Advice on switching an old lawn to Organic

dave11April 19, 2008

Hi. I found this forum, and it helped convince me to try an organic approach. Now i'm looking for advice.

Last year I moved into a house built in 1951, with about 18,000 SF of neglected lawn. Looks to be common KBG, probably the original lawn. I'm in western PA, zone 6A.

The front lawn is about 10,000 SF, and about 4,000 SF of the grass had been lost to superficial erosion and the roots of a large Norway Maple. I tilled the soil, added quality topsoil, starter fertilizer, and quality seed (KBG, PRG, and Chewings Fescue). Now, of course, i'm waiting for the seed to germinate.

I didn't add compost to the topsoil, though from my reading, it seems I should have, but the base soil looked/felt/smelled fairly organic, for whatever that's worth.

The 4,000 SF area of new seed abuts the remaining 6,000 SF of the front lawn, and I'm expecting it will not match, so I'm planning to kill the remainder of the old lawn in the Fall, and overseed with the same mix.

At this point, i'm seeking opinions and advice. I'm assuming that I need to wait until the new grass is fully established before adding compost, correct? But there would be no harm in adding compost now to the remaining areas of lawn that are to be killed in the Fall, correct?

And if I understand all this correctly, on a newly-organic lawn, compost should go down at least a few weeks (?) before any organic fertilizers?

The old grass is fairly healthy, but has grub damage in spots. I also just applied a spray of nematodes.

I'd appreciate any comments about this particular situation.


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Tell me more about this Norway Maple. When you say lost roots to the tree do you mean shade or are some roots growing above ground?

There would be no harm in adding compost but because you're dealing with such a large area I would STRONGLY suggest that you get a soil test first. It may save you an awful lot of work. If your % of OM is high enough, close to %5 then I'd save your back.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 9:23AM
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Hi decklap. To answer your questions, the Norway Maple is about 60 feet tall and stands at the top of a gentle slope. Over the years, just the top 1-2 inches of soil has washed away down the slope due to the surface roots of the Maple, which extend as far as 40 feet from the base of the tree, and due to lack of attention to keeping grass there. I have placed a mulch bed extending out from the tree to a distance of 15 feet in all directions, which comes to the edge of the dripline, which now covers the majority of surface roots, though some smaller roots still extend into the lawn areas outside it.

I had a soil analysis done before I started all this, at Penn State U., which is our state's main lab, but the OM% is listed on their report as "Optional," and is left blank. There was never a point though where I was given a choice, so I wondered if they stopped doing that part.

But if I understand you correctly, if a soil analysis showed OM% greater than 5%, then adding compost to a yard this size is not worth the effort? That would be fine with me.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 9:50AM
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billhill(z5 MI - KBG)

There is no question that compost or most any organic material would be great for your soil and lawn. However, as previous posters alluded to, the use of compost is optional, as you would need to spread many tons of this stuff by shovel and rake. Save your compost for your garden beds and trouble spots in your lawn. Mulch mow your fallen leaves and let them "compost in place" Use shredded leaves in your beds and around your shade trees. Move into organic lawn care slowly starting with fertilizing with grains and organic ferts. You may need a little help from the weed-be-gone can the first year especially since you planted grass in the spring. Keep your seed bed moist if you want a lawn there. Mulch with clean straw to help retain moisture would be an optional alternative to mulching with compost. Fertilize on the heavy side the first year using grains or other organic ferts. Strengthen your lawn this summer. You may find it only necessary to overseed in the fall. Bill Hill

Here is a link that might be useful: Organic lawn care FAQ

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 10:37AM
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Thanks for the input. It makes sense.

Was wondering though about the reference to having to spread all the compost by hand (shovel/rake). I have seen rollers made for mulch/compost, which are cylindrical cages with bearings and a handle for pushing, similar to a regular lawn roller. Are these less helpful than they sound?

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 11:49AM
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Depends on how well sifted the compost is. If its at all chunky those spreaders are only fairly effective.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 12:17PM
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As far as the PSU soil test I just sent one in this past week. There are optional tests you can request for like $5 a test. I believe there is one for organic materials.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 2:12PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I'm not only going to give you my opinion about how to proceed in the future, I'm going to comment on what you have done and what others are suggesting. Everyone should hate me before this is over.

I'm not sure where you got your advice as to how to proceed but so far the only thing you've done that I would have done is fill with topsoil and seed. And the only reason I would have done that is to account for the erosion. Now is a horrible time to be seeding, but you don't have much choice. You have to do something. How much shade is involved with the maple tree? You may have been better off with 3 inches of mulch under it. With few exceptions, grass should be grown in the full sun.

And where did you get the idea that adding compost to the topsoil was the thing to do? (rhetorical question) Unless you found sterile topsoil the soil you brought in is fine. All you need is grass and roots. Compost is far too expensive to be using on an area like yours. To cover your area in my neighborhood would require a couple 18-wheelers and cost around $1,000 when it's all done. This is a hobby, not an obsession (hopefully).

I would have skipped the soil test, too. They are going to tell you to add nitrogen and organic matter. They probably will suggest raising the pH with lime. See? I'm telling you that just by knowing where you live. I can't tell you "exactly" what to add, but the general theme is always the same. Besides they are going to recommend NPK-type chemicals, not protein/carbohydrate type organic fertilizers. And since you are going to start with an organic program, you'll be adding organic fertilizer. The landgrant colleges don't understand that. Once you get going with organic fertilizer, the soil microbes tend to fix all your soil problems. All you have to do is stop using chemicals and start using organic ferts. In my ideal world, the only time you need a soil test is when you absolutely cannot grow what you want to grow in the place where you want to grow it. Usually this indicates some sort of salt imbalance, but sometimes the soil has been poisoned. Other causes are usually more obvious and come up long before you have to cry "uncle."

It is nice that you applied nematodes, but the grub damage you had from last year was caused by the grubettes in late May or early June of 2007. They were larvae back then and actively feeding. Since then they have stopped feeding and turned into the "grub," or cocoon stage, that you might be familiar with. This year stand by with the nematodes. If you see lots of Japanese beetles congregating about your porch light, that is the time to apply the nematodes. Those are the adults about to lay eggs in your turf. Don't wait because the nematodes take a week or two to really build up in numbers to take out the feeding JB larvae. A product that seems to work better in the north is milky spore. I say this after years of reading here. BN works better in the south and MS works better in the north. Milky spore takes time to become established in your soil, so find it on sale and use it repeatedly whenever you have the opportunity. It may take years to get control. By the way, the best way to diagnose grubs is after the damage has occurred. If you dig up 1 square foot of turf and find more than a dozen grubs, then you have a problem. Fewer than a dozen and you are in the normal range. And again, if you find a dozen or more, just bury them because they have stopped feeding at this stage of their life.

You said you applied starter fertilizer. I assume that was a chemical fertilizer because there are no organic starter fertilizers. Now would be a good time to get going with organics. Chemical and organic fertilizers work differently so you don't have to worry about over fertilizing. Before you go buy organic fertilizer, go to the Organic Gardening forum and find the FAQ on Organic Lawn Care. It is near the bottom of the list.

Also have you read up on (1) watering infrequently but deeply and (2) mowing the grass at your mower's highest setting? These two aspects of lawn care are much more important than your choice of an organic program. Most people are more concerned about weeds and brown spots than the color of their lawn. 1 and 2 above will keep the weeds away. The organic fertilizer will give you a dark green color and help control pests and disease so you don't have to worry about which or whether chemicals are called for.

Just to confirm my blasphemy
1. Yes, I do discourage the use of compost whenever I can. It is over hyped.
2. Yes, I do discourage soil testing. Unless you have a dead spot that won't grow anything, or if you are trying to produce year-round watermelons in Barrow, AK, you probably won't benefit from one.
3. Water infrequently but deeply.
4. Mulch mow high.
5. Read the FAQ (yes I wrote it, but I did considerable research before putting fingers to keyboard. And it is not a rehash of what I've said here).

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 5:50PM
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Hi dchall. I have enjoyed this forum because of the wide range of opinions, and yours certainly adds to it.

I had no choice but to seed the lawn this Spring, though I did use a starter fertilizer with Siduron. The areas I seeded are actually far from beneath the tree, and get full sun most of the day, so I believe grass will grow there if cared for.

As for the grubs, they are abundant in the yard, though actually counting them might not be useful, because I have several squirrels who are proficient at eating them. There are many small holes dug in the areas of suspected grub damage. I did have a TON of beetles swarming the lights last summer, though they did not look like the pics I've seen of Japanese Beetles, and I had no plant or shrub damage, so I believe they are one of the alternate beetles (maybe Masked Chafers).

My reason for using the nematodes now is because I was told they take time to get established, and can persist in the soil for a season or two, or longer, if given enough beetles to eat.

As for the other aspects of lawn care, I rarely water as it is, as this area gets plenty of rainful, and I do mow high and often already, with sharp mulching blades, for both grass clippings and leaves (the Maples provide plenty).

Thanks for the input. If I'm reading you folks right, sounds like the "compost, compost, compost" mantra is not to be believed.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 7:52PM
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I agree that purchasing and spreading yards upon yards of compost is expensive and painful. I have a compost bin that creates about 1/2-1 yard of compost per year. I spread this compost in the fall on my beds and poor areas of the lawn (compacted, low OM, etc.) with a fling of a shovel, a normal mulch mowing and a good watering in. Both springs I have noted that the lawn areas where the compost was flung was better aerated and the grass stayed virtually green through our hard NewEngland Winters. After the second year these areas are more like the remainder of the lawn and greens up relatively quickly.

After watching this springs green up, I know now where this years batch of compost will be used!! These are the bad areas of my lawn that have the same color as my neighbor's chemical lawns.

If you have free compost then its a good thing to use.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 8:55PM
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billhill(z5 MI - KBG)

Dave11 wrote If I'm reading you folks right, sounds like the "compost, compost, compost" mantra is not to be believed.
Not sure what you mean by compost mantra. I and many others do believe that compost is one (ONE) of the best things you can put on your lawn and garden beds. The trouble with compost is that it can be expensive, hard to find good stuff, and very labor intensive applying it. Compost is not a fertilizer although it does release needed nutrients over time. As the organic material in compost breaks down further, humus is added to the soil. Thats a good thing. Compost is more useful as a soil conditioner. It helps the soil hold moisture and nutrients. Not all soils need it. Chemical fertilizer require about 5 or 6 lbs. Per 1000 square feet of lawn costs maybe 4 dollars, organic fertilizers yielding similar nutrients require three or four times a much and cost about double. These are both easy to apply and are capable of providing a splendid lawn, The organic ferts feed the soil, are more environmentally friendly and really really work good. Compost takes a half a ton per thousand at a cost of 50 dollars or more and you would still need to fertilize. I have said this many time and I will repeat for your benefit. "If you feel the need to put something down every week, Let that something be compost. I invite you to checkout the Soil Compost and Mulch forum if you wonder about the benefits of compost.
"Compost forum"
Bill Hill

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 9:28PM
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Hi billhill. I didn't mean to imply that anyone here was recommending the automatic use of compost, but certainly in my reading books and websites on lawn care, organic and otherwise, the early and persistent use of compost seems to be a regular recommendation. For some people here though, the size of my lawn (20,000 SF) seems to be a sticking point, and for others, the fact that compost might not in fact be needed right now.

These differing opinions have given me a lot to think about.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2008 at 10:02PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I'm not going to do it, but it would be interesting to see what the difference would be after a year if someone applied equal amounts of compost to half the lawn and organic fertilizer to the other half. The "normal" compost app rate is about 700 pounds per 1,000 square feet, so that's a little outrageous for a fertilizer to compete with. Maybe if compost showed some benefit at 10-20 pounds per 1,000 square feet I would change my mind. Hmmm.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2008 at 1:49AM
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I think I'll try what dchall suggests, in my backyard, where there's an area of about 3,000 SF that no one really sees. I plan to overseed the same grass mix there this Fall. I doubt it has gotten any fertilizer or any attention in many years, so it would be a fresh start.

But dchall, don't you mean to use half compost plus organic fertilizer, versus half org. fertilizer alone?

    Bookmark   April 21, 2008 at 7:43AM
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You know dchall it almost sounds like sometimes that you don't think there's a relationship between OM and fertility. I'll agree with you that compost is a pain to spread and many people think its pixie dust when it isn't but would you allow that its at least a useful, if albeit cumbersome, tool?

    Bookmark   April 21, 2008 at 2:08PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I meant to use only compost in one place and only organic fertilizer in the other.

My thoughts on organic matter and fertility are these. The only organic matter that matters are the beneficial microbes that live in the soil. The microbes are part of a food chain so complicated it is called a food web, the soil food web. The microbes are born, eat, waste, and die in the soil. They eat each other and they eat their waste products. Somewhere along the food web the waste products are functionally the same as plant food. Thus a certain kind of OM is critical for fertility. Other kinds of OM are immaterial.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 1:34AM
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Im gonna try to suss this out of you yet ; )

I really would like to hear more of your thoughts on this. Which kinds of OM are critical and which aren't?? Not lookin' to fuss at all but I'd like hear your thoughts.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 1:53PM
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I agree with decklap. I'd like to hear more as well.

But referring to the other point about experimenting with a patch of lawn, with one part being augmented with compost and one part not, it would seem to me that in all other ways they should be treated equally. So both sides should get the organic fertilizer, and over time, decide if the side with the compost does any better. Or am I missing something?

Also curious if anyone has seen reports of such a comparison being made before.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 3:29PM
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I think David has been pretty clear. He thinks that compost is usually unnecessary and expensive. He says that the main benefit from compost is to get microbes into soil if they are not there. Once the soil is healthy, additional compost doesn't offer the bang for the buck and the bang for the work involved in spreading it. Once you've got enough microbes in the soil, adding food sources for the microbes that are there is going to deliver the best benefit.

He's not saying that compost doesn't provide any benefit (which is what treating both halves of the lawn the same except for the compost would test). He's saying that it's expensive and you can get more benefit from the same money and less effort by spreading other products, such as grains, coffee grounds, etc.

If you want to test compost + fertilizer against fertilizer alone to test David's approach, you'd need to do some sort of cost adjustment. Spend the same amount of money on both sides of the lawn. If you're going to spend $50 per 1k sq ft total, that would probably get you one load of compost and two applications of grains (I'm assuming $30 for the compost and $10 for each app of grain). The side of the lawn getting only grains would get 5 applications of grain.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 5:32PM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

Compost is quite useful only for the right situation. For example, you buy a house from the previous owner who used all kinds of chemical, you might have to get some compost to get the right set of organisms found in the compost to take over the soil and all you have to do is provide food for them to stay alive and multiply and improve your soil.

Another example is when a home builder completely razes your lot and possibly getting rid of topsoil, maybe they spill chemicals somewhere during the course of house building, etc, etc. Maybe it's a good idea to put down compost.

If you buy a house with decent soil where you have some earthworms, I do not see the need for compost. Earthworms will do the work for you. They will definitely multiply while on organic program as I've seen in my caliche soil.

It just depends....

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 7:49PM
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Naw, I think dchall is working on somethin' a little broader than compost is too expensive. Most of the info out there draws a clear bright line between OM and fertility but dchall is talking about some shading that I'd be interested to hear more about.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2008 at 10:14PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

If you don't have a good population of beneficial microbes in the soil I believe you can apply organic fertilizer and not see the benefits.

If you have a good population of beneficial microbes in the soil and fail to feed them with organic fertilizer you will not see much benefit.

If you have a good population of beneficial microbes in the soil and you feed them with organic fertilizer, you should see the benefits.

I think that unless your soil has been poisoned or suffocated under water for several days then the population of beneficial microbes is there but just not as healthy as they could be.

If your soil has been poisoned or drowned, the population of beneficial microbes can be replenished with a light dusting of compost at 500 to 700 pounds per 1,000 square feet. But the microbes still need to be fed to see any benefit. There is minimal food value left in the compost because the original feedstuffs (usually low protein sources like tree leaves, scraps, garden rubbish, etc.) has been digested for months by the growing population of microbes. If you want to feed the microbes then apply a ground grain at a rate of 10-20 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

I separate organic matter into two types: alive and dead. The living microbes form the living and anything dead or a byproduct of a living organism forms the dead OM. The living microbes contain nitrogen in the form of protein (amino acids). The living microbes are the ones that matter because they can decompose protein (when they get it) and turn it into plant food. The dead stuff and some of the microbes are food for the microbes. Neither type of organic matter matters unless the microbes receive some real food (protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and enzymes). If the microbes are underfed, they will feed from their favorite protein source and start pumping out byproducts that feed the plants.

When people report seeing a benefit from applying compost, my belief is that they would have seen an immensely better benefit from applying any ground grain source instead of the compost. I believe this would be especially true when applied at the same rate pound for pound. Apply 2 pounds of compost over a 10x10 foot area and 2 of ground corn (a low protein grain) to another area of the same dimensions. Then come back in 3 weeks to see the difference. A good place to try something like this would be a public area that gets water but doesn't get much fertilizer or traffic. If you want to test the other end of the application spectrum, try applying 50 pounds of compost and 50 of corn to the same sized areas.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 1:42AM
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Thanks dchall. Couple of other questions if I may.

1. Lou's point about soil compaction is a good one. I see that alllllll the time in new construction. Sod over rock. IMO that'd be on the list of flood, chem spill, etc. Low oxygen in the soil makes it dang hard I think for micro herd and in my experience aerating with fert doesn't get much done very quickly.

2. Where does the physical structure of the soil come into play for you??

    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 11:05PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

1. If you have had a messy construction project, then get it leveled out and sodded or seeded. Then come in with compost on top of the living grass.

2. Soil structure is created by bacteria and fungi. The bacteria exude slimy goo similar to the stuff that makes fish slippery. When that stuff dries out, it glues together particles of soil. As more and more particles stick together the soil forms a crumb structure. Then along come the fungi. Some of the fungi can send filaments called hypha (plural is hyphae) outward by inches, feet, yards, and even longer. When the fungi absorb moisture the hyphae swell and push the soil crumbs apart. When the hyphae dry out they shrink away from the crumbs leaving an air gap. These microscopic holes allow air to flow downward and allow water to enter the soil when it rains or gets irrigated. When the hyphae swell back up, they push the crumbs back out of the way. On a related note, when you till soil all this structure returns to dust. All the structure is lost. This is partly why I dislike tilling as a preparation for turf but the bigger problem for turf is unequal settling over the years leading to rolling hills on the lawn.

What is this? Quiz time? Stump the chump?

    Bookmark   April 24, 2008 at 11:53PM
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"Stump the chump?"

Another fan of Click and Clack?

Don't drive like my brother.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2008 at 1:40AM
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