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Not sure how exactly to tackle this question. Our lawn (and the neighbors on either side) have sad & anemic front lawns. Both neighbors have tried numerous approaches, from sod to chemical baths - with the same muddy result every time. We share some obstacles to lawn growth, here are the ones I've been able to identify:

  • Clay: the area is more clay than soil, only crabgrass and moss seem to survive
  • Trees: lots of shade
  • North-facing: not sure how this fits in, my thumb is nowhere near green
  • aggressive mowing: the neighborhood service rolls the riding mowers through whether the grass is dying or not, so anything we do will need to be hardy

Is there anything else I should factor in? I know I need to do a ton of research, but I hate it when I don't know what I need to know... Or is this a lost cause and I'm better off looking into alternative ground cover?

  • Are you just looking for health factors, or are you looking for solutions to the problems you've already identified (as well as other possible problems)? – bstpierre Jul 30 '11 at 14:44
  • There is a very full article, ehow.co.uk/how_6240711_improve-clay-soil-lawn.html, which expands on bstpierre's excellent advice. – Mancuniensis Jul 30 '11 at 16:11
  • It sounds like you may have poor drainage? From the muddy comments. – Mike Cornell Aug 1 '11 at 0:07
  • @bstpierre health in terms of I'd like something to grow, and I'm not sure which factors are most impeding that. . Mike = sorry to mislead, it drains right down off the hill, perhaps TOO good of drainage? – Kara Marfia Aug 9 '11 at 12:51
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Two more factors to consider:

  • Soil pH. Given that you have so much moss, your soil is probably acidic.
  • Species selection. Different lawn species have different levels of shade tolerance. Don't plant "full sun" species in your mostly shaded lawn.

A strategy for having a healthy lawn:

  • Start with a soil test. (MSU extension; $12 as of Jan 2011. See that page for sampling instructions.)
    • When the test results come back they will tell you what you need in terms of fertilizer and lime.
  • Get the mowing under control. If your neighbors can't get their lawns to grow well either, you should be able to get together and convince your HOA to apply some sanity to their mowing. (Possibly by getting the HOA to switch to a landscaping service that actually knows what they're doing, or getting permission to opt out of the service and do your own mowing.)
  • Improve your soil. This is probably the hardest part, because if you're working with heavy clay, you may need to amend it heavily to get grass to grow well.
    • Is bringing in topsoil an option? If your yard isn't too large, and you have the budget for it, several inches of good topsoil could do wonders for your lawn. (Obviously, if you decide to go this route, don't bother with a soil test on your existing clay!)
    • Otherwise you can aerate, amend with compost, and fertilize regularly as needed. It will take time but you can gradually improve your soil this way.
  • Seed mix. When you seed your lawn, look for a shade-tolerant mix.

A completely different strategy: Don't grow a lawn.

I know someone who has a situation similar to what you describe -- shady, moss grows well, poor soil (they're too sandy instead of clay). They have a decent size yard, but a tiny lawn. They have perennial beds instead: small trees, shrubs, flowers, ground cover. Mulch with shredded bark. It can look beautiful (better than lawn) and it can be lower maintenance too. It doesn't need to be done all at once -- you can convert your lawn to gardens over time, a new area each year.

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    +1 to getting out of the lawn service. Who knows what they're fertilizing your lawn with as well, which will hurt any efforts to overseed with something new. – Mike Cornell Aug 1 '11 at 0:06
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You will find nearly all the information you need to help you grow a healthy (organic) cool-season lawn (from your profile I see your in "Michigan", so I'm pretty certain you will have a cool-season lawn) in the following answer here on SE:

Clay: the area is more clay than soil, only crabgrass and moss seem to survive

  • See here, on how you can improve the soil, either via a "quick", but expensive method or a slow (much less expensive) method. Both methods are "organic".

Trees: lots of shade

  • Lawn type grasses doesn't grow well under trees, "shady" areas. Period.

    • Not enough sun.

    • Not enough moisture in the ground, the trees are constantly sucking the ground dry, the grass simply can't compete with the tree roots.

    • Tree roots totally out compete the grass (and their roots).

North-facing: not sure how this fits in, my thumb is nowhere near green

  • Less sun, makes growing most things that more difficult. Lawn type grasses need the sun (and enough water) to grow properly & remain healthy.

Aggressive mowing: the neighborhood service rolls the riding mowers through whether the grass is dying or not, so anything we do will need to be hardy

  • That's a surefire way to make any cool-season lawn unhappy, especially if they are cutting anything less than 2½inches (62.5mm) as the finished mowed height.

  • See here, for "recommended" (generally considered best) cool-season lawn mowing practices.

Or is this a lost cause and I'm better off looking into alternative ground cover?

  • Without seeing at least a few photos of your landscape, it's a little difficult to say for sure, but I would most definitely recommend you spend some time looking into "alternative" lawn options for tree/shady areas. I think you will discover, find, there are some excellent ground cover alternatives for areas that aren't best served by lawn type grasses.
  • You're right, a shot of the lawn would definitely help. But you guys have given me a ton of great information to run with. Thanks! – Kara Marfia Aug 9 '11 at 12:54

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