bought a house - plan of action for weedy lawn

m_taggart(7b)January 2, 2012

I'm sure this has been addressed, but after searching I haven't found an answer that meets my satisfaction. I plan to take some pictures tonight to show you what I'm dealing with.

We've recently purchased a new home in Cary, NC (zone 7b) with a very weedy back yard. My objective is to reseed this year and minimize weed pressure via organic methods. The lawn has a slight slope to the northeast. I have not yet had a soil test, as we've just moved in. I will likely have one done in the near future. My initial impression is as follows. Most of the lawn is covered with 3 types of weeds: chickweed, creeping charlie, and patches of wild onion. Soil appears dark in color, unlike the ubiquitous cecil and appling red clays common to this area. I'm assuming it could be moderately poorly drained (high water table, not low infiltration) which has resulted in an increase in organic matter. I have noticed no standing water on the lawn, even after recent soaking rains. While outside with the dog, I pulled a few clumps of the wild onion. With each pull came 3 to 4 large earthworms. I read this as a good sign or moderate fertility and possible evidence that no toxic chemicals have been recently applied. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Here are my questions/concerns. I'm aware that weeds can be useful indicators of growing conditions. The chickweed and ground ivy suggest the site is shady/wet. There are no trees in the back yard and it appears to receive adequate sunlight for a lawn, so I'm assuming that high soil moisture has allowed proliferation of these weeds. I'm trying to decide on whether to sow a bermuda or fescue lawn. Does one stand out as the obvious choice, given the limited information I've provided? I'd prefer not to irrigate during the summer months, so bermuda seems the obvious choice. But, if the lawn remains adequately moist maybe fescue would be better?

When it comes time to seed the lawn, I'd prefer to do it in a way that minimizes disturbance. Is it acceptable to remove weeds with a metal rake and hand pulling and then broadcast seed? I'm woefully ignorant of the mechanic of seeding, so your insight on this topic or links providing guidance would be especially welcome. Thanks in advance for your comments.

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Good questions and you've given yourself time to digest the replies here before crunch time (actual seeding). Bermuda is best seeded after mid June when the soil is very warm. Fescue is best seeded in the fall after the soil is cooling off and the spring weeds have stopped germinating. Spring is about the worst time to seed grass because the way you water for new grass seed is the same way you water for weed seed. Since crabgrass is more aggressive than fescue or even new Kentucky bluegrass, you almost always end up with a full crabgrass lawn by the end of July.

In preparation for seeding, I'm not aware of a good organic solution for creeping charlie. In fact even people who use strong chemicals find it to be hard to get rid of. You might have to resort to non organic approach from another forum for a satisfactory solution. Start early, be persistent, and have patience. Once you have used the chemicals, you can restore your soil to organic health by using compost and organic fertilizers. Come back here and you'll be okay. If you decide to go the chemical route, do it early and give it time to come back. I'm thinking starting in March so that if you seed in June, you'll have plenty of time to ensure the same weeds do not return.

No matter which grass type you pick, the weeds need to go away and you'll need something to prepare the soil for seeding. There are several tools that have a similar purpose but go by different names. Verticutter, power rake, and slit seeder all have vertical cutting blades which can be adjusted to just cut into the soil a short distance. Check rental places around to see what they have. By using one of those it will chop up any grass or weeds (dead or alive) and create a lot of chaff. Adjust it to go about 1/8 inch deep to loosen only the very surface of the soil. Then seed and ROLL THE SEED DOWN with a rented roller. You cannot compact the soil with a roller, so don't let that bother you. True soil compaction is something that only happens in soggy fields with goats or cattle. It almost cannot happen in a lawn unless you have a stampede during a monsoon. So roll the seed down after sowing it. It does not need to be buried. Grass seed germinates at the surface. If you seed with any less disturbance, your results will not be quite as good. With bermuda you really will never notice but with fescue you will. Bermuda spreads wildly while fescue spreads not at all. One fescue seed creates one fescue plant in one place. That plant will get bigger over the years but it does not form a dense sod like bermuda.

If you want a nice bermuda lawn, it is a lot of work and fertilizer. There are other alternatives to common lawn grasses that you might be interested in. Blue grama is one of those pasture grasses that looks pretty darned good when mowed a few times a year. It needs almost no fertilizer or water compared to normal turf grasses.

Other alternatives to bermuda are the hybrid buffalo grasses. I'm thinking of Turffalo but there are others. The good hybrids are not sold as seed and must be plugged. They have slightly better drought tolerance than bermuda and grow just as densely. Here is a picture of Turffalo mowed at about 3 inches (needs mowing).

Here is a pic of Turffalo mowed at 3/4 inch high (almost putting green height and just mowed before I took the picture)

Both of those lawns are in Lubbock, TX and survive cold and snow in the winter. Buffalo also has the advantage of not needing to be mowed twice a week and only rarely requiring fertilizer. Seeded buffalo grasses have seed heads that grow twice as fast as the grass blades. You can see in the top picture that the seed head on Turffalo grows at the same speed as the grass. And the seed head is small. Being small and slow growing the seed heads do not contribute to a shaggy look common in most non-standard lawn grasses. In the top picture you can see the Turffalo trying to spread over the sidewalk. Compared to seeded buffalo, Turffalo is more aggressive as a spreader. It absolutely will not grow in less than 5 hours of direct sunlight and will be weakened by the shadow of trees, fences, and buildings anywhere between it an the horizon. Even that mailbox post at the other end of the second picture has bare spots to the north, east, and west sides.

I would suggest taking time to digest all the advice you get here and come back in a few months as the time approaches to do this. Blue grama makes the most low maintenance lawn I know of if it will grow in your area. Check with your county agriculture agent (every county has one) about growing blue grama in your area. He'll be surprised by the question and unless he knows someone growing it as forage, he'll be forced to do some research.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2012 at 2:11PM
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Seems as if you have done some research of soil types and conditions in your area (e.g. Cecil clay, high water, table, etc.). Earthworms are good.

Chickweed and wild onions are both very common in this area and high soil moisture does contribute to the chickweed. The lack of a good thick turf is the major contributor to lawn weeds. Once you get your grass growing and follow good cultural practices (mowing height, adequate watering, fertilizing) you will have much less weed pressure.

In Cary either Bermuda (warm season grass) or TTTF (tall turf type fescue, cool season grass) grows well. One thing to note, if you go the Bermuda route it will be very difficult to ever change your mind. It is very very hard to kill. It loves our hot summers but will go dormant and brown in the winter. TTTF stays green year around but struggles some in the hot summer with water needs and brown patch susceptibility. You can most likely see both growing in your area. You should research both.
I grow TTTF and I must water during the summer if I want to keep it green and avoid a potential loss of turf. For TTTF you need to apply one inch of water all at one time per week in our hot summers. Bermuda can tolerate less water and survive. There are others that contribute on this site that are Bermuda experts who can give you facts about that and other things as well. Dchall and others have good advice.

I have done two 2500 sqft. TTTF renos in the last two years with success. I got rid of the weeds and everything with glyphosate while the weeds were actively growing (water, apply, water, apply, etc.) over a six week period (longer is better). I mowed the dead weeds and grass down to less than an inch, spread the seed, applied a light layer (quarter inch) of compost (good for the microheard and seed soil contact) and watered appropriately. You do have plenty of time to research, make a good decision and execute a plan.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2012 at 3:33PM
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Starting with a good reliable soil test is a good idea since the "weeds" you describe can indicate nutrient deficiencies as well as cultural conditions. Along with the test that North Carolina State will do these simple soils tests may also help.
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains´┐Ż too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

Here is a link that might be useful: North Carolina State University CES

    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 7:08AM
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Thanks, all, for the great advice. I'm without internet at the house until tomorrow, so I'll attempt to post some pics of kimmsr's soil test and the lawn itself.

Dchall, I really like the idea of using a native buffalo grass. Unfortunately, I've discovered we may receive too much rainfall in this area for any of the buffalo grasses. They apparently prefer While pulling some wild onion yesterday, I found some evidence that the yard must have been planted with bermuda at some time. There was just a small bit of it hiding under the ground ivy and chickweed. You think this will complicate establishing tall fescue, which we've decided to plant? My wife looked disgusted when I told her bermuda goes brown and dormant during the winter, so she vetoed that choice. Happy wife = happy life, neh?

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 9:20AM
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"There was just a small bit of it hiding under the ground ivy and chickweed."

I had to chuckle about this. If you do not want it, Wild Bermuda is devil weed. That stuff is hard to kill. You can kill it though.

You will need to do it in the summer when it is actively growing. I did it using @!^(#%$*+~ (censored by the organic lawn moderators). I have applied as many as four applications (spot spraying some of apps) every 7-10 days to finally kill it. Have also applied fertilizer and water before and between applications to get the weeds growing so the @!^(#%$*+~ will work. Do not under estimate Bermuda.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 2:02PM
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To be honest, I don't want to put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into totally eliminating the bermuda. I don't need a picture perfect lawn, just something green that keeps the mud down (that isn't totally weeds). With that said, I'm happy to have some bermuda here and there in a fescue lawn. I simply won't have the time to completely get rid of it with the number of other projects I'd like to complete. Although, if it turns out the bermuda will be totally incompatible with the fescue, I may have to convince my wife that we should go with bermuda. From what I've read, organic bermuda lawns tend to stay green longer anyways. Does anyone know how many months of the year bermuda browns out around Cary, NC?

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 2:46PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Bermuda will take over easily in fescue because fescue does not spread. Every time a fescue plant dies, for whatever reason, the bermuda will be there to fill in. Fescue forms a relatively thin (not dense) lawn for several years until you have enough reseedings in the fall to make it dense. In the mean time, the bermuda will spread in from all directions to fill in any bare spot in 3 weeks.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2012 at 10:44PM
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in va beach, i had a similar problem. ended up having a few truckloads of top soil/compost dropped off one fall, spread it about 1-2in thick. then put down lime, starter fertilizer and a mix of ryes(annual/perennial/some fescue) aerated it all in. repeated that process the next fall and in between, i would come home, open a beer and walk around and dig up weeds for about an hour.(thats a constant)

i have bermuda in the suimmer and it usually settles down in sept/oct, then the rye/fescue start to come up until june/july when the cool season goes dormant and bermuda picks up.

Another thing i ALWAYS do is keep it long. Fescue i keep lawnmower maxed out. Ill bring it down about a click or two for the bermuda.

it works for me, i dont have a perfect grass, but i also dont dump a ton of fertilizer and i rarely if ever water.

beauty of the transitional zone is its easy to have grass year round, bad part is you have grass year round.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 11:40AM
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There are a lot of people that waste a lot of their time, energy, and money applying "lime" to their lawns every spring because that is the wrong time of year to do that and often they do not apply the right lime. Does your soil need calcitic or dolomitic lime? The only way to know that is by having a good, reliable soil test done. Even grasses need a balance of Calcium and Magnesium in the soil to grow strong and healthy.
Buying some bags of this or that and spreading it around on your lawn may well be a large waste of your money, as well as your time and energy.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 7:21AM
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What is wrong with spring and lime? When is the right time?

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 3:31PM
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I think the Turfalo looks a lot better and more interesting at 3" high than at 3/4" high. :)

    Bookmark   July 23, 2012 at 10:30AM
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"What is wrong with spring and lime? When is the right time?"
It takes time for the Soil Food Web to work on the lime and for the lime to react in the soil and change the soils pH.
The best time to apply lime is in the fall.
Most people, because they do not have their soil tested, do not apply enough lime to do the job to begin with and waste money every year putting some down and then telling everyone that will listen that lime does not work on their lawn.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2012 at 7:56AM
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