The Q&A Archives: Lawn Renovation

Question: I would like to know what to do with our front and back lawn. My mother runs a home day care business and we have had problems maintaining a nice, full, green, grassy lawn. (Currently, we are starting a new landscaping project to renovate our gardens, etc...) Our lawn currently has many bare patches. In the past, we have tried new grass seed, with fertilizer, but it does not seem to work. Should we consider tearing up the grass and putting down new grass? The soil in MI is very clay-like.

Answer: A healthy, lush lawn needs good, fertile soil. Rather than tearing up the existing grass and laying down sod or reseeding, you would benefit by addressing soil concerns first. I would begin by having a soil test done, to see just what shape your soil is in. Contact your Cooperative Extension office (ph# 313-971-0079) for soil test kits. Clay soil is often acidic; the soil test will tell you the pH and, if necessary, how much lime to spread.

Clay soil is generally high in nutrients, but compacts to form an impenetrable surface, and it often remains soggy during wet spells and dries to a hard, cracked surface. Few plants can survive in such soil. The addition of organic matter improves heavy clay soils; your plan of action really depends on how much you want to spend. You could have the entire area tilled up, adding lots of compost and manure. You could spread a layer of topsoil/compost over the entire lawn, and reseed. If this would raise the level of the lawn too high, you might have to skim off the top layer of soil, re-grade, and add the topsoil. These are all quite expensive options.

You might also try spreading a thin layer of compost over the entire lawn, let the existing grass sprout up through it, and reseed bare spots. If you can continue this practice over several years, you may be able to build up the organic matter in the soil sufficiently to support a lawn, without a huge capital investment. If you can aerate the lawn before spreading the compost, using either a hand-held (or shoe-mounted) device, or rent a gas-powered machine, you'll go a long way toward providing a better soil environment. If the soil test shows that the pH is way off, then annual applications of lime and compost or other organic matter may do the trick--though it will take a few years.

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