bringing a neglected lawn under control

leira(6 MA)March 9, 2010

Hi folks,

This is the year when I think we're finally going to try to establish some order in our "lawn."

We've done nothing but mow in the time we've been in the house, which is only a couple of years. While the "lawn" is certainly green, it's got quite a mix of different types of grasses and weeds. In many places, it's also uneven.

Frankly, I'm not even sure how to get started. I've sat down with a trowel on a couple of occasions and pulled up all of the weeds within reach, but that process is slow and tedious and probably doomed. When digging new garden beds (which always seem to get placed over the best-looking parts of the lawn), I've transplanted sod to some of the worst spots -- again, this has been helpful, but also slow and tedious. I've considered over-seeding, which I'm sure would help to some extent, but I think there are too many weeds to make this a viable option.

What I need is to do one big push, and bring things under control so that I can get onto a maintenance plan. I was considering the "Iron X" natural broad-leaf weed killer from Gardens Alive!, but I was disappointed to discover that no one there can answer my questions about the effects of using this product in a small yard near a vegetable garden.

Can any of you point me in the right direction? Is it worth trying to salvage what grass I have, or should I instead consider digging up the sod and starting fresh with seed or new, all-grass sod?

Part of me finds the "rip it out and start over" idea tempting. This would also allow me to grade the soil before planting the new grass, which has some serious advantages. There's also no reason that I couldn't undertake this task in segments, as I find myself with the time and energy.

However...before I do anything drastic, is there any way to bring this long-neglected lawn back to a happy state?


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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

If you have not fertilized in a couple years, then there is a lot of room for improvement. Look for the Organic Lawn Care FAQ in the Organic Gardening forum at GardenWeb or many other lawn care sites. Then follow the three rules for 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
    Bookmark   March 9, 2010 at 8:26PM
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leira(6 MA)

Hi dchall,

Thanks for the info, and especially the pointer to the FAQ Â I couldn't find it when I looked for it yesterday.

However, maybe I didn't make myself clear. I'm actually already familiar with the points you've made, but...

Right now, at least in some areas, there's barely any grass in my grass.

  • Some areas are doing great, and are mostly grass  not only that, but exactly the sort of grass that looks like someone planned it that way. There are some weeds, but if my whole lawn looked like that, I wouldn't be writing this message.

Some other areas are OK, and have plenty of things that are definitely "grass," but a lot of different varieties, many of which don't look like they were intended. Yet other areas barely have any grass at all, and are pretty much entirely weeds. In these areas (a significant percentage of the lawn, I'm sad to say), there is no hope of the grass "shading out" the weeds, because there really isn't any grass to speak of.

Unless I'm really seriously mistaken, watering deeply, fertilizing regularly, and mowing well isn't going to turn a patch of weeds into a patch of beautiful grass.

What I need to know is how to make it so that we have mostly grass, not mostly weeds. I need to turn the percentages around before I can jump into what you might call "lawn care."

We already mow just as you say (or actually, we do now that I've corrected my husband, who had, unbeknownst to me, set the mower level much lower than he should have). Truthfully, we don't water at all, and I sort of doubt that we will. The last couple of years, at least, have provided plenty of rain, and the lawn has never once been dry in the time I've lived in the house. We haven't fertilized, because right now, there are so many weeds that this seems like a poor choice.

So, my question is: How do I get the grass-to-weeds ratio back in the right orientation? Should I rip it out and start fresh, or is there another way?


    Bookmark   March 10, 2010 at 8:47AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Okay good. I have a much better understanding of what you have, why, and where you want to go.

There are weeds and there are weeds. Similarly there are different kinds of grass. One grass type you should have in your lawn is Kentucky bluegrass. KBG grows in full sun and will spread to thicken the turf into a dense mat. The grass you must have in the shadier areas is fescue. Fescue grows in single plants, one plant per seed. Those plants might get wider but they do not spread like KBG. Thus if you planted fescue only you would have to have a lot more seeds down to get good coverage. Many (MANY!) people overseed their fescue lawns every fall (late summer) to improve the density and fill in the bare spots. Overseeding is what you have not been doing and the weeds filled in the bare spots for you.

If all you have is weeds then you might be able to use one or more of four different approaches. You can pluck the weeds with a Weed Hound tool (available at Home Depot); hoe them down with a hoe; spray vinegar on the weeds on a warm sunny day; or dust baking soda onto the weeds. The mechanism for why the vinegar works is not well least not to my satisfaction. The baking soda works, I believe, because most plants cannot tolerate direct contact with very much sodium.

Once you get the weeds down, you can seed a mix of fescue and KBG and see what grows. Plan to overseed again in the fall. Spring is a bad time to seed because the crabgrass seed is waiting to sprout, too. Also the summer heat can do a number on new grass plants and their tender roots. Seed again when the summer heat breaks and the nights get cool again.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2010 at 5:58PM
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coastalcamper(CA--Sunset 14)

Read this report from the University of California Weed Science group about Iron X and products like it.

The active ingredient is iron HEDTA (chelated iron). In their preliminary testing, it works. That's been my experience, as well. My thistle and dandelions turned black and died in a few days. It kills the broadleaf weeds without harming the grass. In their tests, they found that it had no residual soil activity which is both good and bad. It's good for the health of the soil but it's bad in that you're still going to have to deal with any new weeds that may find their way back into your yard.

If you use it, read the label instructions. It will damage bentgrass, so if that's in your lawn, it may kill it, too. It's no magic wand but it's nice to be able to use a naturally occurring element rather than 2,4-D (the active agent in Weed & Feed products and part of Agent Orange) or RoundUp.

Remember, using any chemical shortcut is not a substitute for taking good care of your soil or of your plants!

Here is a link that might be useful: UC Weed Science Preliminary Report on Iron HEDTA

    Bookmark   August 12, 2014 at 7:59PM
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Although I'm certainly not a lawn expert, I have a yard such as you describe and understand your frustration. IF I had a small yard and could afford it, I would clear it all away and start over (see picture of my lawn mess in my soil solarization thread in this forum) especially considering I am 100% organic minded.

But because I have a large yard & a small budget, I am concentrating on particular areas and working out. For instance, I have two patios, and this summer, I've concentrated on soil solarization, hand removing weeds and reseeding between the patios. It is much easier to maintain the areas I've finished using the tips listed in the previous post (mow high, water deep, etc.)

I just received the results from my soil test (recommended here) and will be fertilizing accordingly which should help to maintain the areas already done and prepare the areas not yet attended to.

I hope this helps you a bit :)


    Bookmark   August 16, 2014 at 7:23AM
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