Renovating lawn in dog's fenced yard

efeuerOctober 7, 2012

Hello all--

I am contemplating renovation of my backyard lawn. It is fairly large, perhaps 5000 sq.ft. The area is fenced in because it is used by my dog, a 25 pound spaniel. I have been undertaking a lot of garden renovations this summer, and I have just started to upgrade this area. I have started planting shrubs and small trees but I will be doing a lot more of that next spring. I am also still working on improving the little woodland back there, and I still need to bring in a tree guy to remove deadwood and thin out overcrowded trees. So there may still be some equipment coming and going. I would like to complete that work before I begin on the lawn. Given that it is already October, I am probably looking to renovate next spring or even fall.

The current lawn, if you can call it that, has a myriad of problems, including compacting, drainage issues,terrible soil/thin topsoil, and uneven terrain. There is compaction because our lawn guy mowed it over and over again, even when it was soaking wet. The soil is bad because, when we built the screened porch which overlooks the yard, the contractor had a lot of sand left over which he just sort of dumped randomly. The soil wasn't very good even before that. As a result of all these issues, I have weeds, weeds, and more weeds. Between the house and the back fence row, there is essentially no grass. (The larger side area is somewhat better.) I have taken a good look at what is out there, and the main culprits seem to be smartweed, creeping Charlie, crabgrass, and Bermuda grass. In a few places there is moss.

As if this wasn't enough, the dog complicates everything! She's not a very big dog and it is a large area, so I think that her urine is not a huge problem, in general. That said, the area right near the bottom of the stairs gets used the most, and it also gets the most foot traffic, so it is very compacted and mostly bare dirt at this point. The larger problem is that we cannot really deny her access to the backyard for months on end. Even a few weeks would be challenging. I do not want to use chemicals, for obvious reasons. (Organic sprays such as concentrated vinegar or plant-based sprays would be okay.)

So, where do I start? I have been obsessing over this for weeks now, but I can't quite decide on an approach. Even though the bulk of the renovation will be next season, I would like to make my mind up in case there is preparation I could/should be doing over the winter. For instance, I could possibly smother the weeds over the winter using landscape fabric or newspaper and mulch. The way I see it, I really do need to wipe out everything that is there. The area then needs to be graded, topsoil and organic matter need to be added, and new seed or sod has to be installed. Ideally, what I would like to do is seed with the "No Mow" mixture from Prairie Nursery, which only needs cutting once or twice a season. Then I would no longer need a lawn guy to mow back there and I could avoid a repetition of the current problems. However, if I seed I will need to keep Amber out of the yard for several weeks. This would be less of a problem if I put down sod, but then I would have to get their "shade mix" which might not permit me the infrequent mowing schedule I would prefer.

I know there are arguments against rototilling, specifically bringing up more weed seeds and ending up with hills and valleys from the uneven cultivation. But would it will be possible to grade and add organic material without tilling? And speaking of organic matter, what can I use that will be affordable? This is a fairly large area and there is no way I can make enough compost for this purpose. Buying it in bulk is expensive. And I am not entirely trusting of topsoil that you can buy, either. It might be not much better than what I have.

I'm sorry to be writing a book here, but Ive been overthinking this. I really would appreciate any advice, though, on how to proceed. I've attached some photos of the area.

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Soils become compacted because of a lack of adequate amounts of organic matter in the soil, not necessarily from very light traffic although lack of OM and traffic can work together to compact soils.
What soil type do you have? Clay, Sand, Silt?
How much organic matter is in that soil?
What is that soils pH?
How well does that soil drain?
What kind of life is in that soil?
In addition to contacting your local office of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service about having a good, reliable soil test done, dig in with these simple soil tests,
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

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

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

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

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

to see what you have and what you need to do to make it better.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2012 at 7:17AM
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Thanks for the reply, kimmsr. I'm partway through the tests, and I'll send off a soil test later this week. I had one done a few years ago on our perennial garden, and it indicated mildly acidic sandy loam with 5% organic. That soil had been mulched and amended for years, though.

There weren't many earthworms in the bucket this time--only 2. The soil is also strikingly uneven over the property. Some places have dark topsoil 8" deep, and other spots you hit red clay 2" down. Some spots are builder's sand/gravel. And then there's the occasional chunk of concrete, mostly small. We got most of the large ones already. :)

I'll post the results of your home tests in a day or so. Thanks again.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2012 at 10:14PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Thank you for the pictures. You can't imagine how much better that is than our collective imaginations.

You are not overthinking this. You are thinking it through properly. It's just a lot to put down all at once, but I thank you for going to the trouble and not scattering it all over the place.

Your soil is poor and thin not because of anything that has been done to it, but because you have not been using organic fertilizer at least once a year. There is a FAQ on organic lawn care in the GW Organic Gardening Forum. Check that out for a basic primer on the new approach to inexpensive organic lawn care. If you want to improve your soil very quickly, go straight organic and go often.

This year rather than using corn (too expensive) I have been using alfalfa pellets (rabbit chow). When I wrote the Organic Lawn Care FAQ, corn was selling for $3 per bag. This year is was $15-20 per bag while alfalfa was "only" $12 per bag. Alfalfa is a better fertilizer than corn anyway, so it's a much better deal.

I've been on these forums for 10 years. There are two approaches to getting rid of creeping charlie that work. One is to dig up the top six inches of every square inch of the yard and pull out all the roots. Start in one corner and go as far as you can. When you come back, start AGAIN in the SAME CORNER and repeat because you will have missed some. At least the second time it goes much faster. Continue doing and redoing the area until you have nothing but soil. Or the other approach that works is to use non-organic chemicals. I will not address that approach in this forum because this is an organic forum and because the people here are not well versed in the use of the chemicals. If you decide to use something like RoundUp, check into a lawn forum where the members know how to use it. The same goes for bermuda. You can get rid of them, though.

Sand is not a problem in the soil. In fact I prefer sand to anything else when I'm leveling or filling in low areas. If that was your jar test I just commented on, you have mostly sand anyway. Good news there is that sand does not compact like other soils do. Bad news is that sand does not develop a structure like other soils do.

Tree work will not involve equipment. You will get a crew of men who climb trees like monkeys and drag stuff to the front where the equipment is.

Drainage needs to be addressed. You'll need an on site landscaper to fix that for you. For your small lot he might use a tractor with a tool called a box blade or he might just use a group of labor guys. The tractor would be done in 10 minutes.

Dog urine is only a problem when the basic soil is not fertilized. If you had adequate fertilizer down, dog urine becomes instant fertilizer. When you don't have the biology right, then that instant fertilizer burns the roots.

If you are interested in an alternative turf grass, look into the wheatgrasses that might do well in your area. They are normally considered a prairie grass, but when you sow the seed like a lawn and mow it a few times, it looks like one of the best lawns you'll find. Here is a picture of a wheatgrass lawn in Utah.

He's in a high desert area and waters his lawn beginning in late May or June. Mowing is monthly. His is a mix of wheatgrasses, blue grama, and strawberry clover. When seeding you might try doing half the yard at a time.

At the bottom of your steps you need a landing. It can be a easy as several inches of shredded tree mulch or it could be more formal like a wooden landing or even stone.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2012 at 5:06PM
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