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First time poster on stack, hoping to get some advice on how to restore a lawn. The property here is a cottage in Ontario, right on the water (as you can see from the picture). What you can also see in the picture is an utter infestation of all kinds of weeds.

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Here is a picture looking in the other direction:

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Some backstory: We rebuilt the cottage in fall of 1998 and at that time reseeded and top-dressed the lawn in the fall, after all the machinery and construction was finished. The next summer the lawn grew in quite nicely, and we had a decent lawn for a couple years. In one picture I have from 2005 though, seems like the weeds had already infiltrated the lawn:

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Since then it has been a peaceful coexistence with weeds and the lawn, with us overseeding each year hoping to gradually drive out the weeds. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

The lawn is roughly 375 squaremeter. Its sort of in an L-shape, where one leg of the L runs parallel to the water with a very slight slope, and the second leg runs away from the water with two moderate slopes, with a plateau (where the septic tank is).

The soil composition is fairly sandy in the upper areas of the lawn, especially on the hills and septic bed (leg of L that runs away from the water). The lower portion along the water has a ‘blacker’ looking soil with less sand.

Running a simple soil test (4 vials with different coloured caps) bought at walmart showed the current lawn has very little nitrogen ANYWHERE, and low-to-moderate levels of phosphorous and potash. Based on this test, the pH seems to be anywhere from 6-7.0 depending on the part of the lawn. We have a fair amount of moss growing in the lawn as well, in certain spots.

Our typical lawncare routine is as follows:

  • Spring - manual dethatching, fertilizing, overseeding, watering when possible
  • Summer - nothing
  • Fall - raking leaves (too many to mulch and keep on lawn)
  • Aeration - have not done this in at least 10 years
  • Top-dressing - don’t usually do this as we need about 7 yards or so, to get even one inch of coverage on the whole lawn. It’s hard for me to spread all this myself, and to have it delivered.
  • Seeding - we typically buy the scott’s or promix grass seed from the big-box stores.

Last year I used a mower attachment dethatching blade (with the springs) and essentially scalped the lawn, We then ran a slit seeder and overseeded, and kept it moist until we saw the seedlings. We had a fairly green turf last year, but it wasn’t all grass. I am wondering why there are so many weeds this year.

At this point, given the abysmal state of the lawn, I am considering all options for how to restore it. Temperatures in this area are still in the high teens and high single digits through June, so we do have some time to grow grass. The options I have laid out for myself:

  1. Use selective herbicide
  • Use Par3 or other selective herbicide to kill the weeds
  • Reseed the lawn, possibly with slit seeder?
  • Top-dress?
  • Manually weed during the summer
  • Use herbicide again in late summer
  • Reseed and possibly top dress again in fall
  • Next summer maintain lawn
  1. Use non-selective herbicide
  • Spray everything and kill it all, with a light application
  • wait a few weeks and then reseed and top-dress
  • Maintain with a routine similar to the above
  1. Manually weeding certain areas?

Are there any suggestions for how to restore this lawn? Also, how would you maintain it year after year? I am open to using something like Par3 after many hours of research, as we often are away during the week and if applied before we leave for the city I don't expect any issues of exposure. Is there something that I am missing?

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  • Par3 seems to be a dicamba mecoprop mix which is banned in many parts of North America due to toxicity to people and environmental hazards with residual compounds in the soil. Not using it and go with the flow could be a healthier solution
    – kevinskio
    May 25 at 12:00
  • What do you use when you top dress? Just standard "top soil", or some kind of compost?
    – csk
    Jun 2 at 4:06
  • I agree the 'healthiest' solution would be to not use any synthetic pesticides, I was just wondering about the effectiveness of the stuff. Also, by not doing a heavy broadcast application, I was thinking residual levels would not be so high, and break down quick (according to the label). We don't really top-dress. If we do put anything down it is just regular 'top soil.'
    – leif20
    Jun 5 at 13:43
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Soils in cottage country tend to be quite poor, as you have discovered. Nutrient levels are low and moisture carrying capacity is low as well, making it quite difficult to grow a reliable fine grass plot. So we have to go with what will survive - in my case on sandy loam over granite the answer is to let the ground produce its own greenery, which turns out to be mainly quack or couch grass, and in some particularly poor areas, crabgrass. Blueweed also offers itself, plus dandelions, cinquefoil, clovers, and herbs such as thyme and oregano mix in quite well. This mix resists the drought of summer and persists despite low fertility, grabbing what it can of the rain when it falls and storing in thick fleshy rhizomes and taproots. The only treatment is to mow and mow at about two inches. Removing the clippings is standard here as well, to make compost for the garden. This might not be what you are wanting to hear, but going with the flow, growing what the soil is actually able to bear and not trying to be fancy with urban grass methods and techniques might lead to better long term results.

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  • It's not so much about urban grass methods as it is about getting a nice even lawn without the ugly weeds and bare spots. I am under the impression that having a healthy turf of grasses can out-compete the weeds and persist. In fact, based on research and suggestions, planting clover along with the grass seems to be a great option to keep the nitrogen content higher for a healthier bed. My expectations have certainly been reset, I am not expecting A perfect fairway across the whole property, just trying to clean it up, fill bare spots, and have a thick and consistent turf.
    – leif20
    Jun 5 at 13:47
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It looks lovely the way it is. I'd be very happy with this lawn.

As you are next to the water, it's a bad idea to use sprays. Kills the fish etc. The Safety sheet for the spray will also say not to use near waterways; it may also be illegal to spray so close.

What is the purpose of the lawn? it looks green and full of life. As long as there aren't any very nasty thorns it should be fine.

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  • By not doing a heavy broadcast application, I was thinking residual levels would not be so high, and break down quick (according to the label). The government of canada has re-assessed 2,4D and reversed the ban on it, based on research that indicates it is not so harmful when used AS DIRECTED to people, pets, and wildlife. I am not expecting a perfect grass lawn across the whole property, rather remove many of the invasive and big weeds, fill bare spots, and have a thick, consistent turf.
    – leif20
    Jun 5 at 13:53
  • That's a relief, I was worried about application of Amidacloprid for curl grub. No big problem with 2,4 D as long as the manufacturer is careful to avoid the nasty by-products. Jun 5 at 23:32
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Given the low nitrogen content, I would suggest adding clover or microclover to your lawn. Clovers are nitrogen fixers, which means they get their nitrogen from the air instead of from the soil. That means they will:

  1. Stay green and happy despite the current low nitrogen levels in the soil.
  2. Unlike the weeds, they won't compete with the grass for what nitrogen is there.
  3. Over time, they will actually add nitrogen to the soil, making it better for the grass.

Here are another couple of articles about adding microclovers to your lawn: How to grow microclover and How to establish a clover lawn (that one has a good comparison of clover vs microclover).

Note that clovers and microclovers are both broad-leaved plants, so they won't tolerate a broad-leafed weed killer like you've been using. If you're hesitant to give up the weed killers, start by converting a small section. After a few months or a year, you can compare it to the rest of the lawn and see if you want to switch completely. That should also give you a sense of whether the clover will outcompete the existing weeds, or if you need to put some extra effort into clearing the weeds before putting in the clover.

Additionally, thin grass cover and increasing weed cover can be a warning sign of soil compaction. It's probably time to do that aeration you've been putting off.

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  • We did not use weed killer, my post was seeking advice whether this is a good option or not. Based on research and your suggestions, planting clover along with the grass seems to be a great option to keep the nitrogen content higher for a healthier bed. I will be converting some smaller sections at a time, to see how it grows.
    – leif20
    Jun 5 at 13:49
  • @leif20 Fair enough. Many people use weedkillers as part of their standard lawn care; my apologies for assuming you did too. In the case of your lawn, I wouldn't expect weedkillers to help. I mean, they would kill the weeds. But the grass looks thin in many places, and I suspect the weeds are just a symptom of the problem. Hopefully clovers (and possibly aeration) will address the root of the problem.
    – csk
    Jun 5 at 15:49

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