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ARGH! Mad at my grass.

Posted by minharopaola none (My Page) on
Sat, Jan 26, 13 at 20:39


I've done my research, and I'm ticked at my grass and don't know what to do with it!

***Here's what I've got:***
1) Small townhome yard. Trampoline for the kiddies (can't really move it around to rotate the area that it covers). I understand that that portion will probably never grow grass...although I really wish it would. Maybe you know how I can.
2) The rest of the yard has poor drainage. The neighbors property to the right sends all the water to my yard, which is at the bottom of the slope. I put in a square foot garden in the worst area so I don't have to worry about the mud...but...
3) It's shaded...a lot. Most of the yard feels like a mud pit some of the year, if not most of the year. And last year we had a dry summer!
4) I live in Northern VA just outside of D.C. Zone 7A

***Here's what I did:***
1) Roto-tilled the entire yard,
2)Put down fast-acting calcium since the yard is surrounded by many trees whose leaves get into the soil, especially in the fall. I had the extension do testing on the soil, and that's what they recommended post-testing.
3) Cut back branches so the yard isn't SO shaded
4) Planted a shade-blend of seeds. Don't remember what brand, but it had about 15% creeping red fescue. Looking back I should have done more research on my seed mix purchase.
5) I kept the kids off of it during the lovely spring season, and the grass grew, looked like it was going to work...then DIED! I avoided mowing it at first because the ground was too soft and wet, and I was afraid of ruining the sprouts. Maybe I should have mowed got to be about a foot long. I know I know...probably should have mowed it, but the ground was too wet. I KNOW the mower wheels would just have pulled out the grass roots. Felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and didn't know if I should mow or not (err I guess I was actually stuck between grass and a mud place. Ha.)

***Here's what I MAY do...and hopefully this is where you come in with your advice:***
1) Look at doing some Grading...I can't spend too much energy on this, especially since my home is built on a descending hill (where my home is at the bottom). I may create a SWALE on the side that has higher ground (Right side) to redirect the soil away from the yard. Then the swale will lead into a french drain, sending excess water out of the yard. Umm... ???
2) Aerate the lawn
3) Put down a top-soil mix to help with the drainage. This would compose of 30% sand, 30% Compost, and...40 of I HAVE NO IDEA.
4) Lay down shade fescue...creeping red, some hard...I'd love to be directed to a brand that I could buy online.
5) Then I'd PRAY it would work.

Help me O-Bi-Wan-Grass-ownie. You're my only hope!

P.S. And before you laugh at me, in my defense, I have a very prolific vegetable garden and co-op :). But grass is not my thing.

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: ARGH! Mad at my grass.

Yes you need to put up a barrier or dig a ditch to divert the flow of water. Swales are very common (required?) in new construction. Here's one I photographed in California a few years ago.

Note that there is a drain coming out of the curb from the back yard. They were very concerned about drainage in that neighborhood.

It sounds like you seeded your yard in the spring. Don't do that. Seed it in the fall. If your lawn is currently dead, go ahead and seed it with cheap seed and do a complete renovation in the fall. Fall starts in late August for your area. Do it when the summer heat first breaks. When you seed in the spring you end up with dead grass and a yard of crabgrass. Crabgrass is a heat loving annual plant. Your target grass is a heat tolerant grass, but it is only heat tolerant after many months of hardening up the roots. So reseed in the fall and your lawn will be going good by spring of 2014.

Any topsoil or sand you bring in must be purely devoted to diverting water. If you bring in more soil and let it get soggy again, you will lose the benefit of the new soil.

If you want to improve your soil, the best approach is to get the chemistry right and feed it with organic fertilizers. Your soil test from the extension service will not work. You need to send a sample to Logan Labs in Ohio. Their $20 test is better than any $100 test from a university or extension service. The LL test will give you details about the micronutrients lacking in your soil. That is worth its weight in gold. You can get the micros on e-Bay or Amazon. We can get you help interpreting the results.

As for improving the soil: what that means is to improve the health of the microbes in the soil. All soil has a mess of beneficial and pathogenic microbes in it. When the pathogens get control, you get disease. When the beneficials are in control, then you have healthy soil that feeds and protects the plants in it. The way to get the beneficials into control is to feed them with real food. The food I have come to like best is alfalfa pellets (rabbit chow). Several years ago, when corn was 6 cents per pound I liked corn. Now corn is 42 cents per pound so I like alfalfa (25 cents per pound). Here is a picture one of the GW lawn folks took a few years ago showing the benefit of alfalfa pellets after 3 weeks.

You can see the improved color, density, and growth. All it was was alfalfa at 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. With organic fertilizer you can repeat as often as you can afford to repeat. The only thing that happens is the microbes get fed. With chemical fertilizers your grass plants are force fed through osmotic pressure. With organic, the plants are fed when they want to be by the microbes. I'm over simplifying but as you can see in the pic, it works.

AFTER YOU GET THE DRAINAGE problem fixed, then you can fix your soil so that it drains better. There are many reasons for that. One easy way to fix it is with shampoo. I like baby shampoo but any cheap clear shampoo will work. Apply at a rate of 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet with a hose end sprayer. Spray it and then water a full inch of water (measure your sprinkler output with tuna or cat food cans). Then repeat in 2 weeks and your soil drainage should be fixed. The reason this works is complicated but it is also a biological solution. That means it should last a long time. But if you try to fix this and then the yard floods again, you'll have to start over.

Here are the basics of lawn care...

  1. Water deeply and infrequently. Deeply means at least an hour in every zone, all at once. Infrequently means monthly during the cool months and no more than weekly during the hottest part of summer. If your grass looks dry before the month/week is up, water longer next time. Deep watering grows deep, drought resistant roots. Infrequent watering allows the top layer of soil to dry completely which kills off many shallow rooted weeds.

  2. Mulch mow at the highest setting on your mower. Most grasses are the most dense when mowed tall. Bermuda, centipede, and bent grasses are the most dense when mowed at the lowest setting on your mower. Dense grass shades out weeds and uses less water when tall. Dense grass feeds the deep roots you're developing in 1 above.

  3. Fertilize regularly. I fertilize 4 times per year using organic fertilizer. Which fertilizer you use is much less important than numbers 1 and 2 above.

RE: ARGH! Mad at my grass.

Hi There! Thanks for the message. I have some follow up questions...

1) First of all, you're breaking my heart. Really? No great grass until Spring of 2014??? There's no snow outside now. I'll throw some down now, but I won't get too excited until Spring 2014.
2) What seed do you recommend? 100% Creeping Red Fescue?
3) How exactly does top soil help with the diversion of water? Does it raise the seeds from being in the muddy pit beneath? Or is it used to fill in holes and sunken areas? or what?
4) I will soil test with Logan Labs ASAP.
5) The baby shampoo thing sounds like magic. I can't wait to try it.
6) Last question: would it be completely foolish of me to fix the drainage now before the Spring and add the top soil and spray it with the baby shampoo? Or should I wait until Fall like when you suggested.

Thank you Obi-one :)

RE: ARGH! Mad at my grass.

1. Not really until spring of 2014. Take that time to develop good lawn practices (see below).

2. I used to live in Dayton and had a full sun lawn. The lawn was a mix of coarse fescues and Kentucky bluegrass. It looked like hell, but I was a student and only barely had time enough to mow it. If you have full sun, I would tend to go with 100% KBG. If you have full shade, then you are stuck with fescue. If you have sunny/shady areas, then use a mix of fine fescues and KBG. The fescues will thrive in the shade and the KBG will dominate as much as it can everywhere it gets enough sun. If you want to do this right, use cheap seed in the spring and save for expensive seed in the fall. Kill everything before seeding in the fall. In the spring it doesn't matter because you will have weeds anyway.

3. Soil diverts water when you build up a pile higher than the the soil where the water is coming from. In the picture I posted there are two swales. One is on the upper property and one is on the lower property. By mounding the soil between the swales, the water is diverted off the property toward the sidewalk. Note the grass is greener in the swales.

5. Works like magic. There is another forum where most of the gurus have tried it. It really does work.

6. Fix it now and then start.

Basics of Lawn Care

After reading numerous books and magazines on lawn care, caring for lawns at seven houses in my life, and reading numerous forums where real people write in to discuss their successes and failures, I have decided to side with the real people and dispense with the book and magazine authors. I don't know what star their planet rotates around but it's not mine. With that in mind, here is the collected wisdom of the Internet savvy homeowners and lawn care professionals summarized in a few words. If you follow the advice here you will have conquered at least 50% of all lawn problems. Once you have these three elements mastered, then you can worry about weeds (if you have any), dog spots, and striping your lawn. But if you are not doing these three things, they will be the first three things suggested for you to correct.

Water deeply and infrequently. Deeply means at least an hour in every zone, all at once. Infrequently means monthly during the cool months and no more than weekly during the hottest part of summer. Do not spread this out and water for 10 minutes every day. If your grass looks dry before the month/week is up, water longer next time. If that does not work, then you might have to water more than once per week during the summer's hottest period. Deep watering grows deep, drought resistant roots. Infrequent watering allows the top layer of soil to dry completely which kills off many shallow rooted weeds.

You will have to learn to judge when to water your own lawn. If you live in Las Vegas your watering will be different than if you live in Vermont. Adjust your watering to your type of grass, humidity, wind, and soil type. It is worth noting that this technique is used successfully by professionals in Phoenix, so...just sayin.' The other factors make a difference. If you normally water 1 inch per week and you get 1/2 inch of rain, then adjust and water only 1/2 inch that week.

Every week mulch mow at the highest setting on your mower. Most grasses are the most dense when mowed tall. However, bermuda, centipede, and bent grasses will become the most dense when they are mowed at the lowest setting on your mower. In fact there are special mowers that can mow these grasses down to 1/16 inch. Dense grass shades out weeds, keeps the soil cooler, and uses less water than thin grass. Tall grass can feed the deep roots you developed in #1 above. Tall grass does not grow faster than short grass nor does it look shaggy sooner. Once all your grass is at the same height, tall grass just looks plush. One last exception is Kentucky bluegrass. The experts mow it at 3.5 inches (one notch below the highest setting).

Fertilize regularly. I fertilize 5 times per year using organic fertilizer. Which fertilizer you use is much less important than numbers 1 and 2 above. Follow the directions on the bag and do not overdo it. If you are using chemical fertilizers, too little is better than too much. If you are using organic fertilizers, it is the other way around. At this point you do not have to worry about weed and feed products - remember at this point you are just trying to grow grass, not perfect it. Besides once you are doing these three things correctly, your weed problems should go away without herbicide.

Usually the only flak I get on this plan is with mowing height. There are people who insist that KBG should be mowed at 2.85 to 3.15 inches. Frankly, I don't have time to tune my mower like that. Just keep it simple and don't let it get up to 9 inches before mowing it down to 3. There are hybrid varieties of grass that the developers want you to mow at custom heights. Bull. There's low, medium, and high. I have a yard of St Augustine that ranges from 6 inches to 35 inches high. Here is a picture of my chow chow sitting in it.

I believe St Aug is an exception to many grass rules, so this is my experiment. Don't try it at home without understanding what you might be getting into. My experiment is about watering. That spot where she was sitting had not been irrigated for about 8 months through a pretty serious drought on the edge of the Texas desert. Note that the grass is weed free and does not need water...yet. Again, there is more to this experiment, but the point is the rules have been written this way for a reason. Watering too frequently is always a problem. Waiting until the grass needs water always works and keeps the weeds out.

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