How to bring a destroyed front lawn back to beauty
March 26, 2010 12:13 PM   Subscribe

New home owner without a green thumb needs help to bring his destroyed front lawn back to life.


Last winter we bought and our fabulous little house in Glen Ridge, NJ. A week after closing a 60' tree fell on top of the tree in our front yard (an overgrown Japanese Maple), pretty much destroying it. We had it removed.

Prior to that, the previous owner had an old oil tank removed from the front yard as well.

Between these two thing, our front yard is 90% dirt and there's a slight mound of woodchips where the tree used to be. (They ground the stump down but did not remove it. It's below the level of the lawn.)

How do I "fix" this? Without the (hidden) stump there I imagine I'd just till the lawn, buy some topsoil and/or fertilizer and then seed it and water it.

Is that what I should be doing? What about the stump? Should I use sod? Is this something I can do myself or do I need to pay someone?
posted by papercake to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look into a landscaping company depending on how big the yard is and if you really don't have a green thumb. Having said that, you probably will need some fill for the yard to make it level and you will probably be better off using sod instead of grass seeds.
posted by govtdrone at 12:32 PM on March 26, 2010

Response by poster: I should have mentioned — it's not a big yard. If I had to guess I'd say 20 x 30'?
posted by papercake at 12:34 PM on March 26, 2010

We just had to do this a couple of years ago. We did in fact hire a young man we know with a landscaping company to do the work, but what they did was: level the whole thing (or, more accurately, make a nice even slope) by rototilling it, and raking out all the turned-up plant matter and taking it away so the weeds didn't all just instantly re-grow. Then they put a fresh layer of topsoil over the whole thing, and laid sod. For professionals, it was a relatively small job. A person who was younger and more energetic than me could certainly have done it.

The only thing I wish I had known was that the place where we had an old septic tank removed would take the full winter to settle; we have a pit now that we are slowly filling by adding light layers of soil periodically. If I had to do it over again, I'd have left the crappy-looking dirt-and-weed yard through the winter so everything would fully settle and then had the work done. This may not apply to you since it sounds like the oil tank and tree fall happened before this past winter, but I thought I'd mention it.

We also had a spot where a stump was ground down as you describe. The new dirt just went on top of it.
posted by not that girl at 1:28 PM on March 26, 2010

Check out lasanga mulch for a method that can transform a completely destroyed yard into something that's fertile. There are many, many resources on this if you look around. It will take a long time, but it works.

I would also look into testing the soil if you want to grow anything edible, considering the oil tank.
posted by kdar at 1:41 PM on March 26, 2010

Do you live near a college or in a semi-rural area? Contact the agricultural extension office or the Soil Conservation Service in your area. They have tons of information and are happy to advise you about your specific situation if it will result in a change from bare dirt to something that keeps that dirt from running off. They are an absolute fountain of knowledge.
posted by Old Geezer at 2:05 PM on March 26, 2010

Yes, you can totally do this by yourself.
  • Rake up the woodchips.
  • Have a load of topsoil brought in. Spread this evenly over the area. You may need a wheelbarrow, shovel, and rake for this step.
  • Buy fresh sod. Sometimes the sod that is at your local stores is already half-dead and dried-out. Just make sure you get sod that has been kept watered - call a sod farm if you wish.
  • Rent a sod roller. It's a large drum-like thing that presses the sod down.
  • Lay sod and roll over it with the sod roller.
  • This is the most important step - keep the lawn well-watered until the roots are established!

    You could also seed the lawn, as well.

  • posted by Ostara at 2:54 PM on March 26, 2010

    Hey, we're neighbors (ish)!

    How badly rutted is the yard? If it's not in need of hardcore regrading, just reseed it. Rake a layer of compost over the yard, then spread the seen evenly on the bare sport. Sod to me is pricey, and water intensive to keep up.

    Make sure to get the right kind of seed for your conditions--sunny, shade, etc. You may want to get the seed with built in mulch.

    Go to ploch's on broad street, or the little garden center on bloomfield nearer to verona. Both placces are super knowledgeable and helpful.
    posted by kumquatmay at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2010

    Hi. I regrew a lawn that had been trashed by builders a few years back. I started by forking it over adding a bit of sand and compost and then raking it smooth-ish removing as many rocks as I could. I then seeded it with grass seed and it grew back. It's fine now. One thing I would say is that in my experience grass seed works much better than sod.

    My lawn was about half the size of yours. It really didn't take very long.
    posted by rhymer at 3:42 PM on March 26, 2010

    Check out lasanga mulch for a method that can transform a completely destroyed yard into something that's fertile.

    This is a lot of resources to pour into a lawn, and hardly a good technique for turf, as it is unlikely to create a smooth, consistent soil layer. It also takes 6 months: that's about eight times longer than a properly made regular compost pile. There are also many problems with laying cardboard boxes in perennial gardens: they do not necessarily decompose quickly or at all (we had a friend who moved into a place with a weird square bare patch on his lawn that stuck around for two years until he decided to put in a raised bed; turns out it was a piece of cardboard); cardboard can become hydrophobic once it dries out and can be extremely difficult to wet again; it can become hydrophilic and prevent oxygen and carbon dioxide from moving through soil, effectively creating poor conditions for soil and plant life; it is a huge, concentrated amount of carbon to put in your soil at one time, with a C:N ratio of 560:1. That means to get it to the ideal composting (pre-compost- finished compost/ natural ecosystems have about a 10:1 ratio once all the microorganisms have done their work) ratio of 30:1, you would have to add 23 pounds of chicken manure (7:1) to every pound of cardboard. If you don't correct this ratio, soil microorganisms get their needed nitrogen from the underlying soil, depleting this nutrient and making it unavailable to your plants or grass. Lawns are significant users of nitrogen. You don't want to have to add more resources to correct the ones you've depleted by unbalanced composting techniques.

    Sheet mulching with cardboard to kill weeds works just fine. I don't recommend letting it decompose in your soil unless you have access to lots of free, very low C:N material.

    Anyway... I prefer seed lawns to sod. You have to do the same amount of prep for both: what's different is that people think you can walk on a sod lawn right away, although this is not really good for it as you compact the soil before the roots get into it; some types of turfgrass are not available as seed; and sod lawns can more quickly build up thatch and be difficult to root properly and therefore less drought tolerant and robust. Seeds tend to root more deeply and quickly than sod, which means a healthier lawn. Seed mixes can also be really fine-tuned to your conditions.

    There's a number of AskMe's about lawns- basically, don't scrimp on everything that needs to happen before it goes in, don't fertilize unless you've done a proper soil and pH test and know exactly what to add and how much, water deeply but infrequently, and rake your lawn. If you want grass where the tree was, you're going to have to get as much of those chips out of there as possible so it's the same soil composition as the rest of your lawn.

    PS: rolling is very important. Don't skip this part.
    posted by oneirodynia at 12:35 AM on March 27, 2010

    If I remember correctly, you are likely to get mushrooms where the tree was. I don't know how to prevent that without removing the stump.
    posted by Drasher at 5:26 PM on March 27, 2010

    Response by poster: Thanks to everyone's advice, we tilled our front yard, got two yards of topsoil delivered, smoothed it all out, and seeded/fertilized about two weeks ago. Grass is starting to sprout and shoot up through the covering of hay we put down on top. It's all going well. Thanks for the advice and the "you can do it!" attitude.
    posted by papercake at 8:53 AM on May 3, 2010

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