Fixing Your Burned Out Lawn Organically

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With a few warm days at the end of winter when the weather occasionally spikes to fifty degrees, every red blooded American starts dreaming of a green lawn. But brown spots are everywhere - what's a lawn lover to do?

The big question is, are those brown spots dead grass or just dormant grass? As the temperatures start to warm, check for green shoots in the brown patches. If you see green, the grass is breaking its dormancy and should start to repair itself as the root structures begin to grow again. If the brown stays brown that spot is probably dead or diseased and needs to be renovated. If you experienced drought the previous summer, pests may have had their way with it and need to be dealt with. That's a separate issue.

Cool And Warm Grasses

Most of what we grow in the Northeast are called "cool season grasses". According to Penn State's College Of Agricultural Sciences, "root growth is negligible at soil temps over 70 degrees and stops at 77 degrees" (that's soil temp, not air temp). At these temps, "roots die off and thin out and the root system continues to weaken as the soil temp heats up."

But we also have "warm season grasses" in our lawns, like crabgrass. Unfortunately, crabgrass LOVES warm soil temps, which stimulate their growth. So just as your nice, cushy Kentucky Bluegrass starts to die off in the extreme summer heat, the crabgrass moves right in. What's a lawn lover to do?

First, you have to remove the crabgrass and other weeds. As this is organic lawn care, we don't use herbicide, we pull weeds by hand. Yes, it takes longer, but when you're actually down there on your hands and knees, you get an excellent view of what exactly is going on with your lawn. It's very educational and can sometimes reveal problems you can't see from 6 feet away.

Using a core aerator

After you've cleared the weeds (and composted them), aerate each area with a core aerator or scratch it with a cultivator. If a spot is especially bad, you can use a spade to dig the area about six inches deep and flip it over, placing it upside down in the same spot. Then loosen the dirt that's facing up with a cultivator.

Across the entire lawn, remove the thatch at the soil surface with a dethatcher or a simple lawn rake. This is important, as you want to be sure that the seed and amendments can get down next to the soil. The thatch will be a great addition to your compost pile, too.

As early as possible in the Spring, spread corn gluten meal (available in most nurseries) on your lawn, just as you would fertilizer. CGM is a pre-emergent treatment, which means it will smother crabgrass and other weed seeds before they have a chance to germinate. Later, as the corn gluten meal breaks down, it will give your lawn a nitrogen boost. But be forewarned: wait a minimum of one month after applying the CGM to seed your lawn, or it will smother your grass seed along with the weed seeds.

Choose The Right Seed For Your Lawn

Don't buy just any old grass seed. Grass is a plant of many varieties and is bred to grow in particular climates and conditions. Do you have a high traffic area? Shady? Sunny? Good soil? Bad soil? Choose appropriately. Also, don't buy into the marketing and packaging claims - seed coatings and blends with fertilizer included are not worth the money and double the cost of the actual seed. Just buy the correct seed, keep it moist, cover with burlap if necessary and you'll be fine.

After seeding, add a light coat of bagged compost as a top dressing. The organic matter in the compost will help settle the seed in and will also add the very important organic matter that your lawn can't live without. Then take the backside of a rake and drag it over the seeded areas to get the new seed and compost in contact with the soil. This will keep the seed from getting stuck between blades of grass and going to waste.

The time to do this is as soon as there's no threat of winter snow, which is usually late March, or 1st week of April in the Northeast. Apply your grass seed around the first week of May and you should get a good root set before summer temps kick in.

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Author: Todd Heft
Todd Heft is a self-taught organic gardener who lives in Northeast Pennsylvania (Lehigh Valley). He is happiest when he has dirt under his fingernails, mud on his boots and an aching back. Read more of his articles at Big Blog Of Gardening:

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