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Two Years Ago

About two years ago, the lawn in our back garden was full of dandelions. We decided to replace it with brand new turf, the kind you roll out into place. I tried my best to remove the dandelions, tap-root and all.

Today

Looking at it now, it's in a sorry state. The dandelions are back. I removed thirty a couple of weeks back, and there are probably twice as many left, if not more. There are large patches of clover, and another weed that produce rather nice and very tiny purple flowers. Where there is grass, most of it is dead (brown and straw-like), or it's twice the height of everything else.

Questions

I accept that I will probably have to start over, but before I do that, I would like to know what I can do to reduce the chance of this happening again.

I read somewhere that weeds tend to grow in places where grasses find it hard to grow. Does that mean my soil needs treatment? If so, with what?

When I dig up the soil, in places there's about 5cm of soil, and then nothing but sand. Is that a problem?

Note: I'm only interested in non-chemicals/organic solutions, though please feel free to explain that option as it might be useful for others :)

Update 1 - photos

Here are some photos I just took. I suppose it looks greener than I led on, but it's very patchy. If I were to mow it, you'd see it better. The dandelion heads I've been picking off whenever I see them.

the entire lawn the purple flower clovers weeds

Update 2 - Location and habits

I'm in The Netherlands and not near the coast, just in case that makes a difference.

I don't mow that often because our lawn mower isn't adjustable, and tends to cut quite short. Moreover, when I laid the turf I ended up with bumps. Only a few, but as you can imagine, the mower takes them right off. Also, there are patches where what looks like grass grows really fast, while the rest stagnates.

When I laid the turf I actually pulled up the old turf as well - it was a lot of work.

  • 1
    I like your quesion. Could you post a picture of the whole thing so we can get a good look at what's going on? – J. Musser Jun 19 '14 at 16:20
  • 2
    Would also be useful to know whereabouts in the world you are. – Bamboo Jun 19 '14 at 16:34
  • 2
    Mowing practices and soil profile play a huge part. Tell us how you mowed and watered the lawn and, as the esteemed Bamboo asks, where you live. – kevinsky Jun 19 '14 at 16:46
  • Have you considered grass plugs instead of sod like these? highcountrygardens.com/sustainable-lawns – Danger14 Mar 6 '15 at 8:55
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Let's start at the beginning.

About two years ago, the lawn in our back garden was full of dandelions. We decided to replace it with brand new turf, the kind you roll out into place. I tried my best to remove the dandelions, tap-root and all.

It sounds like the ground wasn't properly prepped. New sod should go onto a freshly worked bed of topsoil, with no living plant matter in it (this interferes with the new roots, and sometimes weeds will grow through the new sod, causing problems. As you wouldn't want to use an herbicide, you would have had to peel (or cut/dig, if there wasn't a good root system) off the existing lawn, leaving as much topsoil as possible on the ground. Or you can use an organic herbicide, however, these are expensive and most have mixed reviews. More than 1 application may be necessary.

After that, you would want to work the ground, using a hand tool (spade or garden fork), or to save time and your back, a tiller. You should be able to rent one if you don't own one already.

You want to break up the top layer of ground very well, but not go too deep, because you are going to be walking on the new sod, and you don't want footprints or uneven settling.

If all you did was remove dandelions, that explains why the sod did poorly.

There are large patches of clover, and another weed that produce rather nice and very tiny purple flowers.

Clover will only outcompete grass where there is a lack of nitrogen. In a healthy lawn, clover may come up, but even in a patch of it, there will be more grass than clover. This is because clover produces it's own nitrogen, and can fill out in the weakened grass.

If the "weed that produce rather nice and very tiny purple flowers." looks like this, it is creeping charlie, which signifies too low of a PH.

Where there is grass, most of it is dead (brown and straw-like), or it's twice the height of everything else.

If this occurred within 4 months of laying out the sod, it was from improper ground prep and/or watering, or from low mowing in dry weather. Lawn grass actually prefers higher to lower in mowing height. If some of the grass is twice the height of the other plants in your lawn, this suggests too infrequent of mowing. You should mow whenever the grass gets over 2 inches higher than your blades are set, for best results.

I accept that I will probably have to start over, but before I do that, I would like to know what I can do to reduce the chance of this happening again.

If you are going to do this without chemicals, you should expect to put lots of time and effort into your lawn. To reduce the chance of this happening again, you will have to provide conditions in which the grass will thrive.

If you are going to re-lay sod, you have to prep the ground as described above. Make sure there are no rocks larger than 2" across on the surface of the ground. Do not prep if the ground is wet enough to clump together. Even the ground out, so there are no dips where water could puddle.

When you roll out the sod, do not stretch it. Place the strips as close as possible to each other, but don't cause ripples. Once the sod is all laid, take a hose and water in the seams until the soil underneath becomes soft mud. Tamp firmly (but not violently) along the seams, so that the edges mesh together, and there are no air pockets under the sod.

Then you should water down the rest of the sod, but don't make this quite so wet. Only enough that the sod will establish a full contact with the soil beneath, without air pockets. The entire lawn should then be pressed down, either by rolling (preferable), or by light tamping.

The lawn should not be allowed to dry after this, until the sod has rooted and took off growing. Foot traffic should be kept to a minimum, and if the grass grows before well rooted, mow carefully with the lightest weight lawn mower you have access to.

You will also want to use some type of fertilizer, if you don't want the weeds to take over. The best high-nitrogen fertilizer for an all-natural lawn is blood meal. You can start applying this when the sod has rooted.

Also, in the future you will want to water your lawn whenever it gets dry, before it turns brown/yellow. Mow your lawn frequently, and set the deck high. This reduces plant shock, and drought resistance. The roots mirror what the top-growth is doing, so a very short lawn = very short roots.

You will also want to add soil helpers to the ground before laying sod. More on that under the next heading.

Grass also performs best at a ph of between 6.5 and 7. Get your soil tested, and add lime to sweeten the soil to right level.

I read somewhere that weeds tend to grow in places where grasses find it hard to grow. Does that mean my soil needs treatment? If so, with what?

That is correct. A thriving lawn will out-compete most weeds. If your soil is really shallow and sandy, you will want to add to it for best results. You have a couple of options here. You can:

  1. get some high-quality topsoil dumped on your lawn, to create a suitable layer (at least 6") for the grass-this includes the existing topsoil in your yard
  2. try to build on the soil you have-buy lots of compost or similar product with a high organic matter content and dig them in, to a depth of at least 6"

When I dig up the soil, in places there's about 5cm of soil, and then nothing but sand. Is that a problem?

Yes, that is a big problem. You cannot grow a lawn on that shallow of soil. Also, sand is drying, and the lawn will constantly dry. Also, fertilizer will wash out quickly, before the grass can utilize it. You should have at least 6" of good topsoil on there, and 8-10 would be even closer to ideal.

I'm only interested in non-chemicals/organic solutions

This will make a good lawn difficult, but not impossible. The main difficulty will be weed control. Even If the lawn is very healthy, you will almost inevitably find dandelions, clover, and other weeds in your lawn, and you will have do remove them the best you can by hand.

Fertilizing is another factor you can't miss. With your sand subsoil, nutrients will leach quickly, and you will have to fertilize often. There are many nutrients lawns need to thrive, but their biggest one is nitrogen. blood meal is a fast acting high nitrogen organic fertilizer, and hoof and horn meal is a slow acting high nitrogen fertilizer.

You may want to consider using one of the many pre-mixed, balanced all-natural lawn fertilizers available on the market today.

Note: I only used this method on lawns which were either extremely sloped, or got washed out easily, or there is going to be foot traffic from pets/wildlife. Sod discourages digging. Generally I will use seed under straw mats.

Update in response to updated question:

I don't mow that often because our lawn mower isn't adjustable, and tends to cut quite short.

You will not be able to grow a vigorous, healthy lawn with a lawn mower like that. I would be surprised if there is really no way to raise the deck, but if that is the case, I would highly recommend looking for a new mower.

Also, letting the lawn go for a while, then mowing short, is very hard on even a healthy lawn. Short term, I would be better for the grass to be kept too short, rather than growing out in between.

Moreover, when I laid the turf I ended up with bumps. Only a few, but as you can imagine, the mower takes them right off.

A properly prepped lawn will not be lumpy after the sod is laid. If you level out the ground properly, you should not have this problem. Here's one thing you can try. After working the ground/adding topsoil, but before laying sod, you can use a lawn roller to roll out lumps. Then it will be easier to see the low spots/ high spots, and these can be corrected with a garden rake. roll a second time, and then rake the surface lightly to loosen up the surface soil.

Is your lawnmower a one blade walk-behind/push mower? If so, you can push down on the handlebar, to raise the deck slightly as you approach a lump/high spot. Or if you are able, you can do this over your entire lawn. From what I can see, this isn't a very large lawn. If you are using a riding mower, you will have to put up with a damaged lawn until you can get a new mower.

Also, there are patches where what looks like grass grows really fast, while the rest stagnates.

This could be caused by several factors, but the most common one is inconsistent soil depth, or fertility. It is also much more common in close-mowed lawns, because these grow much faster than higher lawns, and slight differences in the soil will cause big differences in growth. Areas of sod which did not root well originally will often grow poorly for a long time. Different types of lawn grass will grow at different rates as well.

Again, if you can find a way to mow higher, and if you fertilize properly, this symptom will go away.

Update in response to comments:

When is the best time to add topsoil?

You should add the topsoil soon before you lay the sod, so it doesn't get rained on. The best time to sod is in the spring after the frost is mostly out. It can be done in fall, but the results are not as good as fall-sown seed.

If you add the topsoil, and it rains, you will have to wait until the ground dries, and then work the ground up a little, and re-level.

Should I remove the current "grass" first, or just dump it on top?

If you are putting on more than 2 inches (5cm) of topsoil, you do not necessarily have to remove the existing "lawn". However, If you don't remove the existing vegetation and work the ground a little before adding new topsoil, weeds growing through the new sod will be a little more of an issue.

If you have a string trimmer, 'trimming' the grass into the ground before adding new soil will help.

Is it the same process for re-seeding?

The process for reseeding is very similar, regarding soil requirements. Neither one will do as well in soil worked extremely deeply, because this causes issues when settling, and later, when mowing or walking across the ground. New grass wants a firm soil, but which is loosened in the top 1-2 inches (about 2-5cm). This can be done with a garden rake after rolling.

Your lawn is going to be a challenge, but you can definitely do it, and well at that. All it takes is patience, energy, time, and some $$. :)

7

This question comes up frequently and the answer is always the same. Kill it all and start fresh. I did that and was very happy with the results.

Start by getting a soil test done through either your local university cooperative extension office or through the UMass soil testing lab which is a popular choice. It will give you guidelines as how much fertilizer your soil will need for a healthy lawn. You can use organic fertilizers to get to their recommendations but may need to mix some different ones. Just remember the three numbers on fertilizer such as 20-10-10 are the percent of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (n-p-k). If they say you need to add 2lbs of nitrogen per 1,000 sq ft and you have a 7-1-1 fertilizer you need 29lbs of that fertilizer per 1,000 sq ft to get your 2lbs. The 7-1-1 means it is 7% nitrogen and 1% each of phosphorous and potassium by weight.

Spring for the organic matter content test ($5 at umass I think). Sounds like your soil is low in organic matter and a test should confirm. Budget to get about 1-3 yards of compost delivered per 1,000 sq ft to help improve your soil. You can till it in to work it into the existing soil or just lay it on top (when you're done with the other prep) and it will work down into the soil slowly over time with rain and insects. If you do rototill you'll probably wind up with uneven soil after everything settles and will probably expose new weed seeds that were too deep to germinate previously

Dandelions are perennial weeds with a long taproot which makes it difficult to control. See my review of the Weed Hound Elite for a tool that can be used to pull out dandelions effectively.

For the rest just kill it all. I haven't done a full lawn with it but solarization has a lot of benefits if you don't mind having your entire lawn covered in clear plastic for a few weeks over summer. Kills the lawn, the weeds, the weed seeds and many diseases.

There are also organic weed and grass killers that you can use to kill the grass and weeds. Some commercial ones as well as horticultural vinegar. When I did my lawn renovation I used the opportunity to compare two commercial organic herbicides and you can see how well they worked on that link to my site. They both did a good job. If I did it again I might wait a couple more weeks to see if anything new germinates and then hit it again before applying the seed.

Traditionally you'd use something like RoundUp (glyphosate) to kill everything, wait 2 weeks after everything is water for 2 weeks to see if any new weeds come up and then spray again. Glyphosate is a systemic plant killer. It gets absorbed in the leaves and kills all the way down to the roots. The organic herbicides kill the leaves but the roots are in tact. Eventually the roots are depleted of enough energy to grow back. Not much of the old grass came back in the following years though even using the application method recommended by the manufacturers.

Now with the old lawn dead spread out some compost over the lawn area leaving about 1yard per 1k sq ft for later if you're seeding, apply it all if you're using sod. Apply the recommended fertilizer, lime, etc. Spread a good quality seed. (or you can go with sod) Don't skimp after all the work you've done so far. Look for cultivars that do well in your area and are resistant to the common diseases you may face.

If you seeded, apply the remaining compost. You don't want to disturb the seed too much when you apply the final layer of compost. There are a number of different compost spreaders that you can buy, make or rent. The simplest is a wire cage roller, heavy duty broadcast spreaders if the compost isn't too wet and screened finely as well as topdressing machines. If those aren't options, for smaller lawns you can just broadcast it by hand or using a soil sifter to get a 1/4 - 1/3" layer over the seeds.

If you have a roller it's good to press everything together a bit but you can do with out it. The first watering will help things settle.

Next water water water. If the seeds go dry they die. Sod needs to be watered daiy, or as recommended by your sod farmer, or it will have issues too.

It's a lot of work, a decent amount of money but I was happy with the results.

After you get the new lawn established keep it fertilized and watered properly. Every 3 years or so overseed with new grass seed. If you see some weeds pop up take the time to pull them or spot spray and reseed. If you start with a clean slate it's easy to manage the few weeds you get. As long as the lawn stays thick and healthy there shouldn't be many.

  • Spreading compost is a great idea. If the OP's original lawn has only 5cm (or about 2ins.) of soil in some areas, he will need a lot of compost. – J. Musser Jun 20 '14 at 17:09
  • What does he do with the remaining compost if he chooses sod? In your answer it says to apply the remaining compost after putting on the seed or the sod. That would be hard on the sod, no? – J. Musser Jun 20 '14 at 17:12
  • Ooops.. I'll edit. I normally seed so wrote it with seeding in mind and added the sod suggestion at the end. If sodding use all the compost. – OrganicLawnDIY Jun 20 '14 at 17:15
  • I normally seed also, but I always raked in seed rather than covering it with a new layer. Sometime I'll do both side by side and compare results. – J. Musser Jun 20 '14 at 17:20
  • @jmusser When you rake it in, which also works, you get seed at slightly different layers of the compost, some on top. It results in a slightly less even germination. That's not a big deal but the biggest benefit is that the top layer of compost helps protect the seeds from the sun and drying out. – OrganicLawnDIY Jun 20 '14 at 17:29

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