This is by far the most popular subject of landscaping that I’m asked about each fall. Americans love their lawns! And we must love spending tons of money on them as well. With a 2011 estimation of 40 million acres of turf grass in the US, I’d say that’s a pretty lucrative market. Turf is also the biggest irrigated crop in the US. I’m not in favor of all that money going into the sod. It can be simpler and less expensive to have a functional, durable, green groundcover on your yard. I don’t advocate weedkillers, opting instead for a diverse mix of life, which equals a cover crop that can stand up to drought and flood, pets and kids. This along with a good maintenance plan will save you in several areas.

Right now – September 15-October 15 – is the most favorable time to apply lawn seeds, if you have bare areas. If not, then do maintenance on what you have, such as dethatching and core aerating. Type of seeds? I don’t have a preference except to say as much diversity as you can get, and don’t forget to include clovers.

Successful lawns, and landscapes, depend on healthy topsoil, which is the top 4-6-inch layer of rotted organic earth which sustains all plant life. If the soil is neglected, overused, or chemically abused it probably suffers from at least some of the following problems: poor air circulation or poor drainage due to excessive compaction and low levels of organic matter; inadequate or imbalanced nutrient content; wrong pH; the absence of beneficial worms, bugs, bacteria, fungi, and other soil life, which are all needed to break up the soil and attract/make nutrients available to plants.

Unhealthy soil produces weak vegetation (plants) which in turn become susceptible to pests and diseases, and their poor root structure is unable to compete with vigorous weeds. It’s kind of like humans, don’t you think?

Soil needs to be fed regularly with organic matter, and the organics must get into the root zone to be effective. If you feed with good organic fertilizers, condition regularly, mulch properly (for beds), and water only when needed (and correctly), you can’t go wrong.

East Tennessee soils tend to run toward the “sour” (low pH) side, and lawns like a fairly neutral pH, about 6.5 – 7.0. The addition of dolomitic pelletized lime, at 40 # per 1000 sq. ft, can be beneficial. Lime breaks down very slowly, is a good soil conditioner, and should not be put down at the same time as fertilizer because they tend to neutralize each other’s positive attributes. When pH is closer to ideal, the grass plant will take up nutrients much more readily, producing stronger plants, thus a healthier lawn. Be careful not to get the lime into flowerbeds or around trees where acid-loving plants live, as it will interfere with their uptake of nutrients. Most landscape plants prefer more acidic environment.

Another amendment correction is pelletized gypsum. This stuff works like a million tiny tillers in soil, helping break up the compacted nature of clay, and it’s neutral, so it doesn’t change the pH. Gypsum may be used in any bed, garden, or lawn. It also neutralizes toxins in the soil such as salt used on the sidewalk in winter, gasoline spills on the lawn, dog urine spots, and any other type of plant killing substance. It’s good as a preventative too.

Patience, good stewardship, and proper products can help you create a strong, diverse, durable lawn in a couple years. Core aeration, dethatching, regular top-dressing with composted manure, an occasional layer of lime, and regular use of gypsum are great practices. Water infrequently, but deeply, occasionally scattering new seeds on tired spots, and you’ll grow an earth-friendly lawn! No, it isn’t weed-free, and it shouldn’t be. You need the biodiversity to attract vital beneficial insects. A weed-free lawn, using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides equals a weak ecosystem on an overtaxed soil. And it all adds up to long-term environmental issues. We’re trying to prevent that, remember? One good thing about all the turfgrass is that it’s an efficient “grabber” and storer of atmospheric carbon.

Mower etiquette: Cut the lawn high (3½”-4”), with a sharp blade, and early in the day (unless the grass is wet), Turn the exit chute away from mulched areas to prevent future weeding. If you make wind-rows, pick them up and add them to the compost. Clean mower regularly.

Let me know if you need more. I’ll wait here….

Sherrie Ottinger, a.k.a. “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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