Starting a new lawn

spotofteaJuly 21, 2014

Hello everyone,
I'm new here and looking for some suggestions for starting a new lawn in the backyard (dirt patch) of my rental in Brooklyn. At this point all I've done is turn the soil once with a pitchfork. The area I have slated for the lawn is about 200 sq. ft. I've tested the soil and the results are:

N=Very Low
P=Low to Medium

I plan to first try to bring the pH down a little with some sulfur and mix in some composted manure. But after that I'm not sure what grass seed to get and how I should fertilize. The area gets full sun so I was thinking about trying Kentucky Blue Grass. As for fertilizer, I would like to keep it organic. Do I need to try to raise the Phosphorus level as well as the Nitrogen? If so, how? Thanks so much!

Below is a link to my plan for the garden/lawn.

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

MINT! In the GROUND!! Just kidding...sort of. Once mint becomes established, it becomes an invasive weed. At least it does in Texas. And it gives a refreshing fragrance when you mow it down.

If you want to use organics, then skip the rest of the prep you had planned. Especially skip the sulfur. Sulfur is a nonselective fungicide which is basically poison to an organic soil. Your pH is normal enough and the organics will tend to perfect it for you.

Start this project in August after the evening hot nights seem to cool off.

Do you have a flat surface or does it look like it was just forked? Whatever, flatten it first, scatter the seed, walk on every square inch of grass seed to press it into the surface of the soil, water 3x per day for 3-4 weeks until you have 80% germination, then start to back off on the watering frequency until you are watering deeply but only once every 2-3 weeks. This should be a gradual process.

You won't need any amendments at this point. The fertilizer is the amendment. Always apply organic fertilizer at the surface of the soil.

I really should insert something to that method of installation. Just because you have turned the soil (that was not needed, by the way), you have not killed the weeds. If you are not opposed to setting this up using RoundUp, then do this. Start watering briefly 3x per day as if you were sprouting grass seed. Just 10 minutes at breakfast, lunch, and dinner would be perfect. This will sprout all the weeds in the soil. Give them a week to get going and spray with RoundUp. Continue watering for another week or two and then spot spray any new weeds with RU. Give that a few days to dry out and then do the seed. If you skip this step, then all those weeds would have sprouted when you were sprouting the grass seed. Sometimes people panic at that, so this is the easiest way to avoid the panic.

You really get what you pay for with seed. What you want is seed with Weed Crop = 0.00% and Other Crop = 0.00%. You can find these seed products on the Internet but not online. They are expensive, but they have not weeds in them. Or you can buy Home Depot seed and plan to fight the weeds for awhile until the grass gets established.

For organic fertilizer I prefer to use the ingredients rather than the commercially bagged fertilizer. I like alfalfa pellets (rabbit chow) from my local feed store. Here are the feeds stores in your area. Call first to see what they have. For 200 square feet you only need about 3 pounds. I would scatter it by hand.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 1:59PM
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N=Very Low
P=Low to Medium

I hate to say it, but this is not a good test. Containing no specific numbers, it doesn't tell you a thing about what to do.

Don't try to lower your pH. This test is non-specific enough that I a) don't trust it, and b) would be unable to give you a recommendation on what to use and how to use it.

A pH of 7.0-7.2 is completely acceptable for lawns, but they may not show the deepest green colors due to iron binding. 7.5 might be a bit high depending on other soil resources, but grass will still grow very nicely here.

New York soils tend toward the acidic due to high levels of rainfall, which is another reason I don't trust the test entirely. You can send a pH high by excessive liming (I've done it), but it'll usually flex back down pretty quickly once that stops in the tri-state area.

I'd suggest a Logan soil test before making any soil modifications.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 2:05PM
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Thanks guys! Lots of good info in there. Admittedly, the soil test kit I used was from HD so you're right it's probably not all that accurate. You've definitely convinced me to stay away from changing the pH. It seems like there hasn't been much of anything besides weeds growing in the backyard of the brownstone for a very long time (save for a struggling rose bush that I'm trying to nurse back to some semblance of health). I figured I'd need to turn the soil because I didn't think anything would grow in such packed earth (despite the fact that I encountered quite a few very thick weed roots, some so well established I couldn't even pull them out). I like the idea of watering before I seed to try to get some more of the weeds out. After turning the soil, it does look like it's been forked, so I plan to spend some time leveling it out.

As for fertilizer, I'm going to have to read up on alfalfa. Is that all you use? I was planning to go with something like Milorganite. Also, do you think it's a good idea to cover up the freshly seeded lawn with straw? I'm afraid the birds and squirrels are going to have a field day unless I do something to cover it up, or maybe it won't even stop them, I don't know. Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 4:16PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Covering with straw is a local custom. It is not done anywhere except a few locations. Apparently you came from one of those, because I don't think Brooklyn is one of the places where they do that. Straw can hurt if it has seeds in it. Typically straw with seeds is called hay, but sometimes things get mixed up. Straw can also hurt because people want to rake it off after the grass starts to germinate. The usually end up raking up the new seed. Mother Nature does not use straw to cover Her new seed, so I stay away from it. Fear of birds and squirrels is not a reason to cover the grass seed.

If you used an HD test kit, then the pH you got is most likely the pH of the water you used.

We have ways of unpacking hard soil without doing anything mechanical. We could have saved you some work. It is a shampoo treatment that both flocculates the particles (ask morpheuspa about that) and grows more beneficial fungi.

You don't have to read anything else on alfalfa. I'm the only one writing about it. Generally I don't have to write much because I have this handy dandy picture posted here by mrmumbles back in 2011.

A picture's worth a thousand words, huh! What else do you want to know about alfalfa?

That was mrmumbles zoysia lawn. He scattered the alfalfa in mid May and took the picture in mid June. That's how long it takes to really see a difference. You should be able to see the improved density, color, and growth in about 3 weeks. The application rate is 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet, so you don't need very much at all. After you apply, moisten (not drench) the pellets. The next day they will have expanded into large worm looking things. If you don't do that step, then you will have birds and squirrels in the yard. At least they leave "birdorganite" behind. Then after the pellets have expanded, you can sweep or brush the alfalfa dust down into the soil.

One of the advantages of organics is you can use as much as you want as often as you want. One of the disadvantages of using a lot right away is the soil is not ready to process large amounts. Once the microbe population expands, then you can use more and more without any aroma of decomposing protein.

Milorganite is fine. In my neighborhood alfalfa pellets (rabbit chow) is a lot less expensive than Milorganite.

Once you get roots in the ground and after a few applications of organic fertilizer, your soil will completely transform.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 6:00PM
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Thanks dchall. I would be pretty happy to have any of the grass in that picture, but especially the middle bit. Seems like alfalfa is definitely worth a try next spring if I can get anything growing. The only reason I'm worried is because my new neighbor said she had a tough time growing grass and so opted for sod, which is a bit more expensive than I'd like. So as for the species of the seed, sounds like mixing a few (and look into the one you mentioned earlier) but is there a recommended variety for a relatively sunny backyard (7-8 hours now, probably less in the early spring) with the things we've been talking about? Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 6:32PM
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>>s for fertilizer, I'm going to have to read up on alfalfa. Is that all you use? I was planning to go with something like Milorganite.

I use alfalfa copiously on my roses, but it's a little too expensive to do the entire lawn. My pricing is the reverse of David's--for me, soybean meal is unbelievably cheap as I live in soybean country.

Roses? They adore alfalfa. My cheap HD rose is festooned with blossoms until the Japanese beetles hit, and then once they're gone until the bush freezes. A good double handful a month is sufficient, but do add something with higher nitrogen as well. I use soybean meal, Milorganite, and I'm not above hitting the poor thing with Miracle Gro occasionally.

Milorganite is great stuff, and you'll get good results from it. It's always wise to rotate what you use a bit, so I'm soybean most of the time, Milorganite some of the time, occasionally a little cracked corn in spring as a fungal defense.

But if you're stuck with only one thing, Milo isn't a bad thing to be stuck with!

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 7:13PM
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Thanks Morpheus, I'm going to try alfalfa on my rose now too!

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 10:06AM
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