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Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Posted by greenhaven N Illinois 4b-5a (My Page) on
Wed, Jun 11, 08 at 0:16

We have been in our home for a year-and-a-half, and it sat empty for three years before that. It is about a quarter acre in town. I am actively reducing my have-to-mow space and putting in planting beds instead, but would like to have some lawn in the front for balance, and because we DO live in town, and in the back because I have teen boys and they like some space to romp, naturally.

The trouble is, I have only about half grass in the front, and virtually none in the back. My neighbors chem their lawns religiously, but I cannot abide the thought of going that route. I have already done some research on organic lawn care, and feel that most tips are better applied to lawns that are, well, mostly grass to begin with.

So where in the world do I start? The backyard open spaces are mostly clover, and I do mean MOST. A blade of grass peeks up here and there. I also deal with a tremendous, copius, overwhelming amount of creeping charley. Dandelions not too bad, surpisingly. I get a bunch under the pine tree, but I pull or pop those out. Same with the thistles.

Because the front is fairly shaded, my main troubles there are violets (I let 'em grow IN the beds) and creeping charley. ( &^%#$^*^%# )

So where in the WORLD do I begin without completely destroying the existing green and starting over?

I will answer any and all questions, and could get digi-pics tomorrow, if need be.

Thanks so much, I know you all have probably answered these questions many times before.

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Pics would really help.

I completely agree with your idea that the organic lawn program advice you will see is much more effective when you already have an acceptable lawn. For that reason, and particularly given your weed problems, I think you would have best results by killing it all off, starting a new lawn in the fall with synthetic products, including herbicides, and then slowly move into organics next year.

That said, I appreciate why you don't want to do that.

For now, the easiest thing to do is to set your mower to the highest setting and start mulching all of your clippings. And it doesn't matter if you have a "mulching mower" or not, just try to plan your mowings so that they never cut off more than 1/3 of the leaf blade, and that is easier to do when the grass is mowed high.

That will cost you nothing. The benefits are that tall grass retains moisture better, helps to shade out new weeds, eventually starts to choke out existing weeds, and by mulching you return huge amounts of organic material to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer. Besides, I personally like the look of a tall lawn, and I would imagine many of your neighbors up there have them already so you won't be the oddball.

The second thing to do is make sure you are not watering too often. In a well-maintained lawn the roots grow deep enough that weed seeds that are trying to germinate on the surface will not get enough water to thrive as the top few inches of your soil dry out between waterings, but deep-rooted grass plants will still do fine. This advice is a little more complicated because we don't know how your lawn was watered in the past, meaning how deep your roots are. The rule of thumb is one inch of water, all at one time, once per week. But if your grass is such that due to prior management it does not have deep roots this could cause problems, particularly since root growth is starting to slow down now that we have some heat. So I would suggest looking at the grass blades for signs of drought stress (curling, turning gray) and then water heavily immediately. Then don't water again until you see those signs again, and then water the same way again. The idea is to keep the "rule" in mind, but more importantly pay attention to your grass. Your goal is to starve the weeds as much as possible before the grass starts to suffer, and then water heavily again to be able to repeat this.

If you haven't fertilized yet and do want to go organic, you could apply some grains right now. I am not yet a "grains guy" so I don't have advice on how much of what to recommend, but I'm sure others here do.

All of that being said, if your lawn is as bad as you describe, none of this is going to eradicate your existing weed problem, and if you want to get rid of them I think you will have to consider using some herbicides, at least until they are more or less under control.

Good luck!

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Thanks for jumping in, Paul! After I posted the first time I thought of a bunch of details I should have added, such as: the "lawn" is really green, we have had a ton of snow and rain over the last six to eight months.

And, I HATE the idea of watering a lawn. They are such water hogs! But it makes sense that regular watering is the way to deep, healthy roots. I have NEVER had a lawn die, and I also have never watered except to establish new seedings.

The other things I forgot to mention that you brought up in your response is that I do mulch my clippings religiously, except when I want to collect some to mulch my veggie garden. Obviously, I wouldn't do that with chem-ed clippings! I already mow about to about three inches, but it has been lately really tall before I get it mowed, by the nature of it being mostly clover anyway. I would be mowing every other day to be cutting a third of the plant! It doesn't grow quite as fast up front.

You have given me some things to think about...did I say I HATE the thought of watering my lawn? It's hard enough for me to think about watering my roses, lol! Thanks for your generous input, it is most appreciated.

It has been SO rainy that I have had to mow in phases; one day I will mow it long, then the next mow it again, shorter. Partly this is because I use a B&D electric mower, and it just struggles when the clover is so thick.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?


Do not fret. My current lawn was in exceptionally poor shape when we bought, really not a lawn at all. A big bare spot from an above ground pool, rotted out decking, bindweed, clover, and crabgrass. It can be done but it isn't easy or fast.

Lots of folks have the temptation to "chem bomb" and start over which I can understand but there are some points to consider. In your case it sounds like weeds have been dropping seeds for quite awhile into a soil enviroment that they're finding very favorable. So you can kill off the weeds you have right now but you're going to have germination next year and the year after that at least so a homeowner in your situation has to decide if they're going to go organic cold turkey or do a hybrid program for many years. Keeping in mind that applying chems to a lawn you're trying to convert to organic is like running the air conditioner with the windows open.

Lets start with options to deal with these weeds. If you want to do a wholesale kill off then my choice would be a weed flamer but in your case I'd suggest one from Rittenhouse that doesn't have an exposed flame but a heating element instead. Rittenhouse also has an electric weed flamer with a flat head heating element that covers a little more territory. You can also spray vinegar or get a product like Scythe or Burnout in gallon concentrates and spray away. Regardless you'll only be dealing with the weeds that are visible, just as you would be with chems so lets get to the next part.

In your case I'd recommend a soil test. The U of I Ag Extension office has several lab options. For my money the relevant results will be % of organic matter, pH, and amounts of magnesium, calcium, etc. You can certainly dive much deeper into your test results but the first steps down your particular path will probably be found in those numbers.

In any event start concentrating on building your soil fertility right now. Mulch your clippings. Mulch ALL your leaves next fall. The weeds you describe sound like you've got a thin reddish-gray kind of compacted soil with very little biologicaly activity in it. I see it in N. IL all the time. In that case I spray lots and lots of compost tea. There is a little learning curve in that material but not much and there is no chance you're going to over-do it. Post more here if you're interested in doing that. I STRONGLY recommend it.

Finally start throwing down seed. As much cheap seed as you can get your hands on. You need to get something growing to outcompete these weeds soon. Yes everyone will tell you that this is not a good time to put down seed. Everyone doesn't have your lawn situation. If you were overseeding a well established lawn then I'd agree that you should wait for fall to seed. Not so in your case. Seed, seed, and seed some more. Now and in the fall and next spring too.

The first two years I converted my lawn I got cheap-ey bags of KBG at Jewel Grocery Store. Better seed will come later but now you need some turf regardless of where it comes from. When you kill a weed drop some seed.

Feel free to post questions here. Like I say I've been there/done that in my own lawn so don't loose hope.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Wow, thanks a million, decklap! I haven't had the opportunity to snap pics of the "lawn" yet. Now I am not so sure I need to; these posts have really helped me know where to start!

I keep a horse at a boarding stable not far from me, so I have access to all the manure I can handle. I make manure tea for my veggies, and was contemplating alfalfa teas for the roses, so why the heck not the lawn, too???

I will begin overseeding immediately. We have plenty of Farm and Fleet stores around here where seed should be little problem.

As far as HOW to apply compost/manure/alfalfa Do I invest in a large capacity sprayer and make sure my solution is well-strained?

How long after throwing seed down would I wait to apply more feeding solution?

I will definitely get a soil test done, and will proceed immediately with overseeding. I will give it some time, maybe even until next season, before deciding of I need to do the aforementioned "wholesale kill-off." (What a great term!

I wonder...I, of course, am having troubles with the creeping charley sliding into any number of beds; raspberry, shade, roses, etc. Would a burning method work for making "rings" around the beds and reseeding the bare spots with grass? As a stop-gap measure, of course....?

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Oxygenated compost tea is different from manure tea or alfalfa teas. Im assuming you drop some manure or alfalfa pellets in some water, steep and apply??

With compost tea you're looking to multiply, greatly, the numbers of beneficial microbes in compost by creating a favorable environment for them. Namely you're supplying the water with oxygen through some kind of pump, a small fish tank pump works well for smaller batches, and you're giving the soil bugz some food, like molasses. Same concept as putting a little honey in your Baker's Yeast. Let that brew for a day or so in unchlorinated water and you've got yourself a bucket of gold.

In any event DON'T USE FRESH MANURE for this process or you'll be brewing up a big ol' batch of pathogens. Good tea wants good finished compost. I could go on and on here but like I said before, there is a slight learning curve with this. Not a huge deal but worth the time it takes to get the concept down and then you'll be on your way. Soil Food Web Inc. has a good FAQ for tea as do any number of other places. Just don't let anybody sell you on the idea that you need to spend a ton of money. A bucket and a bubbler and some compost is all you need.

As for applying it you can do what suits you best. If I've got a bigger area to cover I've got a Solo Backpack Sprayer with a 4 nozzle boom but I've sprayed tea with a cheap 8$ sprayer from Lowes that worked just fine. For that matter you can dilute it ( with chlorine-free water ) and pour it out of a bucket. Just let the water take the microbes into the soil.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Hi Greenhaven,

I agree with decklap (and that is a somewhat rare thing, but another story entirely... ;-)), but anyway, I do think you will have to reconsider your aversion to watering if you want to grow turfgrass. Turfgrass, in the way that we think of it, needs "unnatural" amounts of water. If you don't add what nature doesn't provide, the drought-loving weeds will tend to take over. Especially when you are overseeding. I mean, if you throw down grass seed during summer and do not water, you might as well have thrown those seeds into the garbage, they won't make it.

Good luck!

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Thanks again for the reality check, Paul. I will definitely have to think about that. I think the ultimate answer for me will be to reduce my turf area. We typically get plenty or rain here in N IL, but things have been so crazy here, lately. We could have weeks without rain, then torrents for days on end. Or we could have drought all summer or boggy rain all summer.

Which leads to another question: If I use a rain gauge to measure weekly rainfall, doesn't the water in the gauge evaporate? (Gosh, that sounds like an idiot question even to ME!)

As for you and decklap seldom agreeing, well, there's no shame in that. Two polar viewpoints often project a well-rounded overview of a situation! ;)

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

"I do think you will have to reconsider your aversion to watering if you want to grow turfgrass."

Another alternative is to decide what you want to consider turfgrass.

Western wheatgrass, sheep fescue and creeping red fescue are cool season native grasses and all should grow in Illinois.

Of those, creeping red fescue is the one that looks the most like a traditional turfgrass. It also takes the most water, but much less than KBG. It is green, fine bladed and spreads by rhizomes.

Sheep fescue is somewhat blue, fine bladed, but is considered a bunch grass. It tillers, but only right next to a growing plant, so if it is in a monostand, it will need to be overseeded periodically.

Western wheatgrass is also blue in color and has leaves that are a little coarser than the other two. It spreads by rhizomes.

The western wheatgrass and sheep fescue need no additional water to stay alive where I live, but they need some to stay green. They would probably never need to be watered in northern Illinois. But you need to remember that they do have a different appearance from traditional turf grasses.

All three of these should probably be mowed as tall as your mower deck can go, but the creeping red can probably be mowed shorter if you want.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

BP, how wear-tolerant do you think these grasses are? I have nothing under my sleeve, I'm just wondering, given that the OP has some teenagers.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

My streambank wheatgrass (not appropriate for IL) and western wheatgrass have held up well under normal wear and tear.

I have no experience with CRF, and not enough with sheep fescue to give an opinion.

Additional info

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I want to emphasis that the only one of the grasses that I mentioned that is usually used in traditional turf grass seed mixes is CRF. The others should only be considered if your primary goal is to have a lawn that will stay healthy with very little water. The color is very different from a traditional lawn.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

bp, you bring up another interesting consideration for me.

I have toyed with the idea, on and off, of doing a mostly Buffalograss lawn, which is also native to IL. It stays short, is very drought tolerant and is pretty tough, but it is a warm-season grass and would take forever to green up here in IL. I wonder if mixing a cool like CRF and a warm like BG might be appropriate? I will have to research wear-tolerance for CRF.

I don't mind a different color lawn. Sometimes I don't even mind a clover lawn! ;O) But I sure do hate that creeping charley and this other weed I forgot to mention earlier...some sort of spurge. Blech.

Regardless of what I decide, you all have really encouraged me. I was at the point of deciding that chemming my lawn was going to be my only option

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

Buffalo grass is native to IL and also to Utah. It was the grass I read about when I first started considering replacing my lawn with something that would use less water. I decided against it for a couple of reasons.

It is much more expensive than other options for one. But the main reason I rejected it is that it would be brown for most of the year here. It would probably be green earlier in IL than here, but it would still turn green much later than cool season lawns. It's somewhat wear tolerant and spreads by stolons, but it doesn't usually result in a dense lawn like KBG does. If you get a seeded variety, it has seed burrs that can be unpleasant for barefoot walking. Seeded varieties can also be bad for people with allergies. It also requires full sunlight.

I would definitely avoid mixing buffalo grass with cool season grasses. If you could get them mixed uniformly throughout the lawn, it might look ok, but I think you're much more likely to end up with a lawn that has patches of brown and patches of green depending on which grass is dormant.

If you don't mind a clover lawn, Dutch white clover actually makes a decent lawn with a couple of caveats. The flowers can attract bees (some people consider that a good thing). Clover leaves tend to stain clothing more easily than grass. On the upside, it does well in drought and fixes nitrogen from the air so it doesn't need fertilization. I planted strawberry clover (DWC doesn't do well in high pH soils) in my lawn for the benefits.

If the different color lawn doesn't bother you, you could go with any or all of CRF, sheep fescue and western wheatgrass. The CRF looks the most like a traditional lawn and the sheep fescue can stay green with the least amount of water. In extraordinary drought, the sheep fescue might die completely, where the western wheatgrass goes dormant. But the kind of drought I'm talking about is not something you'd see in IL. What you'd consider drought, we'd call a wet year.

RE: Where to begin with a choked-out lawn?

What you'd consider drought, we'd call a wet year.

LOL! Good points about BG. I think if I were back on our acreage BG could be a good substitute where we wouldn't want tall grass but don't really need (isn't 'need' so relative?) turf. I think I'll decide against BG.

DWC. Well, right now most of my backyard is already clover! I really don't mind it so much. If I could keep that and get rid of the creeping charley I'd have it made. Well, my neighbors probably wouldn't think so!

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