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My wife and I have been living in a new subdivision for the past two years and have been struggling with getting grass to fully take in our backyard. Our front yard is sod and has been doing fine, but the back is a heavy clay mix since the developers scraped off the top soil and sold it (so we've been told).

I have tried a fescue mix in the past, but it seems to die out rather quickly in Mid-July when the heat is at it's strongest.

Are there any specific seed mixes that work better in clay, or other techniques that can help us with our yard?

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What is your hardiness zone? – WienerDog Mar 21 '12 at 14:21
I am in WL Indiana, and it looks like a five or six… – Kevin O'Shea Mar 21 '12 at 14:39
This link has lots of good information about improving clay soils. I think it's more aimed at gardening but hopefully you can apply some of the knowledge to your lawn. – Philip Jul 10 '14 at 20:01
up vote 12 down vote accepted

I've seen this many times in new subdivisions. The worst was a house with heavy clay soil where a year after the builder left you could still roll up the grass. As you have found grass finds it hard to get roots into a compacted clay subsoil.

I assume that you are not able to remove the existing grass and add two to six inches of topsoil. That would solve your problem immediately but would change the drainage around your house and that's never a good thing.

Stopping the grass from browning out in the summer when water loss due to heat is more than the roots can take up from the soil could be as simple as watering once a week during the dry periods.

A longer term solution is to sow more grass seed and top dress twice a year, spring and fall, with compost to a depth of 1/4" to 1/2".

Another solution that is hard to back out of is to plant clover and thyme. Clover will break up the clay and add nitrogen but cannot be easily removed once added to a lawn.

As far as grass mixtures for most homeowners the choices are "Shady lawn" or "All purpose". The only difference is the ratio of different grass species. For real success you need to improve the underlying soil.

Good mowing practices help too. Cut late in the spring and cut as high as you can stand to let the roots store energy. Continue cutting higher in the back yard during the summer and then cut lower in the fall to avoid snow mould if that happens in your zone.

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If you're lucky then gypsum will work on your clay, helping the clay break up. Put a bit of the clay in a glass of water for a few hours. If the water becomes milky, i.e. the clay disperses (without any human intervention such as shaking), then gypsum will work. Spread generous amounts of gypsum when the clay is moist or even additionally spike the clay using a fork (or even turn it over) and add the gypsum. The alternative is to add at least two inches of crusher dust (finely ground basalt) and rotovate it in. Organic matter doesn't help clay soil particularly. An unamended clay soil will never grow a good lawn as grass roots suffocate in the airless environment, drowning when the clay is wet and baking when it's dry. Clay is only ever at a good moisture level for a very short time between being an airless wet mud and dry and hard as a brick.

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