For everything there is a season, and when it comes to lawn renovation, spring and fall are it for cool season grasses. Organic lawn care steps taken early in the year can save you water, money and time all through the summer and into fall, while attention in fall will give your lawn a jump start come the following spring.
In March and April, it’s still too early to do much with warm season grasses like Bermuda, Centipede, St. Augustine, and Zoysia. However if you have a cool season grass, like Fescue or Kentucky bluegrass, it’s time to renovate.
One of the questions I get most from my neighbors is how do I keep my lawn looking so lush – without much supplemental watering. I share with you now, what I’ve shared with all of them.
Bear in mind, these steps work best when you have decent grass coverage in your lawn – about 50% or more. Sure, you probably have weeds in there too, but by promoting a healthy stand of new grass, you’ll start to choke out the weeds vying for that same space. Your grass can be tougher than you think – you just need to arm it properly.
Word to the wise: If you have less than around 50% coverage, you might want to consider starting over from scratch to save time and effort.
My 5 Steps to Lawn Renovation (in this order)
Step 1: Get a soil test.
Even though this is so easy to do, very few gardeners actually take this step. Now, I get it – none of us like the word “test.” So just think of this as a Soil Exploration instead.
Contact your county extension service and tell them you need to do a soil test. They’ll send you all you need to collect the samples and will include the box or bag to mail to the lab.
Collecting samples and mailing to a lab – probably doesn’t sound fun or easy. But it actually is easy, and the fun begins when you get a report detailing everything found in your Soil Exploration. What you get back for your modest $20 or so investment is impressive.
A report detailing the nutritional requirements your particular soil needs to promote optimal lawn growth will be all lined out for you. It’s like a recipe card for an amazing lawn.
The most common readings noted on the report include your soil’s pH; along with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels. All these aspects are important to flourishing lawn growth, and the report will let you know what is needed to improve your lawn – specifically. Simply follow their instructions, and you’re well on your way.
Step 2: Rake the lawn area firmly to remove excess debris.
A dethatching rake, mower attachment or implement pulled behind a lawn tractor works wonders for this. I rely on my Kubota to dethatch my turf. Thatch is the buildup above the soil of grass stems, runners and roots; and thatch breaks down more slowly. Excess thatch layers are detrimental to a thriving lawn and can contribute to drought problems.
By clearing away the thatch and dead weed and grass debris; more light, air and water can reach your lawn to encourage new growth. Don’t forget to add that material you’ve raked up into your compost pile.
Step 3: Aerate the soil.
Rent a core aerator for the day. This tool is easy to transport, easy to use, and not terribly expensive. I recommend you go in with a neighbor and split the cost. It won’t take long to run this machine over your lawn multiple times, so you might as well share the love.
This is a case where more is better. The aerator will extract cores of soil from the ground to improve lawn drainage and decreased soil compaction. The open space also allows more oxygen to reach lawn roots, improves root expansion and provides openings for soil amendments and seed to go to work without washing away.
Yes, a yard full of extracted plugs looks messy – but it’s temporary. They’ll wash back into the soil quickly.
Step 4: Apply soil amendments and grass seed.
If you know me, you know I love compost, and it’s my favorite thing to add to my lawn during spring renovation. A little bit of compost goes a long way, but you’ll still want to add at least a half-inch across the entire lawn surface.
That can quickly exhaust your homemade compost supply, and you will probably need more than is practical to buy in bags. Instead, find a reputable bulk compost supplier that offers certified compost. “STA Certified” for example, is a designation representing the Seal of Testing Assurance, which is issued by the US Composting Council. Products carrying the STA or other certification designation have been analyzed for important criteria of quality compost.
The organic materials in compost help to balance soil pH to the ideal neutral range (6.5-7.0), and your Soil Exploration (soil test) report will list any other nutrients you should add for optimal lawn health. In the absence of this information, nitrogen is a given that’s always needed (well, almost always).
Nitrogen is the nutrient that puts the green in grass (non-scientifically speaking of course). The soil test information is helpful here, because it will tell you exactly how much to add (without adding too much, which is bad on so many levels and which I explain in a blog post on fertilizer).
When it comes to bagged fertilizer, Milorganite® is my go-to, especially for lawns. It’s a non-burning organic-based nitrogen source that works well at building a healthy lawn with good green color, and it improves soil health too. It’s readily available and is easy to apply with a rotary or drop spreader.
This is also the best time to add grass seed (following the instructions on the bag). The mild temperatures of spring, and your freshly-prepared surface provide the peak opportunity for that seed to germinate and thrive. Here, more is not better.
Too much seed can lead to overcrowding and, eventually, lawn decline. (If you are sodding areas instead, make sure the surface area is clean and raked smooth of rocks and debris.)
Step 5: Water until established.
A critical step in the renovation process is proper watering. Although warm temperatures are needed for quick germination and growth, heat can also be the biggest challenge to full establishment. Keep grass seed moist until germination, or keep sod watered until roots establish. Then, water regularly and deeply one or two times per week and never during the heat of the day.
Deep watering encourages those grass roots to stretch down more deeply into the cool soil surface, and most lawns require just an inch of water – overall – during the course of a week. In fact, overwatering is a major factor in the development of lawn disease. As your lawn health improves, you will find that it is less reliant on supplemental watering.
Finally, wait to mow your lawn until the grass roots have become well established and the blades are tall. A lawn mower can do a lot of damage to newly-sprouted grass. I usually wait about two to three weeks before making the first cut.
Join the Conversation
I’d love to hear your thoughts on managing your lawn organically – why you do… or why you don’t. What’s your biggest challenge? Do the long-term benefits of organic lawn care outweigh the instant gratification of synthetics? I invite you to share your comments below or on my Facebook Group page.