novice needs help redoing organic lawn

friendswithbooksSeptember 12, 2013

Hello all,
I had no luck searching the forum, but I may be doing something wrong. If you can point me to the right thread then I'd love the help. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE if I got some help.

We own a house in Portland, OR area (9 wet months, 3 dry months) with an odd shape back yard -- irregular pretty narrow back area and wide side yard areas. In total, the yard is about 0.15acres. The whole back yard is completely overrun by weeds (mostly dandelions, clover, poky weeds).

I need help with how to re-do this lawn for a reasonable price. From what I understand I need to kill and remove the current lawn (how do I do this organically?) Then reseed the lawn and maintain organically (I have found a lot of info here on maintaining, not so much on the seeding).

One side-yard area has three garden boxes with vegetables and a play structure, so my husband and I are considering putting in little rocks or something other than grass, since that area is so hard to mow around.

Thank you for your help or any resources you can provide.

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Start with a good reliable soil test so you know what the soils pH and levels of Phosphorus (P), Potash (K), Calcium (Ca), and Magnnesium (Mg) are and then dig in with these simple soil tests,
1) Soil test for organic matter. 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. For example, 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’ 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.

Once you have a good idea about the soil you have, and maybe what it needs and does not need, then you can plan on working on the soil to redo that lawn. You could till that soil. Many places tell you that you will need to spray plant poisons first but that is really not necessary since the tilling will kill off most of that growth and spraying poison will not do much for any seeds that may be there. While tilling what amendments, compost and other sources of organic matter that are needed, can be worked in.
A much simpler way is to cover that whole area with either newspaper or cardboard and cover that with a material that would improve the soil (compost or other forms of organic matter) and let that kill off the "weeds" growing there now. Once that is done all you need do is wait several weeks before seeding that new lawn.
But the soil comes first.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2013 at 8:18AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I'm going to disagree with kimmsr on tilling. It will do what he says, but it will also set you up for disappointment over the next 3 years as the fluffed up soil settles. Rototilled soil always settles unevenly into a bumpy surface.

I would suggest using a hoe to get rid of the weeds. Many weeds are so shallow rooted that just getting them out of the soil kills them. For dandelions and other tap rooted plants, hoeing at least gets them out of your way for the time being. What you do after that will determine whether and/or how many return.

Scrape off the surface weeds and water lightly 2x per day for a few days. Reason for this is to encourage any new weeds to show their heads. Let it dry a day or two and hoe off any new green stuff. If you see obvious low spots, then you can fill them now with soil or sand. Get it as level as you can working from the relatively firm surface you are starting with.

Seed. Being in the PNW you would normally go with rye grass. However with the shape of your lawn I suspect it is in the shade much of the day. Your only choice would be fine fescue grasses. If all you want is green and no weeds, then pick one from the shelf at your nearest box store. If you want the yard of the month right away, then spend some money and select from online. They have seeds that are 100% weed free. You won't find that on the shelf. But weeds will not be a long term problem for you if you take care of it right.

Seed ASAP so you can see the results before your seeding window closes off. If you seed now and find you have thin spots a month later, seed again immediately. The idea is to have a dense turf by the end of this season so you get a good start in the spring.

Once your grass is in, water it deeply once a month (unless Mother Nature gives you a full inch of rain in a month). Do that until the temps rise above 70 degrees every day. That might be April. Then move to watering every 3 weeks unless Nature provides the inch. When temps rise into the 80s, move to watering once every 2 weeks...unless. If you ever get temps in the 90s, then go to once per week watering.

This regimen for watering will prevent new weeds from sprouting...unless Mother Nature has other ideas. The idea is to allow the soil surface to dry completely before watering again. Weed seeds must have daily water to germinate. If can do your best to prevent that from happening, then you might never have weeds again.

It also helps to mow at your mower's highest setting (or nearly). Tall grass provides enough shade that any weed seedlings will not get enough sunlight to grow into mature weeds. Between infrequent watering and mowing high, your weed pressure should be very minimal - even though you have thousands of weed seeds in your soil. They just wont' grow.

My favorite organic fertilizer for this year, based on amount of protein for the dollar, is alfalfa pellets (rabbit sized 1/4 inch pellets). Apply at 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Apply as often as your lawn hobby budget will allow. A 50-pound bag from your local feed store should cost less than $15. It should be $12.50 but the name brand rabbit chows cost more. Look for a plain, brown bag of alfalfa pellets. Call around first. Google Maps is your friend. Google "[your community name], feed store"

Rather than little rocks (pea gravel), please consider a deep mulch of chipped tree branches. Arborists usually drive around with a chipper/shredder towed behind a truck. See if they will drop off a few yards of chipped tree branches for you. I like this material because it is a complete mulch and not simply limited to bark or leaves. In order to do the most good for your soil and for the microbes living in the mulch, it needs to have the protein from the leaves and the nutrients from inside the branches. Likely they will dump it for free but you will have to move it to where you want. Shoot for a minimum of 3 inches. 6 inches to a foot is great if you can handle it. This stuff will decompose over time leaving bare soil eventually. In the PNW that might only take a couple years.

And now that I think about it, you could kill the rest of the yard by smothering it with several inches of this mulch. But then it would be next fall before you could seed.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2013 at 5:31PM
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Dave, I have not had that problem with tilling, it does take a few weeks for rototilled soil to settle down but, in my experience, not years unless the soil is over tilled.
If a heavy mulch were used to kill off the weeds that soil should be ready for seeding next spring. I have done that here many times, mulched in the fall and planted in the spring with very little problem and that was after a winter with tons of snow.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2013 at 6:37AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

kimmsr I agree that mulching now will be excellent preparation for spring; however, seeding in the spring is not good for two reasons. One is you get a lot of crabgrass coming up with the new seed, and two is the spring seeded grass is not going to be ready for summer heat.

Is your soil sandy? Sandy soil seems to be fine when rototilled. At the same time sandy soil doesn't get that hard and rototilling doesn't so much to improve anything.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2013 at 1:49PM
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First, let me just say that PNW growing conditions are rather unique so advice coming from out of area......the two previous seldom meaningful.

1) You do not need to "kill off" the existing lawn. But you do need to remove any existing weeds. How you choose to do this is up to you - manually, weed torch, herbicide, etc.. The dandelions and thistles ('poky weeds') are perennial weeds with deep tap roots. These are best removed manually. These are also sun loving weeds so how shady your lawn may be is up for some discussion :-)

2) After weed removal, you need to aerate. Aerating with a core aerator (removes plugs of sod and soil) is arguably the best thing you can do for a lawn. These are available at any equipment rental store for around $90/day. Leave the plugs in place on top of the lawn to deteriorate naturally and filter that organic matter back into the turf.

3) From now until the middle of October is the ideal time to seed or overseed. Weather permitting, that can even be pushed back a little later. Virtually all PNW lawns are blends of cool season grasses so they include both fescues and ryes. Just select the formulation based on your requirements - more shady, high traffic, professional look, etc. There is certainly no need to look online or - heaven forbid - shop a big box store for grass seed. Oregon is the largest producer of grass seed in the country and any independent nursery or garden center will have localized custom blends available.

4) After seeding (or overseeding in your case), cover the new seed with a thin (1/2") layer of soil or screened compost. I prefer the compost as it carries a reasonable nutrient load for this time of year. This will protect the seed from birds or wind and keep it moist. The seed must be kept moist until it germinates - any more than two days without rain will require watering by hand. You should have pretty good germination in about 10-14 days (bit longer the later you wait to seed).

In the PNW there is no need to water your lawn from November to late June - we get more than enough naturally. And since our lawns are cool season grasses that want to go dormant in summer, there is little need to water even then unless you really want that lush, green, manicured look. FWIW, in the four years I have lived at my current Puget Sound residence I have never watered my lawn. Not once. Can look a little rough by this time of the season but will look great in another 4-6 weeks and stay that way until late next summer.

When you mow, use a mulching mower and mow high. A mulching mower will provide at least 95% of the lawn's nutrient needs, negating much of a need to apply any additional fertilizers. If you DO feel a need to fertilize, the late fall/early winter application of any organic lawn fertilizer of your choice is all that's necessary.

OK - the above is a summation of the easiest, least expensive and most organic approach to PNW lawn care.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2013 at 6:25PM
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After telling you that what Dave and I contributed is seldom meaningful she tells you pretty much just what we did.
Check with your Oregon State University Cooperative Extension Service for more advice.

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

    Bookmark   September 19, 2013 at 8:01AM
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Ooowww - are we taking things a little personal?? What I said was that information from out of the area - whoever provides it - is generally not going to be very meaningful. Climate and seasonality, lawn seed types, watering directions, even fertilizing practices are going to be tightly bound to the region. Michigan and Texas are hardly good vantage points from which to offer meaningful advice.

And kimmsr, the info you provided is your standard, frequently regurgitated - and in this case - inconsequential soil info that has minimal bearing on how the OP can rehab, cheaply and organically, an existing lawn. I spend a great deal of my professional life instructing homeowners on just this topic, including 3 seminars this month. The Portland area is almost a duplicate of the Puget Sound area as far as lawn growing conditions are concerned - we are less than 150 miles apart.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2013 at 3:42PM
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Gardengal, there are some gardening practices that are common throughout the world and those I have outlined, and as you say frequently regurgitate, are among them. Getting a good healthy soil is a start on growing strong and healthy plants, whether a lawn or a flower or vegetable garden and it makes no difference if you are in the Puget Sound area of Yemen.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2013 at 7:10AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

First, let me just say that PNW growing conditions are rather unique so advice coming from out of area......the two previous seldom meaningful.

Do you like pissing people off? Or are you finally getting around to responding to my comments where I declared your advice to be less than informed? That was years ago. These forums are a learning experience for all of us. Most of what I know now was not what I knew 15 years ago. What I learned about lawn care in college turned out to be just about 100% wrong. What they teach in college and in the extension programs is only what they have proved in the ivory towers. What we're discussing here in the forums is what works in the real world. And that is where I have split with my university education on gardening. Yes, I currently live in Texas. I have also had lawns in Ohio, in the California desert, and on the California coastline. I have also moderated three lawn care forums for just about 10 years, now. When the forums first started, moderating was a matter of keeping the fights to a minimum. Nowadays we know a lot more about what really does work and the advice has changed. I acknowledge that I have not lived in the PNW but I have been reading about what works up there for 15 years. And, coincidentally, what works on the Portland side of the PNW is also what works over the Cascades, in Alaska, Australia, Eastern Europe, Great Britain, the east coast, Colorado, and along the gulf coast. What is unusual about the PNW is that y'all use rye grass whereas most of the rest of the world seems to ignore rye grass. Perhaps that has something to do with the rainfall. I don't know, but if you know, it would be interesting to know more details.

Here is what seems to work everywhere else in the world. I believe gardengal needs to brush up on lawns.
1. Adding topsoil over seed is a local custom. It is only used in a minority of locations and by a minority of lawn professionals. There is a good reason, too. Top soil will ALWAYS redirect your natural drainage. When your home was built the builder should have paid to have a finish grade put in to allow water to drain away from the house. When you bring in more topsoil, you can easily redirect that water to drain toward the house instead of away. The worst case is you have a basement full of water or the foundation rots away. I have pictures of properties where the owners have top dressed with 1/4 inch of topsoil every year for the past 30-40 years. Yes, they have up to 10 inches of extra soil in their yards. They have to install barriers to keep the soil from washing off the property. So I'm not saying that adding topsoil once will give you those results, but adding it once can flood your basement if you don't know what you're doing.

2. Another thing gardengal needs to brush up on is the problems with, and limitations of core aerating. Ostensibly the purpose of core aerating is to soften hard soil. Usually they call it compacted soil, which is a misnomer. Hard soil has lost the population of beneficial fungi due to drought or drowning. Compacted soil has no structure and does not allow air between the mineral particles in the soil. What the lawn gurus have learned is that core aerating is arguably one of the worst things you can do, not the best. The cores bring up weed seeds long buried in the soil as well as present more bare soil area at the surface for new weed seeds to become established. One alternative to core aeration is to spray a surfactant on the surface and wash that down into the soil with water. Professionals sports fields use a product called Cascade. To the sports fields, the problem is called hydrophobia. That means the water will not penetrate the surface of the turf or the soil. This is often caused by a fungus promoted by daily watering of turf where the soil has inadequate microbial species and populations. What the surfactant does is reduce the surface tension of the water allowing it to penetrate several feet under the surface. When that happens, coupled with deep watering, the underground temperatures and moisture content stabilizes which promotes the population of beneficial soil fungi. And it is these fungi which soften the soil. What does this mean for the home owners? It means that a surfactant will soften hard soil. But you do not need to pay $70 per gallon for Cascade. You can pay a dollar for a bottle of Alberto Vo5 shampoo at the dollar store and spray it at a rate of at least 3 ounces (or up to 50 (yes, fifty)) ounces per 1,000 square feet. Then water a full inch unless you're getting an inch from Mother Nature. Repeat in 2 weeks for best results. How do I know it works? Because I spent a dollar and tried it. That was in 2011 and my soil still gets soft when it is wet. But gardengal will argue that I am an anecdote. See, that's why we have forums. Virtually everyone on the forums I read who has tried shampoo has found that it solved their hard soil problems. One guy started with soil that he could not push a screwdriver into. After a few treatments he could get a 36-inch piece of rebar into the soil. Another guy had a 3-inch limb break off a tree in a storm. The limb penetrated 24 inches deep into his surfactant treated soil. I don't care how much core aerating you do, you will never get results like that. Yes, these and hundreds of similar anecdotes do not mean squat to someone like gardengal who has to go strictly by what her university tells her. That's exactly how the county extension service helpers work. No matter how many people get good results with shampoo, unless and until the methods and materials are proved in a peer reviewed journal, they are not allowed to discuss it. Well we have different peers here. I have hundreds of peers who agree that core aerating is not what it is promoted to be and that simple shampoo is as effective as the expensive surfactants at softening the soil.

Gardengal, I sort of like you. I've said that before. Your heart is exactly in the right place. I would love to learn more from you about what you know if you have an open mind to learning what we think we have to offer. Please don't come in with a broad brush and dismiss everything someone might say simply because we don't smoke the same cigarettes as you. If you have good reasons, we would love to read about it.

Oh, and here's one of those lawns with too much top dressing...

    Bookmark   September 23, 2013 at 2:37AM
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All I can say is .........lordy :-)) Really??

Having done this sort of consulting work and teaching on a professional level for the last several decades in the almost identical area as the OP - not Texas, not Ohio, not California - and you still have the cajones to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about?

First, the climate of the maritime PNW.....and that includes Portland, like nowhere else in the US. Its closest duplicate are some parts of coastal UK. And that includes the climate east of the Cascades - it is nothing like the west coast, both in terms of heat and cold, rainfall amounts and when they occur AND soil conditions. What works "everywhere else in the world" does not necessarily work well here.....and why the heck should it??

And as to the value of core aerating (or your assumed lack of value), I'd love to see what sort of documentation you can provide to support your opinion. Every professional lawn care service I can name and certainly all the golf course groundskeepers I encounter as well as any trade magazines routinely advocate core aeration on at least an annual basis. As I stated, I would opt for the screened compost long before I'd favor just topdressing with topsoil, primarily for the organic matter and nutrient content. And since overseeding is not done every single season and since compost does continue to break down and pretty much disappear (as it does with regularity in any garden bed), it stretches the imagination to consider this tiny addition of soil on an inconsistent basis could seriously alter the contour or grade of a garden and somehow result in a flooded basement.

dchall, your patronizing attitude is not very appreciated. I really don't care if you "sorta like me' or not - I am not trying to win any popularity contest but provide the OP with the simplest, least expensive and most efficient and time-tested method of rehabbing her lawn. If you don't agree with what I've said, fine - just say so and go on. But it is pretty darn ballsy to challenge a professional - and one native to the area to boot - about situations they encounter on a daily basis and/or conditions that may be unique to this location. Shall we just leave the decision to the OP as to whether or not they want to go with local advice? Or if they think I'm just blowing a lot of smoke?

    Bookmark   September 24, 2013 at 5:52PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

So I guess the answer to my first question is, "Yes!"

I only say the things I say because I've read thousands of messages every year for 10 years from people who both need and give advice. You say the things you say because you are limited to saying what the university says you are allowed to say. Or something like that...

Golf courses used to aerate because they do so many unnatural things it screws up their biology. Aerating is an attempt to get moisture to penetrate the shield thrown up by the microbes. And they only core aerate when the spike aerator is not working because they don't want cores laying all over the place. And now the smart owners have gone to Cascade Plus to save money and get better results. Documentation? Search the journals for hydrophobicity golf course. Leave it to the academics to gin up a word like hydrophobicity when it means the same as water repellant.

Rather than say you don't know what you're talking about, I prefer to say you need to brush up. Because every now and then you say something that seems to be informed only by old research. And I did not start with the patronizing attitude. I was suckered in by your unfortunate lead. It is a shame that you don't have a better way of helping without doing it in that tone of expression. We are both trying to help out and are nearly saying the same things. We can disagree and defend our points, but you don't have to barge in with the blanket statement that nobody but you knows anything about organic lawn care. That's where things went south.

You seem to be afraid to learn about using clear shampoo to soften the soil. Frankly I was too. I had spent considerable time developing an alternative to core aeration using water. It worked very well. When this shampoo idea came along, I had to try it because the guys telling me have the best lawns on the planet. Indeed it does work. Are you afraid that every lawn maintenance owner you know will not be able to make his boat payment once the word gets out on shampoo? Shampoo is simply too easy and inexpensive for you, or anyone else in your department, to not try. And once you fill up your office with enough positive anecdotal evidence, suddenly someone will brush off the old hydrophobicity articles and reread them. The research is done. It has simply been dismissed, because the pros can't make an extra thousand dollars per week with shampoo. It isn't a profit center for the lawn care professionals. Do you see advertising for Cascade Plus in the trade mags? Here is something to kick off your research. And if you come back with something about that not being a refereed, peer reviewed, journal, I might just have to fly up there and pull your hair. Part of the beauty of these forums is we are not hamstrung by peers who have no time to learn about something that their lawn maintenance peers are not interested in. My peers have already done the trials with shampoo. It works so well it will seriously end the practice of core aerating. Here are some more non-refereed links.

Topdressing with anything is a hold over from ancient times (the 1990s). Topdressing with compost is a hold over from Rodale in the 1930s from before anyone knew how many tens of thousands of microbe species lived in the soil. Now we realize that compost is simply expensive, depleted fertilizer. It takes 700 pounds of compost to equal the fertility of 20 pounds of fresh organic fertilizer. Haven't ya'll done the math? The PNW has calculators, right? (just joshin' ya', slick). You can save a ton of money using fresh fertilizer like alfalfa pellets. In my neighborhood the cost of compost is $70 per 1,000 square feet delivered. The cost of alfalfa is $7.00 per 1,000 square feet. Using those numbers I can apply a real fertilizer 10 times for the cost of one app of compost. Your price will vary but not by a factor of 10.

Okay, since I have you on the line, can you explain why your situation is that much different from growing grass in Las Vegas? Because if you can't, I can...and I've never lived in either place. Well I guess I shouldn't encourage off-topic discussions. We're way off topic as it is. And I'm not trying to blame anyone, but I blame you for these digressions ;-)

    Bookmark   September 26, 2013 at 12:04AM
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Cripes!! This is ridiculous.

1) No one limits what I say or cannot say. The advice I provide - which I have been doing professionally for a couple of decades now - is based on documented, well-established lawn care principles that have been proven successful for this area. They are intended for homeowners, not turf care professionals, but strangely enough, they are very similar. btw, I do participate in continuing education seminars on various horticultural topics - including lawn care - to maintain current professional certification. Not sure at all what kind of credentials you might carry. Other than taking potshots at me by espousing your supposed expertise, you haven't provided much to substantiate whatever knowledge base you might have.

2) It's clear you are not familiar with the maritime Northwest as hydrophobicity (and yes, I am very familiar with that term) seldom applies. Water infilitration/penetration is not the issue - compaction and its associated side effects are: decline of organic matter and related fertility, shallow root systems, lack of drought tolerance, moss build-up, thatch build-up, puddling in winter, bare, patchy lawns. Aerating and adding OM, via the plug disintegration and a thin layer of compost is still the tried and true, best method of relieving this issue.

As to spraying shampoo all over the lawn, well.....that is just laughable given the organic sensibility of this region. This area goes out of its way to avoid any unnatural product applied in such a manner that it could possibly infiltrate groundwater or contaminate run-off that would lead to any waterways. This is prime salmon spawning territory - heck, they restrict car washing and there is a huge, region-wide, municipally-sponsored program to install rain gardens to collect and absorb storm run-off before it can hit any streams, drainage culverts or groundwater.

3) Top dressing is not done purely to fertilize but to add the OM stated above. It is also done to protect the grass seed until it germinates. Grass cycling or mulch mowing is highly encouraged as it reduces thatch build up, reduces compaction, eliminates any waste product that might get chuffed off to landfills and virtually eliminates any need for supplemental fertilization. This is a very organically minded part of the world and a large percentage of homeowners that DO fertilize (by no means a given) focus on an organic product. I don't much care what type of organic product - that's their choice; pretty much any organically sourced fert will work the same. Weed and feeds - synthetic ferts blended with herbicides - are out of favor and highly discouraged. Most independent garden centers do not sell them.

4) As to the differences between Las Vegas and the PNW? Almost too numerous to mention - different grass types (warm versus cool season), different soil structure and pH, LV's alkaline irrigation water, the mount of naturally occurring shade, strength and angle of the sun (light intensity), aridity/rain fall amounts and when they occur and overall climate - LV's subtropical/high desert versus the PNW mild modified Mediterranean.

btw, I never barged in with a blanket statement that no one but me knows anything about organic lawn care. I merely stated that THIS area - the PNW - is unique enough in its climate and growing conditions that advice from other parts of the country is not particularly helpful. Especially your info about irrigating, which is completely off the mark. Followed by the shampoo joke.

Enough. Let the OP decide what course to follow.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2013 at 4:10PM
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So what garden writers such as Elliot Coleman, Rebecca Coles, Ann Lovejoy, Lee Reich, Linda Chalker-Scott and many others should be disregarded by any one living in the northwest? Information that has been published in magazines such as Fine Gardening, Garden Gate, Organic Gardening, and many others should be ignored by those gardening in the northwest?

    Bookmark   September 27, 2013 at 6:49AM
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gardengal48 your comments were offensive and miserable to read, if that was your intent congratulations.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2013 at 6:14PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Okay, gardengal, as I suspected, we are really not far away from each other. I think the only thing keeping us apart is the mutual withholding of information. In the interest of exploring the best answer to the issues, I'll start by explaining what I believe to be the physical and biological forces in play. I hope you can reply and show me where I'm confused or uninformed about the PNW. But first, thanks for the great detail as to how the maritime side of the PNW is different.

The main difference between us is you want the OP to spend money on aerating and more on topdressing. I believe neither of those are necessary and each one drives up the cost and hassle of this project. Renting an aerator usually requires getting in line at the one rental agency in town that has one for rent. It could be November before it becomes available. Or not if the PNW operates under a different supply and demand system. And then it costs $200 per day to rent one. In the rest of the country, people are using shampoo instead and getting fairly immediate relief to hard soil issues. You say the problem in the PNW is compaction and not the lack of organic matter and then you say there is also a lack of organic matter due to unnamed forces at work. Compaction occurs when air is driven out of the soil by mechanical means such as repeated plunging or squeezing a saturated soil. Bricks and adobe are made this way. What I'm wondering is how that happens in the PNW lawn? Compaction can also happen due to rain hitting bare soil...over hundreds of years. One of the main reasons to even have grass is to stop raindrops from landing directly on bare soil. Hard soil, on the other hand, results from depletion of soil fungi due to prolonged dehydration or prolonged saturation. It sounds like the PNW might go from one extreme to the other with saturation for 8 months and dehydration for 3-4 months. If you could explain why the soil is compacted and not hard, then I might have a better feel for why the aerator is your preferred solution. What about shampoo? Now, with a better understanding that even shampoo is considered not organic up there, there are alternatives which work. Extract of the aloe vera plant is a more expensive approach which will work. Simple molasses is another approach that can help, but seemingly not nearly as quickly as shampoo. If you buy your molasses by the pound at a farm and ranch co-op, it becomes very inexpensive at about a dollar per gallon. These two materials pass every organic test.

Topdressing seed with compost is a local option. In the northern Midwest they like to use straw to top dress new seed. That has a host of other issues. In the range land, farmers and ranchers have noticed that grass grows better in the the hoof prints of the local grazing animals. From that observation came the idea that all that was needed was good seed-to-soil contact. Rolling the seed down is very popular in much of the country. Furthermore, compost is very expensive. I can buy it for $35 per cubic yard and get it delivered for another $35. To topdress at 1/2 inch requires two cubic yards per 1,000 square feet. Thus the additional cost of topdressing, in my neck of the woods, is $140 per 1,000 square feet. If topdressing is only a local option and much of the world does not do it, then why jump the cost up from the cost of seed to the cost of seed plus $140 (or whatever your local cost is) per 1,000? And if you want that compost applied, that's an additional $300 per day for that work. Topdressing quickly becomes cost prohibitive for many people when no top dressing at all seems to work in most of the rest of the country. There is nothing you can put down or do to a lawn that is expensive as compost. And for what you get, any organic fertilizer will do as much with guaranteed benefit of providing protein to the soil. So here's a question for you: If compost costs $140 per 1,000 and organic fertilizer costs $5.50 per 1,000, if you applied organic fertilizer at 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet, every week, for six months ($143 per 1,000) would that be more or less effective in appearance, fertility, and raising the organic matter in the soil? Please adjust the compost costs for your area. The question is about the relative effectiveness of compost versus repeated use of organic fertilizer to improve the health of a lawn and the underlying soil.

My suggestions to not aerate and to not topdress would save the OP $200 for aeration plus $900 for compost. That is what drove my first comments and my reply/rebuttal to your first comments. Nothing more. We have no philosophical differences in organic lawn least not so far as I can see.

Again, if you believe academic credentials are important, then you are definitely in the wrong forum. Getting results with respect to the parameters set up by the original poster is what matters. Often cost cutting and reduction of the hassle factor are important. Sometimes they want the yard of the month at any cost. Sometimes they want the best clover lawn. Sometimes you have to find out more information than what they first provided. I have searched for the low cost and low hassle solutions that seem to work for the average guy/gal most everywhere. Las Vegas is certainly a special case. I don't see the PNW as being that much different despite your excellent rundown of the differences. Academically, for what it's worth (worth practically zero on these forums), my masters is in applied probability and statistics with all my electives in human physiology. Bachelors was in aerospace engineering. With that in mind, professionally I've almost always been a rocket scientist. Lawn care is a hobby which started in high school. More recently I've attacked it with the same scientific curiosity as I did aerodynamics, math, and the inner workings of jet engines. What I know about lawns comes from an introduction to soil microbiology by Dr Ingham in the early 2000s which led to my writing the Organic Lawn Care FAQ found on the Organic Gardening Forum of GardenWeb and elsewhere. My understanding of organics, after only a few months of studying, seemed to set a new high standard for the industry. Within a few weeks I was moderating two, brand new, organic lawn care forums. That has given me opportunities to interact with some very smart professionals and homeowners who take their lawn hobby very seriously. Before I could write that FAQ I had to unlearn almost all I thought I knew about growing lawns. Since writing the FAQ I have learned a lot in these and the other forums. That is because I still have an open mind as to the crazy ideas I read about. The FAQ should be updated, but it has served as the genesis for this surge in organically managed lawns in the 2000s. It has been downloaded well over one hundred thousand times if you are to believe the counters on the various websites where it is posted. Every now and then a radio personality will discover it, announce it on the radio, and flood the hosting sites with downloads. Now when I walk into a feed store and ask for alfalfa pellets, they already have a pretty good idea I'm going to put it on my lawn. They thought I was crazy 10 years ago.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2013 at 2:21PM
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DcHall, I have not had a chance yet to try the shampoo technique. I do believe your claims that it can soften compacted soil. However, I think you are comparing apples with oranges, when suggesting that shampoo can replace core aeration. Core aeration is not just about compaction. It's about getting oxygen to the roots, plus a priceless opportunity to get compost 3-4 inches down into your soil. It takes a lot more time to get OM down to the root level simply by topdressing a lawn, plus you run the risk of losing precious OM through runoff. Your cost to rent a core aerator is very high too. Home Depot rents them for $75 for 1/2 day. Usually I split it with a neighbor for added cost savings. There is usually no issue renting one either, as most areas have several local home depots to choose from.
Compost - I have to challenge you on the importance of compost as well. I don't think it can simply be replaced by using organic fertilizer. The two play very specific and separate roles in organic lawn care. Maybe, in a very well established, mature organic lawn, one could get away with simply adding fertlizer such as alfalfa, sbm, or cgm, but in those of us that are still building up our OM %, compost is priceless. "The soil must first be alive in order for fertilizers to function well" -Paul Tukey (The Organic Lawn Care Manual).
However, price doesn't have to be a problem. I spent the last year filling up a 5ftx4ft chicken wire enclosure with tons of shredded leaves, and every single egg shell, vegetable/fruit scrape my house generated. In addition, I collected and added a vast amount of used coffee grinds from Starbucks for free.1 year later, I have black gold, laced with tons of huge worms.
I have seen you question Tukey's advice, but he is far from the only one suggesting that the addition of compost be at the core of every organic lawn program. Compost improves soil structure, adds microorganisms, balances pH, feeds existing soil life, and adds around 1% nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 5% is the optimal amount of OM, which takes a long time to achieve anything beyond that is just gravy and won't hurt the lawn, only improve it.
Since you don't agree with Tukey, I tracked down some quotes from Dr. Elaine Ingham on the importance of compost:

"It is easier to increase the organisms missing in your soil by adding compost than to try to add the specific foods or mineral nutrients to the soil and hope they get to where you need them to be to help your plant. REMEMBER: Organic matter is plant material that has partly decomposed. All nutrients except carbon are therefore concentrated as compared to the original plant material, as long as the process remained aerobic. Properly made compost should therefore contain all the nutrients a plant needs, in higher concentrations than the plant actually needs. The limitation in most soils is the lack of organisms to do the work of cycling the nutrients from plant not-available forms to plant available forms." - Dr. Elaine Ingham

Question: Would it be safe to say that organic fertilizer is not needed in soils if you’re applying good quality compost before planting?

Dr. Ingham Answer: The question being asked might actually be whether any other form of amendment is needed if the compost being used is good compost and provides the nutrients and biology the soil needs. The answer would be, no other amendment would be needed, other than the plant residues that will grow.

I actually appreciate your advice and efforts on this forum, but am a bit perplexed about your advise on Compost and Core Aeration. After seeing this post I am further confused. You said you learned what you know from Dr. Ingham, but she is a HUGE proponent of the benefits of compost and compost tea. Tukey and Todd Harrington are both disiples of Dr. Ingham and they all agree on the importance of Compost and Core Aeration. Harrington has the largest residential and commercial base of organic lawns at over 2000 and is considered to be the forerunner in the industry.

Todd Harrington Organics

Todd Harrington - Benifits of Core Aeration

Interview with Dr. Elaine Ingham

This post was edited by SC77 on Mon, Sep 30, 13 at 22:18

    Bookmark   September 30, 2013 at 10:05PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

SC77 said the stuff in italics...

Core aeration is not just about compaction. It's about getting oxygen to the roots, plus a priceless opportunity to get compost 3-4 inches down into your soil. It takes a lot more time to get OM down to the root level simply by topdressing a lawn, plus you run the risk of losing precious OM through runoff.

Core aeration is a poor substitute for having proper fungal mass and thousands of miles of fungal hyphae enmeshed throughout the soil. There's no way you can achieve thousands of miles of core removal from a typical lawn, but a good fungal colony can do that in a week.

OM doesn't run off. OM is sugars, living roots and microbes, and dead roots and microbes. They don't flow away, they live there or are stuck there. Sugars don't flow away because, as Dr Ingham said, they are only released from the plant roots in dosages needed to control the soil microbes.

Compost - I have to challenge you on the importance of compost as well. I don't think it can simply be replaced by using organic fertilizer. The two play very specific and separate roles in organic lawn care. Maybe, in a very well established, mature organic lawn, one could get away with simply adding fertlizer such as alfalfa, sbm, or cgm, but in those of us that are still building up our OM %, compost is priceless. "The soil must first be alive in order for fertilizers to function well" -Paul Tukey (The Organic Lawn Care Manual).

I agree there are two different functions for compost and organic fertilizer. Compost supplies microbes. Organic fertilizer provides protein...and lesser foodstuffs. What we might disagree on beyond that is how long it takes for organic fertilizer to build the population of microbes that were thought to be missing. If the microbe population is teensy, it might take longer for the fertilizer to work. But if I can apply 10 apps of fertilizer for the cost of compost, that's what I'll do. Fertilizer seems to work in 3 weeks. The use of compost is fraught with peril in that even a normal application of 1/4 inch can set a lawn back for a full season. Why? Because getting an even 1/4-inch seems to be impossible. Some places will have none and some will have 3/4 inch. Where there is 3/4 inches, the grass likely will die from being smothered. Sure it can be done, but we try to deal in practicalities. Every single year for the past 20 I have seen lawns killed or nearly killed by compost. I've never seen any lawn even slightly tainted by using too much organic fertilizer.

...price [of compost] doesn't have to be a problem.

I further agree that price does not have to be a problem. My property in San Antonio is completely covered with trees and that is not enough to make a decent compost pile. I collect leaves set out by the curb to make a pile. With 20 large bags of leaves I make enough compost to treat our garden beds, about 1,000 square feet.

I have seen you question Tukey's advice, but he is far from the only one suggesting that the addition of compost be at the core of every organic lawn program. Compost improves soil structure, adds microorganisms, balances pH, feeds existing soil life, and adds around 1% nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 5% is the optimal amount of OM, which takes a long time to achieve anything beyond that is just gravy and won't hurt the lawn, only improve it.

Tukey is an organic gardener in the tradition of Rodale. Without rereading anything of his, I would suggest that if he is a disciple of Dr Ingham, it is only inasmuch as she is a proponent of compost and not to the extension of the value of microbes feeding directly on protein dropped on top of the soil. If you want to rapidly improve the OM in your soil, you need to talk to morpheusPA. He has a few recent posts on this forum, but he has thousands of posts on another forum, and more recently has branched off into his own blog. He boosted the OM on his lot by several percent in one season by using zero pounds of compost but thousands of pounds of organic fertilizer. That was the nutritional equivalent of 2 cubic yards of compost applied every weekend all season long. There is no way to do that with compost in a practical or economic manner. It was more of an experiment, but it really, REALLY worked! So the idea that is takes a long time to improve the OM percentage is simply false. If you use the wrong materials, like compost, then yes, it takes a long time.

Something you missed in the interview with Dr Ingham was the references to feeding the compost before using it. She didn't mention what she feeds it with, but I have talked to another of her disciples who uses a dose of oatmeal to feed her compost prior to converting it into compost tea. In other words, she recommends feeding it a protein filled organic fertilizer. Well, if you're going to feed the compost before applying it, then why not just feed the soil directly?

After seeing this post I am further confused. You said you learned what you know from Dr. Ingham, but she is a HUGE proponent of the benefits of compost and compost tea. Tukey and Todd Harrington are both disciples of Dr. Ingham and they all agree on the importance of Compost and Core Aeration. Harrington has the largest residential and commercial base of organic lawns at over 2000 and is considered to be the forerunner in the industry.

Dr Ingham is absolutely the premier leader in the compost tea movement. Great compost tea is a function of starting with great compost and following a critical set of rules for making the tea. One of those rules which is rarely mentioned is the water temperature. The problem cropped up with a critic of hers in Phoenix who ended up making worthless tea in the Arizona heat. Ingham called it, essentially, a rookie mistake by the Phoenix researcher. Aerobic microbes cannot live without air and water above 80 degrees F barely holds enough air for normal aerobic life. Trying to make compost tea above 80 degrees is a fool's errand because you have a concentrated population of microbes along with plenty of food. Once the air is depleted (immediately!), the aerobic microbes die and the tea is taken over by anaerobic microbes. But Dr Ingham does not mention this fact in the general guidance about making tea. Essentially this factoid limits the making of compost tea to a "non-summer" activity. You really want water between 50 degrees and 70 degrees for best tea performance. So I wish she was more up front about that aspect of tea making. I have seen so-called professional tea makers running their equipment all summer long and selling compost tea which is microbially worthless.

Harrington is selling products and services. The profitability of aeration and the application of compost is through the roof. He'd be an idiot if he didn't promote the heck out of these services. And there is the authoritative Rodale history over the past 80 years. Everyone knows compost has to be an integral part of a conscientiously applied organic lawn care program. Everyone knows that except me. I believe any improvement following the use of compost to be coincidental with the increased emphasis and attention paid to the land where the compost was applied. I do believe there is a beneficial "micro mulching" effect, but not much else.

In the article you referenced, Dr Ingham says, "Compost is the mix of plant materials." Even if you read the rest of the context, she never gets more explanatory. Compost is a mix of decomposed plant AND ANIMAL materials. How decomposed is it? Pretty darned decomposed. In fact I refer to it as a pile of depleted fertilizer materials. The stuff going in may have been weak in the protein department, but it is definitely weak in the protein department following months of aerobic decomposition. I might also mention that Dr Ingham has profitable products and services to sell.

Part of the problem is, since the 1990s when all these hundred thousand species of soil microbes were discovered, there hasn't been enough time to run proper studies of the effects of the various foodstuffs in improving the soil. The foodstuffs used for the popular organic fertilizers include human waste (such as Milorganite and Hou-actinite), soybean meal, cottonseed meal, corn meal, corn gluten meal, flax meal, used coffee grounds, alfalfa pellets, feather meal, hydrolyzed feather meal, blood meal, kelp meal, and poultry litter. All of these materials work stupendously well by themselves to improve the color, density, and growth of grass. So why would anyone waste the energy to run peer reviewed tests? Where is the profit in the results beyond what we in the trenches already know?

If I can summarize:
Compost is too depleted of protein to be of much value as a fertilizer
Any organic fertilizer is much better than any compost, unless the compost was fortified with organic fertilizer
Soil microbes are more resilient than people give them credit for. And I know some very smart folks who disagree with me on this. We'll never know until the research is done.
Aeration is a poor substitute for fungal mass and miles of hyphae in the soil.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2013 at 8:36PM
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I will try to keep this short, but there are just a few points I would like to make:

1. I agree that fungul mass (Microbes?) will naturally aerate the soil. But how can one increase these colonies without providing oxygen (as you mention in regards to compost tea). It works the same way in the soil, no oxygen, no life. The cores allow not only compost, but also organic fertilizer to be deposited deep into the soil, right where the roots are.

2. OM in the form of compost is just a quality topsoil in structure. I have watched it wash away in rain storms just like regular topsoil. Even dissolved organic matter is found in high percentages when sampling runoff water.

3. I guess well have to agree to disagree on the function of Compost vs. fertilizer, but one adds microbes, while the other feeds microbes. I have so many leaves that I cannot even compost them all. I spend hours shredding endlessly in order to fit more into my 5x4ft enclosure...the rest are brought to the dump. I don't focus on getting an even 1/4 inch, I just literally throw it around throughout the summer and the soil life does the rest.

4. morpheusPA's lawn is awesome no doubt, but too expensive for me to undertake. I posted my result of my recent soil test on "Organic Lawn, still grubs" thread. In 3 years I increased my OM from 3% to over 11% using mostly compost, with 1 annual application of Ringer fertilizer and then CGM this year, so it can be done. Other than the fertilizer, my cost was $0.

5. I make Compost tea all summer. The most common food to feed the microbes is molasses. I suspect that is was Ingham uses. Additionally, any proper tea brewer should be oxygenating the water using a fish tank pump and bubble rocks. I brew it in a 5 gal bucket in my basement or the garage, where the temperature remains around 70. The reason you don't just throw molasses on the ground is because you are trying to basically "brew" i.e. very quickly multiple the microbes. This is much easier to do in a controlled environment with high levels of oxygen, food, and the correct temp. I built the whole system for like $35.

If no one can be trusted based on assumptions that they are biased by universities, book deals, or their business, then what is one to do? I can find Harrington praising core aeration in articles dating very far back, Ingham has been a proponent of the benefits of compost and compost tea for many many years as well.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2013 at 11:08PM
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The original purpose of Core Aeration was to punch a hole in compacted soil to allow some air to get down to the roots, something compacted soil does not allow. Some people found that if things like compost is spread after core aeration the compost will find its way into those holes where that compost will be more beneficial sooner. So, core aeration can help soils that are in very poor condition lacking adequate amounts of organic matter. However, soils with adequate levels of organic matter will not need core aeration since air will infiltrate those soils quite well.
Those spiky thingys on the bottom of sandals will not help since they simple move the soil around a bit and add to the compaction problems.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2013 at 6:47AM
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However, soils with adequate levels of organic matter will not need core aeration since air will infiltrate those soils quite well.

Organic matter has a finite lifetime - eventually it will break down or decompose so thoroughly it becomes one with the rest of the soil. Whatever porosity may have existed is eradicated. OM needs to be replaced on a routine basis - that's what mulching does in a planting bed. It is difficult to add OM to a soil that is covered in lawn, which is why core aeration is so highly recommended. Mulch mowing (grass cycling) will help to some degree but the constant traffic lawns receive plus the frequent irrigation and/or rainfall just encourages ongoing compaction issues that can only be fully ameliorated by core aeration.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2013 at 4:49PM
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Of course organic matter needs to be replaced on a routine basis, that is why Ma Nature makes so much of it every year. It is not difficult to add OM to soil covered with a lawn, mulch mowing the grass clippings does help a bit as does mulch mowing the leaves that fall from deciduous trees but spreading compost is another way that works quite well.
A lawn that is growing in a soil with adequate levels of organic matter is not going to get compacted by human beings playing on that turf. If one reads what Paul Tukey has written in this link one may get the drift.

Here is a link that might be useful: soil aeration

    Bookmark   October 12, 2013 at 6:44AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I have never composted my back yard. We moved in in 1992. Due to neglect from the previous owner the back was washed out down about 8 inches below the concrete walk ways. I filled it in with white beach sand and sodded St Aug over top. Today when you dig down into the soil it is very dark brown with organic matter. How do I know it's organic matter? Because when I do the jar test that Kimmsr regularly reminds us of, the white sand sinks immediately to the bottom and the brown stuff floats at the top. There is no silt or clay anywhere yet the soil appears very dark brown. By volume it is mostly organic. By weight it is mostly sand. Since it has never been composted but it has had regular organic fertilizer (mostly corn meal), the conclusion I draw is that if you feed and water the microbes, they and your grass roots provide the replenished OM in the soil.

SC77...I will try to keep my replies to you short, but as you already know, keeping it short is not my strong suit.

1. I fully understand the logic behind mechanically opening up holes in the soil and adding compost. I believe it is easier and more effective to use shampoo to allow better water penetration thus providing a better environment (temperature and moisture) for the beneficial fungi to grow.

2. OM will run off if the soil runs off. But it will not float off as long as the soil remains intact. The soil microbes live the soil. Compost can run off. Maybe that's another reason not to use it.

3. I don't mind disagreeing.

4. morpheusPA's lawn program was an attempt to build OM. It lasted one season, achieved the expected results, and was discontinued. It was never meant to be considered a routine maintenance program. Lots of research methodology is beyond the financial grasp of the average home owner. Other than the cost of fertilizer, his cost was $0, too.

5. You are lucky to live where summer temps in the garage run around 70 degrees F. Mine run around 120 in the summer. And $35 is about right for a starter compost tea system.

Who can be trusted? Everyone can be trusted when you know how their experience and agenda affect them. Whenever I see a statement like, "Mow your grass at 1.5 to 2 inches," I immediately start looking for caveats. There are no northern grasses which should be mowed at that height unless having the grass at that height is necessary for some project in the works. Common bermuda is the only grass variety which should routinely be mowed at that height. If the author is not talking about common bermuda when he/she makes that statement, I begin to question the author's background experience. So how do I know that only common bermuda should be mowed that high? By paying attention to this and other lawn care forums where such discussions, and experimentation about such discussions, go on. Many (MANY) people have found that they were mowing their bermuda too high. When they mowed it down lower, their weed problems went away, the lawn looked better as it became more dense, and the grass did not grow any faster. But when they mowed common bermuda lower, say 3/4-inch to 1 inch, the lawn looked scalped and allowed the weeds back in. These forums have participants ranging from us home owners up through lawn care professionals and turf farmers. There are also some, like morpheusPA and a few others who are willing to take time and spend their own money trying things out. Fortunately for us they are also willing to write about their findings.

Who cannot be trusted? Hmmm. When people make blanket statements about "grass" without explaining the caveats and restrictions on such blanket statements. I try very hard to find out what kind of grass is under discussion and where the lawn is located. That's because, for example, different grasses thrive in El Segundo, CA than in Pomona, CA, a short 60 miles away. "Always do this," and "Never do that," should catch anyone's eye. Those should alert you to read deeper to see what the explanation is. When I say you should never water more frequently than once per week in the hottest heat of summer, well, there are a few exceptions. If it is obvious the person lives in Las Vegas, then they might need to water every 5 days instead of every 7, but in no case should they be watering every day. I also get suspicious when someone is unwilling to spend $0.50 of their own money to spray shampoo on the lawn because some unnamed research claims it is ineffective. We had a little rainstorm last week and once again, my soil became almost too soft to walk on without fear of turning your ankle. I sprayed the shampoo back in 2011. I don't know how large the army is of satisfied shampoo sprayers is but I have never heard of anyone trying it and not seeing results like I describe. GardenGal has explained that shampoo could have a cultural stigma from simply being "not organic," in the PNW. For that I would offer aloe vera extract or juice to do something similar. Shampoo is a whole lot less expensive but bulk sources for aloe vera exist.

So much for brevity, sigh.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 2:59PM
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