do you have any water restrictions?

Do you have a home owner's association "helping" you make decisions?

Zone 7b probably means you have St Augustine or bermuda for your turf. Those have opposite care guides, so we need to know what you have.

I've been organic since 2002 and have only used a commercially bagged organic fertilizer twice as an experiment. Most of what I use is ground grains from the feed store. Read the label of your fertilizer and you'll see ingredients like corn, wheat, soy, alfalfa, and likely sulfate of potash. You might also see poultry litter and possibly feather meal. What these are is protein based animal feed. Now if you read a bag of dry dog or cat food you'll find the same ingredients. These feed stuffs provide nutrition to the soil microbes. There are roughly 100,000 species of soil microbes including bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa, and micro arthropods. When you feed the top layer of the soil with real food, the surface living microbes decompose (eat) the food and provide food chain type nutrition to all the other species of microbes in the soil. Somewhere in the thousands of soil microbes, the byproducts of life are real plant food. The process from feeding the soil to feeding the plants takes about 3 full weeks in the spring and summer. This has been Mother Nature's process for billions of years. What you're doing by tossing food on the ground is feeding the soil and the soil feeds the plants.

My recipe for organic fertilizer has shifted over time. At first it was pure ground corn meal because it was $3 for a 50-pound bag. When the price of corn skyrocketed a couple years ago I turned to alfalfa (rabbit pellets) at $12.50 per bag. The application rate for all the grain type fertilizers is 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet, so the cost runs about $5 per 1,000 square feet in most markets. Commercially bagged fertilizers can cost as much as $30 per 1,000. Here is a picture posted by mrmumbles back a couple summers ago. The grass is zoysia. He had not fertilized yet that year. He applied some alfalfa pellets in mid May and took this picture in mid June.

Obviously the turf has better color, density, and growth.

Regardless of which grass type you have, the best watering regimen is what we call, deep and infrequent. Deep means a full inch all at one time. Measure how long it takes your sprinklers to put out a full inch by placing several cat food or tuna cans around the yard and turning on the sprinklers. This timing is very individual. My sprinkler takes 8 hours to get an inch while my neighbor's high flow system does it in 20 minutes. If you see runoff before the cans fill up, write back. Infrequent means about once per month this time of year and moving gradually to once per week during the hottest heat of summer. There are very few exceptions to this rule. Generally you can go to every 3 weeks with daytime temps consistently in the 70s. The idea with deep and infrequent is to grow deep roots which are drought tolerant. Equally important is to allow the soil surface to dry out completely between watering. This keeps weed seeds from germinating. Weeds need continual moisture to germinate, so if you simply water correctly, you should have very little weed pressure.

Write back with answers to the questions above and we can help you more.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 1:00PM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

Wow, dchall, you've given me a lot to think about. Our new neighbors, mostly all of them, hire crews to take care of their lawns. I enjoy working outside and welcome the chance to show them all that a beautiful lawn can be achieved with a minimum of effort and money. Plus done organically instead of saturating the ground with chemicals.

The sod is tall fescue grass, and it was set on a thick (don't know the exact depth) layer of screened topsoil over rather sandy soil. Our location is in Lewes, DE. My husband has a John Deere ZTrak mower that is his baby. ;)
We have a separate well for the irrigation system. We do have a homeowners association, but I don't think that they want much than to have the lawns look good.
The irrigation system is now off for the winter, but I will check its watering capacity using your method in the spring.

So what do you think I need to know? I really do appreciate your advice.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 10:08PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

DE is not at all where I thought you lived, so good thing I asked.

With fescue there are a few things you can count on. One is a nice dark green color. Another is that the lawn may thin out some for several reasons by the end of summer. When you see that happening, you have to reseed the thin areas early in the fall (late August after the summer heat breaks), so the seed has time to sprout, grow, and harden up some before winter. Spring seeding is a bad time because the crabgrass seed is right there waiting for you to water it. If you can find out what variety of fescue grass you have, you can often find the same seed so it does not look drastically different when the seed comes in.

Fescue should not be mowed short. It should be somewhere between 2.5 and 4 inches. One of frequent posters here, tiemco, will tell you 2.5 and I'll tell you 4. Taller grass really makes a difference to summer heat tolerance when it gets into the high 90s, so I tend toward fairly tall grass. This picture of a fescue lawn was posted by william back in 2001. He had just changed his mowing height to the highest setting on his mower and wanted to report a total transformation of his weed patch to a nice lawn. The tall grass had essentially blocked out the weeds.

I remember someone along the way reporting that his tall grass blocked his neighbor's crabgrass lawn from advancing. He said he watched and did nothing to see what would happen. Crabgrass likes to be close to the ground and cannot survive in among taller grass.

Always mulch mow your lawn clippings back into the lawn. The grass clippings become organic lawn food as they decay making more food available to the microbes.

Don't get in a hurry to fertilize. Once the grass awakens, it will shoot out of the ground like a rocket. It does not need any help and may require 2x per week mowing. If you fertilize before that, you might be mowing 3x per week to keep ahead of it. About 3-4 weeks later you'll notice the growth rate slowing down. That is the time to fertilize. If you do not fertilize again all summer, that would be fine. Then fertilize again on Labor Day and again on Thanksgiving. Or with organics you can fertilize as much as every weekend if you want to push for the silver medal. If you want to go for gold, then have your soil tested by Logan Labs in Ohio ($20). We can get you help to interpret the LL soil test and help you find the chemicals needed to perfect your soil chemistry. Having the best chemistry helps in building the best biology in the soil.

So to summarize normal care:
1. Water deep and infrequent
2. Mulch mow fairly high
3. Fertilize on schedule

If you have a dense turf of tall grass, you should not need a preemergent herbicide - so turn off the Scott's commercials on the weekend golf matches on TV. You do not need to seed in the spring - so turn off the Scott's commercials on the weekend golf matches on TV. You do not need to fertilize early in the spring - so turn off the Scott's commercials on the weekend golf matches on TV. You might need lime in your soil, but wait for the Logan Labs test to tell you what kind of lime and how much. You do not need a zero-turn mower - so turn off the JD commercials...oops! Too late for that.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2014 at 7:08PM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

dchall, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to reply so thoroughly. You've given me so much information! I now feel that I will be able to get this organic lawn going, and it's all due to your advice. THANK YOU!

How do you apply the fertilizer? And I will go to the Logan Labs website now to see what I need to do.

Our "lawn" now is about 4 acres, and the new house is only .53 acre, but DH will not give up his zero-turn. :)

    Bookmark   February 8, 2014 at 10:27PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Do I understand that you are going to have 4 acres of lawn or about 1/2 acre of lawn? If you are going to apply fertilizer over 4 acres you need special attachments to a lawn tractor. If you are doing it for 1/2 acre, then I would sling it by hand. Are there broadcast attachments for the Z Track?

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 7:22PM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

I apologize for not being clear. Our current home is 4 acres, therefore the reason for my husband ourchasing the zero-turn several years ago; the new home that we are "sodding" is only .53 acre. Does this mean I don't have to go through the "deciding on a spreader" process??? I would love to be able to sling out the fertilizer material by hand!

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 10:53PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I sling mine by hand on a little less than 1/2 acre. Of course the house, driveway, and my wife's flower beds take up a lot of that area.

Organics are very forgiving. Three weeks after the first application you will see if you missed any spots. With chemicals, if you miss a spot, you have to wait until next season to catch up. With organics it doesn't matter. You can fertilize every weekend if you want to.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 12:14AM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

dchall, I am planning my lawn fertilizing strategy and everything you have said in the previous posts makes so much sense. I am going to buy 30 pounds of grain (we have about 1500sf) and was wondering if I should go for all ground corn meal or all alfalfa pellets, or a combo?

Again, your advice has been very appreciated. Thanks.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2014 at 9:58PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

These grains come in 50-pound bags...as you might have found out by now. What you use depends more on your wallet than anything. There is a theoretical "bang for your buck" with these. But sometimes corn meal (a weaker fertilizer) costs more than alfalfa pellets. In 2012 corn was almost twice as expensive as alfalfa. In 2002, corn was 1/3 the cost of alfalfa.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2014 at 8:15PM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

For moving to a state where agriculture is the #1 business, I am finding it very difficult to locate corn meal. It looks like I will have to travel for about 45 minutes, but I am willing to do that.

I wonder if alfalfa pellets might be a better choice. It doesn't matter about cost, since either option is far less expensive than buying bags of "organic fertilizer". What kind of store would sell the alfalfa?

Are these really pellets? If so, how big? I've never seen them before and wonder if the nutrients would be better absorbed into the soil by the ground corn?

I am reading and rereading your advice to me and am going to send a soil sample into a lab at Penn State for testing. I also plan to measure the water from the irrigation system once it is turned on for the spring. I'm afraid that our neighbors will think of us as a bit odd since we aren't planing to hire the "in" landscape maintenance service, and I want them to be awestruck by our beautiful, organic lawn. :)

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 10:39PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Did you call all these places?
Southern States
7308 Williamsville Rd, Milford, DE 19963 (302) 422-8066

Frank Clendaniel Inc
Feed Store
Butler Ave, Lincoln, DE 19960 (302) 422-4611

T G Adams & Sons Inc
Farm
Railroad Ave, Bridgeville, DE 19933 (302) 337-8281

Central Grain Inc
Feed Store
Railroad Ave, Laurel, DE 19956 (302) 875-2183

Perdue Farms Inc
Farm
114 Bryan Ave, Berlin, MD 21811 (410) 641-2362

Hard Country Stables
Feed Store
4272 Judith Rd, Dover, DE 19904 (302) 492-8620

Southern States
Landscaping Supply Store
227 School Ln, Clayton, DE 19938 (302) 653-6634

Queen Anne Grain Co
Feed Store
32500 1st St, Queen Anne, MD 21657 (410) 364-5800

Royal Farms
701 Coastal Hwy, Fenwick, DE 19944 (302) 539-2077

Smeltzer & Sons Feed & Pet
1139 U.S. 9, Cape May Ct Hse, NJ 08210 (609) 465-4500

Alfalfa pellets look like this...

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 1:56AM
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foodfiend_gardener(6a)

I didn't think that the pellets would be so big! :)

Thanks for the list. I did try a couple of the places closer to the new house but struck out. I will buy them, more conveniently, closer to our "old" house since our next trailer- load will be the JD mower and other outdoor-type stuff so we will toss the bag in that load (thank goodness, no heavy furniture next trip!!!).

Once more, thanks so much!

    Bookmark   March 10, 2014 at 7:48AM
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