Lawn in shambles--where to start?

WhammytapMarch 22, 2014

Hi everybody! I'm a noob to lawn care and I've been trying to do my homework, but I'm a bit overwhelmed. I'm hoping someone here can help me sort out all the information.

My mother's lawn has been completely neglected for over fourteen years, and it looks it. I'd like to fix it up for her before the neighbors (who have perfect lawns) put strychnine in her coffee maker. She lives in the Kansas City area, the soil here is very dense clay. The yard has never been aerated, fertilized, seeded, or treated for weeds. It was zoysia grass twenty years ago. Now it's roughly a third crabgrass and dandelions, plus a couple nice big bare patches from foot traffic and tree removal. The lawn typically gets mowed when the crabgrass gets tall, as the zoysia doesn't grow nearly as fast.

As my mother is not willing to put any money into lawn care, this act of goodwill is on a shoestring budget. I can, however, spare a good deal of time, and I don't mind tedious work. I'm only concerned with the front yard for now, and it's a fairly small area (maybe 600 square feet).

Should my first priority be to aerate and fertilize the yard in hopes of encouraging any kind of growth, then kill the weeds as they come up? Or do I need to grit my teeth and wait until fall, when I can re-seed? I want to avoid expensive tool rentals and I plan to invest in a step-style core aerator (tedious but cheap). Also, the lawn guy at my local hardware store said that it would be advisable to re-seed with fescue and bluegrass while keeping what's left of the zoysia. Does this sound kosher?

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

In my opinion fescue and bluegrass would be better choices for the area than zoysia. She probably read the advertizing in the back of Parade magazine and bought into that sales pitch. You can't just plant it and forget about it. You might be able to nurse the zoysia back to full coverage by killing the weeds and letting the zoysia spread. I would follow the basics below and see how the grass looks in June. Then decide if you want to continue with zoysia or switch to fescue and Kentucky bluegrass.

I would kill the weeds by spot spraying, not weed and feed and not preemergent. Corn gluten meal makes a good fertilizer, but if it has any preemergent quality, it's very weak. I used it heavily, every month of the season, and never saw any effect on weeds.

Will you be able to control watering the lawn? Is there an automatic sprinkler you can program? Or do you visit once per week? Watering should be done no more than once per week and deep when you do it. Put some empty cat food or tuna cans in the yard and turn on the sprinkler. Then time how long it takes to fill the cans. That's how long you should water. This time of year you don't need to water that often. You can do it once every 3 weeks as long as you're getting it down deep.

If you get runoff before you get a full inch of water, then you have a penetration problem. Try spraying the lawn with baby shampoo at a rate of 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet. Then give it an inch of water. If you can't get a full inch before you get runoff, stop immediately and let the water soak in for 30 minutes. Then continue watering until you get an inch. The next week water without the shampoo. The week after that, use the shampoo again and inch of water. That should soften your soil and set it up for good penetration, retention, and no runoff.

Crabgrass should be dead this time of year. Can you take a picture of the 1/3 that is crabgrass and post it here? Preferably take the picture in the shade or on a cloudy day and get in pretty close to it (3 inches is good).

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 7:03PM
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Thanks for your reply! The zoysia lawn came with the house when my mom bought it...14 years ago. I don't doubt the previous homeowners bought the hype. To answer your follow-up questions:

1) I do stop by about once a week and could turn on the sprinkler then if it hasn't rained, or hasn't rained enough.

2) The crabgrass that I mentioned isn't up now; I was just referring to what the lawn looks like in the heat of summer. Right now it's just bare, muddy patches and dormant zoysia with a few brave sprigs of volunteer fescue poking up here and there. There was snow on the ground here yesterday. The linked photo is one I happened to take from the roof a couple of days ago. It's far from a close-up, but it does show the general condition of the area.

I've been hearing similar opinions about pre-emergents and weed-n'-feed products. What about fertilizers--should I fertilize this spring? The soil is very compacted--should I use the baby-shampoo trick you wrote of along with aeration? Thank you so much for your help!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 8:21PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Oh, my. Picture's worth 1,000 words.

That's a one sprinkler yard if you have an oscillator type. Get a good one.

I'd start with organic fertilizer now. One bag of alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) will last you all season. The application rate is 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. The first time I would do 10 pounds per 1,000. Then repeat in 2-4 weeks and every month at the full rate. It looks like neglect and the soil has suffered. Once the organics kick in (3 weeks), everything will improve.

Also if you can get compost in 2 cubic foot bags, I would spread an entire bag of that over the lawn. It will look like not enough, but it's plenty. Spread it and immediately water it but not drench it. The idea is to wash the beneficial microbes on the compost off and onto the soil. They know what to do from there.

Check back at the end of April to let us know what the weed situation is versus the zoysia. You should see new zoysia coming in around where the weeds are. You should also see very healthy weeds, but that is when you want to do something about them. That's the time for spot spraying after they look really good. Watch for weed flowers and mow them off before they go to seed.

And start watering about every 3 weeks right now unless you get rain. If you do the shampoo treatment, that will be a lot of water in a 3-week period. But by then the temps should be higher and you can use more water.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2014 at 9:43PM
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Okay, today my fiance and I made the trip over to my mom's. We raked the yard to remove sticks, leaves and the dead thatch from the dormant zoysia. Then we spread out 10 pounds of alfalfa pellet rabbit food and 40 pounds of peat/manure compost. We watered it in until the compost had melted and the rabbit pellets had started to disintegrate. Rain is expected in the next couple days.

I will repeat this process in 2-4 weeks as you recommended, and post another photo here at the end of April. My mom does have a good oscillating sprinkler (she just doesn't use it), and so far, there hasn't been any problem with the water soaking in. The soil here is very dense and retains water well. When weeds start coming up and looking really healthy, I'll nuke 'em individually before they go to seed. Thank you so much for all your help, dchall san antonio!

    Bookmark   March 30, 2014 at 8:21PM
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Okay, more work, more news! I bought a manual core aerator and used it on the more compacted areas of the lawn yesterday. It's hard work and slow going, but a little at a time isn't bad. The dandelions certainly seemed to be enjoying all the attention, and I spent several hours grubbing them out by hand. I added 80 pounds of topsoil and 20 pounds of compost to the hole full of wood chips where the tree used to be, then seeded it with a 90/10 fescue/bluegrass seed mix. Then I did a light broadcast of the same seed mix across the whole yard. Then I top-dressed about 300 lbs. of composted manure across the whole yard. I'd have liked to put on more rabbit pellets as you specified, dchall san antonio, but rabbit pellets are a dollar a pound, as opposed to manure compost which is about 10 cents a pound. So I'm doing lots and lots of compost. I'll post another picture towards the end of the month so you can see the progress. It looks better than it did already, but I don't know how much of that is the work I'm doing and how much is simply the lawn coming out of dormancy.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 8:05PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)


The raking, alfalfa, and compost are all good. I'm a little worried about the compost being called manure compost. Did it smell incredibly wonderful? If not your mother will have issues with her neighbors for several weeks.

The core aerator, on the other hand, is little more than an exercise tool. The shampoo treatment I mentioned was meant to replace the whole idea of core aerating.

The hole full of wood chips needs to be cleaned out so that it is completely free of wood chips. Wood takes a long time to decompose under ideal conditions. When it is buried it can take decades. All that time the fungus which decomposes the wood will absorb every bit of nitrogen fertilizer you can put on the hole. It will remain a yellow spot in the yard for at least 20 years. If you dig it up now you can use it as a top dressing/mulch anywhere. It just cannot be used in the ground. Refill the hole with 90% soil and 10% compost.

You're getting your rabbit pellets at the wrong place. Call any of the places on this list to see what the cost is. It should be about $12 for a 50-pound bag.

So you spent $40 on compost so far and $10 on rabbit food. And that economics seemed right to you? I mean the compost won't hurt as long as it doesn't stink. But you get a lot more bang for the buck with rabbit food. Once you get the price down on the rabbit food, it will seem much more economical. In my neighborhood compost costs me $75 per 1,000 square feet while alfalfa pellets cost $5 per 1,000. I can apply alfalfa 15 times before I get up to the cost of one app of compost.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 9:10PM
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Get one of those weed puller uppers. The ones that will grab the broadleaf weed (like a dandelion) and pull it right up with the roots (tap root).

Just doing that, will make the lawn look a whole lot better to start. Then doing the things you are doing will continue the process towards a better lawn.

At the same time, for that kind of small space, it would be also very possible to add sod grass without too much cost or labor (which you can do).

    Bookmark   April 15, 2014 at 10:29AM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Gypsum is a good treatment for loosening clay soil. A bag spread on once a year. Are the tree roots an issue? The remaining trees you have there are poorly placed. Eventually they will be an issue, not only to the grass but to the pavement as well.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2014 at 10:37AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

A measured amount of gypsum can be good for clay if you have clay and not a calcarious soil masquerading as clay. It would take a soil test to answer that question.

One of the brand names for the weeding tool that gardenper mentioned is Weed Hound. Check the box stores - about $25. It lets you stand up and pull weeds. When they first came out they were all the rage here on the forums.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2014 at 2:57PM
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Wow, what responses! Thanks so much, all of you.

dchall san antonio: I've looked at pet stores, lots of the feed stores on the list you provided, and lawn/garden centers; no matter what size the bag is, everybody wants a dollar a pound for rabbit pellets. It's a conspiracy!!!

The manure I've been getting is fully composted; no smell, just good, soft, moist black earth. My reasoning for getting so much of it is that it seems like my mom's yard just needs more material--the sidewalks and driveways stick up 3-4" above the ground, there has been a lot of erosion and soil loss due to the barrenness of the ground. Please don't be mad at me! :) I want to use rabbit pellets as a maintenance fertilizer for sure, but I thought it would also be prudent to give the grass seed something to settle into comfortably. Looking at organic lawn-care blogs, I see people putting top-dressings of compost down an inch or more thick.

Thanks for the heads-up on the wood chips. I will excavate the hole on my next visit and fill it completely with 90 topsoil/10 compost as you recommended. Now that the grass (and weeds) are greening up, I can see that the middle of the yard is getting quite dense and lush with mostly fescue, but the problem areas are the margins--all along the sidewalk, street, and driveways the soil is hard-compacted, dries out very fast, and has very little grass--mostly weeds and dirt. This is where I put the majority of the composted manure, and did that bit of aeration.

gardenper 8: Grubbing dandelions without crawling around on my knees? The heck you say! I'm looking into that. I thought about laying sod for half a minute there, but I balk at the cost of renting expensive tools like a Rototiller. I hate renting tools, hate renting anything. Plus my mom's yard has a lot of biodiversity and I like that--neither of us want to lose the beautiful Johnny jump-up that flourishes this time of year.

hoovb: YES, tree roots are an issue. Both the one that was removed and the one that remains are that special variety of elm that, while resistant to Dutch elm disease, put out massive, extremely shallow roots and manage to always look sick and scrawny. Around here, pardon my French, we call them piss-elms. All the neighbors got oaks, maples, and sweetgums, and we got a piss-elm. A couple summers ago, I excavated and cut off a big root that had heaved up the brick walkway and had cracked the driveway. Couldn't do much for the driveway, but I re-laid the brick and it wasn't too bad for a first effort.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2014 at 1:18AM
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I know I was supposed to post a picture in late April, my computer has been having some issues. The attached photos were taken two weeks ago. The middle of the yard is looking great; I've been hitting the dandelions with Weed-B-Gon, used almost 2 gallons so far.

I've been keeping the more barren areas as consistently moist as possible, and the whole lawn gets a deep watering (at least 1") about once a week. I've got my mower set at 3 1/2 inches. The crab grass is starting to come in along the verges; I've been pulling it by hand.

The photo, taken from the NW corner of the lawn, shows an area where there are a lot of shallow tree roots that I think are preventing much of anything from growing.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 11, 2014 at 10:43PM
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Here is another photo, taken from just beside the front door, showing the bare area along the front walk.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 11, 2014 at 10:45PM
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