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I have a 4-5 acre area that I converted from corn/soy field to grass around 8-10 years ago. One end is VERY sandy soil, the other isn't. It's a gradual change over ~1,000ft length.

I've used broadleaf killer every other year (sometimes every year) and used crabgrass preventer + feed this year. I've also over-seeded twice, though without any tilling/prep of the surface.

From a distance, it looks good: distance

But when looking closely / walking on it, it's quite sparse: close-up

The grass has never completely filled in / has always been sparse. It's definitely more sparse in the sandy areas.

What can I do to help promote grass growth to give make thicker grass to look/feel better and and hopefully crowd-out some of the weeds? If it were a small yard, I could probably come up with solutions, but at this scale, I'm just not sure.

I have a large mower available, and can tow a small sprayer or spreader, but I don't have a tractor.

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    Have you tested your soil for nutrients and pH? What about soil compaction?
    – csk
    Jun 15 '21 at 1:07
  • The only test I've done is the "hey, look, there's some sparse spots!" test. :) Should I be doing some tests? Honestly, the only time I've ever heard of that is when planting certain things that need more acidic soil like blueberries...etc.
    – Dave
    Jun 15 '21 at 2:55
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    When you have thin, patchy grass, you start looking for clues about what the problem could be. Lack of nutrients is one possibility; another is soil compaction. See this question for an example of how nutrient testing can help: gardening.stackexchange.com/questions/57827/… and also a turf troubleshooting guide such as this one: k-state.edu/turf/resources/diagnostic-guide/index.html
    – csk
    Jun 15 '21 at 15:17
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    It could also be related to water and the difference in soils. Are the bare patches more common in the sandy or non-sandy areas? Has it always been patchy, or are the bare patches new? (Right now just trying to build up a set of clues; eventually it will probably require you trying a possible solution to see if it helps.)
    – csk
    Jun 15 '21 at 15:18
  • it's never completely filled in / has always been sparse. Is definitely more sparse in the sandy areas.
    – Dave
    Jun 15 '21 at 16:25
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At that scale, you're either spending a ton of money on typical lawn approaches, or you move to farming approaches.

i.e. haul a LOT of finely ground organic material in from somewhere else and spread it very thinly over the grass so as not to bury it, repeatedly...

Or

Grow cover crops and till them in to build up organic matter. Yes, that involves it not being "4-5 acres of not very happy lawn" for the time period when you are correcting the deficiencies by growing "green manure" crops to sheet compost. For that matter, if you commit to that course, you can pile on a bunch of the other sort of manure, if available locally, before tilling the grass under and planting the cover crop. You might want to pay for a neighbor with appropriate equipment to do the tilling efficiently. You might want to do several iterations of cover crop and tilling under before going back to grass.

If you can accept clover in your lawn that helps to build nitrogen naturally, and fills in well, but if you are a "grass-only" person (or a "lawn weedkiller" person) that won't work for you.

One other approach that might help is to raise your cut - taller grass has deeper roots - if the soil is sandy and does not retain water well, cutting the grass short will make it much more prone to drying out.

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  • Good info, thanks! I'm not opposed to clover, and have been reading about microclover and other interesting things. It's not so bad that I want to start over. Can I over-seed clover? Or would I have to till it up to plant that? And then I just hope the other weeds like crabgrass don't take over, since I can't use broadleaf killer at that point?
    – Dave
    Jun 17 '21 at 1:11
  • Clover can be overseeded. If you wait til winter clover can be "frost-seeded" (the tiny seeds lodge in cracks in the freezing/thawing soil) but I'm guessing you want to take a crack at it sooner than next late-winter early-spring. You probably do want to scarify, dethatch or aerate before overseeding to give the seeds a chance to get in the soil, or perhaps rent an "overseeder" that cuts slits for seeding and puts seed in them. If you are not using a mulching mower/blade now, consider doing that, too, if you are avoiding tilling it up.
    – Ecnerwal
    Jun 17 '21 at 3:19
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One gardener's weed is another gardener's wildflower. I'm assuming you're not managing sports turf, so why go to all that trouble killing weeds? Those self-sown plants are the ones that nature is telling you are best suited to your site. Stuff that self-sows and thrives in the sandy area, for example, will automatically be suited to those conditions, which is rather neat. You have a fantastic blank canvas there both for planting and to manage different areas using different mowing regimes, including a network of mown paths. Invest in a wildflower guide so you can identify what pops up. Try googling "wildflower meadows" or "wildflower meadows trees", etc for further inspiration.

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  • I have an area I'm dedicating to nature, wildflowers, meadow, trees...etc (in the back of the photo). This particular question is how to make a nice a yard / full grass. Also, a lot of the things that grow on their own and grow best are the invasive species that overtake everything. I understand your point - just not relevant to this particular instance.
    – Dave
    Jun 15 '21 at 16:28

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