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A Tale of Two Lawns

Posted by raymondo17 z9 Sacramento (My Page) on
Sun, Jul 22, 12 at 16:19

I've been following the organic lawn care regimen outlined in this forum for a few years now, and my front lawn is the envy of the neighborhood--lush and green and gorgeous. My back lawn, however, is a completely different story. This summer it looks about 2/3 brown, a pathetic excuse for a lawn. I treat both lawns exactly the same (mulching mower set to maximum height, alternating soybean and alfalfa meal in the spring and fall), but their conditions are very different. The front is in full sun, the back is largely shaded by a huge Chinese Hackberry tree in the middle of the lawn.

We've had some heat waves lately (as well as some record lows for July), and as the lawn browned, I'd bump up the timer to give the lawn more water. Today I set out some containers and discovered that I'm giving the lawns about 3" of water a week! Could it be that my problem is OVER watering the lawn. (Please see photo below.)

I've also contemplated whether the Chinese Hackberry is either sucking up all the available moisture, or perhaps giving the lawn too much shade to thrive. It's a fescue mix.

Any input on why, despite my best efforts, my back lawn looks so sad?

Here is a link that might be useful: Photo of sad lawn.


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

I have seen grasses in water logged soils that looked like that. Have you dug in to see what the soil, and root zone, looks like. The only way to know for sue is to look.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Most fescues like shade, so I doubt it's that, unless it's really deep shade.

Could be soil differences. I know my backlawn is much more compacted and 'urban soil' than my front.

Have you tried overseeding?


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Kimmsr, I'll try digging down and getting a sample of the root zone. What am I looking for?

Watchnerd, I haven't overseeded. My front lawn certainly thrives without any overseeding. Is overseeding a standard procedure for keeping a thick lawn?

One thing I'll mention is that in the early spring, my back lawn looks pretty darn good. But as the summer wears on, every year it looks crappy all season long. (This is the worst looking summer yet.) Once the cooler weather rolls around, it starts looking better, then stops growing altogether until the return of Spring.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

"Watchnerd, I haven't overseeded. My front lawn certainly thrives without any overseeding. Is overseeding a standard procedure for keeping a thick lawn?"

For bunchgrass-based lawns, like tall fescue, yes, it's a common best practice, for a few reasons:

1. Bunch grasses aren't very good at filling holes
2. Unless you let it go to seed, eventually you'll reach the end of life for a given grass plant, first manifested as a loss of vigor.

Creeping/rhizomatous lawns are a different story.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Oh, and when you say your back lawn is a fescue mix, is that creeping or tall?

And is the back lawn north or south facing?


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Watchnerd, it's a tall fescue mix with a lawn with a northern exposure. There is one very large Chinese Hackberry in the center of the lawn that shades about 70% of the lawn at some point during the day. The portion that gets the afternoon sun seems to do slightly better than the portion that gets the morning sun.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

So the grass in the shade looks worse than the grass in the sun?

Can you take a picture of the whole yard with the tree included...under a cloud? Grass pictures in bright sun are too contrasty to see what we're looking for.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Dchall, not sure when we'll have another cloudy day. I can certainly take a photo of the entire yard though.

So I dug down to the root zone. Dry as a bone. Three inches of water a week and it's dry as a bone. The only thing I can think is that the big Chinese Pistache in the middle of the lawn is sucking the area dry. :/


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

If you are pouring in enough water each week to measure 3 inches and the root zone is dry then your soil drainage is too fast.
How much organic matter is in that soil?


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Or it could be draining off instead of in.

Would you characterize your soil more like gravelly sand or clayey loam?


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

>If you are pouring in enough water each week to measure 3 inches and the root zone is dry then your soil drainage is too fast. How much organic matter is in that soil?<

Kimmsr, I started this lawn from scratch about a decade ago. At that time, I put down probably three or four inches of good quality topsoil and tilled it into the existing dirt, which wasn't bad. Since then, I've organically fertilized in the spring and fall and mulch-mowed the lawn. In recent years, I've aerated about every other year or so. I have not added anything else to the lawn. Do you think a few inches of compost would help the problem?

>Would you characterize your soil more like gravelly sand or clayey loam?<

Dchall, definitely not gravelly or sandy. It's a decent loam, more to the clayey side, if anything.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

A few inches of compost will smother the lawn for a good year or so. Even bermuda would be killed out with that. The ease with which compost can be overused and cause damage is one of the major shortcomings of compost. At the very most, and only if you have poisoned the soil with a fungicide or other harsh chemical, you could apply 1/4 inch of compost and get away with it. With what you've been doing, you'll never need compost.

Okay, given your routine practices and the conditions, it sounds like you're not getting any water penetration. I'm going to suggest softening your soil with shampoo. That should get the moisture to penetrate deeper and stay in the soil. Apply any clear shampoo at a minimum rate of 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet. A guy on another forum tests this stuff out and has applied gross amounts of shampoo with no harm to the soil. So spray that and then water. Watch for runoff when you water. Give it an inch however long it takes to get there. Repeat every two weeks as often as you feel you need to to soften it deeper. The second time you apply and give it the inch of water, you should feel a noticeable softness when you walk on it. It will be soft after watering and become hard again after a few days. You can use a screwdriver to test how easily it enters the soil. Do that test now before and after watering. Then do it in two weeks before and after the second soap treatment. You'll need longer and longer screwdrivers to really test it.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Dchall, that's about the strangest prescription I've heard yet. :D But I'm willing to give it a shot.

When you say clear, like baby shampoo, which is orange but clear?

Trying to think of how I'd apply it. Put 3 ounces in a sprayer bottle (like you'd use for insecticide) and spray it on the lawn, I guess. (My back lawn, conveniently, is just about 1000 square feet.)


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

It may be time to take a good look at your soil. These simple soils tests can help.
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� 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.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Thanks for the list of soil tests, Kimmsr. I'll try and tackle that this weekend.

I performed Dchall's shampoo dousing last night, adding a bit of molasses and beer to the recipe. The lawn actually does look better this morning, but that's probably chiefly due to the 1" of water I gave it following the application. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it helps.


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RE: A Tale of Two Lawns

Yes you did it right. Molasses and beer are fine, too. The grass might look better today because you sprayed the soap and the follow-up irrigation actually penetrated to the roots.

It is strange sounding to spray shampoo. Why shampoo and why clear? Shampoo because other liquid soaps have antibacterial agents that shampoo does not have. Clear because cloudy shampoos are full of oils that are unnecessary, more expensive, and probably unhelpful. The first time I heard of using soap on the lawn was from Jerry Baker. Everyone here thought he was a nut. Nowadays we are learning that his wisdom was unappreciated. The guy leading the wave on soap is MorpheusPA. He is active mostly on another forum but sometimes comes to GW. He has experimented with prolonged repeated applications of a special mix he developed called BL Soil Conditioner. He has also experimented with various application rates much higher than 3 ounces per 1,000. There seems to be no down side to the experiments and his soil continues to soften deeper and deeper.


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