First home, first lawn - some struggles

cjparkerSeptember 2, 2013

Hello All.

This is my first post to the GardenWeb forums, but not my first visit. I've used this forum quite a bit to assist me in repairing and working with my first lawn.

Let me start by saying that this post is long and references an external album (a lot of pictures I'd like to share to get advice on) so I appreciate those of you that read through this and provide any insight you can. I look forward to the replies!

To start, my wife and I purchased our house September 2012 (first home) and the yard was in a bit of stress. I have an album available here to view all pictures, with descriptions:

Lawn Trouble Pictures

The first four pictures in the album are before and after pictures; pre-yard work (July 2012) and post yard work (July 2013). Overall the yard took well to the work, the front yard still remains in great condition and a majority of the back yard does as well. The back is in shade 70% of the day due to a lot of tree cover, but I purchased premium Pennington shade-grass seed to re-seed the back and it's taken pretty well, as shown in PIC-10.

My trouble area is the side yard and some of a hill. The side being the worst. The left side of my house (PICs 3,5,6,7) is in shade 90% of the day if not more. There's a big maple tree next to the deck that shades the yard and I believe to be the main cause of killing the grass.

I suspect some areas are just not able to be saved, in PIC-5 top right of the picture (where the tree is) it completely died early August. I suspect I just need to mulch all of that and call it a day due to the tree. It gets no sun, ever, and the tree drip-line hammers the ground with water when it rains. PIC-6 shows a zoomed in shot of that area, which is now basically dirt.

So here is what I did, and then after what happened in a rough time-line:

When I moved in i treated the entire yard with lime, pH balance was around 4.0-5.0 in areas, after treatment it's now roughly around 6.3 or so (still needs to go up, but a good start). I did this September 2012 when we moved in.

Once the weather started to get around 50+ F consistently (end of March early April) I dethatched, core aerated, and seeded the lawn with the Pennington premium seed. General lawn I just did seed and let nature water, any thin/damaged areas I cultivated, mixed with new rich soil, seeded, and laid hay down to let it grow. Overall it took well (PICs 2,4,9).

The grass stayed very healthy (except for right around the maple tree in PIC-4) until early August. It started with the grass sort of "falling" on itself. It looked like something was sleeping on the grass all night, as it started to fall in on itself (we have no pets, no kids, and nobody comes onto our lawn - motion lights out back, never kick on so we know nothing is out there). I tried to get the grass back up by just gently swishing my hand in it, but that's when I noticed the grass was sticking to itself (almost as if it was glued together). If it was pulled just lightly the roots ripped right up, like it was not even 1/8" in the ground.

It continued to drop and die, end of August it eventually thinned out (PIC-7) or completely died (PIC-6). Ultimately my problem is shown viewing the entire side of the house (PIC-5).

Everything else I treated stayed in great shape, so I suspect the side yard needs special treatment.

I am tempted to scalp that entire area this fall, heavily cultivate (do a deep rip-up of the ground, good couple inches down) and re-seed with pure shade mix. Let the fall sustain the roots, then treat and fertilize early Spring. But I've put a lot of money into the yard already, so I'd hate to do it again to have the same results next year.

This is where i come to all of you for any advice you can provide. I feel defeated haha, so any advice will be appreciated. Thank you in advance!

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

It's always interesting to me to see what people take away from this forum. You say you used the GardenWeb forums to help you repair and work on your lawn. Yet for the past several years, nobody has advocated dethatching, aerating, or seeding in the spring; using Pennington seed; letting Nature water; or using hay. You may have used another one of these forums, but you should have come to the lawn forum for lawn advice. And the consequences of doing all those things have been explained many times. And what you have planned will give you headaches for the next 3 years regardless of whether the new seed germinates.

NOW is the time to reseed northern lawn grasses. Spring is NOT the time to seed. If you seed in the spring, the norm is to have a full blown crabgrass lawn by July with all the new grass being dead. Dethatching an area where the grass is thin is a waste of time and money. Aerating is a waste of time and money. Letting Nature water is an indication that you are unwilling to do what it takes to install a lawn and keep it looking good. Using hay is a waste of time and money.

We can help you get a great lawn, but before we explain it to you, it would be nice to have some commitment from you that you will water the new seed 3x per day for a full 3 weeks to get the seed to germinate. And once the grass is mature that you will commit to watering a full inch of water once per month in the early spring, and gradually moving to once per week during the hottest part of summer.

What do you say? It really is not as hard as you have made it out to be to get started. I've already saved you time and money on aerating, dethatching, and hay. We can save you more money/time by not cultivating or bringing in new soil. I don't know where you're getting your advice, but it is not from this forum.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 11:59PM
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Well I warranted myself quite a reply I suppose. I apologize if you took my post as me making up what I found on this forum or misreading what people have said.

I am fully aware there are a million opinions on how to treat a lawn and get it great and not all are right. I've had 3 separate quotes from three different companies and each company gave me a completely different plan of attack including but not limited to seeding, detaching, core aeration, and new top-soil all of which mentioned different seasons to start. I'm a realist, each one of those companies look to make money as soon as possible more than anything. That's why I decided to try an approach researching as much as I could on the internet. Though you may not agree with what I did, I am proud of the huge improvement this year alone in 80% of my yard as it still remains strong in most areas (probably not perfect, but I’m happy with the progress for only doing this for 6 months). My post is specific to a problem area around a tree and in a lot of shade…

So though I truly do appreciate your feedback and would love any advice, I don't appreciate being treated like I'm unworthy of advice, an assumption that I’m unwilling to commit, or that I’m making up my own solutions because I made choices that don't live up to your standards. I can’t think of any logical reason on why I would exaggerate, lie, or decide my own approach outside of what I read on a forum whether it was GardenWeb or another. Now I am not saying what I found was right, I am fully aware I’m not an expert at this and could have easily looked past stuff… hence why I am asking for advice from those of you that have the experience and knowledge and are willing to share.

I am new, I am not experienced, and this is in no way my level of expertise. I specialize in the technical industry and lawn work is a hobby of mine and a therapeutic way to enjoy what little free time I get and I’d love to do it right. I have no problem watering three times a week, keeping the inch of water as recommended, or any other commitment. I spent a lot of time and a lot of money on the lawn, commitment isn’t a problem. I am offended you would say my decision of letting nature water is a sign of me being unwilling to do the proper work. We easily get rain 4-5 days a week during the spring and 3-4 days a week during the summer outside of the occasional long dry week, so it seemed logical to not overdo the water. Maybe it was wrong, I’m not denying that, but it wasn't because I was "unwilling" or being cheap. I have worked daily in that yard since end of winter and will gladly work three times more and spend three times more, I simply want to do it as accurately as I can.. The path I took may have been wrong, the work I did may have been wrong, but my dedication and will to do this wasn’t wrong. Perhaps misguided, which is why I am here.

I welcome your advice, but I do not wish to inconvenience you. Your post has made the impression that it’s bothersome for you, or perhaps this forum, to provide advice to the new arrivals. I fully understand time and time again people post for help and you find yourself repeating again and again. I do the same in my industry on the forums I help with, but such is the way of forums at times and helping those who are new to such task. If you chose not to provide advice, I also accept that and bid you a good day.

Thank you again for taking the time to post. I look forward to the advice, if any, you are willing to share.

On a side note, 5 minutes of digging through my past research came up with the following results. I could dig deeper for you if it really meant that much.

GardenWeb Core Aeration in the spring (and yes, my lawn (mainly the front) was extremely hard both wet and dry when I first moved in, and many sites including GardenWeb gave advice of Core Aeration in those situations)

GardenWeb Core Aeration recommendation from their FAQ

GardenWeb Advice on using STRAW (Yes, I said hay, I’m not an agrostologist so I apologize for picking the wrong word. I bought a roll of straw that was specifically for the lawn and planting new grass)

GardenWeb Dethatching during spring

GardenWeb Laying new top soil

GardenWeb Pennington Seed Use

Butler Golf Course Lawn Care Tips - this guide specifically focuses on my region as the Butler Golf Course is not far from my area. It gives plenty of advice on what to do and not to do and when to do it or not. Yes, it’s not GardenWeb, but it provided a lot of information none the less.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2013 at 7:39PM
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If you live in Western Pennsylvania you would be a fool to take advice about your lawn from an arrogant Texan.

This post was edited by ed1315 on Thu, Sep 5, 13 at 20:58

    Bookmark   September 5, 2013 at 8:38PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Okay that signals the end of round 1. Thanks for coming back and explaining how the cow ate the cabbage. I believe you are most definitely committed to this.

The bids you received are very typical. I used to moderate a sub forum on a site for lawn care professionals. They do that standard bid all the time. It is very profitable for them to bring in the machinery and leave evidence that they've been busy. If you look back far enough in this forum you can find me giving advice to core aerate. The problem it is supposed to solve is "soil compaction." The thing is most home owners don't have true soil compaction. Bricks are made from compacted clay. Adobe bricks are made from compacted soil and straw. Compacted soil has had all the air worked out of it mechanically with some sort of plunging device on saturated soil. That just (almost) never happens in a lawn. What people really have is hard soil. The soil is hard because the beneficial microbes that live in the soil are not healthy and do not fill the soil to a depth that the soil can become soft. After I did more reading and listening, I came up with a way to soften the soil using a soaker hose. It works but it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r for it to work. Still, it worked. Then some smart people on another forum came up with a way to use soap to do the same thing much faster and easier. So if you believe you have hard soil, then by far the easiest solution is to spray your entire lawn with baby shampoo (or any clear shampoo) at a rate of 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet. Do that twice, 2 weeks apart. Follow up each time with a good soaking to carry the shampoo deep into the soil. There really seems to be no limit as to how often of how much you can use. One of the guys on the other forum used 50 ounces per 1,000 every weekend with no problems.

For watering an established lawn (and I realize I am not getting directly to your points yet), the mantra is to water deep and infrequent. Deep means one inch all at one time. Infrequently means monthly during the cool months and moving gradually to weekly during the hottest heat of summer. If you get a full inch of rain in the appropriate period, then do not supplement that. If you only get 1/3 inch of rain, then you provide the other 2/3. You can sort of go by these rules of thumb...with high temps above 90 degrees F, water once per week. Highs above 80, once every 2 weeks. Highs above 70, once every 3 weeks. The point with infrequent is to allow the soil to dry completely at the surface before applying more water. Weed seeds need continual moisture to germinate. If you allow the soil to become dry for extended periods, you will break the cycle of weeds in your lawn. You do have to pay attention to your grass, however. If it folds together and becomes dark, you MUST water immediately. There a a few exceptions for disease, but by and large, this is the cardinal rule of lawn care. Deep and infrequent watering. There are many people who do not believe in watering a lawn. I have little patience for them as you probably understand. The other benefit of deep watering is it forces your grass to grow deep roots. Deep roots are very drought tolerant. I have been away from my lawn in the Texas desert for 3 weeks. It will be dry when I get back on Monday but it will be alive.

For cool season grasses you should mow in the upper half of the mower's levels. Some people swear certain grass should be mowed at 3.275 inches. I'm not nearly that particular. Taller is better for the most part. Tall grass grows deeper roots and provides more shade to help keep weed seeds from germinating. Crabgrass, for example, is a full sun type of plant. If the seedlings come up in the shade, they don't do well.

Chemical fertilizer should be applied in the late spring (around Memorial Day), early fall (Labor Dayish), and Thanksgiving. If you have thoughts about applying at any other time of year, let's discuss it. There are reasons for those times and reasons for not applying at other times. Those times are not totally cast in stone but the general time of year is. If you want to try an inexpensive approach to organic fertilizer, I can help with that. I've been doing it since 2002 and have converted hundreds of people over...maybe thousands. Search the Internet for Organic Lawn Care FAQ. Many sites have it posted.

Now to your specific issues. Under the maple tree I would be really inclined to make that a mulch bed. Pile it up as deep as you can afford. One thing to watch is to keep it away from the trunk of the tree. Mulch can allow rot to form in the bark of the trunk. It's okay on the bark of the roots, but not on the bark of the trunk. A good source of mulch is any tree trimmer with a chipper shredder. The stuff coming out the back of the chipper is good because it contains the entire tree with leaves and all. If all you had was deep trunk, that does not form as healthy a mulch for you.

Whatever you do, do not rototill or dig your soil to several inches. When you do that you fluff up the soil to varying depths. It is impossible to hold a hand held tiller to, say, 4 inches. You'll hit roots, rocks, and soft spots that cause the tiller to buck around. You're left with high and low spots underneath the fluffed up soil on top. Then when you level it, you'll have different depths of fluff. As it settles, it settles unevenly leaving you with a bumpy surface. That settling process can take 3 years to finish.

Before you add any more lime, get a soil test done by Logan Labs in Ohio. Penn State is a nice school, but you get a better test for $20 at LL than you get at Penn State. Then bring your soil test results back here and we can help you sort out what to apply. If you want to have the the best lawn in the neighborhood, I can help you find advice for that, but that definitely starts with a LL soil test. I would tell you now but the owners of GardenWeb would shoot me.

So, what to do now?
Scalp, scratch the surface with nothing more than a leaf rake, scatter the seed, then walk on it so it makes good contact with the scratched soil. If you had a large area I would suggest a roller but that is overkill for you. Walk on every inch of it. Bring your friends and dance on it. You can't hurt it. You don't need straw (or hay). Straw is a local option for certain parts of the country. It is not needed and only complicates the rest of the seeding process. When the seed is down, water 3x per day for 3 weeks. That will be about the time you have 80% germination for your shady grass seed. That's 3x per day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) but for only a very short time. I don't know what your sprinklers can put out, but all you need is to moisten the soil SURFACE. You do not need to drench it, because there are no roots down there. All you need is the seed kept moist by the soil you scratched up. It might only be 5 minutes each time, but 5 minutes might be way too long if your sprinkler puts out 3 inches per hour. When you have 80% of the seed up, start to back off on the frequency of watering. Remember the ultimate goal of watering mature grass is deep and infrequent. Before you get there you have to have roots in the ground. Drop the evening watering and watch the grass. If it looks dry, water it a little longer in the morning and lunch. Try to fall back on the frequency and go up on the duration. It is a balancing game but you know where you are and where you are going. You are balancing between dry and rot. I tend to lean toward dry and away from rot. For now I would use only organic fertilizer on this. Next year you can start with chemicals, but starting now with chemicals can stress you out. If you feel the need for starter fertilizer, follow the label direction for timing and amount. Organic fertilizer works differently from chemical and cannot burn the roots. You cannot over apply and can't hurt anything. It will help prepare your soil for next spring. Then next spring please resist the urge to fertilizer early. The television will bombard you with advertising to get the Step 1 fertilizer. Bull! The grass will leap out of the ground no matter whether you fertilize in March or not. What will happen is the grass will take that fertilizer and grow even faster. You'll be mowing 2x per week without fertilizer. If you fertilize early it will be 3x per week just so it doesn't clog your mower. Then about late April the grass will collapse from using up nutrients stored in the roots. If you resist the urge to fertilize early, the grass will still have reserves in April. It will slow down the growth but not collapse. That is the time to fertilize for spring. By picking Memorial Day, that usually works for most everyone in the north. By then all the grass has stopped rocketing out of the ground and is going back to normal growth.

You may also be tempted to apply a preemergent herbicide in early spring. That is probably okay for a new lawn especially if you have thin spots in it. The grass you don't want is crabgrass; however, the location in the shade will tend to keep crabgrass out all by itself.

Regarding your research, when I click the links it takes me to the home page. Not sure why that is, but anyway, if you go back far enough you can easily find me contradicting myself. When I first came here I thought I knew everything about lawn care. Boy was I wrong. I was doing everything I learned at home and in college. All that was wrong. You can find me arguing about the benefits of daily watering with a guy from Phoenix who only watered once a week. I thought compost was magic dust. Rototilling was great. Core aerating was great. I have had to unlearn just about everything I thought I knew. Fortunately I have an open mind and am willing to learn from anyone. Yes, even noobs.

Note that what I'm suggesting does not cost a lot of money. Once you dispense with aerating, tilling, dethatching, and straw, all it amounts to is the cost of seed, water, and minimal fertilizer.

You probably have more questions now or need clarification. I can help as can others here.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2013 at 11:09PM
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I mean to be no appo;logist for dchall, but I think dchall was just expressing a bit of frustration. David gives a lot of thought to his posts and gives very detailed advice, especially about the importance of watering correctly. It's kind of understandable that he might be suspect that his time and effort to help someone may be totally ignored.

You had what appeared to be a good stand of turf until July. It's a bit late,as this post-mortem is on just skelletal remains, but let's investigate some possibilities.

Grass will not grow if it does not get enough sun. The dead turf is under a shade tree, so this is a possible problem, but as the grass survived until July this drops down the list as a cause.

Poor soil can have a detrimental effect on soil, but as the turf survived until July, the soil is likely not eshausted. ( a soil test is always adviseable (see

Insect damage. This could cause the quick death, and easy to pull up turf that you report. Too late to check for insects now, but have you noticed an abundance of Japannese beetles or small moth-like insects in the lawn?

Disease. This can also result in rapid turf loss. the sticking of the blades may have been a sign of disease, but it's a bit late to find the sign now to determine what disease it may have been.

Water. Grass must have moisture to prevent dormancy and eventual death. Most of what you report: that you did not water, that the dead grass is under a tree that is going to be competeing for water , that this is new grass with little root structure, and that we had extended dry spells this Summer, indicates the lack of water is possibly and most likely the cause of your die-off.

Edit: nm dchall's post beat mine.

This post was edited by grass1950 on Thu, Sep 5, 13 at 23:42

    Bookmark   September 5, 2013 at 11:38PM
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I would trim back or remove the tree so the grass will get enough sun to grow

    Bookmark   September 6, 2013 at 6:39AM
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Thank you for the reply back. I can fully understand your first post when it comes to the passion, energy, and detail you put into your advice only to have people go the opposite direction. You've really given me a lot to work with already and I'm excited to get started.

I'll definitely be leveraging what you provided. I'm going to get the soil test started immediately so I can get those results back to you for advice.

Per your first reply, you stated now is the time to start seeding. Should I wait for the soil test results before I seed that area?

I'm going to get started with the mulch bed around the tree as well. This is good timing as there is some construction work down the road and they are mulching a lot of tree branches. I'll get in touch with them to see if I can take some of the mulch.

I was going to have an arborist come out to do some pruning to remove some dead branches (not many) and was contemplating having more removed to get a little more light through it. Do you recommend that? Obviously I don't want to damage the tree, it's a beautiful tree I'd like to keep healthy as long as I can. Per grass1950, because a majority of the grass (except the already defined area I will mulch) lasted until August it might not be a shade issue. Do you agree?

Thanks again! I'll keep you posted on the outcome of my next steps.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2013 at 9:02AM
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Trimming the tree back is the best thing you can do. It will let in the sun and give the grass a chance. I love large trees too but growing that close to your house can cause foundation problems and clogged gutters along with a lot of insects and the risk of branches falling. If you trim the tree back, Give it a root feeding after the leaves fall. Maples recover quick from trimming and will be healthier in the long run unless it has Verticillium wilt. When I worked in tree care I saw trees respond well to trimming followed up with root feeding. This is deep root feeding, not tree spikes.

This post was edited by ed1315 on Sat, Sep 7, 13 at 10:05

    Bookmark   September 7, 2013 at 10:04AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Thank you for your understanding. It's much appreciated.

I'd thin the tree if the arborist knows how to do that properly. It should look thinned and not chopped off.

Don't wait for the soil test. Fixing soil can take years. You don't want to fix it all at one time. You want to glide into it.

As for interpreting your soil test, you need a different forum. Search Google for andy10917, soil test, Logan Labs. The first 50 or so results point the way. Andy specializes in soil test results. He keeps an eye on this forum, but he does not do soil test interpretations here.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2013 at 1:38PM
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Thank you everyone for the replies. I'm going to get started on all the recommendations and I'll be sure to be back when I have more questions. I appreciate the help. Have a good day!

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 8:53AM
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andy10917(NY 6a)

My God. I had no idea that it would Google that much stuff, David. I need to get a life.

CJ, you said that you get rain 4-5X a week. What does the weekly rainfall add up to?

This post was edited by andy10917 on Sun, Sep 8, 13 at 22:50

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 8:01PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Hey Andy. Don't forget about that coffee test from Logan Labs.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2013 at 9:53PM
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Thanks for posting on my thread. During the spring season, on average we might get .25-.40 inch or so per rainfall (inch or more per week). But in PA with the hills that can equate to a lot of run-off. So I'm not sure what that equates to in what the lawn receives when it rains.

During the hotter months, such as July and August, we get on average about an .70-1.0/in of rain per week, spread out usually over 2-3 rains per week give or take.

I will say in my area it's typically rare to have dry ground. It's not consistently soaked, but it's definitely moist a majority of the time because of all the shade, good quantities of rain, and run off. I live up the hill in my neighborhood and there are drains installed around the yard to pull water away in the lower areas that use to puddle (they don't anymore), the poor lawns down the hill tend to get a lot of moss and puddling from all the run-off when it does rain.

I hope that helps answer, but please let me know if you have any other questions.

This post was edited by cjparker on Thu, Sep 12, 13 at 7:34

    Bookmark   September 10, 2013 at 11:18PM
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first time to forum. dchall's response to cjparker sounded like a hand slap to me. Knee jerk reaction was to click out of the forum!

Anyway...I am not expert but in my area (Mid-West, Chicago area) we do, sometimes, still use straw for the following reasons:
1. We have very sudden and heavy rains. The straw helps the seed stay in place and not wash away should you be dealing with a yard that has any type of drainage grade.
2. Lots of forest preserves surrounding the area...hay slows the amount of seed that ends up in bird's bellies. We do loose some seed, but it does not provide an obvious wide open buffet. Trust me, I have owned a home for 30+ years...straw works...even if it is considered old fashioned. It has proven it self to me.
3. Some neighbor hoods have limitations an the amount of watering that can be done in a week. Straw helps prevent evaporation.
4. We often have wind...

Having said all of the above...I feel less defensive for cjparker and myself. I hope to have a happy, helpful experience moving forward. Some of the other participants sound very knowledgeable with nice delivery. No commitment demands LOL. Thank you for that...

My lawn is not perfect, but was stressed with a very a-typical, harsh winter: lots of lawn and shrub damage/kill. I am eager to read and follow this forum, as I have an unusual amount of lawn repair to implement.

I promise from here, forward...I will play nice in the sandbox.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 12:21PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Welcome LJoy. I'm not the greeter, but thought I'd say, "Hi!"

My first reply was one of frustration. Did you read the follow up?

We have sudden rains, birds, water restrictions, and wind, too. Everyone does. And I'm sure your lawn with straw came in nicely. My point was that you don't need it. Mother Nature does not use straw. She uses force on the ground from livestock hooves to press the seed into the ground. Obviously I can't come through the screen and enforce anything I might suggest, but I can try to present some rationale for doing or not doing what I suggest. Basically my suggestions are the combined wisdom of my time on this and several other forums. My suggestions are definitely not based on my personal experience. I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought was the truth about lawn care to come up with what is a fairly simple approach to it. Sometimes that takes a long time to explain why it is so simple, but it really is. I owned many homes for 30+ years before I learned how to take care of my lawn. I wish I could go back in time to the 70s when I had a terrible lawn, and the 80s when I had a terrible lawn, and the 90s when my lawn was only decent every other year. It's only been since 2002 that my lawn came alive. That happened because of what I learned here. All the experts who were here when I arrived have moved on or were banned for various reasons. New ones have arrived. I'm just giving back where I can.

I'm looking forward to new posts from you about your issues. I can tell you that 80% of lawn issues get back to proper watering. If you are not doing it deeply (inch at a time) and infrequently (weekly or twice a month), then you are doing it wrong. If you live in the north you should be mulch mowing at your mower's highest setting. And if your turf seems thin you either need seed (wait for fall) or fertilizer (only organic in the summer) or both. And sometimes Mother Nature does not cooperate.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 12:46PM
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