Lawn Improvement

anht(San Diego, CA)October 14, 2005

We live in San Diego, CA, and our lawn is yellowish depsite a lot of water. Recently, we added a load of Scott's TurfBuilder with an empahsis on the "green" portion.

Nothing much seems to be happening. We suspect our soil may not be that good.

Would it be a good idea to dump a load of gypsum directly onto the lawn to break up the clay beneath?

We appreciate all ideas on the least invasive way to improve the soil below our lawn? We have about 5000 sqft of lawn.



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username_5(banned for no reason)

Any chance this is a new lawn? Yellowish grass isn't too uncommon with a new lawn and it does indicate a deficiency of some sort in the soil.

Regardless of how new it is, the yellow look indicates something wrong in the soil.

I went through this for a about 3 years with a new lawn in a new construction area. Dumped tons of fertilizer on it with not much for results.

Today my lawn looks terrific. What I did was I switched from fertilizing a couple times per year to fertilizing once per month at a reduced rate per application. This was necessary as the soil simply wasn't holding the fert for very long.

I also rented a power dethatcher and dethatched the whole yard and core aerated once per year. I also mulch mow so the clippings return organic matter to the lawn. You might want to think about incorporating an organic fertilzer like corn into your treatments to help increase the organic content of the soil.

Together all of these things have made a huge difference.

Long story short you want to get your soil aerated and increase the organic content of it.

If you have thatch you need to get rid of it.

Using gypsum is not something I can advise you on. It is often recommended for clay soils, but it doesn't seem (from the research I have done on it) that it has much effect on soils that aren't sodic. Here is a university paper on the topic.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 11:54AM
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anht(San Diego, CA)

Yes, it is only a 9 months old lawn on in a new construction area.

I have a feeling our landscaper screwed us because we are supposed to have topsoil for the lawn. Would you know a good lab for soil testing?

Would you know a good place to rent a dethatcher? Is it easy to operate?


    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 1:07PM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

Usually soil tests are done by your state's extension service. It is both a service to the resident as well as a means for states to track soil chemistry by compiling the results of tests from samples sent in from all over the state.

Around here the nurseries usually will take the soil sample and send it in for a nominal charge. Some state programs send you results that are difficult to 'translate' and others offer results that are very simple to understand, but underdetailed such as 'add x lbs of nitrogen per acre'.

Using a good nursery as the middle man can often be helpful as the staff there can explain the test results with the details you want to know, recommend products appropriate etc.

I rent a dethatcher from Ace Hardware. Here they have a rental yard. I don't know about your area. You can just look in the yellow pages under 'Rental Equipment' and choose whomever you are most comfortable with.

They are very easy to use. They are about the size of a medium rototiller. You just adjust the height so the forks aren't digging into the soil, but they are in contact with it. When height adjusted properly the unit won't pull you forward, but it becomes very easy to push forward, almost like a self propelled lawn mower is, perhaps requiring just a tad more push force than that. Not difficult though.

I use my lawnmower with bag attachment to collect the thatch the dethatcher leaves on the lawn and dump it all into a pile where it composts very quickly. If you don't wish to do this you can dispose of it however your city requires yard waste to be disposed.

The important thing is to remove the thatch first, then open up the soil via core aeration and then get as much organic matter onto the soil as you can. Simply leaving the grass clippings on the lawn rather than removing them as you mow will go a long way toward that. If you intend to fertilize or overseed, it is very beneficial to do it right after a core aeration while the soil still has holes in it to accept what you apply.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 1:56PM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

You are unlikely to have a thatch problem in a 9 month old lawn, thatch is the accumulation of dead roots and stems over time.

I don't garden strictly organically, but I do treat my lawn that way...generally using Ringer brand products, aerating regularly and never thatching, cutting often without taking too much length off at one time. But, my acidic PNW cool season lawn results aren't going to help you much...Post on the Lawn Care forum for someone specific to your area and soils before renting that thatcher...Good Luck.

Here is a link that might be useful: Lawn Care

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 5:20PM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

I would agree that renting a thatcher is pointless if one doesn't have thatch. If one's lawn is yellowish despite adequate water and fert though, it is a sure sign of a soil issue and thatch isn't far behind.

If the soil issue isn't corrected thatch develops rapidly and compounds the woes in getting thick, green grass.

So anht, if you don't have thatch (it is a layer of dead looking brownish grass laying over the soil) skip the dethatcher and get the core aeration, leave grass clippings on the lawn and consider using only organic matter for fertilizer until the lawn looks the way it should. Once this happens your soil is now conditioned adequately for good turf growth.

After that whether to fertilize with organics or synthetics doesn't matter so much. Personal preference. The addition of grass clippings will keep the organic content of the soil below adequately high enough for good turf growth.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 8:16PM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

To check for thatch, stick your finger down into the turf. If you feel soil right away, you have no thatch layer. If instead you feel a spongy layer, take a closer look. Dig a small hole in your lawn, lift it up like a replaceable golf divot, and take a look at the cross section of the grass. It should be easy to see the soil layer and the grass growing above it. If you see a brown or tan underlying layer of straw-like material between the soil and the grass, measure it. This is the thatch layer. 1/2" or less is not a problem.

username, I have to say that's the choice of fertilizer types is personal preference based on what works best for for my lawn. I have a 65 year old house with a lawn decades olders than the 9 mo in question here, clay based soil - to keep maintenance as inexpensive (supplemental water) and less labor intensive as possible I need to use organic products for year round green short, I need those worms in my soil (and those worms also contribute to the breakdown of thatch).

A great way to increase thatch problem in lawn is to over-fertilize with quick release nitrogen. Thatch can be caused by the excessive use of soluble fertilizers which cause grass to grow too vigorously, resulting in a buildup of roots and stems that can't decompose fast enough. These types of fertilizers can also have a detrimental effect on soil life and can inhibit the very species that would normally help to break down the thatch before it could become a problem.

I aerate twice a year, never use a rented thatcher (it's been many years), mow often, and use organic products 1/2 strength April, May, June, July, Oct. My lawn isn't the important part of my gardening, but I get continuous compliments on it, people stopping to ask what kind of care I give it that it stays so green and weed free, especially taking into consideration the front is very steeply sloped and in full sun.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 9:22PM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

username, I have to say that's the choice of fertilizer types is personal preference based on what works best for for my lawn.

You will get no argument from me that organic programs are superior to synthetic programs as far as nutrient run off and soil life/health are concerned. By organic I do not mean strictly organic in the sense that would be required to earn the organic certification, just the use of organic matter as soil food and avoidance of pesticides/herbicides whenever possible.

Having said that I am curious as to why, despite the fact that great looking lawns can be produced organically, synthetically or in combination you choose an organic lawn care program, but then say this "I don't garden strictly organically, but I do treat my lawn that way.

In no way am I looking for debate so please don't read that into my question. Rather I am curious why you follow an organic lawn care program, but not an organic program for your gardens. Usually I find the exact opposite, people put most focus on organic principles into their veggie gardens, then ornamental gardens and lastly lawns.

Just curious is all.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 10:46PM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

I don't debate either - I certainly don't mind answering your questions, but aware it isn't helping anht with his lawn problem :)

I do pay premium prices for organically grown fruits and veggies, and have access to organically grown beef and eggs (not at premium prices - basically free for the helping hand DH lends)...but I have little space to spare for a full blown veggie garden here.

I really do (trial and error) use what works best for me in my climate, and I don't find synthetics are best for my lawn. That quick flush of green that peters out, application has to be repeated gets tiresome, is inefficient.

I haven't found a good organic alternative to orthene for root weevils here in rhododendron and azalea country (although beneficial nematodes if I can time them right are helpful) and I gave the environmentally safe slug products a full year, combined with nightly hunts, spray bottle of ammonia/water and flashlight ... I was being overrun with slugs. Way too much invested in collector's plants to put up with that, so I've used Deadline Rain Resistent mini pellets for the last three years with great results. No missing cats, dogs, rabbits, opossum, racoon, deer and no decrease in birds that I've been able to determine so I'm comfortable with that.

Ornamentals in beds get only compost and have never shown any symptoms of needing any other intervention, but anything containerized will get Peter's half strength from time to time....those Alaska Fish products can stay in Alaska as far as I'm concerned. I'm not opposed to careful, educated use of products outside the range of 'organic' when they are the most effective treatment, I just don't find many are required for growing really beautiful, healthy plants.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2005 at 11:51PM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

Thank you for your explanation. Makes perfect sense to me.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2005 at 12:05AM
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anht(San Diego, CA)

Thank-you everyone for all the pointers. I really appreciate that.

Just one more really basic question, as a rule of thumb, how often and how long should I water the lawn - Escondido/San Marcos area?

Should I water 5-6 minutes a day in the morning (?) or 10-12 minutes every other day or ?


    Bookmark   October 15, 2005 at 12:44AM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

While I am not familar with your soil/climate, it is always a mistake to water for brief periods of time. The time frames you listed are appropriate when germinating seed as you only need to moisten the top 1/4" or so as that is where the seed is.

Once the grass is up shallow waterings evaporate before wetting the root zone of the grass which is going to be 2-4" deep. It can result in drought stressed grass.

A better program is to place a rain guage in the path of your sprinkler (or any cylindrical container) and time how long it takes for the container to fill to the 1" mark. 1 to 2" of water per week is what most lawns respond best to. 2" per week should only be necessary if you have a sandy soil and it is hot and dry out and the grass is still thin so it the ground is still partially exposed to the heat/wind.

If you get a long rain you can count that as the week's watering otherwise you need to provide it from the garden hose/sprinkler for best results.

By watering deeply the grass roots grow normally instead of staying high in the soil column and the grass becomes more drought resistant. After the grass is well established and looks good you can back off the watering a bit to see what happens. In most cases you can maintain healthy looking lawns where you only water when it is very hot and dry out for a week or more. But first you have to get the lawn to a point where it is thick and green.

To get there water 1" at a time once per week. Increase to 2x per week under very arid, hot conditions.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2005 at 10:57AM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Soil types, type of grass grown, climate -- too many variables for me to even venture a guess. Clay will generally hold water well and need less frequent irrigation but it will take longer for water to penetrate if you had, for instance, sandy loam.

5 - 6 minutes of water on my clay hill would do little more than rinse it :)

The UC lawn care site suggests the type of grass you may be growing can root to a depth of 8", and to water when the top 2" of soil are dry. You may even want to water as you have been, then remove an 8" deep slice and examine it, adjust your schedule from your findings.

Your local Master Gardeners also have a free email and phone line -

The UC Davis address for lawn care and management is here - Sorry, there is some site construction going on or I need coffee, but I can't make it link directly to the correct page for you - Scroll to Turf, then click the UC page

    Bookmark   October 15, 2005 at 11:56AM
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anht(San Diego, CA)

The recent rain did wonder to our lawn. The lawn is practically all green now -- just a few yellow patches and some dead lawn patches left.

Looks like we have been way wrong about our watering schedule, so we are going to try out different schedules. We are going to try to water just 2 or 3 times a week, but we will increase to watering duration to ensure that we really wet the soil and not just "rinse" it :)

Speaking about dead grass, our landscaper (incommunicado for a few months now) said once that we have "Jaguar" grass. Anyone with an idea where I can grab a few sod pieces or seed for Jaguar grass? I need to beef up a few areas on our lawn. I've seen ads for Marathon sods, but nothing on Jaguar.

Thanks for all your help!

    Bookmark   October 23, 2005 at 7:58PM
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username_5(banned for no reason)

Jaguar is a brand name for grass as well as a tall fescue. You would have to ask the landscaper what the actual variety is. I am not sure if tall fescue is grown in your area, but if the landscaper just called it Jaguar then it probably is tall fescue. There is a Jaguar 1, 2, 3 and possibly others, I am not real familiar with it.

Tall fescues have come a long way and can make a great lawn, but it's advantages are balanced by one drawback, it doesn't repair itself so reseeding damaged areas is necessary. For this reason take the time to ID what you have positively as tall fescue generally doesn't look good with other grass varieties.

Personally I am of the opinion it is best to overseed with similar looking, but different grass varieties because they will have different tolerances for traffic, sun, shade, disease, water, heat, cold etc. so the overall lawn stays looking at least decent in a wider variety of circumstances with a mixture. I wouldn't suggest this with tall fescue though unless you see a trustworthy source recommend a specific grass to go along with what you have.

Assuming you do have tall fescue I am including this link to a fact sheet on it.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2005 at 8:35PM
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    Bookmark   November 29, 2006 at 10:46PM
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My lawn problem is similar to Anht. 12-months old, yellowing despite fertilizer and proper watering. The soil here in San Diego is very alkaline! I tested it with a handheld acidity meter bought for a couple dollars at Home Depot, just to verify that. I was told to spread Garden Epsom Salt (which Home Depot sells) to balance the soil ph. It had a minimal effect on the lawn, although it improved the shrubs that I treated it with. Has anyone else in an arrid region used the Epsom salt approach? No thatch at all in my lawn. I recently added organic matter to the lawn by spreading steer manure and raking it in. Nothing I've done so far has helped. Is there anything else I can do to improve the soil ph? HELP!!

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 2:45PM
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I recommend that you repost your question in the Lawn forum or the Soil Compost & Mulch forums, both here at Gardenweb. This forum is rarely visited and you may not receive any answers. Good luck.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 8:08PM
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This forum is visited is just that not many folks post here and 8 year old posts seldom get much of a response ! (always a good idea to start a new thread with your question rather than tacking onto the end of an old, stale one :-))

Epsom salts will have no measurable effect on soil pH and I suspect that is probably not the problem with your lawn anyway. If your shrubs are tolerating the soil conditions, then the lawn should as well. Epsom salts is only of value if you have a magnesium deficiency - not all that common - it offers nothing else of any consequence to the garden.

It is very likely that a) the soil was not adequately prepared for the lawn or b) not the right kind of grass seed or sod was used. All lawns like a richly organic, deep and well draining seed bed. Too often this is more likely to be a very thin and unfertile layer of soil that rapidly gets compacted from foot traffic, irrigation and frequent mowing.

Aerate your lawn using a core aerator. Leave the plugs in place to deteriorate naturally and add to the organic matter. This is also a good time to add any compost or steer manure.

You may want to consider overseeding. In my area this is best done in late summer/early fall so check what is appropriate timing in your area. And pick a grass seed type or mixture that is well suited for your area - beach areas of San Diego may call for different grass types than the hotter and drier inland areas require. In the meantime, make sure you are watering correctly - infrequently and deeply (rather than the standard automatic irrigation's daily, short, 5 or 10 minute burst. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!).

    Bookmark   June 21, 2013 at 8:09PM
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