Re-restoring my front lawn
March 6, 2010 9:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm a failure as a husband and a father. Help me rescue my front yard.

We moved into our house near Austin, TX a few years ago, and the front yard was in pretty terrible shape. It has been neglected by the previous owners and renters, and the St. Augustine was mostly a thick, dead layer of thatch. I decided it needed to be completely redone.

After doing quite a bit of research, I decided to seed my own bermuda grass. I killed what was left with RoundUp, cleared as much as I could, tilled the entire thing, and planted seeds. In case you're curious, here's a picture of the bare soil:

Of course, that was the summer that we had our first child, and one of the driest and hottest years on record in Austin. Add in the fact that we don't have a sprinkler system for our 3,000 sqft front yard, and we just plain didn't get enough water down. The result was some thin grass is some places, widespread weeds in most of the yard, and large patches of still-bare dirt.

I tried another round of bermuda in a smaller section of the yard in September with some success. Of course, winter was especially cold this year, so I'm pessimistic about the young grass coming back out of dormancy well.

So I'm trying to decide how best to proceed this year. It seems to me the best path would be to RoundUp everything again, get down to bare soil (which will only require a weedeater, since there's not really any thatch), loosen it with a rake, apply some starter fertilizer, and drop down some St. Augustine sod. I know it needs a ton of water to start, but it's much more manageable than seed, and with sod you obviously have a heck of a head start.

Does anyone have experience with this? Any do's or dont's? How early can I think about doing this? It's already starting to warm up here, but I want to make sure to get good quality sod. And if you have good recommendations for sod around Austin, I'd appreciate it as well. Thanks!
posted by cebailey to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Find some native desert plants that will thrive in the heat and lack of water, and you'll be set.
posted by Slinga at 9:13 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

My advice would vary depending on what kind of neighborhood you live in. If it's fairly regimental suburban, my advice would be to find and consult a sprinkler system implementation vendor and put a priority on the system before you throw a lot of money and effort into the grass. They may have a preferred order of doing things rather than trenching through new sod. If your bermuda is that scrubby, you could probably choke it out just with the sod. Round Up is so nasty.

Or, if you live in the kind of Austin neighborhood where you're not obligated to the uniform lawn, there are dozens of resources locally for advice and help on xeriscaping. I've seen some really awesome blogs and TV bits on buffalo-grass yards, rock-and-succulent yards, hardscaping, etc, that require far less mowing and watering and just plain fiddling to look awesome.

We have the giant front yard with no sprinklers and San Augustine, and in Dallas the alternalawn is difficult to get away with, but man do I wish I had the guts to rip that sucker out. It's shaggy as hell in the rainy seasons, and above-ground sprinkling is a pain in the ass in the summer (at 11pm, in your wet pajamas, swearing and stumbling in the dark, because the grass has to be dry before the sun comes up). If you have limited time and inclination, it's just really hard to maintain that kind of lawn without an automatic sprinkler system.

You have several really amazingly fantastic garden stores in Austin (see this list to start), and you could probably find your best advice at one of those.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:40 AM on March 6, 2010

I think he was being silly, BusyBusyBusy. I echo Slinga's notion to put in native, drought tolerant plants. The word you're looking for is xeriscaping. Check out this article I found written by the Austin Xeriscape Program Coordinator! By planting this way you can have an amazing yard that really improves your house's curb appeal and will be far easier to maintain than grass. I would look into what local programs there are for your area and talk to people about just doing a small section of grass so that you have a place to loll around on, or walk the dog or let your kid loll on. A little grass is very nice, in my opinion but a whole yard is just a bear to maintain. Wouldn't you rather be grilling, playing with your kid and spending time with your wife?
posted by amanda at 9:40 AM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second Slinga - this type of lawn wasn't meant for the Austin area, really, and there's been a persistent water problem in Austin for years. Got some climate-appropriate plants. It'll look great, you won't have a problem with dying lawn, you'll save money and you'll help ease the water problem.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:41 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Came in here to say what Dee Xtrovert said.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:47 AM on March 6, 2010

See also this article about Round-Up's ability to kill not only weeds but also human cells. It's toxic stuff.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:51 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep. Austin local here. You will go into deep depression if you keep growing that stuff. Try buffalo grass, a good drought tolerant, native alternative.

You hardly have to mow or water it.
posted by Pants! at 10:03 AM on March 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you really want to go the grass route (and I wouldn't blame you, I find xeriscaping to be unattractive), I recommend getting a sprinkler system installed with an automated timer. The most miserable 4 years of my life were the 4 I spent watering our Austin home's St. Augustine using a hose and sprinkler attachment.

To manage the weeds, you might consider hiring a lawn maintenance company to come out and lay out fertilizer and weed killer on a regular basis. I had a great experience with Real Green Lawn Care. Their website has a lot of lawn care tips, too.

Right now is the time to get things started if you want grass.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2010

My first suggestion would be that you lay off the Roundup. You're never going to get new turf going by poisoning the last batch. You don't really mention how much sun you have, so here are some general characteristics of common grasses in this area. St. Augustine is usually picked because it is very plush and can handle partial shade, but it needs a lot of water. Bermuda can give you that well-groomed golf course look, but it needs full sun. It is also extremely invasive, so don't use it if you plan to ever plant a garden in the vicinity. Have you considered zoysia? It sort of splits the difference with a lot of drought tolerance, some shade tolerance, and a not-too-agressive growth. You might also consider getting a soil test - they're not that expensive and can give you a lot of insight into what might be going wrong. That said, it never hurts to add compost. A yard of compost takes a lot of work to spread around, but it's not really that expensive, and will pay off big in the end.
posted by Gilbert at 11:59 AM on March 6, 2010

With a kid, you have better things to do with your time than emulate an English lawn in Austin climate, yes? Definitely go the native/drought tolerant plants route. You might get really good advice at a local plant shop or nursery (or not, depends) or save even more time and grief by hiring a consultant for an hour to suggest some plants specifically for your tastes and area. Good luck, and congratulations!
posted by amtho at 3:30 PM on March 6, 2010

1) you need to do this right now, or wait until fall. you want some rain and cool weather to establish your lawn (or any plants, really) before summer comes and stresses them out.

2) don't fertilize. The people who you buy sod from will tell you what to do. Normally you don't fertilize sod for 6-8 weeks after planting. If you've amended your soil with plenty of good compost, you can go even longer.

3) everyone saying to look at other options that use less water, fertilizer, and time are making a lot of sense. Do you need a 3,000 square foot lawn? Probably not. A small lawn of buffalo grass for your kid to play on is good, but there's no reason to care for a lawn that you clearly don't need (seeing as how it's not been a problem to have no lawn for the last few years).

4) if you insist on a lawn, spending money on a proper sprinkler system with a timer will save you water and time in the long run. It is much less wasteful than dragging a hose and sprinkler head around. Proper lawn sprinklers will have a consistent watering pattern across the whole lawn, can be set to water early in the morning so that water uptake is highest (this is usually when you are sleeping) and the sun can dry the blades before fungal diseases can spread, and will run whether you remember them or not. No point in going to the trouble of planting a lawn you're just going to kill by forgetting to water.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:14 PM on March 6, 2010

As others mentioned, do you need a lawn there? Are there restrictive covenants? It looks like you're in a subdivision, maybe Avery Ranch or Circle C or such. Also it looks like you're on a corner. Is there shade there? Can you go native, which can be lovely. And please, please, please don't use the herbicides.

Check this site: growgreen
And seriously, if you need help, MeMail me and I'll come do an assessment up close. There are so many variables here in central Texas. There are many things, including a lawn, that can thrive here with the proper care and information.
posted by green herring at 7:48 PM on March 6, 2010

Austin's own Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center has got you covered. Read this article on how to "Install a Multi-Species Native Lawn for Less Mowing, Less Watering, Less Weeding and, Yes, Less Guilt"
posted by IanMorr at 8:39 PM on March 6, 2010

Xeriscaping is what you're looking for. Pretty hot stuff, really.
posted by TomMelee at 10:20 AM on March 8, 2010

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