Connolly: Seven steps to cover up bare spots in the lawn
If you're finding it hard to be philosophical about bare spots in the lawn, the bright blue skies and cool nights of September offer the best time to remedy the situation. The antidote is lawn renovation - the practice of killing the weeds, removing surface debris, and reseeding without grading or tilling.
There's a lot to like about renovation as opposed to reestablishing an entire new lawn. First off, it eliminates a lot of heavy lifting and offers the opportunity to leave soil intact. Old weed seeds remain locked up at levels where they can't germinate. You're also protecting soil structure and the community of organisms that live beneath the surface.
1. Clear the surface.
Use a non-selective weed killer to remove all existing growth. For an organic approach, try products that carry the OMRI label (Organic Materials Research Institute). Find product names at OMRI.org or ask at your garden center. Flame weeding and smothering are also viable alternatives. Whatever approach you use, there may be a waiting period of a few hours to a few weeks before replanting. Check the instructions.
If the topsoil has a hardpan texture, you may want to top dress with some topsoil. See the link to UConn's fact sheet on topsoil below.
2. Read the soil test.
A soil test is not only a good practice, the law now requires it before phosphorous from fertilizer, amendments or compost can be applied to lawns. This law came into effect this year. Its primary goal is to protect water supplies, among other reasons.
No test yet? See the links at the bottom of this article. And don't forget to specify that you want an extra report showing the percentage of organic material in the soil.
3. Fertilizer and lime
If indicated by test, rake in the appropriate amounts. The instructions on the test report and the product label will help with the math. If you want a handy online calculator, see Purdue University's turf fertilizer calculator. (See link below.)
4. Got compost?
If the soil test shows organic matter less than the optimal amount, usually stated as 5 percent, spread a one-quarter inch layer of finished compost over the area. Rake it in, allowing it to mix with the other amendments and the top inch or two of soil.
5. Seed selection
What type of grass is best for this area?
"The benefits of fescue are many," said Victoria Wallace, UConn associate extension educator for sustainable turf and landscapes in Norwich. She lists greater drought and shade tolerance, lower fertilizer needs, tolerance for low soil pH, and high salt tolerance. And while fescues are great selections, many of the best seed mixes for our area contain perennial ryegrass and blue grass as well.
Look for packages that contain "improved" or "premium" varieties. These are not your grandfather's turf varieties, and while perhaps a bit more expensive, they take advantage of recent advances in turf science.
One of the greatest discoveries in recent decades is the value of endophytes in lawn mixes. These are natural soil fungi and, once introduced to a lawn, persist in the area and provide a number of benefits.
"Endophytically enhanced grasses resist surface-feeding turf insects such as blue grass billbugs, chinch bugs, sod webworms ," said Wallace. "It is only slightly more expensive than other seed and well worth the investment. Just be sure to use fresh seed, as these fungi do have a shelf life."
One caution: Endophyte-enhanced grass can make farm animals ill. It doesn't bother small wildlife or pets like cats and dogs.
6. Seeding and overseeding
If we define seeding as placing seed where all vegetation has been removed, "overseeding" refers to broadcasting over established lawn areas. Overseeding is a good fall practice that improves lawn density and crowds out next spring's crab grass.
Wallace reminds that in either scenario, "Seed-to-soil contact is critical."
If seeding a bare area, broadcast the seed and rake or roll it very lightly. Do not "turn it under." If overseeding, mow the turf low (1½ inches) and rake. "You want the seed to reach the soil surface," Wallace said.
Water lightly until germination, keeping the patch moist but never soggy. Keep in mind that some species germinate more quickly than others.
"If using a mixture of different species, continue light watering until at least 80 percent of the lawn has germinated," said Wallace. Your watering routine should then become more like the usual recommendation for an established lawn - less frequent but for a greater duration.
With these steps, you'll not only improve the appearance of your lawn but you'll improve soil health as well. Happy planting!
UCONN SOIL TEST LAB: WWW.SOILTEST.UCONN.EDU
FERTILIZER CALCULATOR: WWW.AGRY.PURDUE.EDU/TURF/FERTILIZERCALCULATOR/INDEX.HTML
PURCHASING TOPSOIL FACT SHEET: WWW.LADYBUG.UCONN.EDU/PURCHASINGTOPSOIL.HTM
KATHY CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER FROM OLD SAYBROOK. SEND YOUR QUESTIONS TO KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM OR CALL (860) 388-0710.
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