As I was outlining this post, I realized its gonna be a long one, ya’ll! There is actually quite a bit to say when talking about how to perk up an old lawn! If you read last week’s post, you know that I have embarked on a summer-long project to spruce up the outside of our 1940’s home, so that the outside matches the beautifully restored inside.
This is something I have done several times, as my DH was in the military and we tended to move around quite a bit. I like gardening, and I like having a pretty yard, so I have developed a system of sorts to get the neglected yards I’ve lived with going again, and lookin’ purdy!
Prepping in the Fall for Spring Grass Planting
The first part of the project to bring back our really sad, sad, yard actually started last Fall. I hired a yard service to de-thatch and aerate the yard, and then had them start a weed and feed program. I’m not a huge fan of chemicals in my yard, I think its hard on the small wildlife, so once I get an established yard, I will go back to my usual chemical-free yard maintenance. But I wanted fairly quick results, and the best way to get them is with weed and feed. If you want to go the chemical-free route, I’ll talk about that a bit later in the post.
DH wondered on more than one occasion why I was paying for a yard service when two thirds of the front yard is nothing but dirt. Well, the fertilizer will sink into the soil and help enrich it a little bit, so the grass seed would have a better shot at growing come Spring, and it kept the weeds from growing in all that available dirt.
The next step was to take some of said dirt down to the Extension Office and have it soil tested. Turns out I have pretty decent dirt. The problem with our front yard is the giant, enormous, towering oak tree that resides there, and his buddy the equally large maple tree with his gnarly roots all over the place. They suck all the moisture out of the soil, and the canopy is so thick that last week after three days of good rain, the dirt under the trees was still dry. Looks like I will be watering that part of the lawn if I want grass to keep growing there.
The last step in the late Fall was to throw down some annual rye grass seed and work it into the soil with my hand cultivator. It sprouted this spring, and does three things: it adds some plant material to the soil, which will help put back in nutrients, the roots help loosen the soil so the Fescue seed can root better, and when it dies back, the remnants of the Rye will help hold the Fescue seed in place until it can establish itself. And for a short period of time I had some green under the trees. 🙂
Selecting the Right Grass Seed
Because of the dense shade, and near-drought conditions that exist under the trees, I needed to plant a shade and drought tolerant grass. In my part of the world, that translates into tall Fescue. In zones that don’t get as freakin’ hot as Oklahoma does, Kentucky Blue grass also comes in drought tolerant varieties, is more wildlife friendly, and doesn’t have to be mowed as often. But here in the south, in zone 6, our choices are pretty much Coastal Bermuda for sunny areas or Tall Fescue varieties for shade. There ya go.
Since Fescue is considered a “cool weather” grass, it does best if it’s planted in April or May. You want to catch the time of year where there is some rain, and temps are between 60 and 80. Here in Oklahoma, we finally hit that sweet spot, after an unseasonably cool Spring, so last week was grass plantin’ time!
Planting the Grass Seed
Before I put out the grass seed, I decided to top-dress the areas under the trees with Seed-starting soil. You can get this at Lowe’s or a Garden Center. It has a high organic matter content to help hold water, and starter fertilizer, like 18-24-12 to give the seed an extra boost when starting. To spread the soil, I dumped the bags out evenly spaced, then used a hard rake to spread the soil. You want it to be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep. Grass seed is tiny, it doesn’t need a lot of depth.
Once I had the soil spread out, I then broadcasted the grass seed. You can use a spreader for this, going over the yard in two directions to make sure you get coverage. Or you can hand-broadcast it, which is my preferred method. I also put seed down about three times as thick as recommended, because again, I like to see quick results. Heavily seeded means a nice thick stand of grass in fairly short order. Some would say it’s a waste of seed. I say seed is cheap, and I’ll do it how I wanna.
After the seed is all down, then it needs to be turned into the soil so it doesn’t wash away when you water, and the birds don’t eat all your seed. Again, grass seed doesn’t need to be very deep, and it you turn it in too deep, it won’t sprout. I used my hand cultivator
to turn in the seed. It takes a little bit, but it works perfectly for this. To see the whole process step-by-step, click through the slider below.
After I finished with the barren parts of the yard, I went ahead and overseeded the existing burmuda lawn with the Fescue as well. When overseeding sod, I don’t spread it as heavy. But I would like to eventually have the entire yard growing Fescue, it looks better than having fescue under the trees, and burmuda everywhere else. And fescue is much greener, anyway.
Watering the Almost-Lawn
Now that the grass seed is down, it’s time to water. Although opinions vary on how often to water grass seed, I water for a brief period of time every day until its well sprouted. The soil needs to stay moist for the seed to sprout, and once it does sprout, the new plants need water or they will shrivel up and die. Don’t drown the yard, though, or your grass seed will all wind up in the gutter, instead of growing in your yard. Then, after about two weeks when the new grass has a root hold, it needs to be fertilized again, using regular fertilizer (not the starter kind) with a high nitrogen content. Don’t mow it for another week after you fertilize it, and mow it high for the first 6-8 times. If you mow it too short, it can dry up and die, and then all your hard work will have been for nothing.
Chemical-free Lawn Improvement
Now earlier in the post, I mentioned that I would show you how to do this without using chemicals. I can do this because there is someone in my neighborhood who is working on his yard, and going that route. To start, he tilled his entire yard, which is quite a job in itself. Then, he covered the whole yard with black plastic. That plastic will stay on his yard for 7-10 days, and will cook everything underneath it, killing weeds, bugs, nematodes, and any grasses except the Burmuda, and will heat up the soil to a depth of up to four inches. So it probably won’t run off the gophers, but the other pests will be gone.
This has to be done in the summer, when the sun has enough oomph to really heat up the soil. By doing this in June, my neighbor *should* be able to save the Burmuda. If he tried this in August, he would end up with a yard full of dirt and nothing else. I should also mention that he doesn’t have one single tree in his front yard, so when his Burmuda re-establishes itself, he should have a really nice, weed-free yard. And he deserves it, he has really put the time in on this house, as you can tell! Once his yard is established, a semi-annual top-dressing of good compost will keep it happy, and mowing the grass at least 2.5 inches tall will help prevent weeds.
By the way, this process is called “Soil Solarization” and was supposedly first used in Israel! As for my yard, it will be a few more weeks before I will see the result of my efforts to get the grass to grow. And you will get a chance to see it in one of the other posts on this summer-long project!