Lawns are one of those landscape features in need of fairly constant attention beyond mowing. You can slow the decline by fixing problems, but even healthy lawns will need some intervention sooner or later. We live in a region turf specialists call the transition zone, meaning we’re too far south for cool-season grasses to like our summers and too far north for warm-season grasses to do well in winter and early spring.
September and October are the best months for lawn fixing, especially for seeding preferred cool-season fescues. It may seem more intuitive to seed in the spring, when everything is growing, but spring seedlings can be too frail to handle the rigors of summer. Fall-started grass will have developed more fully before the stresses of next year’s growing season.
I talked to a number of turf experts — Debra Ricigliano of the Maryland Home and Garden Information Center; Dwayne Parris of Chapel Valley Landscape Co.; Murray Cook of the Brickman Group’s Sports Turf Services; Jody Fetzer of Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens; and Scott Steinfeldt of Chanticleer Garden — and also recalled my own lawn-repair adventures over the years.
If you are faced with a declining lawn and a desire to fix it yourself, you have three options: complete renovation, overseeding or patching bare spots.
Renovating the lawn
If your lawn is thin and overrun with weeds, it may be time to start again. A complete renovation gives you a chance to deal with perennial weeds and reverse soil compaction, improve the topsoil and switch to a better variety of turfgrass. The standard advice is that if your lawn is more than half weeds, complete renovation is in order.
The size of the lawn dictates the approach. A small urban lawn can be handled easily with manual tools, but once you are faced with anything more than 2,000 square feet, you need mechanical help.
You can spray your old lawn with glyphosate (most economically as concentrate diluted in a sprayer) and heed all the label precautions. It is too late to use more persistent herbicides, which would interfere with grass-seedling growth. This may include glyphosate with added herbicidal ingredients. After spraying with glyphosate, wait seven days, and then dig up or rototill the dead lawn. Alternatively, you can dig up the live lawn, separate the vegetation and add the turf remnants to the compost pile, and sow seed without the wait.
Before laying the seed, add two to four inches of soil amendments. A mixture of topsoil, organic matter and washed sand will do wonders: Incorporate the mix into the existing soil before raking smooth. Add starter fertilizer at the recommended label rate.