Lawn in Need of Complete Overhaul

dustindcDecember 13, 2013

Hello -

I recently moved into a rowhouse in Washington DC, which has a very long, narrow backyard. It appears that the lawn has never been cared for - it is overrun with clover and weeds. The ground is very compacted - so much so that there are areas that feel like solid rock.

Being a new homeowner and having a yard for the first time, I am a bit at a loss as to where to even start to bring this yard back to health. How should I soften up the earth for grass to thrive? Should I use grass seed or sod? At what point should I do something about the weeds (clover, etc.)?

I'm sorry if there have been many postings like this already - the whole process is a bit overwhelming to me since I've never cared for a lawn before. Any advice is appreciated!

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Aside from tradition, why the lawn? Have you getting rid of the lawn and turning it into a terrace for entertaining? Some decking or paving

Post some pictures of the back yard on the Landscaping forum (from house to rear and from rear to house).

Here is a link that might be useful: grassless urban back yard

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 7:06AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

The best time to start for grass was 5 months ago in August. At this point, though, all you can do is run with what you have.

I suspect most of what you have is either dormant for winter or not growing much. Spring is a terrible time to seed, but if you can afford sod, it is fine to do in spring.

As to your hard soil, I wonder if you have construction rubble out there? The worst part of construction rubble is when they dump concrete. If you have a metal pole you can go around the yard looking for that. Whack it into the ground listening for the sound of metal hitting rock. When you hear that, dig around and see if it is concrete, rock, or just a little rock. Dig out all the big stuff. When you have all the real rock out of the yard, then spray it with baby shampoo at a rate of 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet. Spray the shampoo and water it a full inch. Then two weeks later repeat. You can measure an inch using tuna or cat food cans. Time how long it takes your sprinkler to fill the cans. It takes my sprinkler 8 hours, so this is not something you can hand hold. Get a hose and turbo oscillator sprinkler if you don't have anything else. Don't get a mechanical linkage oscillator, because the linkage is prone to failure. Turbos work great and last many seasons.

When spring comes and the very first plants start to green up, start watering a full inch once a month unless Mother Nature gives you some help. When the temps warm into the 70s, bump up the frequency to once every 3 weeks. With temps in the 80s, water every other week. Temps in the 90s go to weekly watering. Don't fall into the trap of watering 1/7-inch every day to get a full inch per week. That method is guaranteed to give you a crabgrass lawn by July. The surface of the soil should be completely dry for days before you water again. And remember to skip a period when the rain gives you the full inch.

Let the yard green up before you attempt to kill the weeds. Set your mower to the highest setting and see what survives 4 weeks of weekly mowing. Many plants will die immediately after the first mowing, but many will not. There's a pretty good chance that many of your weeds will choke out others leaving you a very limited variety of stuff.

While you are mowing and working around in the yard, find all the holes and hills you might want to fill or scrape off. Keep track of those or fill them with sand/topsoil at your earliest convenience. If you fill holes with sand you can fill them to grade. If you use topsoil, fill, water to let the soil settle, and repeat until you have it filled to grade. Then heap it up just a little more (1/2 inch?). Trust me, it will eventually settle down to be level. Hills you can just cut off the top with a shovel.

Also do not be tempted to rototill this yard if you ultimately want grass. Rototilled soil takes years to settle back to a normal structure. When it does it will be bumpy. Right now...

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 10:30PM
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This process is pretty simple. I'll give you the short version if you need more help hire a professional or call your extension office. First decide which grass you would like to use in your yard. There is not a perfect grass for your area but here are your options. Cool season grasses are going to be the less sustainable option to keep them looking really good you have to spray fungicides, or you can just overseed every fall. Your cool season options are Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue. Kentucky bluegrass is the highest maintance option if you don't want to use fungicides I would not choose this grass, also if you use bluegrass you should have it sodded trying seed bluegrass is not as easy a other grasses. Tall fescue not as fine bladed as bluegrass but more diesease resistant and more drought tolerant. To keep tall fescue looking really good in the summer you need to spray it as well, and you will probably have to overseed a few spots every year. Tall fescue you can seed ( yse cultivar bullseye)yourself its easier to establish, but sodding is the better option. The cool season are more maintance intensive, but are green all year round. The more sustainable grasses are the warm season grasses, but they will be dormant 4 to 5 months of the year. Bermuda grass as long as your yard doesn't have a lot of shade this is a good choice. Bermuda will be sodded, also use cultivars latitude or patriot. Zoysia is your other warm season option if you have some shade in your yard use this grass. Zoysia will also need to be sodded ( use cultivars Emerald or Zenith). Zoysia is a slow grower and is dormant a little bit longer than Bermuda, so if you don't like mowing your lawn this is the grass for you. Warm season grasses should be sodded at the end of June or beginning of July. Cool season grasses should be sodded some time in September. All these choices are assuming you have an irrigation system or a yard small enough to hand water. Tall fescue seeded is the way to go if you don't have an irrigation system wait until the first week of September then aerify and seed your yard at 10 #'s per 1000 of tall fescue seed. Do soil test for your yard this coming spring and send it away to Penn state and follow their recommendations As far as your weeds go wait until a week or two before you sod or seed and spray with round up at high label rate. Good luck.

Here is a link that might be useful: Penn State

    Bookmark   December 20, 2013 at 7:06AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Hmmmm. I'm not sure who joneboy is, but the suggestions he's making don't seem to jive with the experience of thousands of people who have written into all the forums I read over the past 11 years. He makes it sound like the use of a fungicide is a standard practice. It isn't. It is very rare. Fungicides are such destructive chemicals that their use should be by prescription only, but anyone can get them.

Any kind of grass you decide on will be a huge improvement over what you have. For general purpose lawns in full sun, I really like Kentucky bluegrass where it can be grown. The one fault is going dormant (brown) in the winter. But it has been demonstrated that with some extra effort, you can maintain KBG in the green and growing state deep into winter. The extra effort is continual fertilizer (organic), water, and adjusting your soil chemistry to perfection using tests from Logan Labs, not Penn State.

Once you get the grass in, the use of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides should be extremely rare events.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2013 at 7:50PM
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Why would he pay $25 when he can pay $9 for the same test. Hey dc why don't you tell us how he can adjust soil chemistry and not have a yard full of crabgrass by June and if he chooses Kentucky bluegrass riddled with summer patch and if he chooses tall fescue brown patch,or is that what the baby shampoo is for. I gave Dustin two organic options zoysia and bermudagrass, if he doesn't want to spray and have good looking yard year round those are his options. To grow really nice cool season grass in the dc area you are going to have to spray especially if you are growing Kentucky bluegrass, or after a few years it won't be a KB lawn anymore it will be a poa anna, crabgrass, and nutsedge lawn. To answer your question dc I have a degree in turf grass science and grow grass in the mid-atlantic for a living. I believe I answered the original post pretty well. Dc, I believe you told him spray baby shampoo and look for rocks I just don't see a lot of helpful information there.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 3:15AM
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kidhorn(7a MD)

I live in Montgomery county and the best grass for our region is tall fescue. You can get it at Home Depot, Lowes, etc....

Here's what I would do....
1) Spray the entire yard with roundup or any non-selective herbicide. This works better when it's warm, but it will still work on many of the weeds.
2) In late March, I would get the back yard core aerated, Then overseeded with tall fescue seed and then cover with a thin layer of compost. Any local landscaping company can do this for you. Water a little every day unless it rains. Once the grass gets to 2" tall, cut back on watering to every other day. After you've mowed it a couple of times, water once or twice a week.
3) When it gets warm, you'll need to make sure you water if we go a week without a decent rain until the fall.

You won't have a perfect lawn this summer, but it should be a big improvement. It will probably take 2 or 3 years to get a really good turf.

If your yard has many tree roots, then I hate to say it, but you'll likely never get a good yard, Grass roots can't compete with tree roots.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 2:05PM
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I live in Richmond VA and tall fescue is the most popular choice here. We (you too) are in a transition zone between cold season and warm season grass. How much sun does the yard receive? If the row houses and trees create a lot of shade, no grass is going to thrive. For a long narrow yard, you might do much better with hardscape and planting beds with shrubs, perennials, annuals, groundcovers that will thrive in the particular sun/shade wet/dry conditions you have. It's worth doing the baby shampoo to soften the ground. It softened up an area for me where nothing grew because the ground was compacted. I now have grass there and the dirt is soft.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 5:21PM
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Wow! Thanks to all of you for so much advice and direction!

The yard is long, narrow, and north-facing. I think we are going to convert the portion closest to the house (which doesn't get much (if any) sun, to patio and planting beds; for the rest we will try and salvage by using the baby shampoo to soften up, using the core aerator, and planting tall fescue.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 8:09AM
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