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I have recently purchased a home in Illinois. The yard was in terrible condition before. There were big bushes growing all around the yard (as shown in picture two). Now there are only patches of grass growing.

lawn

lawn

There’s also a large tree that drops a lot of acorns which hinders the growth of grass. I want to make it so my yard looks consistent and there isn’t patches of dead grass and or no grass.

I’m wondering what the process would be in order to take this yard from looking the way it does now to looking smooth and consistent.

Here’s a 2 minute YouTube video.

lawn

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4 Answers 4

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Based on your photos, I can speculate that photo 1 shows a poor use of road salt by your municipality and/or the homeowner—it looks like a snowplow accidentally dumped too much by the driveway and then the homeowner made things worse by over-salting the sidewalk.

Photo 3 (and a little bit in photo 2) shows a number of light tan tufts of apparently dead grass. My lawn in Wisconsin has these too; this is not a dead lawn grass but a dormant weedy grass. I've never been able to identify it, but it'll grow about 6-8" tall if not mowed and seems to spread a bit. The good news is that it'll turn green later in spring.

The area by the shed may be the result of compaction from vehicles when building the shed and/or may be the end result of covering gravel with a few inches of soil and then seeding. In either case, drainage appears to be the issue. The easiest way to check is to simply stick a shovel in the soil and see what you get when you turn it over; if you can turn it over, that is.

If I'm right about the over-salting, this grass is dead and will remain dead until spotted knotweed and prostrate spurge make their homes there. Because the area is relative small and since the soil is likely to remain contaminated until the salt leaches out, I'd dig out the top couple inches of soil, replace it with top soil, and then sod it.

To get rid of that weedy grass you can either use RoundUp, which is likely to kill any adjacent grass due to drift, or manually dig it out (that's not too difficult as it's shallow rooted). Again, you won't notice it much when it greens up, so you could just leave it.

In all of the photos (except the one with the shed), I'd probably grub out some of the larger dead areas and spot-seed, but I'd wait until May to do so.

If the area by the shed is indeed as compacted as I think, then you'll probably need to till it to break up the compaction, then smooth it and reseed it. If it's gravel, then you'll need someone with a skidsteer (try to keep it on the gravel area, not on the rest of your lawn). They'll have to skim off the gravel and replace it with topsoil, after which you'll need to smooth it and reseed.

Part of your issue is probably the grass itself. I'd bet that the grass was laid as a bluegrass only sod or a mostly bluegrass seed mix. This is inappropriate for our area of the country. Here, you'll want basically a 30/30/30 mix of fescue, perennial ryegrass, and bluegrass, especially given your shade concerns (bluegrass doesn't grow well at all in shade). Please note that all grass seed mixes must by law indicate the types and percentages of the grass in the mix. Reputable mixes indicate this on a very noticeable label; poor mixes hide the information on the bag because they have terrible seed choices. This information should be in English, not botanical Latin. Do not buy any mixes containing Annual Ryegrass or anything called Poa annuus. One note - a good seed mix for our area is called La Crosse (it was created for the athletic fields at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse).

Finally, as noted in another answer, get a soil test (you should be able to specify that it's for a lawn), follow the instructions that come with the results for improving the soil, and mow high (3" is correct)—this helps reduce water loss and cuts down on weeds.

What's not listed in any answer is that:

  1. You should only water during a drought, and then one inch at one time each week, at most. It is okay for an established Northern lawn to remain unwatered for up to six weeks (yes, it'll go dormant, then it'll green up again when watered by rain). How do you know you've watered an inch? Place an empty pie time weighted with a rock on the lawn and mark the time you start to water; when you get an inch in the pie tin, mark the end time. Depending on your sprinkler, that's the amount of time you'll need for each area of the lawn to get one inch of water with that sprinkler.

  2. Use a mulching mower! The clippings feed your lawn throughout the growing season and can reduce fertilizing from the usually recommended four times a year to three times a year. This is best, however, when you have a decent lawn to mow (mulching right now will do not much in the area by your shed).

Regardless of what you do, do not seed until at least May; nothing will sprout before that unless we get a very early Spring.

UPDATE

A couple of thoughts occurred to me while answering a comment on a different answer.

  1. The first picture may actually show an area that needs dethatching (thatch being defined as dead grass crowns). The solution here is to rent a dethatcher for that area.

  2. The previous owner may have one or two dogs that hung out by the shed. This would at least partially explain the terrible lawn there. If there is no compaction or gravel, then the solution would be to grub out some of the dead areas and reseed in May.

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The yellow stuff by the street looks like chemical damage, probably road salt like Jurp mentioned, not a surprise Bermuda-grass infestation like I originally suspected.

The backyard looks like a typical (winter) Midwestern lawn to me. To make it lusher and greener takes a lot of chemicals (pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer) and regular watering. You could aerate those dead patches and overseed them to fill them in. An even more expensive quick fix would be to re-sod: basically, import rolls of healthy grass and plant them on top of the existing yard. But then you’d still have to take care of it.

It’s also worth questioning whether lush green grass is worth it to you. Your neighbors don’t seem to do much to “juice” their lawns either, so we can assume it’s not a requirement in your neighborhood to have picture-perfect grass. How it is now will look fine enough during the outdoor season.

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    I live in southern Wisconsin and no lawns around here look like this one. And no, you don't need to throw chemicals on a lawn to have a nice green lawn.
    – Jurp
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:52
  • Also - the grass can't be bermuda grass because it's not hardy in the Northern US.
    – Jurp
    Mar 29, 2023 at 13:57
  • So @Jurp this is the worst-looking lawn in Illinois, in your observation at least? OP, you might want to preserve your lawn as-is in that case. This exact arrangement of flora seems to be biologically unique, kind of the lawn equivalent of the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Maybe you can get someone from your local extension service out. Mar 30, 2023 at 14:41
  • Don't know about all of Illinois as I regularly visit only one small bit of it south of Beloit. From what I've seen there, then yes, this is a terrible lawn, but fixable. The flora is not unique, as I have the same weedy grass as the OP. One issue that no one posited is that the previous owner may have had one or multiple dogs, which would also explain the yellow patches.
    – Jurp
    Mar 30, 2023 at 15:35
  • @Jurp revisiting, I think you’re right about the salt damage by the road. It has definite “splash” patterns, and even crosses the sidewalk in an exact circle. Updated. Mar 30, 2023 at 18:53
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Get a soil test done.

Decide if you are going to cut the tree or not - the acorns don't interfere with grass growth, the shade might. Then again, in a few months you might appreciate the shade, and that's a decision that you can't easily reverse in your lifetime. Merely pruning up the lower branches a bit might allow for both grass and large tree.

As already answered, a lot of "looking smooth and consistent" will happen all by itself in a few months time due to "seasons" unless your conception of the lawn is only compatible with 12 months of AstroTurf®

Other stock advice is core aeration and don't cut shorter than 3"/7.5cm so the grass can grow some roots.

Depending on what, exactly, you are aiming for, you might want to overseed or till and reseed {or remove sod and buy new sod, or remove sod and get that perfectly artifical AstroTurf® look.}

I would strongly suggest giving it a year so you can assess what's planted where that you don't know about yet, before diving into massive changes and irreversible decisions like removing a large tree.

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    Yes! One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a tree cutter downer guy doing quotes on the first house I ever owned, it was to watch everything for two years before removing anything that isn't already dead. Two springs, two falls, two summers. You don't know what you'll love.
    – jay613
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:47
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    Waiting at least a year is indeed excellent advice. True story - a house at a busy intersection was bordered on the two street sides by mature arbor vitae. When it changed hands, the new owners immediately cut the arbs down, possibly to get more light into the house or because they were mis-informed that arbs are mosquito havens. With the arbs gone, guess whose house became extremely noisy due to the traffic? One year later, they planted a row of Alberta spruces, which immediately died; the next year, they planted at least 35 6' arbs at $100 per plant. If they had only waited...
    – Jurp
    Mar 29, 2023 at 14:01
  • I've read some claims that unless the cutters are razor sharp, core aeration will do more harm than good because it tears up the roots. Moderate soil compaction should resolve itself if the soil isn't 'dead'.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 29, 2023 at 16:38
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The 'hellstrip' section by the road could be a variety of grass that turns yellow when dormant. I've known of entire yards that do this every year. It could be salt damage as well. If you get a lot of snow and plows pile it up there, it's always going to be a struggle. I'm actually considering an alternate ground cover for that issue at my home.

The second image seems like the least of your worries. Overseeding and fertilization should improve things. When buying seed, look closely at the label for not only the mix but also the detected amount of 'weed seeds' and 'noxious weed seeds'. The definitions of those terms vary from state to state. Also pay attention to the date of testing. The percentage of expected germination decreases with age.

The issues in the third picture could be a number of things. It kind of looks like there are tree roots at the surface but I'm not sure. You mention a large tree, but I don't see any in the images that I would call especially large. But if there is a very large tree, it's roots will pull nutrients from a wide area. Mainly under the drip line but perhaps more.

The big challenge with grass is that it is a nitrogen pig and unless your soil is very rich, you will need something to add nitrogen to the soil. A large tree pulling nutrients from the same soil compounds the issue. I DO NOT recommend standard chemical fertilizers. If you use them, you will need to apply them every year and be very careful to not over apply them as they can 'burn' the lawn i.e.: kill your grass. Your soil will not be healthy and subject to issues like grub population explosions. Yes, you can poison the grubs but is the risk to your (and/or kids, dogs, etc.) health and really environment worth it?

Consider planting a nitrogen-fixing clover such as white clover. You can buy it on its own but where I live it's purposely included in good quality seed mixes and not classified as a weed. Some people consider this to be a 'weed' but will actually help the grass by improving the soil and help build a very dense lawn that shades out weed seeds. It will spread into bare patches and eventually promote grass growth there. You will get little white (and maybe pink) flowers and bees but is that such a bad trade-off for free (as in beer) nitrogen from the air? I would also recommend a natural (animal poop) fertilizer as well. Apply it liberally for a few years and then the soil will come 'back to life' and you can reduce the amount. There are also service in some areas that will spread compost over the lawn. It can be pricey but will really improve your lawn. It's almost impossible to overdo it and hurt the lawn with it as well. FYI: Milorganite is a fertilizer sold as 'natural' but is sourced from sewage treatment plants and is somewhat controversial since it purportedly can contain things like lead, traces of drugs, and other chemicals that people put down their drains; caveat emptor.

Use a mulching mower. It's kind of stupid to fertilize the grass and then haul it to the curb or whatever. The clippings will break down and provide water and return some nitrogen to the soil. If you have leaves in the fall, try to mulch them into the lawn. These become food for worms which will aerate and fertilize the soil. It's less work than raking or blowing and you get free worm compost.

I should note as well that most all lawn grasses are non-native to the Americas despite names like 'Kentucky blue grass'. Your climate should be fairly conducive to growing grasses without too much harm to the environment but it's always worth considering reducing size of your lawn. Native shrubs, trees and flowers can add a lot of interest and privacy while reducing your maintenance costs and efforts.

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    Clover is a good idea and I've been a big proponent of it in the past, but it does have three possible issues: 1) It will spread into flower gardens,even if edged This may or may not be a big deal (turned out to be a very big deal for me, personally). 2) It can out-compete grasses. especially fescues. This also may not be a big deal, especially since it's part-shade tolerant. 3) It attracts bees, which some folks with kids do not like. On the plus side, it's pretty and smells nice while in flower, obviously attracts pollinators, and definitely fixes nitrogen.
    – Jurp
    Mar 29, 2023 at 18:17
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    Thumb's up just for the leaf comment - I forgot about that. I've been mulching my basswood and oak leaves for only a couple of years and not only do I save hours of work in the fall it's already obvious that it's helping the grass in the backyard, which has been thin in places - it's filling in nicely now. The leaf pieces are so small that even this early in the growing season I cannot see them on my grass - the winter and snow worked them into the lawn.
    – Jurp
    Mar 29, 2023 at 18:19
  • @Jurp Good points. On clover outcompeting, that's not something I have notice. I do have areas that were bare which clover 'colonizes'. The biggest downside I have with clover is when trying to eliminate cat mint, it's stolons (I think that's the right term) get tangled with those of the cat mint. I cut or break them and it doesn't seem to be an issue.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 29, 2023 at 18:31
  • @Jurp Edging can help prevent clover getting into beds. I have much bigger issues than that: freaking bishops weed, cat mint, and buckthorn. Clover, dandelions, thistles, plantains don't even rank.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 29, 2023 at 19:08
  • @Jurp Sorry, when I say 'cat mint' I mean 'Creeping Charlie'
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 29, 2023 at 19:30

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