Making Your Lawn Mean, Lean, and Green

Focus on the front yard now, reap benefits in spring

When Kathy and Dan O'Neill moved into their new home here they inherited a front yard as hard packed and short on grass as a country road. What greenery did exist was pretty scrappy in the wettest of years and virtually nonexistent when normal summers prevailed.

So, they called in a lawn-restoration specialist. What followed was a story of transformation that had the whole street watching.

Now, a year later, the lawn is "putting-green perfect," to quote an admiring neighbor, and, in realtor parlance, the home has "curb appeal" ... the inviting setting, or "welcome smile," that puts would-be buyers in a receptive mood. In fact, some studies estimate the recovery value of investing in a good lawn ranges from 100 to 200 percent.

But, of much greater importance to the O'Neills, their lawn has added enormously to the contentment and comfort they derive from their home right now.

Then there are other, often unrecognized, advantages to a good lawn. The evaporative cooling or air-conditioning effect of a lawn is considerable. On an average sunny summer day air above the lawn surface can be 10 to 14 degrees F. cooler than above a hard, bare surface. And when temperatures climb to 100 degrees F., that difference increases to 25 degrees cooler.

At the same time, lush lawns also scatter incoming sunlight, reducing glare. Studies at the Riverbank Acoustical Laboratory in Geneva, Ill., also show that grass plants are effective at reducing noise levels because the sound that bounces off hard surfaces is absorbed by the softer lawns.

Not that any of these factors influenced Mr. O'Neill at the time. "I wanted a nice-looking lawn out front, and there was nothing there," he says, "so I called Adam."

Adam Pizzi, of A.P.D. Enterprises, is a landscaper and lawn-restoration specialist. In this instance, he took the extreme route (not his first choice in lawn restoration) and ripped out the old compacted dirt. In its place went 6 inches of new loam, enriched with soil-building, organic fertilizers.

Finally, the area was sown with a seed mixture suited to the New England coastal region and covered with a thin layer of peat moss. Within two weeks it had greened over nicely. Within two months the lawn looked as though it had been there for years.

In fact, such pleasing lawns are within reach of all homeowners - even without resorting to soil replacement or hiring contractors. But Mr. Pizzi's approach bears emulating whether or not you are a professional.

For the most part, he stays with the original soil when restoring a lawn. Generally, he finds it "compacted and full of weeds," but by using a reverse-tine tiller, the soil is loosened and the weeds buried 8 inches deep. There they decompose to add valuable humus to the soil. Home owners might consider renting a rototiller if they wish to do the work themselves.

Next, organic fertilizers are mixed into the now-loose soil, often at double the rate suggested on the packet if the soil is less than top rate.

"Organic fertilizers won't burn the plant roots, so I can do this," Pizzi says. And as they decompose and feed the grass they also improve soil structure. Lime is also incorporated at this stage if a soil test shows it is needed. Finally, 2 inches of new loam go on top followed by seeding and the thin covering of peat moss.

Pizzi's stress on building good soil structure stems from experience. He finds most lawns are in poor condition because the soil is so compacted that water can't penetrate. Thatch, the buildup of tough roots and stems on the surface, develops in these situations, worsening the problem.

Dethatching (you can rent machines to do this) can be helpful, but aerating the soil is much more important in Pizzi's experience. Aerating machines are available that dig tube-like holes in the lawn. Once the soil is "spiked" in this fashion, water, air, and nutrients penetrate easily. Grass roots also go deeper in the aerated soil and a much more vigorous lawn results.

In restoring an old lawn, dethatching "is overdone," in Pizzi's view. "You might have to dethatch once, but after that, regular aeration will benefit a lawn most." By regular he means every year or so.

If the lawn isn't too big, a standard spading fork dug into the ground every few inches, and rocked back and forth a little, will be every bit as good as a mechanical aerator.

Meanwhile the beauty of the O'Neills' lawn has had its impact on the street. Two nearby neighbors put in new lawns this spring, one with the help of a contractor, the other all on his own. The results are impressive.

"Seems like we've started something," says O'Neill with a smile.

How to Put New Spark in a Rundown Lawn

1. Remove any large weeds by hand or with a quick squirt from a weed killer.

2. Dig up a small piece of turf and examine it. If the roots are shallow, it is a sure sign that the soil is compacted. If thick woody stems and roots form a tangled mat at the surface of the soil, thatch is also a problem.

3. With a stiff garden rake, roughly scrape over the grass ripping up and loosening the thatch. It may seem brutal but it's all for the best. You can also rent a thatcher that will do the job.

4. Take a spading fork, and force it into the soil as deep as it will go. Rock the fork back and forth roughly 12 inches from vertical. Move the fork back 6 or 8 inches and repeat the process. Continue in this manner until all of the lawn has been spiked and loosened in this way. Machines are available that will do a similar job much more quickly.

5. If your garden is east of the Mississippi (other than in Florida), your soil is likely to be naturally acidic. If you haven't applied lime in recent years do so now. Local garden centers can generally advise you on the best quantities to use in your region. Water the soil well to wash some of the lime into the existing holes. Or you can buy liquid lime from a garden center and, with the help of a hose-end applicator, apply it to the soil.

6. Apply dry organic fertilizer to the lawn. Some good products are Ringer's, All Grow, Lawns Alive, and that old standby, Milorganite. Water well. Or fish emulsion can be applied with a hose-end applicator. These won't burn if overapplied, and they will improve the soil structure.

7. Wait a week, then roughen up the lawn surface with a rake. Overseed with a mixture recommended for your region.

8. Rake a thin layer of garden soil (1/8 to 1/4 inches deep) over the surface of the lawn. Lacking that, peat moss will do.

Finally, if your soil has lived on an almost exclusive diet of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you may want to apply a product called Nitron Formula A-35. It works as a catalyst. Bacteria and enzymes detoxify highly chemicalized soils, break up hardpan, and boosts the effectiveness of organic fertilizers. A word of caution: While A-35 works well with standard chemical fertilizers, it should never be applied with slow-release chemicals as it can cause the release of all the nutrients, with adverse consequences.

Of the products mentioned, Ringer's and Milorganite are available from garden centers; Lawns Alive from Gardens Alive, 5100 Schenley Place, Lawrenceburg, IN 470235; and Formula A-35 from Nitron Industries, Inc., P.O. Box 1447, Fayetteville, AR, 72702-1447.

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